A SUMMARY OF THE 2019 SPRING GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE UNITED STATES CONFERENCE OF CATHOLIC BISHOPS (USCCB) June 10-14, 2019
by Maribeth Stewart Blogoslawski, NCCW President
It is the privilege of the NCCW President to be invited as an official Observer at the USCCB General Assemblies and I offer this little summary so you can know what it is like there and what was discussed at this meeting.
This Assembly was held at in Baltimore at the Marriott Inner Harbor hotel. The days were beautiful in the high 60’s with a good breeze and brilliant sunlight as I walked each day from my hotel two blocks away toward the water and the meeting hotel. After registering and proceeding to the beautiful ballroom, I sat in the special Observer section that is along a side wall facing the bishops who are seated at similar long tables with their tables facing the front of the stage. A projection above the stage that contained the dais where the USCCB officers were seated showed a lovely rendition of Jesus crucified with St. John and Mary beside Him, and Pope John Paul II and a priest kneeling in prayer. The long dark blue back curtain had blue uplights along its length setting a serene tone that all the work being done was for the good of our Church.
Though it is not allowed to approach the bishops in their meeting space in the room, there are many chances to speak with them at the morning and afternoon breaks and at lunch. Several stop by the Observer section throughout the meeting to speak with us and this is another opportunity to talk about our NCCW. It was so wonderful that when I mentioned the NCCW, many offered that they love their CCW’s and find the women to be such a help in their dioceses and parishes. Upon learning that our NCCW was going to celebrate its centenary next March, they were delighted and wished us many more years.
Beautiful Masses are concelebrated every day in the early morning except for the first when the Opening Mass was held at the end of the working sessions.
A lovely chime summoned all to the sessions and quieted down the chatter in the room prior to the start of the work.
The meeting was formally called to order on Tuesday morning at 8:45am. Cardinal DiNardo, President of the USCCB, thanked everyone for their prayers for his recovery from a stroke and he especially thanked Archbishop Gomez, Vice President of the USCCB who ably and graciously filled in as needed during the time of recovery. Cardinal DiNardo then said that we were gathered to further root out the evil of abuse from the Church. He referenced Pope Francis’ Motu Proprio issued May 7, 2019, Vos Estis Lux Mundi, that followed his meeting with the presidents of all the Bishop Conferences around the world last February in Rome. Everyone at this meeting was given a copy of the document as part of our registration packet. Cardinal DiNardo said that it was up to the Conference to respond to the Pope’s call for accountability for bishops and add into the existing Charter for the Protection of Children in the US. The Cardinal then invoked the Holy Spirit and said that this journey will not end until there is not a single instance of abuse in our Church.
We then stood to recite the Morning Prayer, found in a special edition of the Magnificat issued to all in attendance. This little booklet contained the Morning and Mid-afternoon prayers said each day of the meeting.
Bishops created since the last meeting in November 2018 were then called to the dais and introduced. This was followed by the Cardinal asking all retired “seniores” bishops to stand and be acknowledged. We then prayed for the bishops (17) who have died since the last meeting.
We next heard a message prepared for the Holy Father read by Monsignor Bransfeld, General Secretary of the USCCB. In the message, the bishops thank the pope for sending a wonderful retreat master to their January retreat and assured the Pope that they took the message he sent to their retreat to heart. It was stated that the February meeting in Rome permitted much wisdom to be gained, particularly from hearing the experts on abuse and the compelling witness of survivors. They acknowledged their pastoral concern for the young and their dedication to youth. They thanked him for Vos Estis Lux Mundi and assured him that they would implement it in our local Church. They will try to reflect the light shining through the wounds of Christ to the world and closed by asking the Pope’s blessing. The message was acclaimed by applause.
We next heard a message sent from the Holy Father to the Assembly that was read by Monsignor Walter Erbi on behalf of the Apostolic Nuncio, Christophe Pierre who is in Rome at this time. The Pope’s message, wishing the bishops a fruitful meeting, ended with the Apostolic Blessing.
