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USCCB president on his relationships with Pope Francis and Cardinal Pierre, the synod’s influence and Bishop Strickland’s status

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services celebrates morning Mass Jan. 27, 2020, during the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

BALTIMORE (OSV News) — Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio is just beginning his second year of his three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He sat down with OSV News during a break at the fall general assembly of bishops in Baltimore Nov. 15 to answer questions about his relationship with Pope Francis and Apostolic Nuncio Cardinal Christophe Pierre; Pope Francis’ comments on the American church; how to help those hurt facing war and violence around the world; the current status of Bishop Joseph E. Strickland, and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OSV News: When we spoke last year, you said that you wanted to continue the good work of Archbishop (José H.) Gomez to foster unity in the church. What continue to be the issues that most divide, and how do you see a path forward?

Archbishop Timothy Broglio: I think there are always questions that, just from the difference in the way people approach things, that can be a source of division. Although I noticed certainly in these two days of public session — if you look at the votes, and especially the votes for questions that are “yes” or “no” — they’ve been overwhelmingly one way or another. So I think that’s indicative of a certain unity of thought. And the other thing that I think is very striking: With few exceptions, all of the votes for the candidates for the different offices were all very close to one another. So I mean it’s not as if there’s tremendous lopsided feelings in the conference. So I think that’s a positive sign going forward.

I think there’s always going to be a difference in approach between issues like the role of the dignity of the human person and how that’s interpreted — from protection of the infant in the womb to social issues. That’s always going to be, you know, where do you put the emphasis? How do you emphasize both at the same time? And I think that’s always going to be a source of concern, or a possible source of division, or at least a divergence in how people approach questions.

OSV News: Also when we spoke last year, some were claiming in the media that you were anti-Pope Francis, which you balked at. Given your last year of working more closely with the Holy Father, could you comment a little bit about what that working relationship has been like?

Archbishop Broglio: Of course I saw him right after the election because there was a meeting of the synod on the continental phase of the synod preparations, and so I had an opportunity to be with him. And he was actually very encouraging. He right away said — you know, we spoke to one another in Spanish — that, oh, you know, you have a big job now in addition to the big job you already had. He told me not to lose heart, and in that sense he was very encouraging.

Now when we went in April — you know, the president always has an audience with the pope — he was very attentive to the questions that we raised. Obviously I don’t want to get into specifics, but he spent almost an hour with us, which certainly was extremely generous on his part. And he was very receptive to anything that we wanted to talk to him about. He let us really lead the dialogue, and then he would respond to the different issues about the synod and the North American continental phase, which had been completed by that time, and it was a very positive exchange. So I think the myth of us being somehow on opposite sides of the spectrum is … a myth.

OSV News: There is an underlying critique among some American Catholics that Pope Francis doesn’t understand Catholics in the U.S. Do you think there’s any merit to that, and could you elaborate on what that might really mean, in your experience with dealing with him?

Archbishop Broglio: I think Pope Francis is certainly one who’s always open to listening to others. That’s always amazing. The amount of time that he’ll give to audiences, I think, that’s certainly been a hallmark of his pontificate — and I have plenty of experience on which to base that statement. But let’s remember Pope Francis’ only experience (outside South America) until he became Bishop of Rome was that he lived for three years in Germany. Otherwise, his whole experience is Argentinian. You can’t expect him to have an experience or an experiential view of different places. Argentina, in one sense, is a country very much like the United States. There’s many, many possibilities. They just haven’t been developed in the same way they have been here in the United States. So, I think all of those are factors that would color his vision and also his understanding even of the church in a different reality.

I believe the first time he ever came to the United States was when he came here on his, thus far, one and only papal visit here. And, you know, even if you went to a few places, the United States is a big country. You’re not going to discover it in five days. So, I think those are all factors that might lead people to say that he doesn’t know the United States or he doesn’t know the church in the United States. But I think he’s very open to learning about it. And, I think that’s something that has to be perhaps emphasized.

When the new students came to the North American College — the pontifical seminary in the United States — he gives them a private audience. Let me assure you, no pope in modern history, with the exception of Pius IX, who founded the college, has ever done something like that. So, I think there’s a willingness to learn more about the country.

OSV News: On Monday (Nov. 13) in your homily, you preached that the bishops are begging for wisdom so that Catholics might embrace the way of life that Christ offers us. What, in your opinion, is the issue that the U.S. bishops most need that wisdom and guidance on?

