Posts Tagged ‘United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’

STILL NOT EXACTLY THE PREAKNESS

Monday, November 16th, 2015

Our annual meeting began with what we call “regional meetings”. There are fourteen regions of bishops in the United States and the Eastern Rite bishops of the entire nation compose a fifteenth. Our region, which happens to be “Region 14”, encompasses every diocese from Raleigh and Charlotte in North Carolina to Miami in the south, or perhaps more easily visualized, the states of North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. We were asked our opinion about a number of matters related to our current practice regarding sexual misconduct with minors by church employees.

We unanimously in our region agreed that the mandated annual audits have been necessary and are important. We suggested that when a diocese experiences an on-site audit (once every three years currently) and several of its parishes are visited as a part of the audit process, that they not just be those physically closest to the chancery office. We unanimously agreed that our respective Diocesan Review Boards should meet at least once a year, even if there are no new allegations and that bishops should alert at a minimum the chair of the Review Board if and when an allegation is made which highly likely is either frivolous or less than serious. None of this is new to the normal modus operandi in the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

This one hour discussion was helpful to me in light of the opening this weekend of the feature film entitled Spotlight.  The movie focuses on the work of a team of four reporters for the Boston Globe who are assigned the task of investigating claims that the Archdiocese of Boston had been covering up and reassigning priests who they knew had violated children in the worst way. All four reporters were Catholics and none of them were anxious to dig into this issue initially. I am glad they did because I truly do not believe that the Church in the U.S. would have come as far as it has in protecting children and embracing transparency without what happened in Boston. The work is not completed and complacency is always just around the corner so the movie is a painful reminder to the victims of sexual abuse by a priest when they were children that all we have done cannot erase the pain of our past.

When we finally assembled in plenary session, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and currently the USCCB President began by having two statements on the Paris massacre and other atrocities, which have occurred in the recent past, read aloud. They are quite good and can be accessed here. This Sunday on the Solemnity of Christ our King, I hope all parishes in the diocese will find an appropriate way to pray for the victims of this senseless violence, their families and loved ones and also pray for peace.

The Holy Father’s ambassador to the United States, whom we call the “Papal Nuncio”. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano then addressed the assembly, which what are likely to be his parting words since a recent protocol of Pope Francis calls for all Nuncios to vacate their positions on their 75th birthday and his is in mid-January. His speech largely centered on Catholic education’s role in the history of the faith in the United States and the need now for greater Catholic identity in the colleges and universities.

Archbishop Kurtz then delivered his annual Presidential address to the body. He chose as I would have also the inspiring words of Pope Francis to the US bishops in Washington in September and the importance of accompaniment for each bishop – walking with his people, all his people.

There are two major documents being presented for approval by the body of bishops (requiring two-thirds of all bishops). The first is a statement on pornography and the second is the once every four years statement on “Political Responsibility” which was originally intended to heighten the awareness of every Catholic and simultaneously to familiarize themselves with moral issues when approaching elections. This particular statement comes forth one year before presidential elections. I will treat these two documents tomorrow in this space, after they are debated and voted upon. Neither appears to be in any serious trouble and this morning was simply devoted to a brief introduction of the two documents with an opportunity for any bishop to ask questions for clarification. After sitting for two hours and thirty-five minutes, the bishops ravenously attacked lunch. Indeed, lunch might have been the highlight of the day so far.

The afternoon was spent listening to presentations by bishops to bishops allegedly for bishops. We heard first about a national convening that is slated to take place in 2017 in the only other kingdom on earth I know of: Disney World. This consultation is meant to listen to many voices in the Church to help us understand better why we are not communicating well to the Church. On its face, it is a good idea. But central Florida during the Fourth of July holiday at a minimum of $1500 per person is a bit of a stretch. The plan comes from the chairs of a number of our standing committees: Pro-Life, Evangelization and Catechesis, Domestic and International Justice and Peace, the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty and the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. It will be interesting to see how this develops next and who the presenters will be.

We also heard from Archbishop Lori of Baltimore, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty and an impassioned appeal from the Archdiocese for the Military Services for more priests to serve as chaplains in the armed forces. We have two of our younger priests now either serving or preparing to serve as Air Force chaplains but I clearly recognize that they need more men and hope that our diocese might help. I would go into the Navy if I were younger, freer and fitter.

The best section of the day was a last minute forty-minute addition to the agenda when all of the delegates to the recent Synod on the Family and Married Life shared with us their impressions of the recently-completed Synod in Rome. I could tell the assembly had awakened from the mid-afternoon slumber that accompanies too much food at lunch and were listening intently. We read and heard a lot about the synod from a variety of sources while it was going on but our eight U.S. delegates were most helpful to me in separating the wheat from the chaff about the Synod.