The meeting agenda was then approved by voice vote and the tellers for the meeting were introduced as was the meeting parliamentarian. The minutes from the November General Assembly were then approved by voice vote.
Monsignor Erbi then read a message to the Assembly from the Apostolic Nuncio to the US, Archbishop Pierre. He thanked the Assembly for inviting him to address them and apologized that he could not be in attendance as he was in Rome with all the apostolic nuncios to meet with the Pope. He assured the Assembly of his thoughts and prayers. When he spoke to the Assembly last November, he knew that they were greatly disappointed that they were asked to postpone any voting on documents concerning the method to report and investigate bishops accused of abuse because the Holy Father wanted the whole Church to act on this together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He invoked examples in the early Church of such actions: Peter over all; James over the local church. All are baptized together. The Holy Spirit guides pastoral solutions and perspectives. The pope wished all to work together and thus the meeting in February of all Bishop Conference leaders. He then wrote that realities are greater than ideas; the whole is greater than parts. This needs the whole Church to address issues that affect the whole world. Time is greater than space as time is fullness. In the US, life is fast paced. We want solutions quickly and the media was clamoring for this. But the best response requires reflection. A fast response is not the best response. A best response results from being thoughtful, prudent, and united. Rushing to a “solution” even for the sake of transparency is not always the best thing to do. Reflection yields a fruitful experience. With time, individuals become familiar and more able to truly listen to each other rather than each one saying his own ideas. In time, things become clear with prayerful reflection. The Holy Spirit will lead the Church where she needs to be, as has always been the case. Prayer and time are necessary to address matters adequately. Father Cantalamessa, retreat leader in January, was sent to guide them spiritually at their January retreat and the Holy Father wrote to them, too. Mission demands reflection and prayer. Many reported that they found the retreat to be very worthwhile and fruitful, even those who were initially skeptical and did not feel they needed the retreat. He wrote, take courage people of the USA for the Lord is with you. Pentecost is a time of transition, of the formative power of the Holy Spirit. Unity will prevail over conflict. Of course, all must be willing to speak honestly and with courage which can lead to conflicts but do not lose sight of the profound unity shared via the Holy Spirit. Listening is as important as speaking as it leads to solidarity. Christ reconciles all in Himself. The Holy Spirit harmonizes perspectives to overcome conflict. The meeting in February of the presidents of the Episcopal Conferences yielded concrete actions. Realities are more important than ideas. Reality is the experience of the victims. Many national initiatives in the US should not fade into the distance because of the important abuse issue. The V Encuentro or the concerns with the NONES are important. With regard to the NONES; Many young people are hungry for the faith. We must meet them in concrete situations to guide their moral and spiritual lives. The US has great working documents to protect the young and continues to add to them. The Whole is greater than the Parts. Acting together is important. Example of a polyhedron: Many faces connected one to the other. It is like the Church and its members who all have different charisms but make up one united Church. Each person retains their unique gifts yet are connected via the Church in one unity in service of the common good leading all to a new horizon. He gave the analogy of Scouts hiking up a mountain. Some are faster, some slower but the overall goal is for all to reach the top safely and enjoy together the view from the summit. The Church must listen to the voices of the lay faithful and confront our problems together in the light of the Gospel. The Church offers so much with members toiling in hospitals, schools, social services, but above all, the goal of the Church is to lead all to salvation; to be Christ’s witness to light. Cardinal DiNardo thanked Monsignor Erbi for reading Archbishop Pierre’s message and noted that we must be thoughtful, and prudent and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us. He thanked Archbishop Pierre for the message.
