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.