Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Can Bad Roots Bring Forth Good Fruit?

I had the opportunity the other night to watch a video about the Sharing and Caring Hands organization. Much of the 20+ minute video contained footage of the organization’s founder Mary Jo Copland. Every time I read or hear something about this woman I am impressed and amazed. What a beautiful person, what a holy saint.

As the video went on, I started to think about what would happen after Mary Jo was no longer “in the picture”. There would come a time when Mary Jo’s personality and holiness wouldn’t be there to lead and touch people. It got me wondering how much of an organization’s “soul” is who their founder was.

Most organizations, whether secular or religious, take on much of their “personality” from the person who founded them. It makes sense that the organization’s purpose, methods, and mission would come from the very person(s) who brought life to it. While an organization does change some things over time, what usually does not change are its core beliefs and values passed on to it by its founder.

For example, the United States looks to the group of men who signed the Declaration of Independence and celebrates them as its Founding Fathers. For the most part people see in these men (Franklin, Adams, Jefferson ...) the very qualities that we hold dear as a country. We see the bravery, honor, love of freedom, and justice and claim it as our inheritance; passed on through the ages from them to us.

Many major businesses look to their founders with respect and adoration, and in some cases have their own little treasury of legend and lore surrounding them.

Mohammed, Buddha, and Confucius passed on much to their devotes. Luther, Calvin, and Smith also gave birth to causes taking as their identity that which their founders had believed in so strongly. The Jesuits have St. Ignatius, the Dominicans have St. Dominic, the Franciscans have St. Francis, and of course the Church has Christ. What would the Church be if She hadn’t been founded by and on Jesus?

In many ways the founder of an organization embodies their founder. And because of this, one popular way to discredit another group is to discredit their founder – and it’s often quite effective.

Another founder has been in the headlines lately - Msgr. Dale Fushek. Msgr. Dale Fushek is the founder of the popular movement Life Teen. Life Teen, according to their website is,

“an international Catholic movement that serves the Church by providing resources and faith experiences that help lead teens closer to Christ. This is accomplished through a vibrant Eucharistic spirituality and by creating widespread opportunities for teens to grow in their faith.”

Sadly, Msgr. Dale Fushek faces “allegations were raised that he had engaged in improper sexual conduct with teens. A year later he was charged with several misdemeanor criminal counts of assault, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and indecent exposure.” He has been suspended by his diocese and has decided to resign from the priesthood. He has recently started a nondenominational praise and worship center along with the former associate pastor of the same Parish (who left the priesthood in 2002) against the orders of his superiors. The complete story can be found here.

So with a daughter who will soon be exposed to Life Teen through the local Youth Group I’m left wondering - how much of a person is embodied in the organizations they found? I’m interested in hearing if any reader knows anything about this organization or has any experience with them.

Can the fruits be good if the roots are bad?


Joshua 24:15 said...

A lot of interesting facets to this, as I pondered your title question. And even more as I read the background material in the news article and the original diocesan bulletin.

I think the short answer is yes, of course. It might take time and reform, of course, but admittedly it's probably a lot easier for a good organization to go bad than the other way around. Even if it's the founder or leader that is bad, good fruits can come from the bad guy's efforts-- organization skills, fundraising, or selection of (good) lieutenants. It all depends on how their personal traits actually extend into the org, I guess. (I don't have any great examples; Mel Gibson made a profoundly touching movie but got into trouble and said some nasty stuff-- and his dad didn't sound like a prize)

Secondly, are you suggesting that Teen Life can't bear good fruit? More pointedly, are you suggesting that the type of "ministry" that typical youth groups enjoy-- featuring the music and dancing and clapping-- are prone to catechetical failure, not necessarily as severe as Fushek of course but nonetheless more apt to degrade into unbecoming conduct? Just asking...

And finally, why can't the Phoenix diocesan web site come out and say that folks should stay away from these guys, not for "grave concern for Catholics who may be misled or confused..." but because they're a couple of perverts who might be setting up shop for the next round of child molestation??

Laura The Crazy Mama said...

All I know about this organization is pretty much the same thing as you read on the internet. They don't really deny that the founder got into "some trouble" but it (the movement) continues on with a life of it's own. I guess. The problem I have with this and many other "movements" is that they MOVE. They have a tendancy to shift and change at the whim of the current leader(s) and that might be a very, bad man...or woman...or group of both.
Another, funny thing about a good fruit coming from bad roots...YES, a bad root system can still support SOME good fruit (to follow the favorite analogy of Marian apparition groupies, etc.) but not for long, and even GOOD fruit can go bad within a few weeks of harvest....if it's not "preserved". Okay, I'll stop with that one, now!