We next heard the report of the National Advisory Committee comprised of 50 persons both lay and clerical who reflect the diversity of the Church. They meet twice a year to advise the Conference of Bishops, one of their duties being to review and recommend the Action Items proposed for the Assemblies. They reported that the agreed strongly that all the Action Items that will be discussed and voted upon at this Assembly should be on the Agenda. They also recommend an independent investigation of Mr. McCarrick and that the diocese and Vatican make public their investigative documents to the extent allowed by law. They also urge the Conference to issue a pastoral letter on chastity and morality in light of larger issues of faith. A letter that is not punitive in nature or administrative but one that reflects the light of faith. Bishop Baker agreed that such a letter is needed. He noted that Woodstock marked a major shift in our culture concerning sexuality that still affects us today. There are strong theological consequences of this.
We next heard from the National Review Board. They recommend:
-Adoption of Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments by the Bishops
-Creation of a national 3rd party reporting system for allegations against bishops
-Establishment of an ad hoc lay commission to review allegations against bishops
-Application of the Metropolitan model for handling allegations against bishops with the strong recommendation that laity be included in the process as in diocesan review boards.
-All allegations be reported to diocesan review boards after notification of civil authorities
-Implement an enhanced audit system
-Provide an update on the Holy See’s investigation into the case of former Cardinal McCarrick.
Lay involvement is key in transparency when investigating allegations against a bishop.
Next followed a preliminary presentation of Action Items that will be considered and voted upon at this Assembly. All Action Items had been previously distributed and comments had already been made. Further time at this meeting will permit more comments that will be considered by the various committees involved in the Action Items. The committees will determine whether the recommendations will be accepted or not and the Action Items modified accordingly prior to the voting.
DISCUSSION OF ACTION ITEMS:
The first Action Item was actually Item #6: Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops. This was handled by the Canonical Affairs and Church Governance. Bishop Deeley indicated that with these steps they can take clear concrete actions. He noted that most of the provisions in the Pope’s letter were already in place in the USA.
The next Action Item was &7: Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments handled by the Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations Committee. There was no discussion on this.
Action Item #8: Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents. Again, the Canonical Affairs and Church Governance Committee handled this. The proposed text in this Action Item permits more input from the laity throughout the entire process. All felt this was a good addition. The question arose as to whether a bishop would have to step aside immediately if accused. The response was that the Holy See would determine that based on the allegation after being advised by the metropolitan. It was suggested that the existing lay members of diocesan investigative boards might form the core of a board that would investigate bishops because of their experience in this type of investigation.
We next heard from the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis with a report from Bishop Barron. Discussion centered around the NONES (those who have left the Church, particularly the young). Statistics show that 50% of Millennials have left the Church. 6.45 leave for every one person that joins the Church. 79% leave before the age of 23 with the median age being 13! 25% join an evangelical church, 25% join another mainstream church, and 50% are the NONES (no religious affiliation). Their reasons for leaving are primarily: They no longer believe the Church’s teaching on basic doctrines (he noted this is the bitter fruit of dumbing down teaching our faith); relativism (this generation is very uneasy with strong statements on faith and morality); culture of self-invention -The Church is objective and this generation is very much convinced that their own thoughts are more important; They find our faith illogical or unscientific; and leave because of our teachings on sexuality. Signs of Hope: Few “NONES” are anti-religion. Very few hard-core atheists. Most just drifted away, not stormed away. They are mostly ambivalent and not hostile. The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon: A very quiet mild-mannered man who just reads on Social Media. Enormous following and now he is going through the Bible. He is highly intellectual and appeals to hundreds of thousands of listeners. Catholic Campus Ministries are thriving – Groups like FOCUS and St. Paul Ministries. Online engagement with regard to religion is very very high. Reddit AMA (Ask me Anything). He went online and said he was a Catholic bishop and in 90 minutes received 12,050 questions and comments. For the future: They plan to film a documentary. The video debut will be Nov. 12 at the next Assembly. The video is to help us understand the issue and see how we can get them back. Discussion centered on the issue of the young leaving the Church being the second greatest problem the Church has right now. It was suggested that we need more Catholic military chaplains and there was testimony and agreement on this. Very fertile ground. It is a cultural and sociological issue. This is a very transient group. By 40 years old, most have moved an average of 17 times. It is a confrontation of culture and loneliness. We need to understand this context for evangelization efforts. Need the means to reach them. They don’t come to our programs but do use Social Media and so can we. Social Media can lead to isolation, but it can be used as an evangelizing tool. It was asked if there was any research on the 50% that stay in the Church and asking them why they stay? Being done. With the rise in Hispanic Catholics, does this NONES affect them? Yes. Many come are not Catholic or drift away increasing the number of the NONES. One bishop said that 50% of his RCIA candidates are not baptized. In his Confirmation homily, he states that 50% of them will leave the Church but that they need to learn the Church’s rich Mission. We need to stop dumbing down the faith and need to be bold like the first disciples. We need to make them feel welcome. Have the 50% who stay be the evangelizers; more likely to listen to their own age group.
