While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long had its critics — not to mention long-standing question as to the juridical and theological status of episcopal conferences in general as discussed, for example, by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1998 motu proprio Apostolos Suos — the USCCB has also served as a very public voice for the American bishops on many of the key issues of our time. The 100th anniversary of the conference is, thus, an opportune moment to reflect on the road ahead in a country torn by political division and strife, facing mounting problems of secularization and relativism, and confronted by massive trials for the family.

A centenary is also a chance to look back and realize that the problems we face today are daunting, but so were the ones confronted by America’s Catholics a century ago.

In 1917, in the midst of World War I, the U.S. bishops under the leadership of the famed Cardinal James Gibbons formed what was called the National Catholic War Council (NCWC). It brought together 68 dioceses and 27 Catholic societies “to study, coordinate, unify and put in operation all Catholic activities incidental to the war.” From this beginning was born what is today the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  

All of this is a bit of background into two significant events that took place on Sunday afternoon in Baltimore. The U.S. bishops have gathered for their annual fall meeting, and the occasion marks the 100th anniversary of the conference. And in attendance is Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state.

The bishops began their fall meeting with private lectures by some of their own, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York (one of the country’s leading experts on American Catholic history) on the origins and development of the conference. The annual opening Mass celebrated the anniversary in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. This is where the Mass is usually held, but this year it had great symbolic import at the start of a second century for the conference. The Baltimore basilica was the first great cathedral begun after the adoption of the Constitution, and it has a direct connectionto America’s first bishop, John Carroll, who began work on the basilica.

The concern and commitment of the Holy See to American Catholics has also been a constant one from the earliest days of the Catholic presence in North America and especially as American Catholics labored to find their place in the new republic. The popes have long encouraged the U.S. bishops, and the centenary is no exception, as the presence of Cardinal Parolin will attest.

Described as the second most important leader in the Vatican, after only Pope Francis, Cardinal Parolin is also a truly busy secretary of state, given the many commitments of Pope Francis to promoting peace around the globe. The presence of any papal representative is notable, but the decision of Cardinal Parolin to attend the fall meeting on the 100th anniversary is not something to be overlooked.

Cardinal Parolin was the chief celebrant of the opening Mass, and he delivered a homily that was tightly focused on the mission of the bishops and the unique position they have to impact the challenges of American life. But the cardinal looked back to the prophetic witness of the bishops when they first started 100 years ago.

The conference began, he said, as “a Spirit-filled and wise response to the human suffering and displacement of the First World War,” at a time when so many had been “forced from their homes and came to the new world in search of security and a new life.”

The situation of 1917 is reminiscent of today's global crisis of migration and refugees, and the cardinal called upon American Catholics “to provide healing, comfort and hope to new waves of migrants and refugees.”

He returned to the legacy of the past, exhorting the bishops to remember the immense project of assimilating and integrating the tidal wave of immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“In the century prior to the founding of your conference,” he said, “the challenge facing the Church in this country was to foster communion in an immigrant Church to integrate the diversity of peoples, languages and cultures in the one faith and to inculcate a sense of responsible citizenship and concern for the common good.”

The search for the common good has been lost in much of the current political discourse, and the cardinal clearly sees the bishops with the central role in fostering unity and that all-too-elusive common good.  

“At the same time, the Catholic community,” he declared, “is called under your guidance to work for a more just and inclusive society by dispelling the shadows of polarization, divisiveness and societal breakdown by the pure light of the Gospel.”

Just as the first bishops of the NCWC understood the pressing problems of their time, so, too, do the bishops at the start of the conference’s second century have the obligation to speak eloquently and with unity on the crises facing the country.

He added that he could “not fail to mention the contribution made by the USCCB to the discussion of important social issues and political debates, above all, when this involved the defense of moral values and the rights of the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable and those who have no voice.”

That includes, he noted, “defending the right to life of the unborn” as well as recent concerns for the family and the problems of access to affordable health care.

The cardinal clearly sees the USCCB as a key player for promoting the common good in a charged political era, in the same way that episcopal conferences around the world are speaking out to promote peaceful solutions to political, economic and social crises. But this requires the bishops to work together.

Not only should they be prudent stewards of the sacred mysteries, the cardinal asked further, “May the fire of God's love inspire you as a body to make wise decisions free of all partisan spirit … to discern ever more creative ways to anoint all God’s people with the oil of wisdom and strength,” a reference to the Gospel reading of the wise and foolish virgins.

Bringing his homily to the heart of the matter, Cardinal Parolin prayed that the bishops might purge “all of those things in our lives that stand in the way of our growth in Christ: our ego, our spiritual worldliness, our daily temptation and our desire for human respect.”

The Vatican secretary of state will spend only a few days in the United States on this visit, including a speech on Pope Francis on Tuesday at The Catholic University of America. The brevity of his mission made every word important, and the cardinal made the most of his time.

On Monday, the bishops will open their fall assembly with a speech by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, elected conference president a year ago, and discussions about racism, immigration and family life. These were all problems facing America’s bishops in 1917. In light of that, the bishops of today’s episcopal conference would profit from remembering some of the final words from Cardinal Parolin. Reminding his brothers of the mission begun by the U.S. bishops 100 years ago in the middle of a world war, the cardinal implored them to take up their “prophetic mission as witnesses of evangelical joy and hope in a broken world.”

Editor’s Note: Look for analyses from every day of the U.S. bishops’ meeting and Cardinal Parolin’s visit.