Voice of the Faithful: Hoping to Begin Anew

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MELVILLE, N.Y. -- Four months after financial woes threatened to shut its doors, Voice of the Faithful has emerged with cash in the bank and a new strategic plan that its leaders say will sharpen the organization's message and shift its efforts from mostly words to mostly actions.

The stated mission of this church reform and advocacy group, formed in 2002 in the wake of clerical sex abuse revelations in Boston, is to provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through which the faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the church.

The organization has struggled to clearly define its issues and approaches.

Some early members became frustrated by glacial progress and dearth of action. Some developed ennui and stopped attending meetings. Others, slowed by age and health issues, focused their energies elsewhere.

Many of the more than 500 members who attended Voice of the Faithful's national conference Oct. 30 and 31 at the Huntington Hilton on Long Island laughed heartily when a 64-year-old participant asked for a show of hands of people younger than him in the Grand Ballroom. Gray heads swiveled, but most hands stayed on the tables.

The summer financial crisis hit during a period of organizational soul-searching in which new leadership commissioned an extensive study of the members and an analysis of Voice of the Faithful's strengths and weaknesses. The insights gleaned were hammered into a strategic plan that was rolled out beginning in May.

In July, the organization announced that it needed an emergency infusion of $60,000 to remain operational. Treasurer Kevin Connors told NCR that the group's funds were down to less than a two-month reserve at that time. He attributed the shortfall to the general economic recession and waning public support after the sex abuse scandal faded from view. Annual revenues fell from an average of $700,000 as recently as 2008 to $450,000 in the fiscal year ending in May 2009.

Connors said the appeal generated $120,000, which was enough to get Voice of the Faithful back on its feet and also give it an emotional boost. He said the immediate and generous response of the members "showed us that people out there were ready to support us."

The new strategy, called Voices in Action, focuses on clarifying the-organization's "brand" and encouraging specific action by the members. It embraces a bottom-up approach to church reformation, acknowledging that the hoped-for dialogue with local bishops has rarely happened. In some places, including Rockville Centre, N.Y., the diocese where the conference occurred, the bishop has forbidden the group to meet on church property and Voice of the Faithful's relationship with local church leadership has become adversarial.

The group's president, Daniel Bartley, said, "Voice of the Faithful has moved beyond dependence or reliance or expectation with regard to the bishops. It could be wonderful, and we're prayerful and hopeful that someday engagement will happen, but we accept the fact that it may not and as faithful Christians, followers of Christ, we're going to do what we need to do anyway."

He said, "It's pointless to be angry. We're embracing our own baptism. We're changing the focus from trying to influence the bishops to directly influencing grass-roots Catholics."

Nonetheless, Bartley said it would be nice if "the bishops would realize we're good, faithful Catholics and we're trying to help."

The fuzziness of Voice of the Faithful's message is due, in part, to its multiple goals. …