We read in the Gospels how Jesus invited His apostles to come away, to rest, and to pray. These attempts at secluded prayer were not always successful. Sometimes their whereabouts were discovered and their time of rest and prayer was interrupted. Nonetheless, Jesus' life amply illustrates the necessity of prayer and quiet reflection for those who would be His disciples and co-workers.
It was in that spirit that the more than 200 bishops from all parts of the United States gathered June 14-19 in Denver, CO. For quite some time, this meeting, known as a "special assembly," was planned - not as an open business meeting but rather as a time of prayerful reflection. Indeed, our primary purpose was first to pray together and then to consider thoughtfully the pastoral challenges we are facing. We gathered to ask how we, as individual bishops and as a body of bishops, might better fulfill the ministry which the Lord, through the Church, has entrusted to us.
Of course, there was some urgent business requiring immediate attention. Let me tell you about that and then share with you some of the insights which I gained from my brother bishops during this past week.
First, we bishops voted overwhelmingly to continue on-site independent audits of our dioceses to ensure compliances with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The question was never whether we'd continue them or not; the real question was how they would be conducted in the future. Would they be conducted locally or regionally? (Most favor the continuation of national on-site audits.) Many bishops wanted to make sure that the revised audit instrument was field-tested and that there would be more consistency in reporting the results.
We also approved two further studies on sexual abuse to assist dioceses in taking ever more effective steps to prevent the abuse of children now and in the future. Again, the discussions did not center on whether or not to do these studies; but some bishops wanted to know more clearly their scope and methodology, and how the results would be communicated to us. The overwhelming majority of bishops voted for these additional studies as a united expression of our continued commitment to the pledges made in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
The bishops also developed a statement on the reception of Holy Communion by Catholic politicians who do not accept the Church's teaching on abortion. A summary of the statement is printed on page 6, and the statement in its entirety is posted on our diocesan website (www.bridgeportdiocese.com). It restates the changeless teaching of the Church on the humanity of the unborn child and the bedrock commitment of the Church to create what Pope John Paul II calls "a culture of life" - a culture in which human life is respected and protected from conception until natural death. The bishops of the United States commit themselves to proclaim the Gospel of Life ever more clearly and insistently; to continue efforts to persuade those who reject that teaching; to refrain from honoring Catholic politicians who support abortion; and to challenge such politicians regarding the appropriateness of their receiving Holy Communion. The bishops also took note of the differing pastoral situations in dioceses around the country and recognized that Church law envisions a number of possible responses on the part of diocesan bishops.
But our gathering was not only about immediate and pressing business. As I mentioned earlier, we gathered to take a deeper look. With Chicago Cardinal Francis George's help, we examined the dominant culture in which the Church continues Christ's mission. Without blaming or rejecting that culture, we were challenged to think about it critically. For example, its all-encompassing stress on freedom of choice paradoxically is leading not only to a loss of fundamental values but also to limitations on religious freedom.
Bishop Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston led us in a reflection on how we respond to the call to holiness in a culture that has largely domesticated God. Often He is seen simply as a means of seeking comfort rather than as a sovereign God, who, in His mercy, calls and challenges us to share in the perfection of his Triune love. A response to that call demands a thorough conversion on our part and genuine asceticism. Bishop DiNardo also highlighted the differences between the secular view of the human person (a bundle of hormones, matter in motion) as opposed to the Catholic Church's teaching (the human person has dignity and worth in this world because he or she has an immortal soul made for eternal friendship with God).
Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn conducted a workshop in which we reflected on the most pressing pastoral challenges we face and found widespread consensus, not only among ourselves but also with many priests and laity who had been polled prior to the meeting. Top priorities included Sunday Mass, better catechesis, the need for more vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, a strengthening of family life. and greater stress on the Church's social teaching.
A number of other bishops delivered truly outstanding papers on the bishops' responsibility for teaching, sanctifying, and governing. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee gave an insightful and humorous talk on the Plenary Councils of Baltimore held in the 19th century and showed how effective these councils were in setting directions for the growing Church in the United States. I was especially taken by the talk given by Bishop Peter Sartain of Little Rock who focused on the moral authority a bishop has when he truly pursues a life of holiness. The holiness of the bishop disposes those he serves to open their hearts to Christ - to his words of life and to his presence among us in the Church.
Finally, the bishops discussed how we might best conduct our work together during these challenging times. Some have suggested a plenary council (a meeting of all U.S. bishops, together with selected priests, religious and laity); others a synod of bishops (a meeting of select U.S. bishops and other consultants, usually held in Rome); still others urged that the bishops' conference develop either a large special gathering or a series of special gatherings. The goal is to determine how best bishops can come together, with insights from the clergy, religious, and laity, to focus more deeply and clearly on the identity and nature of the Church, on its apostolic structure established by Christ in the Holy Spirit, and on the pastoral challenges faced by the Church in the United States. Such gatherings might help the Church focus on a limited number of very important priorities that could shape the life and ministry of the Church in our times and even beyond. The bishops seem to agree that a special gathering is necessary and the precise form of that gathering is likely to be decided when we meet again in November.
But the heart of the bishops' meeting in Denver was prayer. In additional to beautiful daily Masses, we spent time together in Eucharistic Adoration. Before the Blessed Sacrament, all of us prayed for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. On Friday evening, we celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At almost any hour, there were many bishops in the Blessed Sacrament chapel spending time with the Lord. After spending this privileged time with the Lord and with so many brother bishops, I return to Fairfield County hopeful and refreshed. These are not the easiest times for the Church. But in these difficult times, God is raising up leadership and bestowing His gifts abundantly.
May His Holy Name be praised!
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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