BALTIMORE – Opening the fall plenary meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the pope’s representative to the country focused on the importance of synodality, while the president of the body, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles focused his remarks on Eucharistic revival.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, papal nuncio to the United States that bishops are called to listen to one another and not seek division, and to not treat the sacraments “as something to be offered to the privileged few.”
He was speaking Tuesday morning, during the first public session of the Nov. 15-18 fall assembly.
Though Gomez thanked the nuncio and asked him to extend to Pope Francis the U.S. bishops support and interest on the Synod of Bishops on synodality – a two-year process launched by the pontiff last October – he avoided the word “synodality” during his speech.
Gomez focused instead on USCCB initiatives, especially a document on the Eucharist set to be discussed this week, and a multi-year plan on Eucharistic revival, which he described as “absolutely vital” to carrying out the church’s mission with the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest that has happened over the past two years.
Bishops responded with strong applause to both speeches. However, Gomez got a standing ovation, while Pierre didn’t.
“The Eucharist is also the gateway key to the civilization of love that we long to create,” Gomez said. “Jesus promised that he would be truly present in the sacrament of the altar – but also in the flesh and blood of our neighbors, especially those who are poor and suffering.”
“If we ever hope to end human indifference and social injustice, then we need to revive this sacramental awareness,” the archbishop of Los Angeles continued. “In every human person we meet – from the infant in the womb to our elderly parents drawing their dying breaths – we must see the image of the living god.”
The draft of the Eucharist document – that some believe could have implications for Catholic pro-choice politicians receiving communion – was scheduled to be presented on Tuesday afternoon. The national Eucharistic Revival, meanwhile, is a three-year plan starting in June that Gomez described as a “missionary project” that “aims to draw our people deeper into the heart of the mystery of faith, to awaken what Pope St. John Paul II called ‘Eucharistic amazement.’”
On Wednesday, the bishops will vote to approve a national Eucharist Congress for 2024 that will be the culmination of the three-year Eucharistic revival plan.
In his presidential address, Gomez also noted that carrying out the church’s mission is a challenge the bishops face in a “highly secularized” America. However, he highlighted that the past two years have provided signs of hope with a nationwide “spiritual awakening.”
“With all of the disruptions of the pandemic, all of the social unrest of these past two years, people can now see very clearly that a world without God cannot bring them happiness and meaning,” Gomez said.
“Our brothers and sisters are searching for God, and they are willing to let themselves be found by God,” he continued. “I believe they are ready to listen once again to the Word of truth and Word of life. I think there are also people in our society – those who grew up without religion – who are ready to hear the Word for the very first time.”
From the outset of the speech, Gomez invoked Archbishop John Ireland, who served as the head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from 1884 until 1918. Gomez noted that Ireland was a powerful minister to African Americans and for the rights of immigrants, who understood the Church’s purpose does not depend on “forces outside the Church,” such as “culture, or politics, or the spirit of age.”
Gomez then shared a speech the late archbishop gave that stated, “the next century of the life of the Church in America will be what we make it… as we will it, so shall the story be.”
“As Archbishop Ireland said more than a century ago, there is so much at stake in our mission, for God and souls, for Church and country,” Gomez concluded his presidential address. “As well will it, so shall the story be.”
In their message to Pope Francis – read out loud at the beginning of the meeting, and approved through a show of hands – the bishops thanked him for his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, noted that many dioceses have begun the local consultation process as part of the synod process, and promised to keep him updated on the “multiyear” program for eucharistic revival.
Synodality will be the center of the bishop’s Wednesday discussion, when Gomez and Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville will present an update on what the USCCB has done thus far to take part in the two-year process that will conclude with a meeting of bishops in Rome in October 2023.
Pierre listed the many challenges that together with the U.S. bishops they have faced since he was appointed five years ago, including the family, the sexual abuse crisis, the increasing secularization, the polarization of the nation and “also inside the Church,” and a global pandemic.
During his speech, dedicated to synodality, he told the bishops that “a divided church will never be able to lead anyone to the unity that Christ desires.”
He began by defining what synodality is not: “A meeting about meetings,” because that would be “one of the lower rings of hell in the Inferno.” It’s also not a “political debate” in which one side must defeat the other.
There are a number of pressing issues facing the church today, Pierre said. “One is the pro-life issue: The church must be unapologetically pro-life,” protecting the unborn. But the “synodal approach” to abortion, he said, would be to “understand better why people seek to end a pregnancy.”
It’s necessary to meet with expectant mothers to better understand their situations, to meet with pro-life agencies and those who work there, he argued, to understand what are the spiritual, social and material needs of the women who see abortion as a possibility.
“Realities are more important than ideas,” he said. “We can have all the theological ideas about the Eucharist – and, of course, we need this – but none of these ideas compare with the reality of the Eucharistic Mystery, which needs to be discovered and rediscovered through the practical experience of the Church, living in communion, particularly in this time of pandemic.”
The archbishop said people can “become so concentrated upon the sacrality of forms of the liturgy that we miss the true encounter with His Real Presence.”
“There is the temptation to treat the Eucharist as something to be offered to the privileged few rather than to seek to walk with those whose theology or discipleship is falling short, assisting them to understand and appreciate the gift of the Eucharist and helping them to overcome their difficulties,” he continued.
“It is sometimes said that there is a lot of confusion about doctrine in the church,” he said, with some arguing that what is needed is to reinforce the teaching. “However, as the Holy Father says, the church that teaches must be first a church that listens. What type of church do we want to be? We can begin by being a church that listens.”
Listening means not only listening to each other, “but also to what the Spirit says to the Church,” Pierre said. The path forward, he said, necessarily means unity, because a divided church will never be able to lead others to the united church wanted by Christ.
“The Church needs this attentive listening now more than ever if she’s to help overcome the polarization dividing this country,” he said.
Speaking about dialogue and listening, Pierre said that there are four types of dialogue: Charity, conversion, truth and salvation.
“Our dialogue and listening must include not only bishops, religious, laity, but also to God,” he said. “It’s the Spirit that preserves the church in matters of doctrine and governance.”
Speaking about the laity and the importance of involving the faithful in decisions is not “an abdication of authority but an invitation to share the responsibility.”
Last November, Pierre said, during the fall meeting the prelates talked about the need to produce proposals for healing the world. However, he said, the church too needs healing, because it too “is wounded by the abuse crisis, the effects of the pandemic and the polarization affecting society.”
Every member of the church must be involved in order to radiate the presence of Christ in the human reality of “our hurting world.”
The answer, he said, is synodality, which is a “way of life,” and quoting Pope Francis, he also called it a “constitutive element of the Church.”
The last issue in the agenda during Tuesday’s morning session was the election of the new General Secretary, after Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill was forced to resign following an expose by a Catholic media outlet that obtained data from his phone that proved he had an active profile in a gay dating app.
The two candidates to fill the five-year position are Father Michael J.K. Fuller, a priest of the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois, associate general secretary of the USCCB who had stepped in after Burrill’s resignation; and Father Daniel Hanley, a priest from the Arlington diocese, who is a staff member in the office of clergy, consecrated life, and vocations before being elected as general secretary on Tuesday.
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