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Healing the Catholic Church in the 21st Century: C21 Center Celebrates Two Decades at BC

Shock waves reverberated throughout the Catholic Church on Jan. 6, 2002 when The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team published its investigation into a pattern of clerical sexual abuse and a resulting coverup within the Archdiocese of Boston.

The Globe reported that although members of the archdiocese knew of the assault allegations against then-Father John J. Geoghan, it continued to move him between parishes within the Greater Boston area. After the investigation broke, hundreds more victims came forward, alleging that they also experienced clerical sexual abuse.

In the summer of 2002, University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., announced the creation of the Church in the 21st Century (C21) Center, which he designed to address issues facing the modern Catholic Church, including the priest sex abuse scandal. Though he initially intended it to be a two-year initiative, C21 still remains an active part of campus life at BC 20 years later, and its mission has spread worldwide.

Karen Kiefer, director of C21 and BC ’82, said there was a general feeling of hurt and confusion toward the church in the aftermath of The Globe’s investigation.

“At the time, [there were] a lot of people just leaving the church,” Kiefer said. “I’m Catholic, and I feel like that was a gift that I was given. … We could choose to just walk away, [and] that might be the easy thing, but staying is harder sometimes.”

Just months after the initial story broke, Leahy answered the call on behalf of Boston College to be a catalyst for renewal for the Catholic Church, Kiefer said.

At the time of Leahy’s announcement, BC was the only Catholic university in the country to have an in-depth project exploring the crisis in the church. 

“While the initiative was instantly praised by the media and Catholics coast-to-coast who were eager for someone to address the crisis and offer insights on how to revitalize the church, no one could have envisioned its profound and lasting impact,” said Associate Vice President for University Communications Jack Dunn in an email to The Heights.

Before holding its first event, Leahy emphasized that the program would not just look into sexual abuse in the church—no topic was off limits, he said, though it would always remain respectful to the church.

“The project will address more issues than just sexual abuse, such as priest celibacy,” Leahy said at the time. “The project calls for the inclusion of alumni, administrators, faculty, and students in its committees. Students will also be able to take classes connected with the project, although none are scheduled for the start of the fall semester.”

The program initially focused on three main areas of the church: the roles of laymen and clergy, handing on the faith to future generations, and sexuality in Catholic tradition and today’s culture. 

C21 hosted a variety of events and panels in the fall 2002 semester on topics from Catholic teachings on homosexuality to whether the role of women in the church should be expanded as well as hosting the group of Boston Globe Spotlight reporters who uncovered the abuse scandal.

At the end of C21’s first year, 8,500 people attended almost 60 lectures, 20,000 people visited the website, 4,000 scholars visited the scholarly paper section, 3,500 people requested to be on the mailing list, and 160,000 people were set to receive C21’s new magazine called Resources.

C21’s second year saw much growth with a variety of conferences and speakers. After hosting more than 100 events, C21 partnered with the archdiocese to host a conference for mental health professionals on how to treat victims of clergy abuse.

After the first two years, Leahy officially announced C21 would transform into a permanent University structure, meaning it would need a different leadership structure. A steering committee and advisory board had previously led the center, so Leahy began the search for its first director.

In April 2005, Leahy hired Tim Muldoon, BC ’92, as C21’s first director. Before stepping into the position, Muldoon said he wanted to focus on the relationship between the church and young people.

“One of my great hopes was to foster some extended reflection on the question, ‘What ought the church be for young people?’” Muldoon said. “And so, you know, the focal area of … dealing with young people and  even their role in the church was something that was just very close to my heart.”

Muldoon also said he tried to tackle that question by focusing on programs geared toward the student body. One program that launched under his direction is Agape Latte, a monthly reflection series where C21 hosts a speaker from the BC community to facilitate conversations about faith among students while enjoying coffee and a selection of desserts.

The idea for the program came from wanting to foster a reflective, yet non-academic, environment for BC students, inspired by a similar initiative within the Catholic Church called Theology on Tap. 

“The model was … Theology on Tap, which still exists all over the country now, [which was] a way for young professionals [to] raise those kinds of questions in an informal way,” Muldoon said. “And so my colleague Dawn Overstreet and I kind of put our heads together and said, ‘Well, why can’t we do just something like that?’ Obviously, we can’t make it on tap. You can’t be in a bar, right? It’s undergrads—but aha, coffee.”

C21 held the first Agape Latte event on Oct. 3, 2006, and around 150 students attended the inaugural event. Muldoon was the event’s first speaker and gave a lecture about how young people who consider themselves spiritual should take religion seriously, he said.

