LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — In Frank J. Butler’s life, the roads he has traveled in philanthropy, social justice and the desire for reform all lead back to his deep devotion to the Catholic faith, which was fostered prominently in his eight years at the former St. John Seminary in Little Rock.
“It was the culture of St. John’s and the surrounding community, the people of Little Rock, that touched me greatly, imparting to me the importance of community, of relationships,” Butler told Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock.
His revelations of what it means to belong to the Catholic faith are revealed in his memoir, Belonging: One Catholic’s Journey, published this year by Orbis, www.OrbisBooks.com.
Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine and the author of several books himself, wrote the foreword.
Butler and his wife, Fran, who have three adult children and six grandchildren, live in Washington. He currently serves on the National Catholic Reporter board and is a trustee for the Mathile Family Foundation in Dayton, Ohio.
After serving in a senior staff position for what is now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Butler spent more than 30 years as president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, or FADICA, a philanthropic network dedicated to Catholic causes. He retired in 2012.
The organization accomplished a variety of initiatives through consultations with the bishops and helped found Support Our Aging Religious! that is known as SOAR! It provides funds and grants to aging and infirm religious.
The impetus for sharing his story was the sexual abuse scandal of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
“I had to reconcile a life of deep devotion to the Catholic Church with these heartbreaking headlines, which I think many Catholics experienced the same thing. That was the beginning of an exercise, a tour of my own life,” Butler said.
He recalled in the third chapter dubbed “The Arkansas Traveler” about his eight years in the seminary.
In 1958, at just 13 years old, he arrived at St. John Seminary, which became St. John Center.
He recognized the human side of the church during those years, educated by idealistic young priests with a passion for social justice.
This also was a time of rising awareness of racial injustice with the 1957 Central High School crisis over desegregation still fresh. President Dwight Eisenhower had to call in federal troops to ensure nine Black students — the Little Rock Nine — could attend the previously all-white high school safely.
At 18, Butler traveled to San Miguel, Mexico, with fellow seminarians to build a clean water system. He met a teenage couple, Alfonso and Veronica, and their newborn Juanito. Veronica died from an infection after childbirth when she was taken to a public hospital instead of a better-equipped private Protestant hospital, because the local bishop forbade Catholics using it. Her infant died soon after.
“The social justice of the classroom came alive in the lives of real people, and I could see the injustice they suffered, but the dominant point of it all is this idea of community and we belong to one another,” he said.
Experiences at St. John propelled his desire for reform, both inside and outside the church.
“Fast forward to today. It’s individualism that has driven us a part,” he said. “We’re deeply divided, we’re deeply disconnected with each other.”
“I think the church is at an enormously important moment in time, especially because of the balkanization we’ve seen, the divisions. … We realize we’re not a nation without this sense of belonging to each other. That’s where the church excels and that’s where it has answers for today’s society.”
Butler said he hopes Catholics can take a new appreciation for their faith from his memoir.
“If there’s anything I want to impart, it’s the active participation of Catholics in their faith,” he said. “That’s what we’re learning the hard way in these scandals.”
“There’s not enough involvement, there’s not enough questions, not enough accountability” and that can change by being educated, he added. “You belong to this community … and you need to take action.”
In a separate interview with Catholic News Service, Butler elaborated on how fellow Catholics can take action.
“All of us need to remind ourselves of why we are members of this church. Our baptism into this community means that we are connected to one another and have responsibilities to ensure that we are being faithful to Christ’s call,” he said.
“We are charged to keep Christ’s memory alive and bring Christ’s healing presence and the good news of the Gospel to the world in which each of us Christians live,” Butler continued. “We are accountable to Christ and to one another in doing this. Membership cannot be passive, nor is it meant to be privatized.”
Together, Catholics “comprise the body of Christ,” so “all of us must work with one another to make our church a place of engagement, mercy, justice and love both internally and in our outreach to the world,” he added.
A “historic decline has taken hold” in the church because of “mismanagement and clericalization,” Butler told CNS, but at the same time he sees “a deepened exploration of faith going on.”
He pointed to the many online Scripture discussion groups and an interest Catholics have in spiritual development “with online faith sharing and spiritual book clubs. He also sees “more opening questioning on the part of many Catholics” about what are the core Gospel principles “we must live by.”
“There is more open discussion about women in the church and more attempts at dialogue and demands to have meaningful roles for women,” Butler said. “There is more of sense of welcoming in many parishes and greater attention to Catholic social teaching and more activism in the face of racial injustice and horrible treatment of our government of undocumented and refugees.”
Amid the pandemic, he said, Catholics have really worked to maintain a connection with one another. This “new normal” has “opened up new ways for parishes and other religious groups to connect with new audiences,” he said.
It’s “not a substitute for personal presence, but it is a way to engage people with welcome, hope and a sense of solidarity,” he added.
Once the nation is “liberated by vaccines” in the next several months, he said, “I think all of us will come together with a renewed appreciation for our families and our neighborhoods and the ability to experience community after so many months of isolation,” he said. “Parishes will benefit as well.”
When it comes to the pandemic’s impact on the economy, Butler said he thinks parish giving has kept up for churches that have utilized the internet to get donations in lieu of the collection during Masses, since there are strict COVID-19 restrictions on public indoor worship across the United States.
Beyond the needs of individual parishes though, “there certainly is abundance of human suffering going on globally and within the U.S.,” he said. In response, “I expect the Catholics in general will, as they always have done, dig deeper into their pockets.”
Hanson is associate editor at Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock. Contributing to this story was Julie Asher in Washington.