REMEMBER THE ALAMO
The nation’s Catholic bishops will be meeting from Wednesday morning to Friday noon this week in San Antonio, Texas, for the annual Spring meeting. For approximately forty years the US bishops have been meeting in plenary session twice each year, once in June and once in November. For almost ever, the November meeting was held in Washington, D.C. but about five years ago, for the simple reason that Washington hotels were charging an “arm and a leg”, the bishops moved their Fall meeting to near-by Baltimore which has subsequently also learned how to charge “an arm and a leg.” The Spring meeting has always rotated around the country to different places, sometimes being combined with a local observance of a host diocese. This week’s meeting is thin on action items in the agenda and for the first time since 1984 I will not be attending the meeting. I have heard that as many as eighty other bishops will also not be in attendance at this meeting. Important local business makes it impossible for me to leave before Wednesday morning and I would end up only being there for one afternoon public session and, quite frankly, there is little to suggest that we go to the expense to get me there. I should point out here that next June, the nation’s bishops will be in St. Petersburg for what is called an assembly which is a hybrid or cross between a five day continuing education opportunity and a retreat. I promise to be at that one.
The bishops’ conference has changed significantly in the last decade or so and continues to change. With its recent reorganization two years ago, the surviving committees of the conference are still in the crawling stage of trying to find out what they should be doing and how they should go about doing it. This is understandable when something is so radically restructured as was the Conference and patience is called for. In time, I suspect the number of action items requiring debate and vote will increase but we must learn to organizationally “walk” again before we can even think of sprinting and running.
Something that was once frowned upon is also becoming more commonplace. After the Second Vatican Council in 1974 the NCCB/USCCB opened the doors of its meetings to outsiders including the media. A few hours (seldom more than three) were reserved every meeting for an executive session without observers and media but almost everything was done “under the lights.” Now more and more of our business is being conducted behind closed doors, out of sight of the inquiring minds of the press and the media. I lament this change because even with its concomitant risks, I think the business of the Church in this country should be conducted in the open. God’s people would generally be impressed at the level of debate and discussion which the bishops have among themselves, even sometimes on seemingly contentious issues. There is nothing wrong with disagreement and if it centers on a matter of faith or morals which it never has in my twenty-five years, it will ultimately be decided anyway by those higher than ourselves. As much as I personally dislike the commentary which always seems to accompany certain coverage of our meetings with its obvious slants and biases, I would argue for their right to be present.
So the bishops convene in the shadow of the Alamo for a meeting far less critical than the battle once fought there. I will miss seeing my brothers but November and Baltimore will come soon enough.