CURRENT EVENTS and election-year issues such as church burnings and White House support for partial birth abortions occupied the U.S. bishops during their annual spring meeting late last month in Portland, Ore.

Auxiliary Bishop John Ricard of Baltimore, Md. called this year's rash of church arsons “a particular tragedy” because most facilities were serving poor, and usually uninsured, congregations. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) pledged to commit $50,000 from its reserves to help the congregations.

Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, president of the NCCB, said that election-year accusations of partisan-ship will not deter the bishops from applying Catholic social teachings to public policy issues facing the nation in the months to come. His point was driven home as the bishops issued a unanimous statement urging Congress to override President Clinton's April veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act.

In an interview with the Register, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, chairman of the NCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, called abortion “the primordial evil of our time,” adding: “I think the partial-birth abortion (PBA) discussion brings that more powerfully home to us.”

He said the NCCB's pro-life office has received requests for 27 million postcards to be sent as PBA protests to Congress and the White House. “My own sense is there is unprecedented resolve on the part of the bishops, but it's broader than that,” Law said. “There is real conviction that we are together on this issue.”

The bishops' “Stand Up For Life” statement denounced President Clinton for supporting “a particularly heinous and violent way of killing an infant during the process of birth.”

“It will be our prayer that the cul-ture of death be transformed by a culture of life, by a civilization of love,” the statement said.

The conference, attended by most of the nation's estimated 250 bishops, also heard more about individual dioceses implementing the NCCB's three-year strategy to increase vocations.

Some bishops reportedly discussed, during a session that was closed to the media, how to advance women's roles in the Church while keeping within its existing laws and policies. Jesuit theologian Father Avery Dulles spoke to the conference on the papal affirmation that the Church is unable to ordain women to the priesthood.

Father Dulles reiterated points from the recent Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith statement, which explores the teaching banning women's ordination as part of the deposit of the faith, founded on the word of God and taught by the Church's ordinary, universal teaching authority.

The bishops also continued working on a totally revised and translated Sacramentary into English. In voting on the Sacramentary, the book of prayers used by priests at Mass, the bishops finished their treatment of segments five and six of the text, which has been divided into seven parts to allow the bishops to deal with it in manageable pieces over several years. Discussion and voting on the Sacramentary took up the largest portion of the June meeting, though it was not characterized by long debates about style and substance of prayer translations as was the case in previous meetings.

Baltimore Bishop Ricard, said that post-Vatican II Mass language has been upbeat, but not as poetic as it could be, nor as musically adaptable, which is a key issue in the Sacramentary revisions. He said language at Mass should be faithful to tradition, but should also “speak to the times. These things are done for their practical use. The reality hasn't changed, but the context has.”

Bishop William Bullock of Madison, Wisc., said he appreciates the Church extending itself to those in the pews, but added that, “we also, I think, have to have integrity in our scholarship of the translation.” The finished product will be the first entirely revised Sacramentary in English in more than 25 years.

The bishops, reflecting the Church's continued defense of immigrants, also delivered a sharp criticism of possible federal legislation that would harm immigrants and refugees.

Though Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz's controversial threat to excommunicate Catholics in his diocese who belonged to groups that defied Church teaching was not a topic on the agenda, the head of the Lincoln, Neb., diocese said he had “received many words of assurances and prayers.”

“I haven't received any negative comments from the other bishops,” he told the Register.

The bishop said the canonical action still affects 16 to 20 “somewhat defiant” people in his diocese. The action created a firestorm of secular media attention, some of which hinted that other American bishops, because of their silence on the matter, did not support Bishop Bruskewitz. Reflecting on his excommunication legislation, he said, “it didn't impress me as a particularly brave act.”

David Finnigan is based in Los Angeles. CNS contributed to this report.