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Challenges Facing U.S. Prelates

Overview From Episcopate's Outgoing President

WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 22, 2004 (Zenit) - Here is an adapted excerpt of the address Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. episcopate, delivered this week during the prelates' semiannual meeting. Bishop Gregory is completing his three-year term as conference president.

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Presidential Address
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, Bishop of Belleville

My Dear Brother Bishops,

At the conclusion of our General Assembly this week I will complete my service to you as president of our Conference. The opportunity you provided me to serve you has indeed been a singular privilege, and I am thankful to you for investing your confidence in me three years ago. Anyone entrusted with this noble responsibility must come to it very much aware, as am I, of his limitations in carrying out this service. For that reason, I am also very grateful for the many ways in which you shored me up with your wise counsel, generous encouragement, and always constantly with your prayers through the difficult moments. Your fraternal assistance and support during my tenure as president has been a God-given gift that I will long cherish.

When I began my term as your president, none of us could have foreseen the extraordinary challenges that would face the Church in this country at the dawn of this new millennium. Those challenges have been a major preoccupation for each of us. More importantly, as the Holy Father reminded us in April of 2002, they also have been an opportunity for genuine "purification of the entire Catholic community."

As I prepared to complete my service this week, I have been reflecting on the challenges that continue to face us as an episcopal conference. This morning I would like to highlight three of those challenges as most significant for us.

No. 1: the scandals

The first challenge before us is directly related to the greatest scandal that the Church in the United States perhaps has ever confronted. Out of the crisis of sexual abuse in the Church, we committed ourselves in Dallas in June of 2002 to a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and to a set of Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons. We have now begun a review of the Charter and the Norms this year as we promised we would do. The successful completion of this work by June of next year is paramount for the preserving of our promise to protect children in the Church and for our pledge to continue the healing and reconciliation of victims of this terrible crime.

The Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse has distributed a proposed revised Charter and we have already begun meeting in regional or provincial groups to discuss the proposed revision. The Committee recommends strongly and I fully endorse their recommendation that consultation on the proposed revision should also take place within dioceses. All bishops are encouraged to include in their diocesan consultations the priests' council, the diocesan pastoral council, the diocesan review board, child protection personnel, and educators.

The Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse will be consulting with the National Review Board which the Charter specifies as having a principal advisory role in this process. Also participating in the review process will be the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and the National Advisory Council, and I know that the committee is seeking ways to ensure that the voices of victims are heard in this review process.

Though we bishops ultimately bear the responsibility for safeguarding children within the Church, the work of the protection of children and young people in the Church is a work of the whole Church. The wisdom, prudence and experience of the groups that I have mentioned will be essential to our success in the Charter review and I encourage every bishop to ensure that they are consulted.

No. 2: a plenary council?

The second challenge I would like to highlight arises from a confluence of what I see as three very healthy forces that have been at work in the Conference during the past several years. First, in the wake of the Dallas meeting two years ago, a number of bishops, through the "varium" procedure, raised the question of whether the time was right for the bishops of the United States to consider the possibility of a Plenary Council.

During the course of the past two years, discussion among the bishops on this "varium" has focused on the need for bishops to find an effective way to address the extraordinary issues that face the Church in this country at the beginning of a new millennium. Whether or not we decide to move towards convening a Plenary Council, one thing has become clear: there is an emerging consensus among the bishops in our conviction that there are issues of very great import that we must address.

Second, in the summer of 2003, in response to letters and comments that I had received from bishops, I appointed a Task Force on the Content and Flow of General Meetings to explore how we might enhance our General Meetings. A good number of bishops feel that we need more time to talk among ourselves at our meetings, that we are increasingly burdened with documents and reports, and that we could and should be interacting with each other more qualitatively and effectively on the greater issues of the day. The work of this Task Force to date has led it to conclude that there is great unanimity among the bishops that we could be using our time together in a much better way.