At first, Kiefer said many of the Agape Latte talks were more lecture style and less storytelling. After forming a student board and shifting the formatting, the event grew in popularity, Kiefer said. 

We just thought, we do not need lectures, we need people—faculty members, staff members, administrators—-getting up and sharing a piece of who they are and shar[ing] a story about a time or times in their life—20 minutes, just short—where they saw God working,” Kiefer said. “So, once we pivoted, it just took off, and then the students got behind it, and then they became the marketing ambassadors, and then we just had a whole lot of fun.” 

In 2015, C21 announced BC had enfranchised Agape Latte, expanding the program to other schools. Since then, the event has spread to over 120 colleges, high schools, and parishes nationwide, according to the C21 Center. Agape Latte has remained a popular monthly event on BC’s campus. 

Katherine Schoenberg, MCAS ’24, said she frequents Agape Latte events because they serve as a time for weekly reflection.

“I really like [Agape Latte] because it feels like an hour in the week where it’s almost like a mini retreat in a way,” Schoenberg said. “It kind of reminds me [of] in high school when I’d go to retreats and things and you’d have speakers, and their stories would prompt you to reflect on your own life.”

Muldoon said spearheading Agape Latte was one of his proudest accomplishments as director, along with overseeing the publication of the C21’s book series in the late 2000s.

Aside from creating programing such as Agape Latte, in 2008, C21 worked in conjunction with the theology department and the School of Theology and Ministry to create the BC Symposia on Interreligious Dialogue, a series of lectures which took place over five years to promote commonalities between different religious traditions and the open exchange of ideas between peoples of varying faiths.

In 2012, C21 started Espresso Your Faith Week, which the center hosts every year alongside campus ministry, Kiefer said.

“One of the students years ago had said to me, ‘I wish we could do a whole week of Agape Lattes, just storytelling and because it gets everyone kind of excited,’” Kiefer said. “And then we thought, ‘Well, why don’t we do Espresso Your Faith week and work with Campus Ministry and then we have an opportunity to showcase a lot of the work of Campus Ministry and all the good things that are happening on campus to students early in the year.’”

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the program, which has become known across campus for its free coffee and opportunities to engage with religion.

“I’m a resident assistant at BC, and for part of our programming, we wanted to engage with Espresso Your Faith Week and take our residents to this event and just kind of engage more with … Jesuit traditions by meeting these Jesuits in a casual setting playing cornhole, just trying to get to know them on a more personal level,” said Amy Guggenberger, LSEHD ’24.

Espresso Your Faith Week events range from mass, confession, and eucharistic adoration to cornhole with the Jesuits and God Loves You S’more in order to create an inclusive atmosphere, Kiefer said.

“Espresso Your Faith Week is really sacramental in so many ways, but it’s also engaging so that a student that’s like ‘I don’t go to mass’ or ‘I’m not Catholic,’ or whatever—everyone’s included,” Kiefer said. “I would never want anyone to feel that just because we are a Catholic center, that we’re not taking care of the students and the people around.”

Another C21 program called GodPods launched in 2016 under the leadership of Thomas Groome, the director of the center at the time. GodPods, which still runs today, began as a podcast about lent and now discusses various topics in the church. Groome said he leveraged the rise in technology and aimed for the podcast to reach a younger audience, as young people are more apt to use their phones as a way to connect with C21.

About two years later, in the summer of 2018, a two-year investigation by the Pennsylvania grand jury uncovered sexual abuse allegations that implicated over 300 priests throughout six Catholic dioceses. In response, C21 hosted a forum titled Why I Remain a Catholic: Belief in a Time of Turmoil.

Leahy directly addressed the grand jury report at this event, recognizing the disillusionment within the Catholic community.

“The Pennsylvania grand jury report of earlier in the summer about decades-old cases of clerical sexual abuse, the alleged misconduct by former Archbishop McCarrick, and the inability of the American hierarchy and Vatican officials to agree on new policies to address sexual abuse by priests and bishops have taken a serious toll on the Catholic community and our country, leaving too many Catholics hurt, angry, and questioning their continued involvement in the church,” Leahy said.

In addition to the center’s determination to address nationwide issues, it later on-boarded BC students in an effort to connect more with the student body.

Dennis Wieboldt, BC ’22 and GMCAS ’23, is one of the student representatives on the advisory committee for C21. He became involved with the center during his freshman year and joined the advisory committee as a sophomore. He said the advisory committee helps C21 understand and hear from student perspectives.

