New Leaders and New Saints

(photo: Register Files)

The U.S. Bishops gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, for their annual fall meeting wasted no time on Tuesday morning – a Day Two – to complete one of the main items on their agenda: the election of a new President and Vice-President, as well as several new heads of committees. The elections provided a snapshot into the mind of the conference and where the bishops are likely to place their priorities in the coming years, most so as they look to engage with the incoming Trump Administration.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and current USCCB vce-president, won easy election as president, defeating Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans and eight other candidates. DiNardo received 113 votes; Aymond was next closest with 30 votes.

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles was elected Vice President in a run-off with Archbishop Aymond by a vote of 131-84.

In other votes, the bishops approved several committee chairs, including the election of Bishop Robert Barron as chair of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis and Archbishop Timothy Broglio, head of the Military Archdiocese as the chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace.

What does all of this mean for the average Catholic?

As was noted on Day One’s coverage, the bishops arrived in Baltimore with a radically altered political reality in America. For years they have battled both legally and in the court of public opinion to resist the steady encroachment on religious liberty by the State, especially in the face of the Affordable Care Act (the so-called Obamacare) and the HHS Mandate. They have also fought against the steady advance of a radical LGBT agenda and a relentless creep toward secularization that drives faith from the public square. The election has changed the dynamic regarding Obamacare, including hope that the HHS Mandate will be rescinded or finally defeated. But the wider cultural changes and threats to religious liberty remain, something that Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore detailed on the first day of the Bishops’ Meeting.

In their choice of Cardinal DiNardo, they entrusted the conference to a great scholar and expert in Patristics, meaning he can delve into the treasury of teachings from the Church Fathers. He is also possessed of long pastoral experience especially in Texas where there is not only a burgeoning Latino population but one of the most rich tapestries of American Catholicism found anywhere in the country.

DiNardo is joined in his leadership by Archbishop José Gomez who worked with him for years when Gomez served as the archbishop of San Antonio. As shepherd of the sprawling L.A. Archdiocese, Gomez likewise confronts all of the challenges and opportunities of a new century of Catholic growth. Between the two archdioceses, Mass is celebrated in some 60 languages.

The US Bishops have elected two bishops who are powerfully aware of the immense diversity in the Church in the United States, a growing ethnic and cultural situation that will need to be guided with diligence, care and genuine fortitude in the coming years. It is a situation distinctly reminiscent of the tidal wave of immigrants who transformed the American Catholic community in the late 19th century. Where once they came from Ireland, Germany, Italy and Poland, in the 21st century they come today from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and across the Pacific. 

The shift in the Catholic population from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West shows no sign of abating, and it echoes the famous observation of the American Catholic Historian John Tracy Ellis regarding the country’s first bishop, John Carroll and the wave of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century. “Had Archbishop Carroll and his native Maryland Catholics had their choice,” Ellis wrote, “ they would have preferred to see the Church grow at a much more moderate speed, at a pace that would have given it time to absorb its gains in a more systematic and orderly fashion. But they were given no such choice…They kept coming in such numbers that they soon completely overshadowed the native Catholics and gave to the Church a foreign coloring that at once baffled its friends and exasperated its enemies.”

Some observers have suggested that Gomez – the first Latino bishop to achieve such a leadership role in the conference – was elected to fire a broadside against Donald Trump. The bishops are not so preoccupied with political games. Gomez is one of the most respected prelates in America today, a bridge between the Latin and North American Catholic communities and gifted spokesperson for the American immigrant experience.  He will speak prophetically about immigration, but he is also a theologian, a commentator on American culture and a truly articulate leader for Life. 

The uniqueness of the American Catholic experience was driven home in the afternoon of Day Two by the discussion among the bishops regarding several possible causes of canonization, including Julia Greeley, Fr. Patrick Ryan, Monsignor Bernard Quinn and Sr. Blandina Segale.  Segale is especially notable.

The daughter of Italian immigrants, she came to America in 1854 when she was five and entered the Sisters of Charity at the age of sixteen.  At 22, she was sent to the West, to teach, alone in a school in Colorado. She then made her way into New Mexico where she established schools and hospitals, stopped a lynching and developed a friendship with the infamous gunslinger Billy the Kid.  She also journeyed to Washington, D.C. to speak on behalf of Native Americans.

Catholics journey today in the footsteps of the men and women who proclaimed the Gospel before us. In approving the causes of canonizations and in defending the rights of Catholics to practice and live their faith, the bishops reminded everyone that we must be worthy of that example.