Catholic bishops reach out to souls with Internet

In online poll, national conference asks lay members of the church how their parishes might improve. Already, 9,000 have listed their priorities on the questionnaire. 03/15/01By LISA KOZLESKI

Of The Morning Call Questions ask Catholics what they want For much of the last two millennia, the Roman Catholic church has hardly been a model for communal decision-making. Until now. For the past few weeks, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has sought the thoughts, suggestions, ideas and experiences of the 62 million Roman Catholics in America to improve their personal and collective faith. And the 2,000-year-old church is using a 21st century tool to collect those opinions: posting the survey on the Internet. The idea, say local church leaders, is almost inspired. "I welcome this opportunity," Allentown Bishop Edward P. Cullen said late last week. "I encourage Catholics of the Diocese of Allentown to make use of the technology available to better participate in the work of the church and to make known their observations for the good of the Catholic community." While the answers will not be binding, they will help influence the future of the Catholic Church in America, said Ana Villamil, associate director for the national conference's Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth. "The bishops will be very open to the suggestions," she said. "Their whole purpose is to find out what the suggestions are that people have." And if some of those suggestions conflict with church teachings –– such as thoughts on women as priests or homosexuality –– "the bishops are going to listen to those suggestions, too," she said. "The survey itself will not change canon law," Villamil said, "but it could have an influence on many areas." The online survey –– available at between now and May 13 –– is the first of its kind for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on laity, Villamil said. "Every three years, we have a new committee on the laity, and this is a new committee," said Villamil. "They wanted to focus on what parishes could do to better serve the needs of laypeople." Laypeople are those in the parish who are not clergy. In discussing the concerns of church members, the seven bishops decided to go to the source. "They said, 'Let's ask laypeople what their needs would be and have those needs identified by the laypeople and not someone else,' " Villamil said. "So they formulated the survey, got a lot of feedback, put it on the Web Feb. 28 and, as of today, more than 9,000 people have responded." The survey can be taken by an individual or with a spouse, parish group or neighbors. This format was included so that people who don't have a computer at home or are not comfortable taking online surveys still can make their thoughts and opinions known. The survey starts with general questions about the respondent –– sex, age, state of residence, racial or ethnic background, church involvement and Catholic schooling or other religious education. The next seven sections begin with the same statement: "To help me live out my call as a Christian in the world, it is important to me that my parish improve –– " and then lists several choices. The respondent may select as many responses as apply and provide brief suggestions for improvement. In the survey, each layperson can suggest whether a parish should:

Help the respondent understand more about Catholic teaching, including teaching about social justice.

Provide opportunities for active participation of the community in worship.

Help the respondent to deepen his or her relationship with God.

Promote opportunities for service. Nothing –– except time and interest –– would prevent a non-Catholic from taking the survey. "But if a non-Catholic feels really strongly about the Catholic Church –– strongly enough to do the survey and reflect on what their feelings and thoughts are and are willing to share them –– well, the bishops want to hear that, too," Villamil said. The survey will be discussed by the bishops in June and made available online shortly after that. And the results probably will have an impact on non-Catholics as well as Catholics. "There's a lot in the area of social justice, helping out the local community," Villamil said. "There are questions about collaborative efforts. And that affects non-Catholics, too." And so between now and May 13, local Catholic leaders will be urging their growing communities –– including 268,681 Catholics in the Allentown diocese and 1.26 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia –– to make their opinions known. The Rev. Frederick Riegler, pastor at St. Isidore's Church in Quakertown, is excited about the concept. "I think it's a great idea," said Riegler, who added that St. Isidore's Web site will soon be online. "For one thing, it uses a medium that many people are familiar with, and while the answers won't be immediate, they will quickly be measurable." Allentown Diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said, "If the nation's bishops are asking for input from Catholics, then it's important that the 266,000 Catholics from the Allentown diocese be represented."