At four o’clock, the bishops boarded buses (which we mostly hate to do) and took ourselves off to the Basilica of the Assumption (aka the “old Cathedral”) in downtown Baltimore for Mass.

Today was far from the excitement of Baltimore’s other major yearly event in addition to our annual meeting, the Preakness.  But with one day down, the horses are still in the stalls and have not yet made it to the paddock.  I will blog tomorrow but will end the reports there because Wednesday is when the Executive Session will take place; and while I personally think we do way too much behind closed doors, I have always respected the confidential nature of that part of our regular business.

+RNL

A LIONESS IN WINTER

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM. Photo via USCCB blog.

Why does it so often happen that it takes either death or a departure to move humanity to recognize the incredible gifts of a person which have too long been taken for a given. Such is the case with this blog and the person whom I am going to lionize precisely because she will be leaving a position in the Church, which she has so ably occupied and plied for several decades. I am writing about Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a Religious Sister of Mercy who has served in the Communications Department of the United States Catholic Conference for years.

The bishops’ national headquarters and the bishops have had a fine Communications Department for years. Russell Shaw, still an active writer on “things Catholic” was the chief of the Communications staff when I arrived in 1984, followed by a wonderful Albany priest, Father Kenneth Doyle, who was then followed by Monsignor Frank Maniscalco of the Rockville Center diocese. It was, I believe, Father Doyle who brought Sister Mary Ann Walsh onto his staff as a media spokesperson and right-hand-woman.

Quietly, effectively, honestly Sister Mary Ann has tirelessly attempted to make the sometimes-inscrutable decisions of this country’s bishops known and, better still, understood by the religious working media. The media trusted her always. If she could not tell them something they wanted to know, it was because persons like myself told her not to, or she was not privy to it herself. There was no one better in the Conference all those years at giving “background” on what we were up to than Sister Mary Ann. She could have been and probably should have been Director of Communications at some point in her term of service, but loyally and quite capably she soldiered on.

Saint John Paul II came to the United States for a third time on my “watch” and my colleague in the office, now Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati, in charge of planning that visit asked if Sister Mary Ann could run the whole press and media business for World Youth Day 1993. He would say and I would second, she was simply superb. But, more importantly, the media that covered the moment also gave her high marks. That moment for Sister Mary Ann earned her the promotion enthusiastically made by her “Boss”, Monsignor Maniscalco.

I left my eleven-year tenure at the USCCB /NCCB in 1995 but the one constant has been the presence of Sister, during the twice-yearly general meetings. It had to sometimes be very hard for her to represent the bishops. There were moments when we lacked the sensitivity we should have had for women. I think of the doomed Pastoral Letter on Women in the Church and Society. The “Society” part was easy enough but the “Church” part ultimately doomed the project. The debates on inclusive language in the liturgy had to be hard for her to represent at times and the day-after-day assault on sexual misconduct with minors would try and test any woman. I suspect that there were moments when she wished that she represented someone else than the bishops but she hung in there, putting the best face possible on dicey matters – ever loyal to her employer but probably churning inside. In every way, Sister Mary Ann Walsh was a pro and to this moment I would bet the bishops do not fully appreciate the “gem” we had.

So she is leaving now to write for AMERICA magazine, the weekly, Jesuit sponsored journal of Catholic opinion. Sister will now be free to tell her readers what she really thinks and not have to spin what we think. I look forward to her contributions because I know they will be thoughtful, measured, loving of the Church to which she has given her life in religion, but realistic about its warts and wrinkles. Sister Mary Ann had what I would call a “Novocain” face. In the midst of the most heated situations, her visage never changed. In the “winter” of the Church’s experience, she stood tall like a lioness overseeing her cubs, wishing for the world that she could help us escape our prey. And then she just prayed.

Sister Mary Ann, if I failed to say this to you before, you have made a simply amazing contribution to the life of the Church in the United States, albeit in almost anonymity. Mother Catherine McCauley, your foundress, is proud of you and so is a generation of General Secretaries. Thanks, and by the way, please don’t write a book because I am not going to. We know too much.

+RNL

THINGS WILL NOT BE EASY IN THE “BIG EASY”

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014
Reverend Robert E. Gately.

Reverend Robert E. Gately.

Our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Spring meeting begins tomorrow (Wednesday) in New Orleans and ends Friday midday. However, I will be unable to attend. On Saturday night last, the mother of our Monsignor David Toups (Lynn Toups) went home to the Father and her funeral will be at St. Cecilia parish at 130pm on Thursday with a Wake Service tomorrow night (Wednesday).

Additionally, yesterday, Father Robert Gately, a priest of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, but who spent his entire later years in priestly ministry in this diocese after retiring as a Navy Chaplain with the rank of Captain also went home to the Lord and his wake will also be tomorrow night and his funeral Mass will be on Thursday morning. Father Gately helped for many years at the Cathedral of St. Jude and at Prince of Peace parish in Sun City Center where his services will be held. So for the first time since my long illness I will not be attending a bishops’ conference meeting.

