For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
The bishops of the United States began the first day of their 2017 Fall Meeting with the words of the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, still very fresh in their minds. Cardinal Parolin celebrated the opening Mass for the conference on Sunday evening and then gave the bishops his personal reflections at a dinner in his honor and to mark the 100th anniversary of the conference.
In his homily for the Mass, the Cardinal spoke of the way that the issues facing the bishops in 1917 were strikingly similar to the ones with which they are grappling today – racism, immigration and the defense of the unborn and families. He called on the bishops to speak with one voice but to speak forcefully about the crises facing America and the world.
In his remarks at the dinner, the Cardinal returned to the theme of unity, telling the shepherds of America:
The accomplishments of the past century were the fruit of a unity of faith and evangelical vision that made it possible for the Church in the United States to become a prophetic voice for social justice and human development at home but also worldwide. ..In this time of epochal change that same spirit of unity is more than ever necessary , in order to confront with creativity and conviction the realities of a rapidly changing world and the task of the new evangelization ...
Unity and being a prophetic voice in culture were both on display during the first day of the meeting. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, delivered his annual address to the bishops and asked them to discern the things about which they are passionate. He suggested three: our youth; the mission of evangelization; and the Lord Himself.
In addressing the issue of youth, the nuncio recognized the role the bishops played in recent years in confronting America’s cultural and social problems but also the goodness and heroism of American Catholics:
More recently, in the midst of racial tensions following the events of Charlottesville, your strong leadership sends a message to a young people of a Church that is prophetic and filled with good-hearted people of every race and tribe! There is a goodness in the Catholic people of this country, seen in their charity, coming to the aid of the victims of the recent hurricanes and wildfires. While being realistic about the changing demographics and declining numbers, let us be filled with a sense of urgency, the same urgency for evangelization that the Apostles had when the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost. This can be a Kairos moment for the Church in America.
The nuncio went on to hold up the models of the martyr Blessed Father Stanley Rother, beatified just a few months ago, and soon-to-be blessed Father Solanus Casey. Rother, Archbishop Pierre said, “was so passionate about his people and his mission to Guatemala, even in this face of grave danger, that he heroically gave his life for it, when he could have easily abandoned his mission or stayed where it is secure. His witness is a timely reminder to be bold.” This was a perfect demonstration of embracing a permanent state of mission. So too was Casey, a humble Franciscan friar who “was not asked to carry out a great mission in the eyes of the world, but day and night, that is, permanently, his love for the Lord and his people, brought light to those in darkness.”
That permanent state of mission must also be Christocentric. “Evangelization,” Archbishop Pierre declared, “is not about us. It is about Christ who lives and works in his disciples and who is passionately in love with His flock. Your witness of going forth will send a powerful message to the flock, especially to the young, that the Church, is not self-referential, but is there for them!”
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the Conference’s president continued the themes of unity and a Christocentric vision for the U.S. Bishops. “We are facing a time that seems more divided than ever,” he observed. “Divisions over health care, conscience protections, immigration and refugees, taxes, abortion, physician assisted suicide, gender ideologies, the meaning of marriage, and all the other headlines continue to be hotly debated. But our role continues to be witnessing to the Gospel.”
The issues appear understandably daunting, and Cardinal DiNardo enumerated them succinctly enough. But as with Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Pierre – both representatives of the Vicar of Christ to the American Church – the Cardinal expressed great confidence, not because of some rhetorical device, but from the very lessons of history the bishops have been noting over the past several days in marking the 100th anniversary of the Conference. “One hundred years ago,” Cardinal DiNardo said, “the Bishops of the United States came together, realizing this country was facing numerous issues. Today is not that different. But like our predecessors, we know that the love of Christ is stronger than all the challenges ahead.”
The sobriety of the statements but also the optimism were a perfect starting point for the deliberations of the bishops that stretched across the morning and afternoon of the first day. The bishops heard reports from various committees, including Pro-Life, Migration and the Ad Hoc Committees on Immigration and also Racism. What became apparent very quickly was that there is strong unity not simply on the issues of immigration and racism but on the need for concrete actions to be taken in the response of the U.S. bishops. The bishops emphasized that it is not enough to issue statements and appeals. The need to confront the evils of racism remains acute, and the bishops need a unified voice in dealing with the vexed issue of immigration.
Pastoral leadership is crucial at this juncture in American political and social life. Especially significant was the discussion on the fine point of immigration and the question of prudential judgements versus intrinsic evils. This might at first seem both recondite and excessively technical, but it is a question that bishops are asked every day by those trying in good faith to understand the issues and to form their consciences properly.
Even in the midst of parliamentary procedures and what are the best answers to these pastoral problems, the bishops were willing to confer in an atmosphere of genuine collegiality, civility and respect for the opinions of others, a marked departure from the current uncivil state of political discourse across the country. To be sure, there are many strong opinions and even stronger personalities among the shepherds of American Catholicism, but they are unmistakably also committed to achieving the common good for the conference and finding a way forward for American Catholics to proclaim the Gospel in a troubled era. Over the next two days, the bishops will continue their discussions, with crucial votes on Tuesday for new leaders of important committees – such as Pro-Life and Religious Liberty – and on Wednesday in closed executive session when they choose the representatives of the U.S. bishops at next year’s Synod of Bishops in Rome on Vocations and Youth. We will learn a great deal about the direction of the conference and what kind of a voice its members want for the next years.
Rather in expectation of the coming days, Archbishop Pierre ended his address with the exhortation for the bishops to walk with Christ, with a lesson for all Catholics but especially those who carry the burden as shepherds of a country in the throes of challenging times and with even harder days to come.
“It would be easy,” the nuncio said, “in the face of the demographic changes, the increasing secularism, the dictatorship of relativism, and simply the burdens of office to become discouraged. Do not be discouraged! It is precisely in walking with Christ daily, including along the path that leads to the Cross, that your journey and your ministry will bear fruit.”