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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 4 - Advent/Christmas 2004
Special Report: US Bishops' November Meeting

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

The meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), that took place in Washington, DC, November 15-17, held some surprises, although for the most part the action items on the bishops' agenda had been in progress for some time. We will note some of the most important actions and plans, and will revisit some of these in more depth in the coming year.

First off, the bishops elected new officers and committee chairmen. The vote for president and vice-president was held Monday morning, November 15.

Following the usual practice of the conference, they elected the vice-president, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, to follow outgoing president, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville. Bishop Gregory presided over the USCCB for the past three years, a time of unprecedented disturbance in the US Church over revelations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups by bishops.

Bishop Skylstad was narrowly elected to a three-year term beginning at the end of the November meeting, with 52% of the vote. Less than two weeks before the meeting, he announced that his diocese is filing for bankruptcy protection, the third US diocese to do so (the others being Tucson and Portland, Oregon). Multiple sex-abuse lawsuits are due to begin within the next few weeks in Spokane, involving a priest who was assistant in the parish where Skylstad was pastor in the late 1970s and where many of the incidents took place.

From the remaining nine nominees for president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was elected vice-president in a close contest (118-112) with Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh. If Cardinal George becomes president, he will be first cardinal elected to that office since Philadelphia Cardinal John Krol in 1971.

On November 16, conference committee chairmen and chairmen-elect were selected. (The chairmen-elect will take office in November 2005.)

Bishop Donald Trautman was elected chairman of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy (BCL), after Cardinal George announced that because of his duties as vice-president he would resign as chairman of the BCL (his term would have ended in 2005). Two candidates were presented by the nominating committee in a list sent to the bishops in September: Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, and Bishop Allen Vigneron of Oakland, both of whom are currently members of the BCL. In an extremely unusual move, Bishop Trautman was nominated from the floor by Bishop John Kinney of St. Cloud. The nomination required seconding by five bishops. They were Bishop Victor Balke of Crookston, Bishop Donald Pelotte of Gallup, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Bishop Gerald Wilkerson and Bishop Alexander Salazar, both auxiliaries of Los Angeles (Bishop Salazar was consecrated November 4.)

After a series of technical problems with a new electronic voting system and one written ballot (invalidated because there were more votes cast than eligible bishops), Bishop Trautman was elected with 53% of the vote.

This will be the second term as BCL chairman for Bishop Trautman, who had most recently headed the Bishops' Committee on Doctrine (2000-2003). He headed the Liturgy Committee 1993-1996, during a period of intense controversy over translation of Scripture and liturgical texts proposed for a revised Lectionary and "Sacramentary", the latter the work of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).

From 1992-2001, Bishop Trautman was a member of the Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations. In 2001, the Holy See issued an instruction on translation, Liturgiam authenticam, that mandates accuracy in translation and fidelity to the Latin originals. Bishop Trautman is a leading public critic of the Holy See's actions in liturgical matters, and is a consistent advocate of so-called "inclusive" language in English translation.

Cardinal George is the US bishops' representative to ICEL, and is a member of the Holy See's Congregation for Divine Worship, the Synod of Bishops, and several other Vatican dicasteries (or offices). During Cardinal George's term as BCL chairman, ICEL was completely restructured, under the close supervision of the Holy See, and is now working on an English translation of the new Roman Missal, introduced in 2000. Cardinal George is also a member of Vox Clara, a committee appointed by the Congregation for Divine Worship to provide guidance for English translations. At a meeting of Vox Clara November 9-11, Cardinal George had presented a progress report on the Missal translation by ICEL.

It is too early to tell how Bishop Trautman's leadership of this key conference committee may affect the awaited English version of the Roman Missal, or other liturgical texts that have been delayed for years in appearing in English, or the review of the Lectionary translation now in progress.

