I am presently in Baltimore for our annual November Bishops’ Meeting. This working session of the entire body of US Bishops takes place every year in Baltimore. Our meetings are basically broken up into three parts; regional meetings, public session for the whole body (Monday – Tuesday), and executive session, (Wednesday) which is closed to the public cameras and observers. Thursday morning will allow some time for the bishops to pray together. This year a retired bishop will offer a reflection. There will be time for Eucharistic Adoration, and a good group of confessors will also be on hand to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation. (Yes, even bishops ‘go to confession!)
Monday began with regional meetings. The country is divided into fourteen regions, Wyoming being in Region XIII. There is also a fifteenth region made up of the Eastern Right Eparchies. Our topic of discussion focused on the Protection of Children and Young People. We had a good discussion of the annual audit process, which reviews how effectively each diocese follows the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
We also had some good discussions regarding the use of Review Boards, whose purpose is to offer counsel to the bishop regarding the credibility of accusations of abuse. Our region felt strongly that review boards should meet at least annually, not only for the review of any present allegations of sexual misconduct, but also to review the Safe Environment Programs and other ways to remain vigilant in maintaining our responsibilities to protect our youth and vulnerable adults. We also discussed the importance of review boards reviewing all allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
There was also time during the regional meetings for the election of regional representatives to various USCCB committees.
Our Wednesday morning regional meeting devoted much time for discussion of a national convention, scheduled for Orlando, Florida in July 2017. The goal of this gathering would be to allow dioceses to put together teams of people to attend a high energy convention to better equip and train them for the work of evangelization. The title of this convention is proposed to be “The Joy of the Gospel in America.”
I think most of the bishops would prefer we do more work in regional meetings, as it allows for a higher level of participation than the general session.
Once convened for the general session, we heard an address from our Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Vigano. More than likely this will be his last address to the body of bishops, as he turns 75 in January. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis has indicated his intention to accept the retirement of bishops upon turning 75. Archbishop Vigano made a strong appeal that Catholic Schools, particularly of Higher Education take their Catholic identity seriously. We also heard from our President, Archbishop Kurtz in his annual address to the body of bishops. He developed an instruction from Pope Francis during his September Pastoral Visit to the United States that bishops are to remain close to their people.
The General Session offers various Bishops who chair committees to update the bishops on recent work, or seek approval to advance new initiatives. There are various other speakers who have particular needs to present to the bishops. Over the course of this year’s meeting, the bishops approved the next set of priorities and plans for the Conference. We approved a statement, more like an instruction on the threats to society from pornography. I would encourage you to keep your eyes open on the website of the USCCB for information on this document; Create in Me a Clean Heart.
Perhaps the most intense discussions of this session centered around the bishops’ desire to revise a present document many of you would be familiar with. Forming Consciences For Faithful Citizenship. First published in 2007 prior to the 2008 election year, the document was in need of updating, to better reflect the issues that have changed in society, as well as capture some of the papal teaching that has occurred since then. In the end, the revised draft was approved.
Another challenge that has become very clear to me in my six years as a bishop is that with the USCCB being such a large organization, it is difficult to both have long term priorities and plans in place, while also having the flexibility to address new realities as they surface. I am encouraged that the bishops desire to exercise such flexibility in better incorporating the priorities of Pope Francis into our priorities.
One other piece of business was the approval of the publication of a liturgical book, entitled: Excerpts from the Roman Missal: Book for Use at the Chair: Approved. The discussion reflected desire for a smaller book, that is easier to handle for the presidential prayers. It also however raised the question of whether the time had come to revisit the language of the new revisions, and how well they are being received. (That request from the floor received no traction.)
As with any other organization, the USCCB also must contend with budgets and finances. We approved the next year’s budget, but the vote to increase diocesan assesments failed to reach 2/3 approval, so the conference will mail a ballot in order to reach the required number of votes for approval. One humorous and laborious moment this year was the failure of our electronic voting system. Our poor staff members had a lot of ballots to count!
One of the more interesting moments of the meeting was an opportunity to hear from the delegates who represented us at the Synod of Bishops on the Family held in Rome this past October. There were 270 bishops present, approximately 80 % were elected by their episcopal conferences, others were appointed by Pope Francis, and there were also lay people and married couples who spoke. There were difference of opinions, but not battles; there was a great deal of fraternity expressed and experienced during the three weeks.
One delegate mentioned the different style of this synod, which began with the 2014 synod. The Pope’s desire clearly was an opportunity for the whole church to be more active and engaged. The 2014 synod talked about challenges faced by families. Bishops’ Conferences were then asked to use this material for reflection in preparation for the 2015 synod. Out of this came the working paper for the 2015 synod. This reflects effort to listen and hear what the church is saying universally about family and the gift of family life.
This structure was a great improvement over what has happened in previous years.
The final document of the 2015 Synod comprises 94 paragraphs, all but two received at least 94% approval, and the other two received 2/3 approval. The final document looks a lot like what our Church and families are dealing with today. Our delegates saw encouragement by the presence of Pope Francis. Pope Francis has indicated he will issue a post-synodal exhortation.
Early in the process, Pope Francis encouraged the synod fathers to speak boldly and listen with humility and invoke the Holy Spirit. During the synod, there was genuine conversion that took place, because of listening to one another. A synodal church walks together. This is a model for us as a conference, to speak boldly and listen humbly and invoke the Holy Spirit.
One delegate saw a clear understanding of the importance of the family as the basis of society and as domestic church was the primary concern of the synod. Now, how do we strengthen the family? Africa and India still have strong family units, and expressed concern about being exposed to growing consumerism and ‘screens.’ We should listen to people who are struggling to live out what the church teaches. (Pope Francis) this is more important and urgent than changing church teaching.
With the end of our General Secretary’s term approaching at the end of this November meeting, the bishops elected his successor, Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He will serve in this capacity for a five year term. The bishops also elected new chairmen for the following positions:
Conference Treasurer, Archbishop Schnurr from Cincinnati; Chair of Committee on Catholic Education, Bishop George Murry; Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, Archbishop Joseph Tobin; Committee on Divine Worship, Archbishop Wilton Gregory; Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Bishop Frank Dewane, Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, Archbishop Charles Chaput; and Committee on Migration, Archbishop Gomez.
The bishops also elected new board members for Catholic Relief Services.
Many of you may also be glad to know that the bishops enthusiastically supported the request to have a national collection to complete the mosaic works in the upper basilica of our National Shrine. The 100th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone for the Shrine will be in 2020. The proposed mosaic work will bring the work of building this shrine to a beautiful completion. The anticipated cost of this work will be $20,000,000.00.
Without much further elaboration on my part, the meeting included presentations from Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, the approaching Year of Mercy, World Youth Day in Krakow, 2016, and the 50th anniversary of the collection for support of the Church in Latin America. For good measure, presentations were made seeking the approval of the body of bishops to begin advancing the cause for sainthood of three causes around the United States, Fr. Aloysius EllaCuria, CMF, Antonia Cuipa And 81 Companions, and Fr. William E. Atkinson, O.S.A.
On top of all these meetings, there are numerous other events held during breakfast, lunch, and evening gatherings. For instance, I attended events for Catholic Extension Society, The Amazing Parish, Notre Dame University, and
St. Meinrad School of Theology. Of course, there are also committee meetings held during lunch or evenings, or the weekend preceeding the general session. To say the least, I’m glad it is Thursday morning! I depart Baltimore today for Indianapolis for a great celebration of this year’s National Catholic Youth Conference. I am looking forward to seeing our Wyoming contingent of youth!