It was the unlikeliest of press conferences and a sign of times that are changing with unprecedented momentum even from within one of the world's oldest religious institutions.
On Oct 20, in Arlington Heights, representatives from Catholic priest movements and lay reform organizations based across the world gathered to lay out a series of direct challenges to the Catholic Church on everything from women's equality to LGBT rights.
The announcement, also carried via a live global webcast, came at the conclusion of the third international conference of its kind during which 40 priests and lay persons from 10 countriesArgentina, Australia, Austria, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United Statesmet for three days "to develop strategies for reform in the Catholic Church including the full participation of women in the Church, confronting clericalism and supporting LGBT Catholics."
Sam Bowns, an activist working on the restoration of women priests; William McGinnity, from the National Council of Priests of Australia; Margaret Roylance, of the Voice of the Faithful; Kate McElwee, co-executive director of The Women's Ordination Conference; and organizer Markus Heil served as the gathering's representatives.
"In this space we wrestled with the damaging effects of oppressive structures knowing that patriarchy and hierarchy hurt us all," McElwee said. "We discovered, time and again, that by sharing as equals and asking hard questions we can transform, ourselves, our church and our world."
"One of the guiding principles of our assembly was unity in diversity," Roylance said. "Envisioning an active change in the church means appreciating our differences."
Roylance singled out clericalism ( the elite Catholic hierarchy which seeks to control and maintain power ) as a quintessential issue in the church.
"It reflects a deeper problem," she said. "The failure to recognize the rights and responsibilities of each baptized person. In the absence of a right to be treated with respect or to follow one's own conscience, real pain and injustice result: sexual abuse, the closing of active parish communities, the mistreatment of divorced and remarried Catholics [all] perpetrated in the name of our church."
"We believe that there can be no meaningful change in the church without fundamental rights for all of our members," Bowns asserted. "People live in two different worlds. In church, freedoms are very few and the power lies with the few and not the many. We have to come back to a better sense of community by connecting with others and lifting up individual stories. We want to call, not only our clergy and hierarchy to accountability [to community] but each individual baptized Christian."
However, McGinnity affirmed the group's support for Pope Francis's reform initiatives particularly in church governance and structure.
"We believe it's critical that our church has to reach out to those who feel marginalized or sanctioned by the institutional church," he said.
However, in terms of the Pope's August 2016 comments about transgender individuals during which he called them "The annihilation of man as the image of God," Heil said that the conference focused on LGBT issues as a whole rather than singling out transgender issues.
"There are a lot of strange ideas in the Catholic theology these days," he added. "There is some education needed and the church is trying to catch up."
This was the first time that the conference was held in the United States and it arrived at a time of substantial political and social rifts particularly concerning the issue of undocumented immigrants with the possible threat of mass deportations and a resulting need for church sanctuary.
"My gut feeling is that there are a number of Roman Catholics in this country that will do everything in their power to ease the misery and help our fellow human beings," Bowns said.
McElwee announced "Two statements that both unify us and call us to action for the work ahead."
The first was to send a Spirit Day message of solidarity with and acceptance of LGBTQ youth.
"We commit ourselves to stand against violence in all forms, physical, emotional and spiritual towards LGBTQ people," McElwee said. "We encourage church leaders and individual members to make the same commitment."
McElwee went on to read a proclamation from members working on full equality for women in the Catholic Church "who are too often ignored, rejected, silenced and dismissed."
"To our brothers in the wider church, we are asking you to deeply listen to the women in your circle [and] in your communities," McElwee stated. "In the spirit that invites transformation, we ask you to carefully reflect on male and clerical privilege and risk stepping out and acting courageously for full equality in our church. [It] has become an ever more broken body. We need to walk this journey together."