Other Conference Elections
In other conference elections, Bishop Dennis Schnurr, Duluth, former general-secretary of the conference, was elected USCCB treasurer, and Bishop Joseph Perry, auxiliary of Chicago, was elected chairman of the Committee on African-American Catholics. Twelve chairmen-elect were chosen, who will take office in November 2005:

Canonical Affairs: Archbishop John Myers, Newark
Catechesis: Bishop Donald Wuerl, Pittsburgh
Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs: Aux. Bishop Richard Sklba, Milwaukee
Education: Bishop Robert McManus, Worcester
Evangelization: Bishop Sam Jacobs, Houma-Thibodaux
Hispanic Affairs: Bishop Placido Rodriguez, Lubbock
International Policy: Bishop Thomas Wenski, Orlando
Laity: Bishop David Zubik, Green Bay
Marriage and Family Life: Bishop Joseph Kurtz, Knoxville
Priestly Formation: Bishop Thomas Olmsted, Phoenix
Relationship between Eastern & Latin Catholic Churches: Archbishop Stefan Soroka (Ukranian), Philadelphia
Science and Human Values: Aux. Bishop John Dunne, Rockville Centre

Bishops Approve "US Catholic Catechism for Adults"

Bishop Donald Wuerl headed the writing committee that produced the "United States Catholic Catechism for Adults", a simplified version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that took three years to complete. It is intended for RCIA programs and for Catholic youth and young adults. The text consists of 36 chapters, each of which is introduced by a story, most of them "biographical sketches of American saints and/or other outstanding Catholics who represent the variety of racial and ethnic witnesses to the Catholic way of life", the Introduction says. "These are examples of Catholics chosen because their lives or actions illustrate a particular church teaching", with the objective of "encourag[ing] others to want to be like them" and as "an effective way of teaching Catholic doctrine".

Among the examples and witnesses of Catholic life included are the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago; labor-leader Cesar Chavez; Sister Thea Bowman; Catholic Worker foundress Dorothy Day; Father John Noll, founder of Our Sunday Visitor; and Archbishop Fulton Sheen, popular television preacher of the 1950s.

In his preliminary comments, Bishop Wuerl observed that ten bishops had objected to including stories of people who are not saints or blesseds. He also mentioned the writers' use of "inclusive language". The Introduction states that the "writers and editors of this text were directed to use horizontally inclusive language, that is, describing human persons according to both male and female genders", and that this is "in keeping with cultural practice in the United States". Exceptions to this practice are direct quotations from the Catechism or some traditional prayers included.

In addition to Bishop Wuerl, the members of the Editorial Oversight Board of the Ad hoc Committee to Oversee Use of the Catechism were Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Bishop Richard Malone of Portland (Maine), and Bishop Gabino Zavala, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles.

The "adult catechism" was approved with ten dissenting votes. The text must receive the Holy See's approval before it can be published.

Bishops Identify "key pastoral issues", Nix "plenary council"

The bishops heard a report from a sub-committee to consider the suggestion by several bishops in 2002 that a "national plenary council" be convened to examine "the need for extraordinary means to address extraordinary pastoral issues" that face the Church in the United States. Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, of Indianapolis, reported for the sub-committee that there is little support at present for a plenary council or regional synod.

He also presented for vote a series of themes that the bishops consider priority issues needing to be addressed, and gave the results of a survey taken at their June 2004 meeting in Denver. He reported that "there is a significant consensus that seven items belong on a list of pastoral challenges and issues". They are:

1. weekly celebration of the Eucharist in the parish; Sunday Mass; centrality of the Eucharist. (This includes availability and proper celebrations.)
2. Evangelization and catechetical concerns, adult education, training catechists, parental involvement.
3. Increase number of candidates for the priesthood and religious life
4. Equipping families to be the primary transmitters of faith; marriage and family concerns.
5. Teaching of Catholic social doctrine.
6. Developing the Church as "communion".
7. Preferential option for the poor in establishing the priorities of the local Church.

The bishops did not decide how these issues would be addressed by the conference. They also voted to have "special assemblies" in June 2006 and 2007, that would exclude media and most conference personnel, and to have a one-day closed session during their June 2005 meeting.

National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage

At this meeting, the bishops voted to limit their production of pastoral statements to the most essential issues, and voted against a proposal for a pastoral letter promoting Bible reading among Catholics. But they accepted a "National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage", presented by Savannah Bishop Kevin Boland, chairman of the Marriage and Family Committee.

The proposal, Bishop Boland said, is a "multi-year, multi-faceted approach that combines the teaching tool of a pastoral letter with other pastoral activities to strengthen marriage". The committee sees "the various research and consultative activities that are associated with the pastoral letter as a way of providing important resources for local pastoral ministers and other groups in their work with young people, engaged couples, married couples, divorced persons, and others", he said.

The first phase of this process would involve "focus groups" and "leadership groups" to decide priorities to be addressed in the second phase: writing a pastoral letter, about two years later.

As the subject of this study is of great concern to Catholic families, WFF will closely follow progress on this effort as it develops.

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