There are several interesting items on the agenda for my brothers during the open or public sessions. Every four years in the year prior to the forthcoming general election, the Conference has issued a statement of principles which might guide a committed Catholic in exercising their important right to vote for a President and Congress. Often called simply “Political Responsibility” in more recent years it has become a focal point for some spirited debate with part of the membership basically wanting mainly to highlight and address the so-called “life issues” of abortion, euthanasia, and more recently contraception and give rather pointed comment on the moral judgments one should make about candidates, their platforms and plans, etc.

Another part of the house of bishops while readily conceding that these issues need to be lifted up hope that the issues for voter concern will include the social justice issues of welfare, the homeless, right to labor opportunity, immigration, health-care access, etc. Two standing committees of the Conference usually come together to hammer out a text to be presented to the assembly in November for use the following year. This year, inexplicably to my way of thinking, an Ad Hoc Committee or “task force” has been given the responsibility. In recent general elections I do not think I would be seriously overstating the case if I said there are not good, or at least uniform feelings among the bishops on the matter. While we may always be “gentlemen” with one another, there are agendas at work which divide the house – not so much on core issues but on the quality and reach of the consistent ethic of life. Since I can not attend, like yourselves I will be waiting and reading the commentaries which come from the media as to which “inclination” is likely to prevail for the 2015 General Elections or will a compromise document emerge once again.

Speaking of public policy issues, I have a great concern that the truly poor of Florida are being denied access to proper health care in this state. The Florida General Assembly has refused to expand Medicaid opportunities in Florida, even though much of the money for the programs will come from the federal government. And, while we are not alone in refusing the Medicaid expansion among the states, we may be at the top of the list when it comes to counting those legitimately denied. When the bishops of Florida have spoken to Governor Scott about this, he has left us with the impression that he at least would sign a Medicaid Expansion bill if the legislature would pass it and send it to him, but the Republican dominated House and Senate refuse. What a human tragedy! I have heard it said that no genuinely poor person in Florida will be denied medical attention in an emergency but they better hit the right hospital or they will find themselves “dumped and dispatched” out the ER doors. More important to my heart and to my sense of distributive justice is the blatant and flat-out denial of medical service to the genuinely poor which might prevent the emergency room visit. A poor pregnant mother has no access without insurance to the obstetrical service which she needs, as an example.

In addition, without the Medicaid Expansion, the for-profit hospitals in our five counties are refusing to treat many of the uninsured and sending them to the non-profits which are carrying more and more of the uncompensated care responsibility. And, as happened in St. Petersburg when the major trauma and service hospital was sold to a for-profit company which promised the proverbial “moon” when making a case for their takeover, St. Anthony Hospital is bearing the burden for this uncompensated care as is Meese Hospital in Dunedin. In the five counties, there are far more for-profits for whom lack of compensation is a recipe for “dumping” than not-for-profits which will continue to shoulder the care needs until they can no longer afford to do so. Our state should be ashamed and so should those legislators who for whatever reason have decided we will not participate in the Medicaid expansion plan of the Affordable Care Act. Let them hear from you, if you care enough.

Finally from my soap box, I wish to briefly highlight the issue of immigration reform. The voices of your episcopal leadership are beginning to be heard and the religious case for immigration reform is beginning to get out there. There is no better spokesperson for this issue than our Archbishop, Thomas G. Wenski of Miami. He appeared before Congress last week and once again clearly and compellingly stated the case: protect the borders, yes; grant legal status to most of those who are already here; and make the cry of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty once again the mantra of this great nation: “Give me your tired and your poor, your restless masses yearning to breathe free….” On immigration reform and elimination of the death penalty, it is sure lonely out here on this limb but it is what Jesus would wish us to work for, it is precisely what he would do, it is the mind of Pope Francis, it is the work of the Spirit.

+RNL

OLD BUSINESS, NEW BUSINESS

Monday, January 6th, 2014

I find myself afflicted with yet another monster cold which has slowed me down slightly from things I intended to do this past week, including updating this blog site with a new post or two.