Archbishop Broglio: I think it’s basically how we draw people to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Obviously we have some ideas, but we’re continually trying to reach out because we recognize that, particularly with young people, we have to find ways to draw them into an experience of the Gospel, an experience of Jesus Christ. You know, in the Aparecida Document (the concluding document from the Fifth General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean in 2007 that Pope Francis, then a cardinal, helped to draft), there is a statement there that the best thing that has ever — and I’m paraphrasing it — the best thing that has ever happened to a Catholic is to know Jesus Christ. And the best gift he can give to another is to share that experience with him or her. And so I think that’s what we’re all striving to do.

We recognize that we don’t have all the answers. We don’t always know how to reach everyone. And so that’s a desire. I know certainly in my own experience with the youngest archdiocese in the United States, I’m continually looking for ways — and I’m not speaking about programs — but ways to reach out to these young people. And, you know, I can get hundreds of them at a Mass on a training base because it’s the only time during the day they don’t yell at you. But the real question is how to get them to grow in their faith and to continue in the practice of that faith. And I think that’s what we really need, an infusion of divine wisdom.

OSV News: You recently returned from a month in Rome with the Synod on Synodality. And you mentioned some of the ways that synodality already exists in the conference. What do you think that you learned from that experience that you think might be worthy of consideration for applying to the conference?

Archbishop Broglio: We do pray together, but I think the intentional invocation of the Holy Spirit was an important factor in the synod gatherings. And I think that might be something we can, at least in our smaller group meetings, we can certainly do that. I’m also excited about the new strategic planning process, which is based on mission. And I think we’ve just approved something that’s much more flexible than the model we had before that. And so I think it is more synodal, and I think that will be something that will make a difference in how we address issues and concerns of the church in the United States in a different way, in a new way.

OSV News: On the note of synodality, both America magazine and The Pillar blog have mentioned that you’re at odds with the apostolic nuncio on a vision. Is there any comment or clarification that you’d like to add?

Archbishop Broglio: I don’t necessarily agree with the nuncio’s assessment as it was presented in America magazine. And I think he would be the first one to say that his view would be much more nuanced than what that interview purported to present. I also think that the United States is very different from Latin America, and it’s very different in terms of how we experience and how we practice our faith. Some of that might come from the fact that for a long time we were kind of in the ghetto. And we’ve come out of that but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn new things. I think the difference between the nuncio’s view of the church in the United States and mine has been exaggerated.

OSV News: You mentioned that the delicacy of the present moment in the Middle East is of great concern for you and the bishops, where war has broken out and innocent people are paying such a high price. And you also mentioned in your (Nov. 14) address the many places around the world facing conflict. What do you think the U.S. bishops and U.S. Catholics at large can do to respond to the growing violence and unrest in the world today?

Archbishop Broglio: In about three ways. First and foremost, praying for peace. I think we can never overestimate the power of prayer. Secondly, I think we have to be leaders in our country in promoting civil discourse. It is deplorable that you cannot disagree in a civilized way in this country — that people do not read something that they think will be against their opinions. It’s almost a cultivation of a tunnel vision. And the violence with which people even verbally respond to one another when they disagree is deplorable. And I think we have to change that in our own house before we can go and then try to be peacemakers elsewhere.

And then the third way, I think, is obviously — and United States Catholics are tremendously generous — but I think just the financial support of the victims in these conflicts of those who are left behind. And we’ve been doing that most notably since the Second World War with Catholic Relief Services, but that’s a tremendous agency, and it’s a tremendous tribute to the U.S. Catholic Church’s interest in the rest of the world. And so I think we need to continue to support those kinds of efforts, as well, because so many areas of conflict in the world are also based on situations of poverty and inability of people to survive. And I think if we can help that, then we help, we are also makers of peace.

OSV News: Bishop Joseph Strickland, who was removed from his role as episcopal leader of the Diocese of Tyler just days ago, is here in Baltimore and has said he doesn’t have a voice at the USCCB meeting. What is Bishop Strickland’s status as a USCCB member?

Archbishop Broglio: As far as the Conference of Catholic Bishops is concerned, he’s a retired bishop, which means he has a voice in the conference, but he cannot vote. And I’m unaware of any invitation to him not to come to this meeting. It didn’t come from us.

Michael R. Heinlein writes for OSV News from Indiana. He was in Baltimore for the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Nov. 13-16 fall plenary assembly.

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