In last week’s Intermountain Catholic, I gave an overview of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, citing some of the agenda items and issues that we bishops took up at our November meeting. In this article, I would like to briefly touch on some of those issues.
Toward the beginning of each of the two plenary meetings held each year, we bishops receive a report from the National Advisory Council, which is comprised of a cross-section of U.S. Catholics. Ordained, religious and lay leaders in the country gather to discuss the upcoming agenda of the bishops’ meeting. Their report gives us an idea of what the U.S. Catholic Church is thinking regarding the issues placed on our agenda. It also gives us an opportunity to probe our own thinking on these issues.
One of the first issues on our November agenda was a presentation on the work of the ad hoc committee on Religious Liberty, headed by Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore. This committee was established in response to a growing concern that various government entities are not respecting some elements of religious liberty guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. In particular, we bishops have been noticing that conscience clauses are not as widely respected, government grants formerly given to Catholic charitable organizations are being withheld due to our stand on the sanctity of life and reproductive issues, and certain government agencies have overstepped their bounds by defining what constitutes a religious entity. The USCCB ad hoc committee on religious liberty has been engaging in dialogue with the current administration and Congress as well as promoting a variety of informational tools and media spots to educate Catholics about these matters. It was this committee that promoted the Fortnight for Freedom last summer.
We bishops also received a report from the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco. This subcommittee was formed to defend the sanctity and institution of marriage in the face of many challenges in our society today. In particular, the subcommittee wishes to preserve, through education, catechesis and media outreach, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that was passed in Congress in 1996.
Following these presentations, we bishops proceeded to address a variety of action items. Action items normally involve a brief presentation from the sponsoring committee, then an opportunity for clarifying questions, discussion, debate and vote. One of the first action items considered came from the committee on Clergy Consecrated Life and Vocations, headed by Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis. This committee, in conjunction with a variety of other committees, has been working on a document titled "Preaching the Mystery of Faith: the Sunday Homily." This document, in my judgment, is a beautiful pastoral letter intended for those who preach the word of God. It underscores the importance of the homily in the context of the liturgy. It also provides preachers with a beautiful spiritual and pastoral analysis of the homiletic enterprise and encourages them to make the homily an important part of their pastoral ministry. One of the most common and persistent comments made by Catholic faithful is the importance of the homily and how they are energized and emboldened by good homilies, while at the same time dispirited due to poor homilies. I believe that this pastoral letter will be a great service to our Church in the United States. The pastoral letter was passed overwhelmingly and you can read it once it is published in the very near future.
Another action item was presented by the Drafting Committee on a Special Message on the Economy, headed by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit. After much discussion and debate, the bishops voted to send this letter back to committee because the draft did not accomplish its goal of bringing a word of encouragement and support to those suffering in these uncertain and often difficult economic times. Many bishops felt that the letter entered into areas beyond its competence, at times seeming to treat the causes of the economic crisis our country has been experiencing instead of focusing on its original intent, namely, to bring a word of encouragement to our Catholics from their pastors.
Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., chairman of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, presented another action item regarding the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation during Lent. The bishops approved a pastoral exhortation to the faithful, encouraging them to participate in the Sacrament of Penance during the 2013 Lenten season. We bishops believe that it is important for all Catholics to experience the sacramental mercy of God’s healing love in a sacrament that seems to be celebrated on a less frequent basis than in times past.
As you can see, the issues taken up by the bishops of the United States are far ranging and far-reaching. We considered quite a few other items that I do not treat in this article, many of which were in-house issues such as the election of new committee chairs and officers, the approval of budgets and reports from various bishop members. For example, we received a report on the Synod of Bishops held in October in Rome, a synod that concerned itself with the New Evangelization, which involves a deeper study of the faith, a renewed living out of the faith and a more vibrant celebration of the faith in our liturgy.
One important part of our meeting was to approve a resolution of the Committee on Priorities and Plans, headed by Bishop George V. Murry, SJ, of Youngstown, Ohio. This resolution sets forth the strategic plan for the USCCB from 2013 to 2016. This plan is based on the new evangelization which therefore focuses on faith, worship and witness as follows:
• 2013 – 2014: Focus on Faith: Beginning with the opening of the Year of Faith in October, the plans focus on assisting bishops and dioceses in their pastoral outreach to help Catholics and Church ministers deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ, increase their knowledge of the teachings of the Church, strengthen the formation of ministers, and for all, to gain a greater confidence in the Gospel lived through the ecclesial community.
• 2014 – 2015: Focus on Worship & Parish Life: Plans support initiatives around increasing sacramental practice, creating parishes as welcoming communities. This includes specific outreach to strengthen marriage and family life, increase Mass attendance and participation in the Sacrament of Penance.
• 2015 – 2016: Focus on Witness: Plans support the continuing initiatives around the priority initiatives on the Life and Dignity of the Human Person along with specific projects to support diocesan efforts to strengthen and encourage the role of the laity as witnesses in the public square. Additionally, committee plans focus on helping laity understand and become engaged as evangelizers and witnesses to Christian faith.
On a final note, as part of a wider discussion on the Liturgy of the Hours (a prayer book used by priests and deacons each day called the breviary), we bishops began to consider having only one version of the "Glory be to the Father…" because having two versions can be confusing in public prayer. While I cannot say what the final outcome will be, it does look like we will settle upon only one version, probably the one used by most Catholics, e.g., in the praying of the rosary. In any case, at the end of the day, it is our intention, during our bishops’ meetings, to serve the Church and to give glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.