Steve Powers isn’t the type to throw up his hands and walk out on an organization when things don’t go his way.
A Canestota native, Scotia resident and lifelong Catholic, Powers is much more about changing the system from within, and, as head of the Catholic reform group Capital District Call to Action, he feels like there’s plenty to change.
“We are Catholics, very active members of our parishes, and we are very confident in our opinion,” said Powers, who is president of the Upstate New York Call to Action, which also has chapters in Buffalo, Binghamton, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica. “We see the need for some changes, and for a lot of us that change isn’t happening quickly enough. We also feel the dialogue within the church between the laity and the hierarchy has diminished greatly, and we want to strengthen that.”
Today at 2 p.m. at the Bethany Reformed Church in Albany, Powers’ group is hosting expelled Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois, who will speak about women’s ordination and other gender issues in the Catholic church. Based in New York City, Bourgeois was canonically dismissed by the Vatican for his part in the ordination of a female priest in Lexington, Ky., in 2008.
“He’s been a longtime advocate against torture and is a very well-known peace activist,” Powers said of Bourgeois. “As the women’s ordination movement has grown, it’s become very clear to him that women were not equal in the eyes of our church, so his primary focus recently has been on women’s issues.”
That also happens to be a hot topic for Capital District Call to Action members, who are affiliated with the statewide association and the national Call to Action group headquartered in Chicago.
“It’s been around for about 30 years, and we are a very peaceful group but confident in our conviction,” said Powers, who said the local chapter has about 300 members. “We’re interested in more reform, more openness and more equality for women. Locally, our bishops have done a very good job, but when you look at other parts of the country and around the world, you actually see a closing down of the forward movement. Some are little things, like young girls not being able to serve on the altar. But in some places, they’re no longer allowing lay people to deliver homilies, and in other places women have absolutely no position anywhere in a parish or a diocese. In some places, the trend is going backwards.”
Change of plans
Powers, who recently retired from his position with the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, had been headed for the priesthood himself until he decided a change in plans was in order in 1968.
“I got my divinity degree from St. Bernard’s in Rochester, but I left before ordination,” said Powers, who was a big supporter of the Second Vatican Council from 1962-65, which in many ways helped modernize the church. “The need for change at that time was very apparent. And while there was some, I didn’t like what I saw for the future of the church. That’s why I didn’t become ordained. That, and I also met a very beautiful young woman who I ended up marrying.”
More than 50 years later, Powers remains devoted to both his wife, Juanita, and the Catholic church. Losing his catholicism was never an option to him.
“No, I was born and raised Catholic, and I’ve never thought about leaving the church,” he said. “I feel like my life has benefitted from the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and I’ve tried to translate those ideals into my life. I love the Catholic experience.”
Handling awkward situations
Sometimes, being a Catholic can get awkward, but Powers handles all kinds of situations with grace and dignity. Last year, when his parish, St. Vincent’s, was ordaining a deacon, he stood outside on the street with a group of other CTA members with signs showing their support for women’s ordination. When the actual ordination began, Powers was sitting quietly in the church.
“They put down their signs and came on in,” remembered Betsy Rowe-Manning, the parish life director at St. Vincent’s. “He obviously loves the church, and what I admire most about Steve, and his wife, too, is that he is a faithful Catholic, he participates at the Eucharist with us each week, they both often read, and he continues to invite the church to move forward while always being a gentleman.”
Mary Jane Smith, a Troy resident and a CTA member for 10 years, said Powers is the perfect man to lead the reform group.
“He’s very affable and has this wonderful way of handling people in awkward situations,” said Smith. “He is an unusually dedicated person to the cause, and while he is an unpaid president, he certainly devotes his time to it like a full-time job. I’ve been very impressed with Steve and the work he’s done for our organization.”
While he spends much of his time pleading with the church to be more progressive, Powers never forgets that when it comes to the Albany Diocese, he’s doesn’t have a whole lot to scream about.
“I feel like we’ve been blessed in the Albany area, where we have been led by forward-thinking people,” said Powers. “They have done everything within their power to promote women within the provisions of canon law. At St. Vincent’s I feel like there are women who are pastoring us, maybe as parish life directors, even though they’re not officially priests.”
That isn’t the case in other parts of the country, however.
“You look out in Nebraska and there are bishops who are excommunicating anyone who is part of a Call to Action group,” said Powers. “They’re not allowing any communication among ordinary Catholics or between the laity and the hierarchy, and that’s one of CTA’s primary goals. We have to keep in touch with each other, but I’m seeing a trend of bishops who are holding the traditional party line. In some places, we’re marching backwards.”
Eye on the future
As Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard approaches retirement age, Powers is concerned about what comes after him.
“We’ve had great leadership in Albany,” he said, “but what about the future? Me and a lot of my other Catholic brothers and sisters want to keep things moving forward. That’s a real concern for us.”
Powers said he will be watching closely to see who replaces Pope Benedict. The 85-year-old pontiff announced his resignation last week, becoming the first Pope since 1415 to leave his position while still alive.
“I think it’s very fair to say that to members of Call to Action, Pope Benedict represents an extremely conservative point of view,” said Powers. “My first reaction was that it’s something very impressive considering the history of popes. They just don’t resign, so I think this is a good move forward in the administration of the global church. There will be a much more studied transition this time as opposed to when we’re just waiting for the pope to die, and hopefully this will be an opportunity to have a more open discussion about the issues facing the church today. ”
‘He’s a very humble guy’
At St. Vincent’s in Albany, Powers says he has found a very progressive-thinking parish that’s worth the half-hour drive each Sunday from his home in Scotia.
“It’s a parish that involves its parishioners, fully respects everyone, and is very welcoming,” said Powers, which is how many of his friends describe him.
“He’s mild-mannered, gentle, caring and very easy to approach,” said Rowe-Manning.
“He’s a very humble guy who’s not out there trying to take credit for everything,” said Smith. “He doesn’t introduce himself as being the president or chairman of this or that. He’s just a Catholic like the rest of us, who wants to see the church become more open and keep it moving forward.”