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Bishops’ fall assembly sees abortion ‘pre-eminent’ in faithful citizenship, lively discussion of mental health and emphasis on evangelizing

Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington looks over paperwork during a Nov. 15, 2023, session of the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)
Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington looks over paperwork during a Nov. 15, 2023, session of the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

BALTIMORE (OSV News) — Excitement about the impacts of the National Eucharistic Revival in local dioceses, support for the nomination of St. John Henry Newman as a doctor of the church, and the approval of supplements to the bishops’ teaching document on “Faithful Citizenship” featured strongly on the second day of the U.S. bishops’ annual fall plenary assembly in Baltimore.

The bishops typically engaged in little to no discussion on agenda items they were set to vote on, which all passed with overwhelming majorities. However, the bishops more vigorously engaged in discussion toward the end of the day with updates on the National Eucharistic Revival and the bishops’ National Catholic Mental Health Campaign.

The U.S. bishops began the day with the Latin Church bishops approving U.S. adaptations to the Liturgy of the Hours, the public prayer of the church proper to all the baptized, along with drafts for the blessing of an abbot or abbess; the consecration of virgins and the order of religious profession. Those texts now go to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments for confirmation and recognition.

The bishops also approved a request to ask Rome to include “St. Teresa of Calcutta” as an optional memorial on the Roman Calendar for Sept. 5, and also heard that a request to include Salvadoran martyr St. Oscar Romero would have to be sent to the Vatican “accompanied by a robust letter of support from the president of the conference.”

The bishops voted to approve supplements to the bishops’ teaching document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which consists of a new introductory note, bulletin inserts, a template video script and social media kit. A majority of 225 bishops voted yes, 11 voted no and seven abstained.

Quoting Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical letter, “Fratelli Tutti” (“Brothers All”), the new supplements encourage Catholics to follow the example of the Good Samaritan and serve as neighbors to all, while underscoring the threat of abortion as “our pre-eminent priority because it directly attacks our most vulnerable and voiceless brothers and sisters and destroys more than a million lives per year in our country alone.”

The day’s surprise came as Bishop Chad W. Zielinski of New Ulm, Minnesota, chair of the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, requested the postponement of a vote on a comprehensive pastoral framework for Indigenous ministry which was on the agenda.

Bishop Zielinksi said the subcommittee had met the night before to review amendments and decided it needed more time to address them and would re-present the text to the bishops at their 2024 June assembly.

Deacon Don Blackbird, a member of the Omaha Tribe and principal of St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago, Nebraska, told OSV News that he was not surprised by the decision.

“I pray that the bishops will respectfully take the time until then to reflect on the pastoral framework and ultimately reach a decision that honors the Indigenous peoples of the United States,” he said in an email.

The bishops also approved revised national statutes for Christian Initiation.

The U.S. bishops also voted nearly unanimously to support the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in their request for Pope Francis to name St. John Henry Newman a doctor of the church. Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, said the doctrine committee he chairs had studied St. John Henry Newman’s writings and recommended the saint as “worthy of this high honor.”

A floor discussion followed as Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston asked about the prudence of advocating for a recently declared saint (2019) to be declared a “doctor of the church,” while joking he also didn’t want 1,900 years to elapse before a saint is named a “doctor of the church” like the first-century St. Irenaeus.

Several bishops spoke from the floor about Newman’s relevance to evangelization, the development of a synodal church and his ecumenical admiration, including the respect he holds among the Eastern churches.

Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, also noted the saint unites Catholics on both the “conservative” and “progressive” sides.

“We should take advantage of that and study his writings. It might really help to heal the divisions in the church,” he said.

Outside the hotel where the bishops’ assembly was held, the Baltimore-based Defend Life organization held a rosary rally led by Bishop Joseph E. Strickland. The event, however, was planned in advance of the bishop learning Nov. 11, just days before the assembly, that Pope Francis had removed him from pastoral governance of his Diocese of Tyler, Texas.

About 125 participants, including some clergy and religious, participated.

Bishop Strickland told reporters, including OSV News, that he was told by “the nuncio” — indicating Cardinal Christophe Pierre — not to attend the fall plenary meeting. He said he “respected” the decision,” as well as his “commitment to be here for this prayer.”

(In an interview with OSV News, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio said Bishop Strickland is considered “retired,” meaning he can participate in the conference but cannot vote. He said any instruction for the bishop not to participate in the assembly “didn’t come from us.”)

Regarding his future, “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Bishop Strickland said. “But, you know, I know the Lord is with me. That’s a pretty good place to be.”