“Between all of us, we’re able to get a pretty good sense of how things are on campus, and then the next step that we do is offer recommendations and ideas. We bounce all kinds of ideas off of each other,” Wieboldt said.

Wieboldt described the center’s role on campus as making discourse and discussions on faith more accessible to students.

“I really do think that the service center’s biggest service to the campus community is making faith and conversations about faith accessible to students, no matter where they are on their journey,” Wieboldt said. 

Wieboldt was heavily involved in creating the center’s Student Voices Project, which surveyed BC students between 2000 and 2022 about their hopes for the Catholic Church and their view on the challenges the church is facing now.

“We spoke with over 550 students through short online surveys, focus groups, online and in person,” Wieboldt said. “And then at the conclusion of that, we came up with a couple kinds of conclusions about students’ faith at BC based on our survey data.”

After the initial success of the Student Voices Project at BC, Kiefer and Wieboldt decided to launch a second phase of the project where they spoke to over a thousand students nationwide. From both phases of the project, he said they learned that students are looking for approachable settings in which they can talk about their faith.

“One thing that students always are looking for when it comes to faith conversations is hospitality and invitation,” Wieboldt said. “When students are having conversations about faith sometimes, which can be difficult, they always want to feel like they’re being invited into the conversation.”

Veronica Gasowski, a work-study student for C21 who helps with the center’s visual design and LSEHD ’25, said she enjoys C21 initiatives, as they can help guide students through tough questions. Moving forward, Gasowski said she hopes to see the center improve student engagement and willingness to participate in faith-based conversations, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I feel like right now, the big challenge is just trying to get people interested in church again,” she said. “Especially [after] COVID, I feel like a lot of people are like, ‘Eh, I don’t need to go to mass’ … so I think right now the challenge is just … be inviting and be like, ‘Hey, this isn’t like some scary thing that you have to sign up for. It’s just like an opportunity to meet people [and] engage in things bigger than yourself.’”

Other C21 parish-wide programming include Faith Feeds, which launched in 2019, and Breakfast with God, which started during the pandemic. Though both programs started on a small local scale, they have now spread to parishes across the country.

The newest C21 initiative, Pray It Forward, started in 2022 and provides participants an opportunity to pray via Zoom for 15 minutes every Wednesday afternoon with the BC community, Kiefer said. When the program first launched, it was held during lunchtime. After tweaking the program and relaunching it in June to be later in the afternoon, it now has 500 members. The program has now spread to other parishes, high schools, and colleges nationwide, Kiefer said. 

In addition to launching many of the center’s first initiatives, Muldoon said he is proud of his efforts in enhancing the engagement of the BC community with the center.

When reflecting on his time as director, Muldoon said he is proud of his efforts in enhancing the engagement of the BC community with the center.

“I take great pride in … the fact that there was a fairly wide consultation around the University, that we brought in a lot of members of the University, in the various committees … so we really were launching sustained conversations and that was a good thing, too,” he said.

Along with its on-campus growth, Muldoon said one of the biggest impacts of the center is its mere existence. Establishing and sustaining the center, he said, has shown the rest of the country that BC made a commitment to addressing pertinent issues within the Catholic Church.

“My sense is that the lasting impact is that people recognize that the University has made this commitment,” he said. “Father Leahy, his … kind of legacy here [is] to ensure that there is something at Boston College that stays attentive to the kind of on-the-ground reality of the church in the United States.”

University Vice President and Secretary and Director of the Institute for Advanced Jesuit studies Rev. Casey Beaumier, S.J., said that the efforts of Leahy to integrate Jesuit Catholic values into the center is one of the major reasons for its success.

“Father [Leahy] takes very seriously the Jesuit Catholic mission, that’s a priority for him,” Casey said. “So I see him as one of the more important leaders in the history of Catholic higher education in the United States for his effort in bringing University resources to the assistance of the permission of faith. And I think the world needs that. I think the United States needs that.”

After witnessing the center grow over the last 20 years—first from the perspective as a BC alumna and now as the director of the center—Kiefer said its focus on young people as the future of the church has been its most important factor. 

“I’m also really proud that the center is really looking to the future of the church being young people, with a particular focus,” Kiefer said. “Our commitment to having big conversations about roles and relationships in the church and the Catholic intellectual tradition … and constantly creating new opportunities to engage more people in important conversations about the importance of God.”

October 2, 2022