Third, during the past three November meetings -- and in comments made privately to me, whether individually or in groups -- a growing number of bishops have expressed their concerns about the growth of the Conference, the increased budgetary commitment of Conference resources and the impact of Conference assessments on diocesan budgets which are already stretched to the limit. In response to those concerns, I appointed a Task Force on Activities and Resources last November to evaluate the situation. The result of that Task Force's work is clear. The Conference has not and will not be able to exercise restraint over its growth and expenses unless it vigilantly monitors what it sets out to do by means of specified and limited priorities.

As I look at these three forces at work, I am drawn to conclude that the Conference as we know it today is likely to be a much different Conference five or ten years from now. There is an increased energy among the bishops that we name more effectively what our priorities are and should be for a greater holiness within the Church and a more successful evangelization of the society in which we live; that we marshal our resources more efficiently towards those priorities; and that we find new and improved ways to ensure that our time together in General Meetings is better used.

This potential evolution of our Conference is a challenge before us and I highlight it this morning, because during this meeting we will be asked to deliberate on each of the forces I have mentioned: the Plenary Council "Varium"; the work of the Task Force on the Content and Flow of General Meetings; and the work of the Task Force on Activities and Resources. May I suggest that we look at these pieces not as isolated issues, but as pieces that are in relation to each other as parts of a whole. Each is integral to and an essential part of our common ministry as an episcopal conference.

No. 3: ministry of bishops

The third challenge I want to highlight is given to us in the opening lines of the first Chapter of the recently promulgated Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops:

Reflecting upon his office and his duties, the bishop should consider as the key to his identity and mission the mystery of Christ and the attributes willed by the Lord Jesus for his Church, "a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" ("Lumen Gentium," 4).

We bishops, in the dioceses and the eparchies that we serve, are called to be the instruments and the visible signs of the unity that the Lord Jesus desires for his Church. We are also called to experience and to promote, in communion with our Holy Father, the Bishop of Rome, the unity that is at the heart and constitutive of the College of Bishops to which we belong. It is in reference to that reality of collegium that I would like to offer a challenge from my experience as your president.

We have been through some very difficult times together in the past three years. Those demanding moments were more often, thank God, blessed with an outpouring of God's grace which we gratefully received and thereby were sustained in our unity in Christ. There were moments, however, and there may be some that are still present, when we perhaps did not reach as eagerly as we should have for the grace that the Lord was offering us. I would like to make my own the words of the Holy Father to the bishops of Region II during their "ad limina" visit last month.

My dear Brothers in the episcopate, I pray that you will work diligently with one another, in that spirit of cooperation and unanimity of heart that should always characterize the community of disciples (cf. Acts 4:32; John 13:35; Philippians 2:2). The Apostle's words apply in a special way to those charged with the salvation of souls: "I beg you, Brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to agree in what you say. Let there be no factions; rather, be united in mind and judgment" (1 Corinthians 1:10).

As Church leaders, you will realize that there can be no unity of praxis without an underlying consensus, and this, of course, can only be attained through frank dialogue and informed discussions, based on sound theological and pastoral principles. Solutions to difficult questions emerge when they are thoroughly and honestly examined, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Spare no effort to ensure that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops serves as an ever more effective means of strengthening your ecclesial communion and assisting you in shepherding your brothers and sisters in Christ.

I am aware that the Ad Hoc Committee on Bishops Life and Ministry has begun a reflection on the Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops to explore ways in which we might deepen the fraternity that we have as bishops. I applaud Bishop Robert Brom and the members of his committee for taking this step and I encourage them wholeheartedly in their work.

Even as we strive to see to the pastoral good of the faithful in the particular dioceses entrusted to our care as bishops, a strengthened sense of collegiality among ourselves can only redound to the common good of the Church in the United States which we tend and love. It will also serve as a very important witness to our beloved nation of how religious and civil discourse can and must take place. That example, I believe, has never been more needed by the society in which we live than at this moment.


United States Conference of Catholic Bishops DC, US
Bishop Wilton Gregory - President USCCB, 202 541-3000



USCCB, Prelates, Bishops, Priests, Scandal, Plenary

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