Five years ago experts ranked the 120 franchises of major leagues sports (baseball, football, basketball and hockey.) The Chicago Blackhawks came in dead last. Their team was dull and inept. The stadium was half-full. The games were seldom televised. The whole enterprise was in disarray. Then the owner died, and his son turned everything around. This year they won the Stanley cup, and the entire city erupted in joy. How did things change so rapidly? And what lessons, if any, can the Blackhawks teach our faltering Catholic Church which has been rocked by the ongoing sex abuse scandal, inept and obtuse leadership, a diminishing clergy, and disenchanted and disappearing membership?
The Blackhawks took five decisive steps.
First, they analyzed their situation with ruthless honesty. There were no sacred cows or denials or subterfuges. Based on that analysis, they established priorities, clear goals and a plan of action. And the Church? It is caught in a web where too many truths are unspoken, while too many distortions and evasions are embraced in the name of tradition. The Church needs some supremely competent historians, scripture scholars and theologians to sort out the wheat from the chaff in the story of how we got where we are today. What is founded on the solid rock of Jesus and the Gospels? What are the barnacles which need to be scraped away and discarded?
Second, the Blackhawks selected competent new leadership, and discarded those who had proven to be inept. Death took the former owner, who was stubborn, arrogant and closed minded. He was not a bad man. He simply had grown out of touch, and the world passed him by. The new leadership was not only in touch with contemporary realities, they could, like expert chess players, see six moves ahead. Thus, this year, having won the championship, they aren’t resting on their laurels, but are making new moves to improve their team. And what of the Church? Leadership is old, tired, entrenched, unimaginative, defensive and impervious to change. The Curia seems intent on protecting its own turf. New bishops are selected because they are clones of their elders. Priests are either capable and greatly overworked, or problematic. The Holy Spirit has provided a wealth of talent for the Church, but the best and the brightest may be either married or female or both.
Third, the Hawks opened things up, embraced transparency and good communication. They started to televise their games once again. The old owner had argued that, if fans could see the games for free on TV, they wouldn’t buy tickets and come to the stadium. However, the law of unintended consequences dictated just the opposite. Fans lost interest. Kids (the future fans) didn’t even know the Blackhawks existed, and the stadium attendance diminished drastically. His equation was self-defeating. And the Church? The hierarchy is backward looking, attempting to recreate a dead past and ignoring the signs of the times. Secrecy reigns. Initiative is stifled. Rigor mortis has set in.
Fourth, the Blackhawks welcomed home the exiles. The stars of the last Stanley cup team in 1961 had been shabbily treated in the past. Hall of Fame giants such as Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita were brought back into the fold as “ambassadors” for the team, and as exemplars for current players. Their enthusiasm was contagious. Grandparents who had been fans in those golden days not only returned to the stadium, but also shared their happy memories with their kids and grandchildren. It transformed a vicious circle of hurt and dismay into a tsunami of enthusiasm and success. And the Church? We have a treasure which has been locked up in a dusty closet for many years. It’s called Vatican II. It contains a ready made action plan which has been systematically sabotaged by our leaders who have declared a need to reform the reform. One wonders where the Church would be today, if Vatican II had been allowed to flourish.
Like the Blackhawks, the Catholic Church doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. It already has a template to follow. What would that look like? The dominant image would be the People of God on pilgrimage, not a hierarchical pyramid trying to keep all the reins under its control. It would embrace the ideal of subsidiarity with decentralized decisions which incorporated the input of all segments of the community. The Pope as bishop of Rome would lead the Church, but the Curia would serve the needs of the entire Church and not dictate to everyone else. Bishops’ conferences would have the kind of leadership exhibited in the famous U.S. peace pastoral on nuclear weapons, before it was squelched. And the quinquennial Episcopal Synods in Rome would be authoritative partners with the Pope instead of powerless rubber stamps. If this dynamic vision had been in place for all of these years, issues like pedophilia, secularism, birth control, the role of women, the priest shortage and so many other issues might have been handled in a much more effective way.
Finally, the Blackhawks invested in youth and created a new chemistry. By astute trades, draft choices and pursuit of free agents, they assembled a superb team in an amazingly short time. They scouted well, developed players wisely, and hired excellent coaches. But sometimes a franchise has a group of stars who don’t play well together. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. The Blackhawks found a chemistry which enabled the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s what is so desperately needed in the Catholic Church today. The spirit is sour. There is enormous fragmentation. It does not look hopeful. But, of course, five years ago that worst franchise of that list of 120 looked hopeless. And look what happened.
We can’t just wait for a new Pope or a new Bishop to make this happen. In our own lives, our own families, our own parish communities, our own workplaces and neighborhoods, we can try to be the agents of change. Perhaps we can make the miracle of the 2010 Blackhawks happen locally, while we pray for the Holy Spirit to light a fire under the Church.