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Reform my forum

| Tuesday, December 3, 2019

On Nov. 13, I entered the Dahnke Ballroom at 6 p.m. sharp, hoping to claim seats at the second public event of the University’s Rebuild My Church forum. The event was titled “Archbishop Charles Scicluna in Conversation with Students.” 

When I arrived in the ballroom, it was essentially empty and I was able to snag two chairs in the middle of the third row, very close to the stage. Several rows behind me held “reserved” placards, as did several of the rows in front. I examined the names on the signs and recognized that many of them belonged to professors. I grabbed my phone and jotted a note that was seemingly insignificant at the time, but whose meaning has increased as I’ve unpacked what I witnessed throughout the course of the event.

“If this is a conversation for students, why are all of the reserved seats for professors?”

I continued to ponder this question as the audience filled in, its demographic appearing much older and educated than advertised. As my friends began to arrive, I expressed how nervous I had been that I would be forced to give up their seats, and that it was frustrating I had to wait an hour to secure seating at an event marketed toward me when professors were able to pre-hold spaces. 

Cognizant that my peers may not have wanted to hear my critical commentary for the next one and a half hours, I decided instead to make my phone my confidante. The following account is based on the notes I took. 

The evening began with an interesting introduction where moderator John Allen decided to do a height-comparison between himself and the archbishop to demonstrate that “good things come in small packages.” 

Then, for the next 15-or-so minutes, Allen asked the questions and Scicluna provided lengthy answers. After they traded dialogue, two pre-selected students asked questions. One of the students was male and the other female. Both were seniors. Scicluna responses were again lengthy, and Allen took the opportunity to ask his own follow-up questions.

While the conversation continued, I began to draft the question I wanted to ask. 

In attending so many of these forums, I have realized how similar they are content-wise. As I’ve said in previous writings, it feels like everyone knows what kinds of reform are necessary — transparency and accountability and representation (of women, laypeople and marginalized communities). But, how do we demand these changes? What role can lay people play in bringing about reform when those who have the ultimate power to enact it are the same people whose power and, in some cases, livelihood, rely on the hierarchy?

With this conversation directed towards students, I also intended to include a caveat about age. I have noticed in my own archdiocese’s handling of the Fr. Geoff Drew case that much response to crisis is directed at older adults, those whose faiths have already been formed, rather than at the students and young people whose faiths were formed under the close guidance of corrupt spiritual figures. My question was:

“I was born in 2000 and the Boston report was released in 2002. Since then, we’ve seen countless examples of abuse and cover-up at the hands of Catholic priests and bishops, and we’ve heard the Church promise to fix itself. But the crisis has been an underlying factor of the Church for most of my life and the lives of many of my peers. How can we, the young people, be expected to trust that the Church will be able to bring about its own reform, when it has failed to do so for almost our entire lifetimes? And what can those of us who do not trust the Church to carry out its own reform do to demand change?”

I was never able to ask it.

At about 7:40 p.m., it was time to take the first question from the audience. I raised my hand, but Allen called on a professor instead. He then asked Scicluna a question that was submitted online. It was time for another audience question, and I was determined to be chosen. Their questions felt surface level to me — they asked about the causes of the crisis. We know the causes.

I wanted to know the solutions.

Allen called on a priest.

After asking another online question, it was time to return to the audience. Allen stood in the middle of the room — right where I was sitting. I raised my hand high, but he called on a man from the corner. A grad student.

It was then around 8:23 p.m., time for the last question. I swear I made eye contact with Allen as he walked directly past me, to the back of the room, while commenting on how he really wanted to hear from a student. He handed the mic off and the final question was asked. By another male grad student.

Tears began to fill my eyes and deep disappointment set in. He hadn’t allowed a single woman (or undergraduate) to ask a question.

This event was called a conversation with students. I entered with expectations of a microphone in the front of the room and Scicluna on the stage, students lined up behind the mic to ask him the difficult questions of faith that our generation has to grapple with. Emotional, chaotic, human questions, not just abstract theological and philosophical musings. 

Instead, a total of eight questions were answered in an hour and a half and the four questions that were asked live came from men, all of whom possessed more education than any Notre Dame undergraduate I know of.

As I left the ballroom, I remarked that the event completely missed its purpose.

“Should I say something?” I asked my friends. They agreed I should and offered to stand with me for moral support.

We walked over to the corner of the room where Allen was standing and waited for those gathered around him to finish offering their praises before I approached him.

“Hi, I was just wondering why you chose not to let any woman ask a question.”

He stammered and asked with bewilderment if that had really happened. I explained that it had. The only woman who spoke was pre-chosen. He looked uncomfortable and remarked that it was not conscious.

 “Okay, I think that you should really be more cognizant of that as a moderator in the future. Thank you,” I said and left the room, furiously typing into my notes:

“When pressed at the end (in the presence of Fr. John Jenkins, archbishop and entourage), moderator responded that not taking a question from a single female was ‘unconscious.’ And that is EXACTLY the problem the Church faces today.”

Allen’s subconscious choice to only invite educated men into his conversation is a direct reflection of the Church’s inability to include new voices in the dialogue of reform.

It is clearly time to do something radical. 

Hosting the same conversation with similar participants simply won’t cut it anymore. Before we can “rebuild the Church,” we clearly need to rebuild the image of what its members look like. I have begun dialogue with the administration, asking for more inclusive events, but I am aware that my voice alone will not bring change. I invite you to join me in expressing a desire to be part of the conversation. 

Please reach out to me if you’re interested in being a part of this conversation. Every voice matters.


Ashton Weber is a sophomore with lots of opinions. She is majoring in economics and film, television and theatre with a JED minor. Making new friends is one of her favorite things, so feel free to contact her at [email protected] or @awebz01 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Ashton Weber

Ashton is a current Sophomore majoring in Economics and FTT, and minoring in the Gallivan Journalism Program. She is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, but now resides in Flaherty Hall. Feel free to contact her about anything... literally, anything. She is often bored.

Contact Ashton