We then broke for lunch, a time rich in conversation with our bishops.
Following lunch, we reassembled in the meeting room where we first had mid-afternoon prayer and then heard an update on the Faithful Citizenship document which was felt not to be useful to the average Churchgoer . A short letter (750 words or less) is planned to complement it as well as four 90 second videos and one 6 minute video. They hope to complete this for January 2020. The divisiveness in the country was decried.
The next report and discussion centered on the Bishop’s Working Group on Immigration Issues
There have been two pastoral initiatives. In 2017 we had the Share the Journey Campaign that will end June 20th on World Refugee Day. It was a joint effort among the USCCB, CRS and Catholic Charities USA. VEncuentro was the second initiative. The treatment of migrants and refugees is inhuman and immoral. The Church will continue to support immigrants and refugees fleeing terror and violence. It is the moral duty of parents to protect their children and so a moral right to move when their family is threatened. There is no option to stay in an extremely violent situation and no option to return home to that. The official cap on immigration from the Administration is the lowest ever since 1980. The average was 95,000 per year but it is even less than 1/3 of that now and because of new protocols, much less than that actually can get through. In addition to drastic quota cuts, the Administration wants to end DACA and TPS (temporary protected status) holders. This leads to great uncertainty and stress on these people. They have not been deported only due to litigation. On June 4, the House passed the American Dream and Promise Act which provides a path to citizenship for DACA and TPS holders. The bishops must now reach out to the Senate, ensure spiritual support and access to legal and social services. It is vital that the affected families feel supported by the Church. The US/Mexico border: 58,000 in January and 144, 000 in May. The numbers of families arriving has been increasing. It is no longer just men coming as migrant workers. It is families. Families need respite, humanitarian care, social and legal services. They are fleeing violence that has been spreading throughout all Central America and now Mexico, poverty, and persecution. Catholic entities provide most of the support without help from the government: Meals, clothes, help with travel. They need more volunteers and more financial help. The Administration is no support. New policies, such as the Remain in Mexico and the Metering Asylum Protocols that limit the number that can come through each port of entry is making it more dangerous and clogging up the ports of entry making long waits for entry for families. The bishops will engage with lawmakers and DHS lobbying for better care. They will provide public opposition to migration protection protocols and asylum rollbacks. They will promote humane and just policies with Congress. Bishop Strickland noted that too many Catholic politicians are not leading with Faithful Citizenship. Bishops need to help politicians be faithful citizens. Archbishop Wenski said that the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform at this time are bleak. His immigration lawyers say that 20% of DACA and TPS holders have legitimate legal remedies available but do not know about them. The bishops need to get the information to these people through the parishes before they are rounded up and deported. Many green card holders cannot afford to proceed to citizenship because it is expensive and is becoming more so. Parishes need to help with language and civic lessons to help legal residents become citizens. Thousands are detained around the country. Make sure our priests are there to at least celebrate Mass for them; to let the Church be visible to them. The effects of climate change also play into this migration and debate. The ceilings on numbers that can be admitted are there but the reality is that not even half of the ceiling was admitted last year. There are many committed lay persons so if the bishops say something publicly, it gives great weight to their work. Another suggestion was that the American bishops (USA, Central America, and Mexico) could issue a joint statement condemning the links being made between trade and immigration. We need to heal and downplay the divisions in our culture; this is a character issue and we need to note that at the federal and all levels. Need to add all this to the document Faithful Citizenship. Also need to add in the issue of being born alive and allowed to die. Need to do something about politicians who do not follow the teachings of our Church not just on abortion but all life issues, all Social Teachings of the Church issues. Cardinal DiNardo said that in his diocese, there is a large number of unaccompanied minors arriving. He asked if there has been any possibility of intervening with the Administration on this. Archbishop Gomez said that they had tried but the conversations to date had not been successful -but they will keep trying. We need to support politicians who take good stands. There is a political paradigm now, but we need a more authentic and humanitarian paradigm. If you connect persons against immigration with asylum seekers, it informs them and moves their hearts. Parishes need to do this.
