DALLAS — The U.S. Catholic bishops will come together again in two months, but their next meeting won't be in Dallas or any other city.
Instead they will unite in prayer and penance Aug. 14 for a first-ever national bishops' day of prayer for healing and reconciliation for the Church in recognition of their failures of leadership in the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy.
Priests and the laity are invited to participate if they choose, but the day of prayer and fast will be specifically imposed on the bishops, as voted June 14 at their Dallas meeting. With impassioned comments, applause and a unanimous vote to schedule the day of penance for themselves rather than all the faithful, the bishops admitted their particular fault in the scandal.
“The penance that is necessary here is not the obligation of the Church at large in the United States but the responsibility of the bishops ourselves,” said Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Both ‘what we have done’ and ‘what we have failed to do’ contributed to the sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy and Church personnel.
“We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance or — God forbid — with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse,” Bishop Gregory added. “We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities because the law did not require this. We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse. And we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the Church.”
One day of mortification might be only the beginning for the bishops, who were encouraged by Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio to undertake a nine-month period of spiritual reconciliation and reparation. His comprehensive plan for prayer and penance will be distributed in the next letter mailed to the conference membership, Bishop Gregory said.
“The sexual abuse of children and youth has been painful to Jesus,” Archbishop Flores told the Dallas assembly. “Such actions bring to him … pain that is as severe as his scourging at the pillar, the crown of thorns, carrying of the cross, crucifixion and suffering on the cross until death.
“I think that the fault has been so enormous that the reparation from us collectively needs to be just as big.”
Archbishop Flores proposed that for the next nine months the bishops pray a holy hour early in the morning in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament, and, if possible, again at bedtime; daily Divine Office; daily recitation of the rosary and meditation on the holy Scriptures; oral prayer with religious and laity as the bishops travel or as they meet with people in their offices; and observe fast and abstinence, daily if possible, for the nine months.
“As we offer all the above in reconciliation and reparation for our offenses, we should all pray and work for the further conversion of all of us to be more fully committed to Jesus, the divine Word,” Archbishop Flores said. “If we the priests and the bishops don't take Jesus' word more seriously, then how can we expect the people to listen to what we say from the pulpit?”
For weeks lay leaders in the Church have been writing and speaking of the need for deep spiritual renewal in response to the historic crisis.
That call was sounded again in Dallas, across town from the bishops' assembly, as an estimated 500 Catholics flocked to a panel discussion sponsored by Catholics United for the Faith.
“I think we're being called, every single one of us, to do something extraordinary,” said panelist Helen Hull Hitchcock, director of Women for Faith and Family. “We need to make special prayers and sacrifices for our holy mother Church.”
Saying “it can't fail,” she especially recommended fasting, at least on first Fridays, and eucharistic adoration to begin to rebuild what many see as a generation's worth of destruction in Catholic faith and authority in the United States.
Leon Suprenant, Catholics United for the Faith's national director, said the righteous anger and moral outrage rightly felt by many Catholics over the scandal are legitimate, yet they need to be transformed by Christ into a holy zeal for the faith and sacrificial love for others.
“There's no newfangled way of doing this,” he said. “It's the way of prayer, it's the way of reparation and penance, it's the way of the sacramental life.”
Quoting from Pope John Paul II on the laity, in comments that are cited in No. 828 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Suprenant said: “The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church's history.”
Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., encouraged his brother bishops to offer a program of Christ-centered spiritual renewal in the parishes. He said the Renew program from Plainfield, N.J., helped his own diocese heal from a “terrible situation” of clergy scandal in 1993 and noted that Renew is currently developing a six-week parish series specifically focused on recovery from scandal.
“We came out of it and there are hope-filled signs of growth in the local Church there,” he said. “It's not just about norms, it's about holiness. It's about godliness.”
Ellen Rossini writes from Dallas.