Spirit of Pope Francis Animates U.S. Bishops’ Assembly

The bishops discussed how to tackle the pastoral challenges of the U.S. Church and ways to involve the laity in this evangelical responsibility.

BALTIMORE — Unlike the past several years, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ annual fall assembly in Baltimore was not dominated by pressing issues of religious freedom, such as the federal contraceptive mandate or the redefinition of marriage.

As a result, the bishops focused their attention throughout the Nov. 10-13 meeting on their core mission of advancing the New Evangelization in the context of the contemporary U.S. cultural landscape and challenges. The discussions showed the bishops drawing inspiration from Pope Francis’ powerful evangelical witness and from October’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome. 

Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, chairman for the Committee on Priorities and Plans, told the Register that while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is still in the middle of the 2013-2016 plan that was formulated before Pope Francis’ election, “There are things in the way we teach and speak that are a direct result of Pope Francis and his style.”

He explained that each pope “brings a gift that the Holy Spirit says we need now,” that builds on the previous pope’s work. During St. John Paul II’s pontificate, the U.S. bishops benefited from his philosophical grounding, during Benedict XVI, they were inspired by his “theological clarity,” and now with Pope Francis, it is the pastoral application of that teaching.

He said the bishops in the regional groups began discussing how Pope Francis’ direction should influence the USCCB’s next strategic plan.

“There was no lack of enthusiasm in discussing how his themes should influence our priorities,” he said.

The bishops received updates on the progress and issues related to the political landscape of immigration reform, religious liberty and marriage. But the overarching emphasis was on how to communicate the Gospel and the Church’s teaching to the people in the pews.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., told the general assembly of bishops on Nov. 10 that Pope Francis sees the renewal of the Church taking place “primarily by evangelizing through a ministry of personal conversion, forgiveness, compassion and healing.”

“As Pope Francis has repeated many times, it is not just by preaching or by words, but by example, that people will grow in faith,” he said, encouraging them to take inspiration from “those pioneer missionaries and bishops” who planted the faith in the U.S., and inspire young people with the courageous example of their “declared and undeclared saints.”

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the USCCB president, said in his first address that, as “faithful pastors,” the first step to sharing the Gospel is not “giving [people] a list of rules to follow,” but is to “first spend time with them, trying to appreciate the good that I saw in their hearts. I’d acknowledge that, like them, I was in the process of conversion toward greater holiness. I would then invite them to follow Christ, and I’d offer to accompany them as we, together, follow the Gospel invitation to turn from sin and journey along the way.”


Synod Report

The USCCB’s four delegates to the synod gave their report, with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York informing the gathering that the synod displayed a “remarkable consensus” when discussing “the most urgent vocation crisis of all: the vocation to lifelong, life-giving, faithful marriage,” which was not reported in the competing mainstream-media narratives.

The synod delegates said the next step will be for the bishops to launch a new consultation with their dioceses, similar to the one conducted before the extraordinary synod, with the extraordinary synod’s 62-paragraph report as a “frame of reference” for the upcoming synod in 2015.

However, Archbishop Kurtz cautioned against forecasting what changes will be forthcoming, because Church leaders are still in the middle of a “two-part synod.”

“We’re Americans, and we want answers now, and yet … anything we say is going to be very interim,” he said.

“Abstractly at least, while the teachings of the Church remain timeless, [regarding] the application creatively to reach out to others and to accompany, that has changed each age because the circumstances have changed very much.”


Re-Imagining Communications

Getting the Gospel message to break through communications barriers was the topic of a U.S. bishops’ working group of six committees. They presented the preliminary results of an exhaustive five-year study delving into why Catholics in the pews are not connecting with Church teaching, so the Church can develop more effective communications strategies.

Among the general findings are that engaged parishioners do not see a “pro-life” vs. “social justice” divide, but they want to be invited to get involved in these areas. Diocesan directors of both activities, however, believe that one side is favored over another, and they look for more opportunities for personal collaboration across ministries and apostolates. Priests generally view both “pro-life” and “social justice” activities as “divisive” and tend to avoid them, but they would like to see “pro-life and social-justice goals accomplished in harmony under the banner of the Church.”

Priests and parishioners generally do not want to talk about “politics,” which includes the Church’s position on socially divisive topics such as abortion, immigration or redefining marriage.

While the communications research is still being evaluated, the fresh data have already fomented plans for a 2017 convocation designed to help lay, religious and clergy leaders reconcile these divisions in Catholic ministries and apostolates.

The convocation, “Evangelii Gaudium in the Americas: Living as Missionary Disciples,” will bring together 3,000-5,000 Catholic leaders to Orlando, Fla., and “challenge and motivate Catholic leaders to embrace the full vision of what it means to be Catholic,” according to Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., chairman of the laity, marriage, family life and youth committee and a member of the working group.

“That convocation is very much inspired by the thinking of the Holy Father and the tone he sets in the life of the Church,” Bishop Malone said at a Nov. 11 press conference.


Education Challenges

Another major concern for the bishops was access to Catholic education for “underserved communities,” particularly the Hispanic community. In a presentation with the Education Committee chairman, Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Neb., Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, chairman of the Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, said that Hispanic immigrants are not accessing the Catholic-school system. They do not know how to access the system or “discard the thought of inquiring,” he said, because in their home countries, the Catholic schools are “usually private and often unaffordable.”

Bishop Flores, at a Nov. 10 press conference, said that parishes and schools need to build relationships with the Hispanic community and invite them to consider Catholic schools.

“It is important to make that time: You have to know the families in the neighborhood, and that doesn’t mean just inviting them to your office, but it means going to where they live and finding out how many kids are there — and what are their names, and what do they like to eat?” he said. “Somehow, I think we need to rediscover the simple spontaneity of taking time to talk, which is something increasingly difficult in the culture.”

Archbishop Lucas also emphasized that many groups do not access information about the Church through websites and personal media and that Catholic leaders need to invest the time in “personal contact and personal invitation.”

He said dioceses that take this approach have seen increases in enrollment, pointing to the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“We think it can be attributed to a personal outreach and a maintaining of those relationships in parishes and neighborhoods.”


World Meeting of Families

The general assembly meeting also provided an opportune time for Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia to announce that registration for the 2015 World Meeting of Families (WMF) in Philadelphia — where Pope Francis is still an unconfirmed but widely expected participant — is now open.

“It’s going to be a wonderful moment for the whole world to learn about the family and to learn from one another about the important values of family life,” he told the Register on Nov. 11.

Archbishop Chaput said that they are going to be dealing with a variety of topics affecting family life, not just the “hot-button issues,” but also issues such as families with disabilities, handling divorce and the challenge of blending families from different situations.

“We’re dealing with these whole complex issues, but in a way, that it positive and joyful,” he said. “We want it to be primarily a celebration of family life.”

Archbishop Chaput said the WMF will include presenters of all faiths and those of goodwill but who have no faith. He said some Mormon presenters will share techniques on keeping families together, and a black Baptist pastor in Philadelphia will discuss family life in the inner city.

“We have something significant to say in a positive way for the whole world, and we hope to do that,” he said. “We know that Pope Francis has a way of attracting the whole world to something, and we are looking forward to his presence to give his whole enthusiasm and presence to this process.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.