The U.S. Bishops began their annual spring meeting on Wednesday, in Indianapolis, Indiana, and while it brought little fireworks such as can occur at their longer annual fall gathering, the day was not without poignancy and a powerful apology from the bishops for clergy sex abuse.

The spring meetings have drawn little media attention over the years, overshadowed by the fall session and slightly hampered by the limited number of public sessions. Nevertheless, in a time of heightened political, social, moral and economic challenges, there is no respite from the issues facing the Church in the United States.

In the lead up to their meeting, the bishops’ agenda focused on several key items: religious liberty and persecution, immigration and preparations for the 2018 Synod. 

The issue of religious liberty will be considered during Thursday’s session, while Wednesday brought discussions about immigration, clergy sexual abuse and the 2018 synod.

The mood was set in the morning by the address of the papal nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who congratulated the bishops for their work at evangelization. “In this year,” he wrote, “I have seen the fruits of your labors in the defense of human life, conscience and religious liberty, in your genuine concern for refugees and migrants, both here and throughout the world, as well as your zeal for families and your work for adequate access to healthcare. The opportunity to evangelize is itself a gift.”

He added, however, several questions for the bishops. “To evangelize more effectively,” he asked, “Pope Francis calls the whole Church to listen more. Do we listen — even to those with whom we disagree — so that we might propose the essentials of the Gospel in a more persuasive, life-changing way?”

The question was very relevant to the rest of the day as the bishops heard several major reports and theological reflections on issues that have posed deep challenges in the past years. One of those is immigration.

Immigration

The bishops have been opposed to virtually all of the immigration policies put forward by the Trump Administration, and to guide the process of the conference’s response to the political situation, the bishops have been relying on its Working Group on Immigration Issues, headed by Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles and Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin. The two prelates presented the report of the working group, but the lead up was provided by Reverend Daniel G. Groody, C.S.C., on the “Spirituality of Immigration,” with a particular focus on the Eucharistic dimensions of migration.  He documented that there are 244 million international migrants, and 65 million of these are refugees. The migrant population is growing at 38,000 people a day or 24 a minute. To demonstrate the Church’s special concern for the immigrant, he cited the example of Pope Francis and how, early in his pontificate, he traveled to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa to say Mass for the untold numbers of migrants who have lost their lives at sea.

In their actual report, the bishops urged their fellow shepherds to utilize and proclaim their 2003 document “Strangers No Longer,” which Bishop Vásquez described as nuanced and balanced. Regarding that balanced approach, the Austin bishop also lamented that the stand of the bishops has been misinterpreted and misrepresented as a desire for open borders.  

In the conversation of the bishops regarding the report and Father Groody’s presentation, Bishop Yousif Habash, of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Diocese in the USA, gave one of the most riveting moments of the entire first day when he made an impassioned plea for the Syrians. “The Christians are neglected and forgotten,” he declared, and he exhorted the bishops and the media to do a better job of helping the world to understand the plight of Christians in the region.

The appeal of Bishop Habash overshadowed the day, but the discussions over the preparations for the 2018 Synod and the clergy sexual abuse crisis also had their important moments. 

Synod 2018

Next year, the Holy Father will gather bishops from around the world in Rome for the XV Ordinary General Assembly to deliberate on the theme “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” As part of the preparation for the synod, bishops have been asked to speak with young people and develop a better sense of their faith lives. Part of that information gathering includes an online survey for young people between the ages of 16 to 29.

The U.S. Bishops are expected to send their details to Rome by September, so the gathering in Indianapolis has a certain sense of urgency to complete this process.

To frame the wider theological at work in the synod, the bishops invited a reflection by Dr. John Cavadini from the University of Notre Dame on the importance of the on-going baptismal promise.  He was followed by the report on the synod preparations by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, CSsR of Newark and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. of Philadelphia that sparked a vigorous conversation by the bishops. Cardinal Tobin noted the urgency of the synod, citing for example the rise of the “Nones,”young people who claim no religious affiliation. The “increased amount of disconnected Millennials is certainly a concern for us,” he said, “as is the decline and delay of marriage among young people.”

Other bishops offered their appraisals and recommendations for how to proceed.  Bishop Robert Reed, an auxiliary bishop of Boston, proposed that “Young people have a particular perspective on the signs of the times,” and could be “a tremendous resource to a local bishop.” Picking up on Cardinal Tobin’s observations about the “Nones,” Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary for Los Angeles, cautioned that among Catholics 30 and younger, 50% identify as “Nones.” He added that for young people today talk of baptism and theology are “opaque” and so a new apologetics is needed.

Clergy Sex Abuse

As they have for the last fifteen years, the bishops also devoted time to the seemingly never-ending tragedy of clergy sex abuse.  National Review Board chair Dr. Francesco Cesareo delivered a moving annual progress report on the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.  While he praised the bishops for the immense progress over the last decade in curbing the scourge of clergy abuse and in creating a safe environment in dioceses of the United States, he called on the bishops to remember that sexual abuse of minors by clergy is “not a thing of past” and that the care of the victims must remain paramount.

Based on diocesan audits conducted between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, the latest report revealed that 1,232 survivors of child sexual abuse by clergy came forward with 1,318 clerical abuse allegations in 132 Catholic dioceses and eparchies. The alleged abuse occurred from the 1940s to the present day.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB, also announced the appointment of four new members to serve on the review board: Amanda Callanan, director of communications for the Claremont Institute; Suzanne Healy, a former victims assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; Dr. Christopher McManus, a Virginia physician; and Eileen Puglisi, former director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Young People in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.

The Cardinal wrote in a letter to the newly appointed members, telling them, “The National Review Board plays a vital role as a consultative body assisting me and the bishops in ensuring the complete implementation and accountability of the Charter… The whole Church, especially the laity, at both the diocesan and national levels, needs to be engaged in maintaining safe environments in the Church for children and young people.”

The first day ended with yet another profound moment. The bishops gathered at Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis for a Mass of Prayer and Penance for survivors of sexual abuse within the Church. Held in response to a call from Pope Francis for all episcopal conferences across the world to have a Day of Prayer and Penance for victims of clergy sexual abuse within the Church, the somber Mass included an apology to victims and an act of penance and humility during which the bishops knelt and recited a commemorative prayer written for survivors of abuse.

It was an emotional end to the first day. Thursday will include reports on health care reform, international religious persecution and human rights violations, the 2017 Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America and on the centenary of the USCCB.