In the area of old business, I am deeply touched to once again point out to the readership how greatly generous the people of this diocese are when asked to help other people in desperate need. Remember Typhoon Haiyan (aka “Yolanda”) which devastated several islands in the Philippines? On the 23rd of December I was able to forward to Catholic Relief Services a second check in the amount of $500,000 (added to the $100,000 I had sent one day after the Typhoon passed). We have therefore sent $600,000 to CRS so far with a few parishes not yet reporting. Catholic Relief Services has responded with great gratitude for a level of generosity which ranks among the highest of any monies sent to them for this purpose. Please keep in mind that monies collected for disaster relief are forwarded in total to CRS and not sent to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Just prior to the beginning of the year, we closed out our consultation on the questions proposed by the Holy See on Marriage and Family Life in the United States. As most of you know, we used an on-line survey instrument. Once again I am proud to report the response of the faithful of this diocese to the survey questions: 6,462 people responded to the survey (4% were between the ages of 18-28), 21% were between 30-49 years of age, 47% were between the ages of 50-69 years, and 28% were seventy or older). 36% of the respondents were male and 64% were female. An amazingly high percentage of the respondents indicated that they were registered parishioners (85%) and 87% said they attend Mass: daily (9%), Sunday and Holy Days and some weekdays (37%), and Sundays and holy days (41%). 11% of the survey population indicated that they were single and never married, 61% currently married, 9% divorced and never remarried, 4% divorced and remarried in the Catholic Church, 4% divorced and remarried outside of the Catholic Church, 9% widowers. This is the easy part of summarizing the results.

At the outset there were questions about whether or not the Holy See wanted a broad consultation in the local Churches or were just expecting bishops to consult with Presbyteral and/or Pastoral Councils. That seems to me to have been answered, as broadly as one can given the time constraints. Then of late there has been a question of whether or not the results can be shared outside of the Synod office in Rome. The present answer seems to be a solid “no” to that at this moment. That raised a problem for me since when making the decision to go online (and make a paper survey available to those who could not access the on-line instrument) I said I would share the results. While I work on that an Executive Summary is being prepared by the Diocesan Pastoral Council which will be reviewed by the Priest’s Council and off the results will go to Rome. Stay tuned.

Finally, this afternoon (Sunday, January 5th) we held an Evening Prayer Service at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle for those who were baptized into the Church at the 2013 Easter Vigil. You may recall that because the Cathedral was under construction the important annual ceremonies of the Rite of Election were held at St. Catherine of Siena parish in Largo. I promised those in attendance at that time that when the remodeling project was complete, I would invite them to return to the Cathedral for a “Neophyte” gathering. I attach here my homily for that occasion.

Thirty archbishops and bishops from Wilmington, Delaware to Miami along the eastern seaboard and the Military Archdiocese will be gathering tomorrow for our annual retreat at The Bethany Center. I hope they bring their winter clothes because it, as you know, is supposed to get very cold tomorrow afternoon [Monday] and night. I know I will have to listen to a few voices which will say “why did we have to come all the way to Florida to freeze?” But by Thursday, they will know why. Pray for us as I shall for all of you. Happy New Year.

+RNL

HARBORING INNER THOUGHTS

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013
The sun rises on Monday over Baltimore's Inner Harbor

The sun rises on Monday over Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

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.

The sun sets over another USCCB Fall Assembly of Bishops - same scene as above but nine hours later.

The sun sets over another USCCB Fall Assembly of Bishops – same scene as above but nine hours later.

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.

+RNL

IF IT’S NOVEMBER, IT MUST BE BALTIMORE

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

The bishops of the United States are gathering in Baltimore beginning next Monday for the annual Fall meeting of the United States Catholic Conference so this morning I dug out my overcoat which is only used on this occasion, gathered 1.2 pounds of paper which has been sent out in advance of the meeting together, and selected several long sleeve shirts and one sweater along with my alb and stole to be used for concelebrating Mass. I’m all set to go. But, before leaving I have the funeral Mass for Deacon Rafael Quiles who died at age eighty-six after serving twenty-two years as a deacon in this diocese (he was ordained for Cleveland), mostly spent in jail ministry and at Transfiguration Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. Then Saturday night I will celebrate and preach at the annual White Mass for doctors, dentists, nurses and others in the medical profession. And on Sunday morning I will officially install Father Alan Weber as the third pastor of All Saints Catholic Church in Clearwater. I leave for Baltimore at six on Sunday night, arrive at 11:30pm and check into the hotel for three nights.

The USCCB meeting is once again rather thin on agenda items although we will be looking at and voting on new translations for the Order of Celebrating Marriage and the Order of Confirmation. Also action will be taken on adaptations to the Misal Romano or Spanish translation of the Roman Missal.  I don’t foresee long debates on any of these items but in our episcopal conference, the bishops abhor a vacuum and verbal sparks can sometimes fly when least expected. The Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth is proposing a formal statement on pornography for our action and then there are the budget for the coming year and the plans and programs and some other housekeeping matters.