It's my opinion that people who get "all excited" around a bunch of teenagers and tend to spend WAY too much time with them (even with starting out with the best of intentions) end up acting a lot like the teenagers in their charge (Nobody wants to be the "uncool" lady/guy who is just chaperoning. It's a hard balance between being a good example with your own life, and trying to "relate" to the teens while showing them the joy that love of God can bring to their lives...without guitar, hopping all around the place, and telling your story while crying dramatically.). They tend to try to prolong their own "youth" and make bad judgements and decisions that can lead to some really, terrible things. I'm sure there are some that don't act this way, but I haven't met any, yet.
I was a teenager in the "youth movement" about 20 years ago. I taught religion to seventh and eight graders, so it's not foreign to me how these things go. Also, I have a sister who is ten years younger than me who told me that things hadn't changed much in all those years (and maybe had gotten worse). Now, here I am wondering the same things about my children as you. I'm staying away, for good measure. I'll pray for you and your little ones (as always!).

will said...

Seems to me that every leader of every Catholic movement in existence today, from Pope Benedict on down, is a sinner. We'd prefer them to be repentant sinners, certainly, but sinners they are. Expecting otherwise is foolish.

The question with regard to LifeTeen isn't whether the original leaders are sinners, or even (at this point) unrepentant sinners; the question is whether youth in the LifeTeen program grow in Christ. From what little I've seen, they do.

When I was a kid, our parish had "Teen Club", which was almost entirely social in nature. LifeTeen is actually about spiritual formation. This strikes me as an improvement, no?

Joshua 24:15 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joshua 24:15 said...

I'm on the fence about some of the facets of the youth movement, even as I have sons going into it right now. I must admit to being partial to more solemn occasions of worship than I see sometimes. But, I have not sensed anything at all alarming in my sons' involement, and so far I feel like they're getting something good out of it.

One aspect of this discussion that I'd like to re-focus on, ala Laura's comment, is the effect of long-term immersion of adult leaders in this youth culture, on their (the adults) ability to guide children to God. Again, I'm pretty new to the youth groups, but more than one person has shared experiences with me in which they've seen this whole type of situation go awry, because in a nutshell the adult leaders "didn't want to grow up." This does worry me, because I can certainly see how a well intentioned, talented adult leader is forced to be a "buddy" in order to get spiritual progress out of some kids. Over time, can the adult be the one who moves instead, becoming more immature in their approach to the Church?

I would really like to hear from some of you-- is my concern legit or am I just an "old man," like my kids are starting to claim??

J. Thorp said...

My wife and I were volunteer youth leaders at our old church in Michigan -- there was no paid/professional youth minister at the time. And there was a constant tension (although not overwhelming) between being friends or acquaintances of the parents and being mentors and confidantes of the kids. You want them to feel comfortable opening up -- but you need them to know that you're not their buddy, that you have deeper interests than that. In that way, it's not unlike parenthood -- and we coined a sily word for it, a combo of friends and family: friemily.

Friemily described us as a group of technically unrelated people who loved and cared for each other even when we didn't see eye-to-eye, or in some cases, even like each other.

Friemily, in that case, isn't all that dissimilar to Church.

There was a constant push toward simply having fun -- certain of our high-schoolers would attend other youth groups with their Protestant friends and talk about how casual, how easy, and how much fun they were. This led to interesting discussions about the *work* of growing in faith (and notion of being "saved") -- but it also illustrates what we're up against. The children who most need contact with the church are getting the message that there are easier paths to follow, and we have to appeal to them before we can convert them.

We loved our time with the youth group -- and we love the music, the joy, etc., that is expressed through the ministries. Don't get me wrong -- I enjoy the unmatched depth and solemnity of our traditions, too -- but as Fr. Bill used to say, sometimes we forget that what we are spreading is the *Good* News.

More to Joshua 24:15's point: I think it was helpful that we were in our mid-20s at the time, and didn't have to *act* young. Our priest encouraged us in this role for the very reason that we were a young married couple just starting out -- and he told us, first and foremost, to be an example to them. As St. Francis said, "Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words."