I was ordained a priest by Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy, the second (arch)bishop of Miami. I cherish his memory still and love him as a father. But he had a habit whenever he flew anywhere on Church business to write out in longhand a letter to the people of the Archdiocese which he entitled “Devotedly Yours.” They would always in some way share the experiences of the meetings he attended, the agenda or ideas presented, etc. and he always wrote them on the airplane coming home.
As he grew older, the cynics among us used to ascribe what could at times become mere musings to the effect of altitude on the brain. Well, I am now at that age and am on the plane home following the November meeting of bishops in Baltimore along its beautiful inner harbor with pictures from my hotel room at dawn and dusk. We are at 36,000 feet, so if some ideas don’t compute or all the dots do not connect, attribute them to altitude not age.
My first thought about the meeting just concluded is that there was so little business there must be a cheaper and more efficient way of doing it. Beginning on Monday morning, we had seven and one half hours of public session business. I looked around the room and felt sorry for all those observers and invited guests, the media (feeling sorry for the media is a tough task for me) and others who sat around waiting to hear us engage in something which might effect their lives or make them proud in some way.
There’s always some business like the budget, the priorities and plans of the organization, elections (more about this later) that are required and necessary. But ever since the end of the “liturgical wars” a few years ago, our meetings seem to me to lack a lot of substance. For a long time I attributed it to the conference reorganization which took place about six years ago and the need for the new committee structure to learn how to crawl, walk and then run but that does not seem to be it. I served in the General Secretariat of the NCCB/USCC for eleven years and we struggled to fit everything into a three and one half day time frame so we could adjourn by noon on Thursday. This time we finished our public business by noon on Tuesday. True, we had three hours of meeting by regions and a nearly full day of Executive Sessions but other than approving some necessary liturgical texts, giving permission to a committee to develop a pastoral statement on pornography, we didn’t do a lot to advance the kingdom of God on earth – at least publicly.
That brings me to the growing tendency to seek the shelter of “Executive Sessions” which seems to be expanding. Bishops don’t particularly like the glare of the cameras, the presence of the press and photographers. We seem to be intimidated by it and often choose to place the more “juicy stuff” into Executive Sessions.
There have been many times in recent years when I wished that God’s people could hear the debate and the engagement of their bishops on many of the topics in the Executive Sessions. Some of the best, most thoughtful, charitable debates and discussions have taken place therein. If I am edified after almost forty-one years of attending these annual meetings, that must mean something. There certainly are times and subjects where we need to be in an Executive Session, but that is becoming more the norm than the exception. The church suffers, credibility flies out-the-door in certain circles, and can seem to some to be cowardly. I don’t think this area of our communal life and ministry of bishops is going to change anytime soon.
A lot of pre-meeting hype went into the elections for the office of President and Vice-President this time. Notwithstanding the unexpected which happened three years ago, the expected happened this time and we gave the Church in this country a fine President for the next three years. I would wish to be able to “dream” that my early endorsement in these pages had something to do with his first ballot victory (it’s the altitude thing!!!!).
Archbishop Kurtz is a fine man and a grand bishop. So is Cardinal Dolan and it irked me the other day when a certain columnist in the Catholic press suggested he might have engineered the surprise of three years ago. He did not – take it to the bank. He was nominated on the list of ten and was also embarrassed at that turn of events. He has had a difficult three years with the Affordable Care Act and the contraceptive mandate and at all times he has been compassionate and caring. He’s genuine. I have known him for a long time and he has not changed. Most of the men who had him as their Rector at the North American College idolize him (he would himself prefer a more modest verb like “respect”). He can now look forward to a lot more time in and with New York and the local Church he has been called to serve. You can not appreciate how much time and energy being President of our Conference requires of a man and he deserves our thanks. It is important to remember that the success or failure of any elected officer depends on the skill and work of the executive staff, the General Secretary and his Associates. They anticipate his needs, sometimes his thoughts, and execute his wishes which flow from the actions of the majority of its membership.
Finally, on the matter of elections, the choice of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston as Vice-President means that the Diocese of St. Petersburg will provide His Eminence with his first speaking engagement since being elected, this Saturday night, at the Foundation for Life Gala in Tampa. He will be my house guest on Saturday night.
Planning and executing our twice yearly meetings of the bishops of the United States is a herculean task and it is well handled by the staff of the USCCB every time. I think sometimes we appreciate them more than our elected officers for they are ready for our every need.
I have heard from some of you who watched the TV feed of the meeting and have contacted me to ask what I was addled about regarding the Collection for the Philippine Relief .
From time immemorial, Catholic Relief Services has raised money for disaster relief and development for people and not for Church infrastructure needs. When the massive earthquake hit Haiti four years ago, many Church structures were destroyed including the Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, the seminary, hospitals and parish churches and schools. We took up in our diocese significant gifts of money to help people, but for the first time, a decision was made that in this one instance, some of the money would be split and go to church and institutional rebuilding. I did not like the idea when I learned of it because in our diocese we raised the money to help those thin, emaciated bodies of children and adults who were homeless and in immediate need of food, clothing, water, etc. Additionally the decision to split was made not by the plenary assembly, which usually has competence in national collections, nor in this instance was the Board of Catholic Relief Services queried or the Conference’s own Committee on Budget and Finance. It was just announced. Poof!
During the discussion of CRS on Monday afternoon I learned for the first time that any monies raised and sent to the Conference for the Philippines would also be split. Eventually I was able to ascertain that each bishop who raised money in this current moment of devastation and lack of hope in those islands could do one of three things:
1. He can take the collection up and send it to USCCB knowing that it will be split.
2. He can take the collection up and send it to USCCB and indicate that it not be split but go to one of the two uses only.
3. He can send the money directly to CRS which will not split it but use it for humanitarian aid only.
In the Diocese of St. Petersburg, all monies collected for Typhoon relief will be sent to Catholic Relief Service and used to help those desperate brothers and sisters we see on the front page of both of our papers or on TV.
They are threatening me now on the plane to get ready for landing in Tampa. It will be great to be home for the holidays.
The sun in setting on Baltimore now but the five counties are still bright and shiny.