What is likely to capture the greatest attention will be the vote for a new president and vice-president of the Conference. Three years ago I went to this meeting having heard that there was something of a “putsch” afoot to block the election of the sitting Vice- President but I did not think it possible. It has always made very good sense to me that the task of the President of the conference is better served and filled with someone who prepared for three years by serving as Vice-President. Early in my lifetime in the episcopal conference, that wisdom was born out when on two occasions I think the elected Vice-President was too old to serve a term of three years as President. When the vote was taken and my friend Archbishop (then) Dolan was elected, I was astounded, disappointed and somewhat ashamed. He had nothing to do with the shenanigans and was bright enough to have served well but knowing him as I do, I would bet he might say that three years as Vice-President might have helped some. Anyway a great bishop was embarrassed, a group of bishops within the conference were celebrating their victory, and I thought it was one of the worst experiences of being a bishop I had experienced.

I know of no such underground-swell this time and I expect, hope and pray that Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville is elected. He is a great churchman, a good archbishop for his diocese, and would represent us well as has Cardinal Dolan. I will cast my vote for Vice-President out of loyalty and confidence for my former colleague in the Office of the General Secretary, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, Archbishop of Cincinnati. Those two neighboring ordinary Ohio River ordinaries would serve the Church well for the next three years.

Usually I return from Baltimore on the train which gives me times to reflect and write of the meeting for this blog but I must be back in St. Petersburg on Wednesday evening to receive a special award so fly I must.

I don’t like to make nice people mad by what I write in this space but I did it to a few in the post on the growing presence of Hispanics in this local Church. I didn’t make the Hispanics mad, I made my own people of Irish lineage mad. You see I suggested that I doubted that the Blessed Mother had ever really been at the Shrine of Knock in Ireland because I have always found it too cold there on umpteen visits at all times of the year. I should not have even remotely suggested that even though there is this marvelous story about the Monsignor who built the shrine and the “international” airport at Knock from the ground up and his conversation with the Irish Prime Minister at the time of the grand opening of the airfield. It is a great story but I would only make more people mad so I am sorry and enough said. It is awfully cold there,  however.

+RNL

THE BROWN ONES ARE MINE TOO!

Monday, June 10th, 2013
Photo from the USCCB's Justice for Immigrants Campaign material.

Photo from the USCCB’s Justice for Immigrants Campaign material.

Does anyone remember the at the time “Gaff” Vice President George H.W. Bush made when, during his campaign for the presidency, pointing out his grandchildren by his son Jeb and Columba, a Mexican woman?

Well, I know exactly how the former president felt because the women, men and children from Mexico are my spiritual brothers and sisters, spiritual sons and daughters as well, regardless of whether or not they are in this country legally or without documents. They are rapidly becoming the core faith group in the Catholic Church in the United States and they have as much claim on my mind and heart as anyone else. Thus, I am very interested as both a bishop and as an American in the forthcoming debate and vote on immigration reform which is likely to begin in the U.S. Senate within days.

My brother bishops in Florida (a high impact state for the undocumented) and I have today issued a statement on immigration reform. Along with capitol punishment, immigration reform brings me more push-backs in the comment section opportunity in this blog than anything else I write about.

The Florida bishops’ statement is a good one and expresses my very strong commitment to have our elected officials realistically and openly wrap their minds around this very pressing issue. Too many people, Catholics most all of them, live in constant fear of deportation. I know they are here illegally in many instances and I have heard and reflected on all the arguments that those who break the law should NOT be given a break by the law.

But they are here. And they are working, albeit for a pittance. And they are not homeless and in our streets. And they are very strongly peaceful and law-abiding people. And they are Catholics with a strong devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and a desire to pray, celebrate all the sacraments, and feel welcome in our Churches. It is in this context that they are indeed “mine” but they belong to The Lord, to the Church and to all of us.

I ask you to read the statement of the bishops of Florida which you can do by clicking here for English and here for Spanish. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ also has a number of statements on the subject and the position of your and my Church is clearly laid out before you. Please take some time to read it and please, please send an e-mail to the appropriate Senators and members of the House asking for action on immigration reform before the summer recess. It is a justice issue.

In honor of Jean Stapleton who died last week, for us it is also “all in the family.” Do something. Write or call – not me, them – our elected reps who need to hear from us because a “yes” vote is going to take some backbone, but, is one we can win. As the call of the barricades in the musical Les Miserables asks, “will you join in our parade?”

+RNL

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

It has been eight days since the Department of Health and Human Services has issued its latest attempt at regulations covering what is called the “contraceptive mandate” as contained in the Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”). The regulations are some eighty pages in length but two thirds of those pages outline the management of the funds for the program once fully implemented. Every bishop in the country now has access to legal opinions on how these revised regulations will effect the Church’s approach and response to the “mandate.” I and almost every other bishop have waited while our own attorneys have studied the “regs” in detail. I also have the added assistance as a member of the Catholic Health Association Board of Directions, having listened to their General Counsel’s careful opinion of what influence these new regulations would have on Catholic Health Care interests. The wise and prudent approach has suggested not rushing into comments without the assistance of those more skilled in reading and understanding government “legalese” than most bishops. So what follows are my personal impressions of the Administration’s latest proposals.

