WASHINGTON — The first day of the virtual fall assembly of the U.S. Catholic bishops, Nov. 16, included discussion about the Vatican report on Theodore McCarrick, the ongoing pandemic and the Church’s response to racism.
The two-day assembly, which usually takes place in Baltimore, was virtual this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. The public sessions were livestreamed. About 300 bishops logged on and for the most part, they crossed the technological hurdles of making sure their individual responses came through on the teleconference format.
One of the first bishops to individually address the group was Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Neb., who thanked his brother bishops and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, papal nuncio, for their support during his 11-month medical leave of absence.
“It’s been a great source of strength and grace for me,” the bishop, who returned to full pastoral care of his diocese Nov. 13, told the assembly. “We live in very difficult times and there are a lot of stresses on bishops and it’s only going to get worse,” advising them not to hesitate to reach out if they are struggling mentally or psychologically from stress.
The main topic of the day, which was added late to the bishops’ agenda, was the Vatican report on McCarrick, released less than a week before, on Nov. 10.
Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, said the report which described McCarrick’s ascent to highest rungs of the Church, even amid rumors of abuse, read like a list of the seven deadly sins.
“It’s very clear that there’s still very much a tendency in the world and in the Church to turn a blind eye to many of these sins,” he added during the 45 minutes of discussion about the long-awaited 460-page report.
Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, mentioned that the people and organizations to whom McCarrick gave money were not named in the report, nor were the amounts of money. He also thanked survivor James Grein for coming forward with his account of abuse at the hands of the former cardinal.
“It’s curious to wonder what McCarrick would be doing today if he [Grein] had not come forward,” Bishop Olson said.
Chicago’s Cardinal Blase J. Cupich said Pope Francis had taken historic action in issuing the document as well as other unprecedented measures.
“It really has been a watershed moment,” he said. “And something that we should continue to study and read.”
The cardinal also stressed the need to “make sure that we never again have a situation where anyone from our conference is taking sides in this, with the Holy Father or challenging him or even being with those who are calling for his resignation. That kind of thing really has to cease, and the Holy Father pointed the way in which we take up this initiative together in a collegial manner.”
He said it was important to recognize that there would be no report if victims did not have the courage to come forward in the first place and encouraged bishops and others in the Church to spend time with victims, to give them courage.
“The report indicates that there are a number of reasons why victims did not come forward,” he said. “They were intimidated ... they thought they would not be listened to because of the power structure and so on.
“But the more that we listen to victims and make it public that we’re meeting with victims, as the Holy Father does on a on a regular basis,” the Chicago prelate said, “the word will get out there that we are on the side of victims. And we have to continue to do that.”
The McCarrick report also overlapped into other parts of the meeting. In his opening address, Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, paused at the start to remember the children and adults within the Church who are victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
Acknowledging the McCarrick report, he also expressed “deep sorrow” and offered prayers the victim-survivors “might find healing and hope.”
The archbishop also pointed to the ongoing suffering caused by the coronavirus pandemic, noting that people’s faith in God “has been shaken” by the pandemic and related economic turmoil, and he urged the Church leaders to help people navigate this enormous challenge.
“At the heart of their fears are fundamental questions about divine providence and the goodness of God,” he said, noting that it is “far more than a public health emergency,” because of the overwhelming fear of illness and death.
The current time, with its social unrest and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, “calls for heroic Christianity,” he explained. In response, he said: “We need to continue to form and empower missionary disciples, as Pope Francis calls us to do.”
Archbishop Pierre, the papal nuncio to the United States, also spoke about the pandemic, as one of the “dark clouds” looming over today’s world.
Other dark clouds, he said, include society’s “’throwaway culture,’ which leads to disregard for human life,” the fragmentation and polarization of society and the rapid growth of secularization.
The Church suffers from the same problems, the same maladies as the rest of society, he said, encouraging the bishops to respond in a way that brings healing.
“Our mission is to heal the world … I encourage you during your meeting to look at ways that you can feed your hope and that of your flock,” he said.
The bishops also looked at the pandemic in light of their four-year strategic plan, adopted one year ago, and not scheduled to go into effect until January 2021. The USCCB Committee on Priorities and Plans said it was modifying the plan to accommodate the pandemic and associated consequences.
“A strategic plan with no mention of the pandemic would not reflect the concerns of the bishops or the expected planning environment, and as such would not, and should not, be accepted,” the report said.
An additional priority was to “promote the healing of the personal, spiritual and societal wounds of COVID-19 through the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, the Divine Physician,” the proposed language said.
A key aspect of this was to foster the efforts of dioceses and parishes to recover from the destructive impact of COVID-19, especially among the poor.
The committee also wished to make changes that would reflect the country’s look at racial injustices after the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Under the priority of “Life and dignity of the human person: Serve the common good as the leaven in a free society,” a revised emphasis area is now proposed to read, “Work to heal the scourge of racism and religious intolerance.”
The modifications to the strategic plan required a majority email vote of those bishops present and attending.
The bishops also were considering renewing the mandate of their Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism for a second three-year term.
The plan, the Committee on Priorities and Plans report said, “will focus on the areas of combating racism in education, training the trainer to support theological, liturgical and pastoral needs, youth and young adult engagement, formation of seminarians and religious, advising dioceses, providing communication outreach through podcasts, social media, bishop roundtables and more, providing public policy engagement and collaborating with ecumenical partner organizations.”
“The committee has fulfilled its mandate through some very enlightened work to address the evil of racism,” said a prerecorded message from Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, USCCB secretary and chairman of its Committee on Priorities and Plans, which advanced the proposal.
For the next three years, Archbishop Broglio added, the committee has developed “a very ambitious and promising plan.”
The listening sessions were interrupted this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, said Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, La., chairman of the ad hoc committee, during a news conference following the USCCB’s Nov. 16 session. “We hope that, once we get beyond COVID, to pick up on the listening sessions.”
After episodes of racism and police violence roiled many U.S. cities this summer, “I have talked to my brother bishops in the dioceses,” Bishop Fabre said, “offering my assistance to them.”
The bishops did not address the recent presidential election, although during the news conference held after the bishops adjourned, when a reporter asked Archbishop Gomez about his Nov. 7 message congratulating President-elect Biden, the archbishop said that was a just an acknowledgment and that he and his fellow bishops “respect the election process.”
The bishops had election results of their own in this meeting. Msgr. Jeffrey D. Burrill, a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisc., was elected the new general secretary of the USCCB, succeeding Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, who has served in this position since 2015.
In another vote, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York was elected chairman of the bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty.
The bishops also voted on chairmen-elect for seven committees and seven seats on the board of directors of Catholic Relief Services.
The votes for chairmen-elect included Committee on Priorities and Plans, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services; Committee on Catholic Education, Bishop Thomas A. Daly of Spokane, Wash.; Committee on Communications, Auxiliary Bishop Robert P. Reed of Boston; Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda of Detroit; Committee on Doctrine, Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas; Committee on National Collections, Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup; and the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore.
The second day of the meeting, Nov. 17, was to include continued discussion on racism and the pandemic.