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

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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.

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