1. Clearly, the Administration has been desirous of listening to and accommodating the concerns of Catholics and other people and institutions of conscience, like myself, who had real worries about the regulatory language in possession up till last Friday. There has been a serious effort to accommodate some of the conscience concerns of the Catholic bishops and I feel some expression of gratitude is due to the Administration.

2. One would be hard put to find any other segment of the American public whose concerns about the Affordable Health Care Act have attempted to be dealt with than those of the Catholic bishops and other like-minded people on this very important matter. There have been moments when I think we should consider ourselves lucky that they are still talking to us.

3. The result has been that many of our concerns, about religious freedom and conscience have been attempted to be met. For me the first attempt of the government to define religious ministry outside of our houses of worship has been addressed in the removal all together of the first three prongs of the prior definition and I am personally at peace with this aspect of the challenge.

4. By opening again, for the third time, a comment period (all must be submitted by April 8th), the Administration has offered an invitation to all interested parties, the Catholic bishops included, to raise any additional concerns which this new draft may have given birth to. There are no promises and anyone who has worked in Washington, as I have, should be prepared for the reality that whatever finds it way into law eventually will be “imperfect” in some way, but so was the much missed “Hyde Amendment.” Cardinal Dolan has made it clear subsequent to the statement issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that the USCCB has not rejected the HHS draft but seeks to continue to explore progress on some points which would lead to improvement.

5. As a former teacher of English (long ago), I find any discussion of the difference between exemption and accommodation to be interesting because as I look them both up in the OXFORD DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE I am led to believe that it is a distinction without a difference. I find this especially true when studying the manner in which HHS would allow other religious entities for whom the mandate presents an issue of “conscience” to decide that they were worthy of the accommodation. Not many other entities of American life are treated with this level of trust (and this would be especially true of the tax code) and some thanks should also be due to the Administration for trying to find a solution which might satisfy us and other constituencies who think otherwise.

6. In the last eight days or so, I have found myself wondering who speaks for the Church? Cardinals, archbishops and bishops are certainly entitled to their opinions (as I hope I am amply demonstrating in this blog post) but since the Second Vatican Council, our collegial voice has almost always been the elected leader of our episcopal conference, currently Cardinal Dolan. His opinion is certainly not binding on every Catholic, but should be accorded greater respect than any of us. But he speaks for the bishops who elected him, as did his predecessors and as will his successors, not necessarily for the whole Church.

7. Which brings me to my final point. As far as I know, at no time up to yesterday (Friday)since the new HHS regs were made available for review and public comment, has anyone from the conference structure consulted with legal counsel for other entities in the Church (hospitals, college and universities, Catholic Charities)to ask their read on how this proposal will affect their ministry. Yet the USCCB statement, it seems, would have one believe that the above mentioned entities might fairly have their “noses out-of-joint” because they are being given consideration under the “accommodation” and not the “exemption.” I did not leave this week’s Board of Director’s meeting of the Catholic Health Association thinking that all those CEO’s of systems and related members felt they were being treated as second class citizens by these new regulations. Perhaps we bishops need a little more humility from time to time, recognizing that we are not the only “game in town” but that there are other players, women and men of great faith who also love the Church, and who can speak for themselves and their organizations, on what effect legislation, proposed legislation, regulations will have on their ministry. A more collaborative effort might lead to greater results.

We still have time to work to smooth out some of the rough waters which lie ahead. As one member, I would hope that our episcopal conference might be as open to listening to the issues and challenges which government seems to face as I believe they have been so far in hearing our concerns. But in the end, everyone must prepare themselves for what is likely to be imperfect regulations drawn from imperfect legislation. I still am grateful that that more universal health care coverage will be the first fruit of the Affordable Care Act and I am beginning to feel that I can say to my diocesan self-insured employees, all 1400 of them, that their moral right to health care coverage will survive this moment.

+RNL

RAVENS, ORIOLES AND BISHOPS

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

I realize it has been some time since my last posting here and I will admit to a certain “desert” experience during which I felt neither the muse nor the motive. However, that brief period is now over and I am ready again to take “pen to hand” (well, not exactly literally) and share some thoughts with you again.

“A Sea of Bishops” at Mass on Monday morning. Thank you to Lisa Hendey, a Catholic blogger also at the Mass and who covered the USCCB meeting, for tweeting this photo and for graciously allowing me to post it. You can check out more photos and her tweets recapping the meeting by clicking here.