Back in the bishops’ plenary session, Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu gave a presentation on the bishops’ pastoral care of Asian and Pacific Islander communities, which he said were the “third largest segment of the U.S.’ Catholic population,” and he thanked Cardinal Pierre for his work to have more Asian and Pacific Islander bishops appointed in the U.S.

The bishops also voted to replace the USCCB’s current strategic planning cycle with a mission planning process.

While emphasizing the work of streamlining, reducing spending and removing silos at the USCCB, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, the USCCB’s new secretary-elect, said the new model would propose two aspects: the normal ordinary responsibilities of the conference and then “mission directives that evolve after a process of discernment.”

Archbishop Coakley explained it provided an opportunity to put into action synodality by inviting feedback from bishops, who could be informed by their pastoral and presbyteral councils, with time set aside in regional meetings to distill insights into a few initiatives.

Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, and Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Oregon, both expressed their support for the development.

“I think it gives us a chance to bring new wind into the life of the conference at a time when we’re looking to do things more synodally,” Bishop Seitz said.

Archbishop Sample said he appreciated the new process’ more acute “sense of mission” and its ability to measure goals.

“I think it’s a great way forward,” he said. “I think it’s going to refine and focus the work of the conference.”

However, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, took to the floor to ask how the USCCB was going to head in this direction without new resources. Just prior to the discussion, the bishops passed the USCCB’s budget overwhelmingly — with no increases in its assessment on dioceses for the fourth year in a row despite the effects of inflation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation calculator, $1.20 in October purchases what $1 did four years earlier.

“Part of that is part of our ongoing discussion,” Archbishop Coakley responded. “But I don’t know that it would necessarily mean any sort of budgetary increase.”

“I’m just speaking as a diocesan bishop who knows that something’s got to give, you know,” the cardinal said before sitting down.

During a presentation on the National Eucharistic Revival, many bishops spoke about exciting developments taking place in their diocese.

Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, gave an upbeat presentation, noting the bishops are “halfway through this National Eucharistic Revival.” He shared that attendees of the National Eucharistic Congress July 17-21 in Indianapolis now have the option of purchasing single-day and weekend passes, among other provisions to make participation more affordable and flexible, including scholarship from the bishops’ Solidarity Fund. He also mentioned the Apostolic Penitentiary is going to grant a plenary indulgence to anyone who participates in one of the four legs of the pilgrimage to the National Eucharistic Congress.

His figures also indicated the church was also halfway there. Among the Catholic Church’s 17,000 parishes in the U.S., the National Eucharistic Revival has “8,000 parish point persons” and over 10,000 downloads of its parish playbook, while the latest statistics on in-person weekly Mass attendance was hovering at 17%, below pre-pandemic levels.

Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, provided an update on the newly launched Institute on the Catechism to the U.S. Catholic bishops, and said its vision of “evangelizing catechesis” intersected with the ongoing National Eucharistic Revival.

Peter Kilpatrick, president of The Catholic University of America, discussed the mission of the university and encouraged the bishops to learn more about the U.S.’s only pontifical university in Washington and engage in a “robust dialogue” about how it can be of greater service to the church.

The bishops also heard about the USCCB’s mental health campaign from Metropolitan Archbishop Borys A. Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Barron, chairman of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.

The campaign — announced Oct. 10 to coincide with World Mental Health Day — is a response to the “dire mental health crisis” the nation now faces, said Archbishop Gudziak in his Nov. 15 address to the bishops’ assembly, during which he cited data from the Centers for Disease Control indicating that more than one in five adults in the U.S. live with a mental illness.

The presentation evoked the most sustained discussion over the past two days from the assembly, with many bishops weighing in on the importance of addressing the issue.

Cardinal DiNardo noted that Houston is “running out of psychiatrists, particularly for young people,” and emphasized the need for Catholics to enter this profession.
“The lack of such help is very disturbing in the United States,” he said.

The day’s session concluded with a presentation on how the new lay ministry of the instituted catechist established by Pope Francis can help the U.S. bishops give life to the “evangelizing catechesis” they’re seeking to give their people.

During an interview with OSV News on the conference’s second day, Archbishop Broglio noted the unity demonstrated by the conference, but also emphasized the bishops most need wisdom and guidance on “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,” he said, paraphrasing an insight from the 2007 Aparecida document then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) helped draft: “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 … I think that’s what we’re all striving to do.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the national news and features editor for OSV News. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, at @jesserersmith. OSV News national news reporter Gina Christian contributed to this report. Follow her on X at @GinaJesseReina.

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