US Bishops’ Fall Assembly Kicks Off With a Call for Listening and Evangelization
The gathering opened with speeches by papal nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre and USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, as well as the election of several conference committee chairmen.
BALTIMORE — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opened the first public portion of their fall meeting with exhortations from apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre and USCCB president Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles calling for outreach to an increasingly secularized culture focused on the message of Christ and the gospel of life.
The bishops briefly discussed their teaching document on the Eucharist, which had been a hotly contested issue at their last meeting in June. The discussion on the first day was routine, with no mention of the controversy over the portion of the document discussing worthiness to receive Communion which some had interpreted as aimed at President Joe Biden, a Catholic who breaks with Church teaching on abortion but continues to receive Communion.
The bishops, who had a closed-door session Monday, began the day with a speech from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who referenced the Church’s Synod on Synodality, which began in October. He quoted Pope Francis, saying synodality is not about changing “traditional truths of Christian doctrine” but is concerned with “how teaching can be lived and applied in the changing contexts of our times.”
Archbishop Pierre said that among the “pressing issues facing the Church today” is the pro-life issue.
“The Church must be unapologetically pro-life,” he said. “We cannot abandon our defense of innocent human life or the vulnerable person. Yet a synodal approach to the question would be to understand better why people seek to end pregnancies; what are the root causes of choices against life.”
He specifically praised an initiative led by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. “The initiative Walking With Moms in Need is actually a synodal approach,” Archbishop Pierre said. “It seeks to walk with women; to better understand their situations; to work with pro-life and social service agencies to meet the concrete needs of expectant mothers and their children. Many expectant mothers are often suffering from loneliness, and common events, such as baby showers, are not part of their reality. Parishes, by listening to what some of the spiritual, social and emotional needs of the people are, can accompany women — even with small acts of kindness. Concrete gestures, not mere ideas, show forth the maternal, tender face of the Church that is truly pro-life.”
“Synodality is a way of life,” the apostolic nuncio emphasized. “Synodality is a way of living the faith in a permanent way at every level: in your dioceses, parishes, the family, and at the peripheries. All Church members are to be engaged in this way of living to support the mission of evangelization.”
Speaking with the Register Tuesday after Archbishop Pierre’s speech, Archbishop Naumann said he was “really gratified that the nuncio would point that out” regarding his initiative’s synodal approach. He said that Walking With Moms in Need “can bring together people across ideological lines that hopefully this is something we can all agree upon: that women that desire to give birth to a child should have the support that they need.”
Archbishop Naumann said it was a “unifying effort,” and “part of that is listening.” He sees one of the goods that God “brought out of this tragedy of legalized abortion is it has forced us as a Church to listen more carefully to what are some of the circumstances that would lead a person to think that their only option or their best option is to kill their child, and how can we again surround them with love?”
He said the work was personal for him because his father was murdered when his mother was pregnant with him, and, while she did not consider abortion, “she had a family, a community around her that supported her, and that’s what we want for every woman that maybe doesn’t have that same kind of family and doesn’t have that cultural support that my mother had. We want to build that culture of life that really surrounds women with support and love.”
Evangelization Amid Chaos
The conference of bishops also heard from Archbishop Gomez, who delivered a call for evangelization. “Again and again, the Holy Father reminds us: The Church exists to evangelize. There is no other reason for the Church. To be a Christian is to be a missionary disciple,” he said. The USCCB president warned that “the Church’s position in society has changed. We cannot count on numbers or our influence in society,” but added that “none of that ever really mattered anyway,” since “we are here to save souls, and Jesus promised us that if we seek his Kingdom first, everything we need will be given to us.”
In an address he gave Nov. 4, Archbishop Gomez discussed movements for social change in the U.S., saying it is “important for the Church to understand and engage these new movements — not on social or political terms, but as dangerous substitutes for true religion.” He said that “with the breakdown of the Judeo-Christian worldview and the rise of secularism, political belief systems based on social justice or personal identity have come to fill the space that Christian belief and practice once occupied.”