I am currently killing time in Baltimore awaiting my return flight to St. Petersburg after the fall meeting of the bishops of the US (USCCB). Admittedly, there was both some soul-searching and some navel gazing following the recent elections, but the work of the Church continues. Among the public actions taken, I think a special message on “preaching” written for bishops, deacons and priests who are privileged to have this special task was probably one of the best things which we accomplished during the two days of public meetings. It is a challenging document, sober in its analysis of both the challenge and efficacy of preaching. In my humble opinion, it is one of the better pastoral items coming from the USCCB in recent years. When published, I intend to give a copy to all of our priests and deacons but for those who cannot wait, Rocco Palmo of the “mother of all ecclesial blogs” has the text in its entirety and up even before the USCCB’s own website. You can read it by clicking here.

There is always a lot of “business” and “busyness” accompanying our annual meetings since the annual budget for the conference and the priorities and plans, in the case of this year’s meeting, for the next three years must be passed. Cardinal Dolan’s Presidential address on the need for the Sacrament of Reconciliation was different than what we usually hear and built upon Pope Benedict’s homily that the new evangelization must spring from the twin foundations of reconciliation and charity. The representative of the Holy Father to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, addressed us thoughtfully on a number of matters including the care of the bishops for his priests.

It was hard at times for me to concentrate as there is a major challenge awaiting me at home in the diocese. With somewhere near 1,500 employees whose health care plan is administered by United Healthcare, the battle between they and Baycare, whose doctors and hospitals many of our employees use, is approaching a decisive hour when major decisions will have to be made. I can not envision being a part of a healthcare plan which does not include St. Anthony’s and St. Joseph’s Hospitals, but Baycare is demanding a dramatic increase in reimbursement fees which will also impact the already stretched and tight budgets of our parishes, schools and institutions. Nowhere in seminary training, then or now, were we trained how to deal with a “Clash of Titans.” November 30th is the drop dead date after which some major decisions may have to be made by my administrative team.

Tampa is in the news in a tragic and unflattering way these days, as most of you know, which leads me to share some concluding thoughts on fidelity, marriage, ordination and consecration. I don’t know if it is just me, but it seems that infidelity has brought down too many role models in the last decade, be they athletes, religious leaders, politicians, and now, high ranking leaders of the military. That marriages fail is an understandable reality and fact of life. That dalliances prevail is a tragedy of modern life. Cheating on one’s firm commitment undermines the stability and trust not just of the promises, but also of the major institutions of society and the people we elect, chose or admire who hold those positions. Fidelity, where art thou? It seems to me that fidelity is in, shall we say, a “skyfall!”

With that last paragraph, you might wish that I re-enter the desert where there are no birds, no ravens, no orioles, and no bishops!

+RNL

PROMISES, PROMISES

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

There have been numerous inquiries to my office about if and when I might speak about the upcoming national election. I choose to do so now, knowing in advance that what I say will disappoint some, and perhaps may be of some help to others.

What is a serious voter of conscience to do this fall? Both parties have now embraced their respective platforms and both candidates have spoken repeatedly about their positions on issues on what I believe to be “ of conscience.”

Looking at this election from the standpoint of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) document on political responsibility entitled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (very much worth a read by clicking here); the following is what I would take into the voting booth to shape my choice on Election Day. My observations on the issues are based on what has come to date either out of the respective party platforms or the candidates’ mouths and they appear in the priority order in which the issues appear in the aforementioned publication:

1. Protecting innocent human life in the womb, reducing abortion on request, opposing euthanasia, human cloning and embryonic stem cell research. In these very important areas of life concerns,  it is abundantly clear from the party’s own platforms as well as convention election rhetoric that the Republicans provide stronger reassurance.

2. Opposing torture, waging unjust war, preventing genocide, eliminating the use of the death penalty, avoiding armed conflict and seeking peace. Personally, I find little comfort in either party on these very important “life issues.” Little has been said as of this writing by any candidate on most of these issues save the last – the search for peace.

3. Protecting religious freedom by allowing Churches and religious institutions to define themselves free of government interference and respecting the rights of those institutions and employees to protect themselves from materially cooperating in actions against their moral conscience. Nothing has changed since my previous “blog” writings on this very important religious freedom issue from the Administration and again the rhetoric at the Democratic convention suggests that they either just don’t care about how Catholics feel or believe there are too few of us who feel strongly to do them electoral harm. The other party’s candidates and their platform promise restoration of religious freedom.

4. Promoting genuine and just immigration reform while securing the nation’s borders. There is little difference to be found here but the President’s recent Executive Order implementing portions of the now nearly defunct “Dream Act” shows more compassion, at least to those children of parents no longer living in this country while their children do.

5. Proffering genuine access for all to medical care and expanding its opportunity to more of the uncovered. The Catholic Church and especially its bishops have long argued for the extension of health care benefits to those presently uncovered and unprotected. The Affordable Care Act accomplished a large portion of this important social agenda. Unfortunately the Administration has published regulations which infringe on the Church’s freedom to define and pursue its mission but the fact is there now is no maximum limit on health care benefits, there now is no pre-condition impediment to accessing a health care plan, and children may remain on their parent’s program now until they are twenty-six. Additionally, more of the nation’s previously uncovered are now covered. Contraceptive mandate notwithstanding, I think the Democratic Party and platform is more committed to the Church’s vision of universal health care for the poor although I lament the absence of access to care for the undocumented.

