Memories of Dissent in Catholic Youth Ministry

The recent articles by Austin Ruse on “Dissent at Catholic Youth Ministries” reminded me of my own wayward youth, when I was a Catholic dissenter. In fact, those articles by Mr. Ruse reminded me of one fellow-traveler in particular. Her name was Amy Wortmann.

In 1995, Amy met Blessed Pope John Paul II “face to face, as one of two delegates sent to Manila, the Philippines, to represent the United States at the Jan. 5-10 International Youth Forum, a meeting held in conjunction with World Youth Day, Jan, 11-15.”

The quote above is from a February 19, 1995 article in Our Sunday Visitor. The article, “Back from World Youth Day, all fired up,” is a profile of Amy that tells of her experience in the Philippines, her positive impressions of John Paul II and the hope she represents for the future. “If Amy Wortmann can help it, ‘Generation X’ won’t be another ‘lost generation,’” says OSV’s subtitle.

The reason I think of Amy when I read Austin’s youth ministry exposés is that three months before she met John Paul “face to face” I met Amy face to face—as a fellow youth attendee at Call to Action, the flagship annual event of Catholic dissenters.

In the OSV story Amy, then an intern-assistant at the campus ministry center of the University of Dayton (“she hopes to find a job in young-adult ministry”), is described as one of “250 young adult delegates” who, following a Mass the Pope celebrated for them, “had the opportunity to come forward and meet him personally.” And: “They were at a vigil service the night before the Pope’s final Youth Day Mass and sat at his feet on the center stage.”

OSV records her reaction twice: “‘It was incredible,’ Wortmann said” and “‘It was an incredible experience,’ Wortmann repeated.”

When I met Amy at the November, 1994 Call to Action conference in Chicago, she was part of a large contingent from the University of Dayton’s campus-ministry center—and none of them were gushing about Pope John Paul II. Much the opposite.

One of Amy’s cohorts, a young, open homosexual, spoke of having been the lover of several priests. He told me that he “prayed for John Paul II to go to his reward,” meaning he prayed that the Pope would die.

Such sentiments were common at the conference. People wore buttons saying “I’m All Poped Out.” All the usual dissenting causes were on display: women priests, married priest, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, etc.

The vast majority of attendees seemed to be employees of the institutional Church—which they despised. The featured speakers described their dissent in high-minded tones of the primacy of conscience, the laity having come of age and so forth. But conversations with attendees had more the air of bitter labor-management disputes, of workers who considered themselves oppressed by status-climbing monsignors and bishops.

It was that bitterness that left the biggest impression on me—and began my journey from dissent to orthodoxy.

I was a 24-year-old law student in 1994, attending Call to Action with a group of middle-aged baby boomer employees of my childhood parish, one of the most liberal in the Archdiocese of Hartford, CT. It was under the influence of that parish that I drifted to the theological Left in my early 20’s.

But even at my most leftward, I was still pro-life. The presence of Catholics for a Free Choice in the exhibit hall was appalling to me. Even more appalling was that none of the 3,000 attendees seemed to mind except for me.

Readers of Commonweal magazine of that era were led to believe that there was a grassroots movement of Catholics who dissented on some issues while still being pro-life. Call to Action showed me otherwise: a Catholic Left whose only difference with the secular Left was an even greater bitterness toward the Church, the bitterness of children who really don’t like their mother.

Within a few years of attending Call to Action I was subscribing to Crisis and other orthodox publications. The progress of the pro-life cause in the Republican Congress caused me to take a second look at conservatism. And my then-atheist girlfriend’s conversion to Catholicism caused me to take a second look at Catholic orthodoxy. So did the bitterness and pro-abortionism I encountered at the Call to Action conference.

But my conservatism still lay in the future when, a few months after the 1994 Call to Action conference, I saw the OSV article reporting on Amy Wortmann, orthodox hope for the future of Catholic youth, sitting at Blessed Pope John Paul II’s feet. Imagine my surprise.

The 1995 OSV story on Amy Wortmann seems to confirm some of what Austin Ruse is warning about in 2013. She is described as having been “involved in research conducted by the National Young Adult Ministry Association and the Catholic Campus Ministry Association.” OSV reports that “It was the head of the campus-ministry group who recommended to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that Wortmann be considered as a U.S. delegate to Manila” and that “it was the bishops who picked up the tab for the trip.”

Except for our brief meeting at Call to Action, I don’t know Amy Wortmann. Re-reading the OSV story on her seventeen years later, I like to think that what really happened is that she traveled the road from dissent to orthodoxy quicker than I did. But three months—the time from the Call to Action conference to World Youth Day in Manila—is a really quick turnaround time.

Or perhaps she was an orthodox mole at the dissident conference. I played a similar role when I returned to Call to Action in 1996 as a guest of the Seamless Garment Network, one of the ideological halfway houses I occupied on my journey from Left to Right.

Or it could be that Amy was a perfect example of the concerns Austin Ruse raised about the state of youth ministries: A member of “the failed Church revolution” who played the inside game so well that she wound up literally at the feet of Pope John Paul II, hailed by an orthodox publication as the future of the Church.

Peter Wolfgang


Peter Wolfgang is president of Family Institute of Connecticut, a Hartford-based advocacy organization whose mission is to encourage and strengthen the family as the foundation of society. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of FIC Action.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    The bishops in the US will resolve to clean up their own houses – diocesan and USCCB – or they will continue to ignore the elephant in the living room. We’re waiting and watching.