The bishops then discussed Action Item #3: National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, 2nd edition for use in the dioceses of the United States. This is an extensive revision and should help with the issue of deacons who move from one diocese to another.
Next, was Action Item #4: ICEL Gray Book translation of the Ordination of a Bishop, of Priests, and of Deacons for use in the dioceses of the US. This is necessary because different dioceses use different books, some from a 1978 edition, some from 2002, and some from 2012. This will be one approved text. The Holy See wants a unified worldwide translation. A question was raised on whether the new translation of the Our Father adopted by the Italian Bishops Conference would be addressed. The response was that it was not on this agenda as no one had asked it be discussed.
Action Item #5: Revised passage on the Death Penalty for the US Catechism for Adults. No discussion but affirmation.
We then adjourned and had the Opening Mass that evening. Thus, ended the first day of meetings.
On WEDNESDAY, 12 June, we had Mass at 7:00am and then again gathered in the Ballroom/meeting room. Following Morning Prayer, we heard an announcement from Cardinal Cupich that Father Augustus Tolton, the first African American priest in the United States, has been named by Pope Francis as venerable, two steps away from sainthood. This was met with great applause.
Cardinal DiNardo then asked Monsignor Bransfield to explain the electronic voting system. There are 145 Latin bishops and 65 Latin rite auxiliary bishops present and 7 Eastern rite bishops and 2 Eastern rite auxiliary bishops.
ACTION ITEM #1: Strategic Priorities for the 2021-2024 USCCB Strategic Plan. There are 4 proposed strategic priorities, each with emphasis areas listed beneath the titles. The priorities to date are: Evangelization, Life and Dignity of the Human Person, Protect and Heal God’s Children, and Vocations. Each area was discussed with suggested changes to emphasis areas. The priorities are being voted on today because they will then go to other committees who will make them into operational plans and the process has to be completed for November 2020. The motion to approve the proposed strategic priorities to allow plan development to continue passed.
ACTION ITEM #2: Does the body of bishops consider it advisable to continue to advance on the local level the cause for canonization of the Servant of God Irving (a.k.a. Francis) C. Houle in accord with the applicable provisions of universal law? After hearing from bishops who personally knew this family lay man, a voice vote was taken and the item unanimously passed.
ACTION ITEM #3: Approval of the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, 2nd edition for use in the dioceses of the United States. A 2/3 majority was needed to pass and that would be 180 or more votes. The motion received 217 yes votes so passed.
ACTION ITEM #4: Approval of the ICEL Gray Book translation of the Ordination of a Bishop, of Priests, and of Deacons for use in the dioceses of the United States of America. 2/3 of the Latin Church members (167) were needed to pass. The vote was taken and the motion passed with a vote of 210.