6. Support for marriage as between one man and one woman as the bedrock of societal family life. In this election, there is a clear choice, I believe, as seen in platforms and pronouncements of party leadership.

7. Strengthening the possibility of parental choice in the education of their children. The power of the teachers’ unions over the Democratic Party and its candidates for office is very visible. The teachers are strongly against parental choice in education (read that, competition is good in every other sector of society, except the education of our children) and the Democrats in this one walk lockstep the teachers’ union line. Republicans see the value to our nation in freedom of choice in education.

8. Care for the genuine poor, disadvantaged, the “least among us.” This one is interesting to me because the Democrats have always laid claim to it. Much of this election is about the economy, high unemployment, home mortgages, etc. I have yet to hear either party speak for “the genuine poor, disadvantaged and least among us” primarily, I suspect, because these people do not vote or form a voting bloc. That’s why they need the help of the Church and all followers of Christ. Remember those challenging words in the Gospel, “when did I see you poor?”

9. Advancing the cause of human labor by protecting employees and supporting their right to organize. You don’t need my help on this one. One party loves unions and the other has an allergy to them.

10. Giving witness to global solidarity through promoting peace and pursuing justice. I don’t think there is an advantage to either party here at this moment in human history. The evidence of the last few days is that there are a lot of people in the world who do not like, trust, or believe in the United States for a variety of reasons, a few fair, but many unfair. Now this is just my personal opinion but in answer to that quadrennial favorite question, “are you better off now than four years ago?” I would say I am not at all sure. Not to decide is to decide!

So, what I have attempted to do above is to take the issues which the body of bishops in the United States have lifted up as constitutive for conscience formation today and apply them for myself. I only ask you to do the same in forming your conscience and decisions. I do not wish to tell you for whom to vote or how to vote, but rather, in an area of human reasoning and judgment, only explain how I see these issues when I consider how to cast my vote. The guidance which the bishops of the United States follow at moments like this election season disappoints some while is understood and appreciated by many. You may read these guidelines by clicking here.

For some, one or more of these issues may be more important than others or there may well be an issue or issues which are not on this list (which was never meant to be exhaustive). I have never known in my lifetime a perfect candidate for office (though I think the late Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania came the closest to passing the test on most of the above) and voting can become a “lesser of two evils” decision for many (it has for me in the past, I know). One thing is for certain and is probably the only thing which the two candidates for the highest office and their parties can agree on. This year, there is indeed a clear choice.

Let me close by calling your attention to two important ecclesial statements that have guided me in preparing and praying over this blog entry, the first from the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and the second by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

In speaking to the bishops of the world, the Council described our responsibility as teachers in the “Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishop in the Church” and there in we were encouraged to “announce the Gospel of Christ” and also to “teach the value of earthly goods and human institutions according to the plan of God the Creator.” The fathers went on to enumerate “the human person and bodily life, the family and its unity and stability, the procreation and education of children, civil society with its laws and professions, labor and leisure, the arts and technical inventions, poverty and affluence.” In addition, bishops “should set forth the ways by which are to be answered the most serious questions concerning the ownership, increase, and just distribution of material goods, peace and war, and brotherly relations among all countries.” [Christus Dominus #12]

Then from the 2002 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s  “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” the following: “In this context, it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good. Nor can a Catholic think of delegating his Christian responsibility to others; rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives him this task, so that the truth about man and the world might be proclaimed and put into action.

When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, [emphasis is that of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith] Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forego extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate). Such laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death. In the same way, it is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo. Analogously, the family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce: in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such. The same is true for the freedom of parents regarding the education of their children; it is an inalienable right recognized also by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the same way, one must consider society’s protection of minors and freedom from modern forms of slavery (drug abuse and prostitution for example). In addition there is the right to religious freedom and the development of an economy that is at the service of the human person and of the common good, with respect for social justice, the principles of human solidarity and subsidiarity, according to which the “right of all individuals, families, and organizations and their practical implementation must be acknowledged” [Gaudium et Spes, #75). Finally, the question of peace must be mentioned. Certain pacifistic and ideological visions tend at times to secularize the value of peace, while, in other cases, there is the problem of summary ethical judgments which forget the complexity of the issues involved. “Peace is always the work of justice and the effect of charity.”[Catechism, 2304] It demands the absolute and radical rejection of violence and terrorism and requires a constant a vigilant commitment on the part of all leaders.” (#4).

Voting is a sacred right won for us by our ancestors through blood and battle. We must take it seriously, study the issues and cast our ballot from a well-formed conscience.

+RNL