    Nothing like a true litmus test for those employed at CHA, CRS, CCUSA, CCHD, USCCB, etc. The Church must begin the practice of hiring only those who are practicing Catholics and who can attest to believing ALL that the Catholic Church professes to believe. Otherwise how can anyone who does NOT believe what the Church teaches carry out her mission? And if the Church is not carrying out her mission in those venues directly under the control of the bishops, the bishops are to blame and will be held accountable.

    • NE-Christian

      Amen to that!

    • Marc L

      It seems to me this is happening at all levels of the Church. How long have we been hearing complaints of the devils in the Curia? It may be a generational problem. Can we just fire everybody? That may just rip the Church apart. Usually she does better when she plays the long game: isolate the enemy but keep them close and impotent, wait for them to die off, and sow seeds elsewhere where there may be fertile ground. It’s really not a bad strategy, but we’ll surely have plenty to complain about, well, pretty much forever.

      • Bono95

        This is similar to what happened around the beginning of the 2nd millennium. Many clergy had gotten their offices by simony, and the Pope at the time (whose name I unfortunately can’t remember) and several orthodox clergy were working to eradicate the less faithful element in the Church. At first, the more zealous among the orthodox wanted to depose everybody who’d committed simony or any other grave offenses, but it soon became clear that if they did that, there wouldn’t be enough priests and bishops left to shepherd all the lay faithful. In the end, then, they had to eradicate only the biggest offenders while letting the less guilty remain priests and having them undergo different punishments. It looks very much like the orthodox clergy and lay people of today will have to do the same thing.

  • Guest

    I’m a University of Dayton grad (1988), and I am not surprised that there were dissenters from there involved with Call to Action. Somehow I came out with my orthodoxy intact, thanks be to God. Campus Crusade for Christ was a huge organization at the time I attended there, and I know more than one person who left the Catholic faith after joining their ranks. UD is a Marianist institution, but it is not a safe haven for your faithful children.

    We need our Catholic institutions cleaned up!

    • WRBaker

      Nor are most (but not all) Jesuit institutions (high schools, too) safe havens, but the bishops must all be too busy to do anything.

  • John O’Neill

    Attending universities in the sixties I had my lifetime’s full of the dissident catholics and their devious tricks to undermine the Faith. I often wondered why all those fervent leftwing catholics did not just go join the Episcopalian church and then they would have all the abortion, sexual revolution that they seemed to desire. Now in my dotage I was fortunate to discover the true Faith at Steubenville Ohio Franciscan University and have attended several of their bible institutes conducted by Scott Hahn and his wife; these were truly inspirational. Seeing all the students there attending mass and going to confession regularly is awe inspiring. I think that the Presbyterian Church has given Catholics a great gift in the persona of Doctor Hahn et alii. When I taught in a secondary catholic school in Philadelphia years ago I found absolutely nothing but sixties heresy and nonsense and a complete disinterest in the Faith on the part of the students; many who eventually went forth and immediately became ex Catholics. I feel for young Catholics who have their Faith destroyed by the American Catholic Left and its desire for political power. It is and always has been difficult to remain faithful to the Church.

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  • Deacon Joe

    Back in the ’70s and early ’80s I became involved in the Catholic Student Parish at TexasTech in Lubbock. We were hearing about a lot of the dissention, but we weren’t buying it. And fortunatley we had a super-priest, Fr. Tito Sammut, a fire-brant little Maltese guy who kept us all on the straight-and-narrow. Fr.Tito, acting up direct permission from Rome, ran our small student center as an experimental parish, trying things to see what would reach the college crowd. And reach us he did! Although he had the shortest Mass in the West: we would be in and out in 25 minutes, he said what he meant and meant what he said! We would be the first to have female altar servers and what would be later known as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. Anyone who walked in the door was subject to serving Mass for Fr. Tito. His sermons were something else, and they were often applauded. You might think from this that he was radical and liberal. But far from it. He was quite traditional and orthodox, and would occasionaly celebrate in Latin, even though we all thought it had been “outlawed”. If he’s still living, I’m sure he’s retired by now. Too bad they didn’t make a duplicating machine that could’ve given us at least a dozen more of him!

  • TomD

    “The vast majority of attendees [at the November, 1994 Call to Action conference in Chicago] seemed to be employees of the institutional Church—which they despised.”

    This sentence jarred me. Is there another major institution in the world where so many employees and volunteers, and many of the affiliated organizations such as universities and colleges within that institution, are open opponents of that institution?

    No left-wing organization would permit such open dissent in its ranks; opponents wouldn’t even get into the interview process. Those few dissenters who were discovered within the organization would quickly be dismissed from the organization.

    If those who are active in an organization, are in a position to, and are determined to, directly undermine that organization, is it any wonder that that organization struggles to move forward in a positive way. Is this the Church in the modern era?

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  • francvs

    Without Amy Wortman, this would be an interesting speculative story; with her, this has become a shaggy-dog story that almost all sane editors, and some insane editors, would reject. We are given no information from the internet or any other source about her actions or opinions before, during, or after the time when she went to Call to Action and to World Youth Day. It may be significant to the author that he met her, but, as in other shaggy-dog stories, the audience gets little of significance from the anecdote.

    • Crisiseditor

      This is a memoir. It is not a dissertation. It provides insight into the type of people who participate in youth ministry and who are chosen to represent the Church at official events. That so many people who dissent from Catholic teaching would occupy the Church bureaucracy is also illuminating. Of course, many Crisis readers know this from their own personal experience, not to mention from numerous studies that have documented this dissent over the last several decades. (Many of these studies use memoirs as sources.) This essay is simply a reaffirmation of what we know but with new pieces of information about specific individuals and events. Memoirs are published all the time by sane editors–and some insane editors also. It is clear from your ignorant statements that you have no publishing experience.