ACTION ITEM #10: This item was divided into three parts (a,b,c)
The entire item had to do with the establishment of a third-party system to handle abuse complaints against bishops. The USCCB lawyer carefully explained each part of the item. He assured the Assembly that the system that would be developed would be in accord with the Pope’s decree, Vos estis lux mundi. Part a had to do with the Assembly authorizing the design of a third-party system for receiving confidentially, by phone or on-line, reports of possible violations. Discussion included information on existing systems and vendors. When the vote was taken, part a passed with 205 votes. Part 10b authorized the Executive Committee to develop a more detailed proposal for a third-party reporting system including financial, structural, and other necessary components for review and approval of the Administrative Committee. Part 10b passed with 208 votes. Part 10c commits the Assembly to activating the third-party system by May 31, 2020. It was stated that there is an urgency to get it up and running as soon as possible but that each diocese has to be ready to receive any reports. They fully expect to get it running much sooner than May. Best diocesan systems already up and running will be examined as will recommended outside vendors. Part 10c passed with a vote of 208 for the item. Cardinal DiNardo thanked everyone and acknowledged that it is a complex system with information taken by a third party that then needs to go to proper channels (review board with lay persons, law enforcement, the metropolitan, and the Nuncio). They are hoping to have it in place just before Labor Day. He then thanked everyone for their participation and voting and the staff for their work.
THURSDAY, 13 June, 2019
After Mass at 6:30am, the meeting began at 8:30am
Cardinal DiNardo wished everyone a good morning and welcomed us back
After an explanation of the voting system, the work began.
First to be considered was ACTION ITEM # 6, Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops. It was explained that this document brings into one resource all the canonical measures available when a bishop is accused of any misdoing. It also addresses bishops removed from office. It is not prescriptive. A 2/3 vote of the conference is needed to pass which is 180 votes. The motion passed with 212 votes.
ACTION ITEM #7: Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments. A document that ensures they live consistently with what they promised at ordination and how they have lived subsequently. The new Motu Proprio makes clear the need for lay involvement and they are blessed to have two lay advisement committees at the USCCB. A 2/3 vote was needed to pass and was achieved with 217 in favor.
ACTION ITEM 8: Directives for the Implementation of Vos Estis Lux Mundi Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents. This document bears witness to the synodality of the Church by harmonizing all existing systems. It calls for the involvement of lay persons at all the steps of investigation up to sending the information to Rome. Bishop Rosazza made the point that when the information from this meeting is made public, it is important to avoid jargon as many might not know the meaning of “metropolitan” or “suffragen.” One bishop suggested that a sort of audit be added but it was not clear where. It was suggested that this be made an Action Item for the next meeting when the process for this is clear after it has been investigated. Several bishops suggested that the 30-day timeframe allowed was too long before notifying a bishop that he is under investigation. Archbishop Gomez said that Rome was very aware of the need for urgency to respond quickly to allegations. 2/3 of the Conference was needed to pass and the motion received 218 votes so passed.
After a 20-minute break, the meeting resumed. Bishop Barron of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis presented ACTION Item 5: Revising the passage on the death penalty in the US Catholic Catechism for Adults to have it conform with the more recent pronouncements on this from the Holy See. There was no discussion and the motion passed with 194 votes.
ACTION ITEM #9: Cardinal DiNardo announced that at the same time as the next scheduled Assembly of the Conference, Region II bishops had to be in Rome for their ad limina visits. This could jeopardize having a quorum at the Conference. A one-time exception is being requested to allow those bishops in Rome to vote remotely at the same time as the bishops at the Conference. Archbishop Gregory said that several bishops will also be in Rome at the same time for their dicastery plenary visits and could they also be added to the remote voting. A voice vote affirmed that those bishops on dicastery plenary visits could indeed be a part of this remote voting. Tellers in Rome will validate the voting there. They are looking into an electronic system or using a phone system. That will be ironed out. The motion passed with 206 votes.
This ended the public session of this Conference. Again, it was a great privilege for our NCCW to be present. Many bishops again came over to me during the breaks and indicated how much they treasure their CCW’s. What wonderful words to hear! I hope this synopsis gives you a little feel for being present at the Conference.