In his address to the bishops Tuesday, Archbishop Gomez reiterated that “we are living in a moment when American society seems to be losing its ‘story.’” He said for most of American history, “the story that gave meaning to our lives was rooted in a biblical worldview and the values of our Judeo-Christian heritage. It was the story of the human person created in God’s image and invested with an earthly vocation to build a society where people could live in freedom, with equality and dignity.”
“What we see all around us now are signs that this narrative may be breaking down,” he said, calling it “one of the consequences of living in a secular society,” as “we all need God to help us to make sense of our lives, so when we try to live without God, we can become confused.” He reminded the bishops that “the Church’s mission is the same in every time and place: It is to proclaim Jesus Christ and to help every person to find him and to walk with him.”
Archbishop Naumann told the Register that Archbishop Gomez’s speech was timely, as “the pandemic, the chaos in our culture has got many people realizing the secular ideology is not working out so well. ... Once you push God out, it creates chaos in our society, and it creates what we’re seeing as a greater alienation within our culture.”
Eucharistic Revival and Eucharistic Coherence
The bishops will vote on the final draft of the teaching document on the Eucharist and hear more about the Eucharistic Revival initiative Wednesday. Archbishop Gomez noted in his address that these efforts are vital because the Eucharist is “our intimate encounter with the living God who comes to be our food, to be our strength in the journey of life,” and the “gateway key to the civilization of love that we long to create.”
Archbishop Naumann told the Register he was “very hopeful that we’re going to have agreement” on the document. With regard to worthiness to receive Communion, he said it “restates some of the things that we’ve said in the past about this,” but is restating it “in this moment when we have a Catholic president, Catholic speaker of the House of Representatives who diverge on these very fundamental Catholic moral teachings. I think it’s being said in that context, and I think it’s important that it is said.”
The draft of the document was leaked last month and does not mention any politician by name. But it does restate the text of the bishops’ 2006 document on Catholics in public life, “If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.”
Archbishop Naumann said that in the case of particular politicians, it is up to “each individual bishop as a pastor” to “enter into a conversation and a dialogue, and to try to bring a change of heart; but then after some period of time, there has to be a discernment, and I think the first step of action is to call a political figure to integrity if they’re acting in a way that really isn’t in communion with the Church.”
The debate and vote on the document on Eucharistic coherence will be closely watched Wednesday, given that a vocal minority of bishops voiced concerns in the spring meeting over the document being seen as aimed at President Biden or other prominent Catholic politicians with pro-abortion stances. In a press conference Tuesday, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, told reporters that after a long process of discussion, since the bishops had voted to draft the document in June, he didn’t anticipate “any significant changes” to the document during the debate and vote Wednesday.
In response to a question about the document “targeting legislators” who broke with Church teaching but still received Communion, Archbishop Gomez said that wasn’t the intention of the document, and it was being put forward to “educate Catholics about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist” due to polling showing that only a third of U.S. Catholics believe in the Real Presence.
Bishop Burbidge echoed that it “was never the intention to target any individuals or group of individuals” with the document.
One area of business that occupied the bishops Tuesday was elections for chairmen of several committees. The bishops elected Bishop James Checchio of Metuchen, New Jersey, to the role of treasurer of the Committee on Budget and Finance, and Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, was chosen to head the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.
Winning by just a single vote over Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis, Bishop Steven Lopes of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter became the new chairman of the Committee on Divine Worship, a role that could prove significant as the committee will head the implementation of Pope Francis’ recent motu proprio Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of the Tradition), which directs bishops to limit the use of the traditional Latin Mass.
Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, was elected to head the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, and Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia was chosen to lead the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, was elected as the new chair of the Committee on Migration.
Father Michael Fuller, who had been serving as interim USCCB general secretary since Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill resigned in July after The Pillar reported that he had repeatedly accessed the gay hook-up app Grinder, was elected to that post.