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Bishops’ spring assembly’s final day sees debate on lay ministry, groundbreaking proposals

Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre of Louisville, Ky., smiles June 14, 2024, at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Spring Plenary Assembly in Louisville, Ky. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (OSV News) — The final day of the U.S. bishops’ June 12-14 Spring Plenary Assembly in Louisville seemed poised to be routine with votes on pastoral frameworks and presentations.

But by the conclusion of the session that morning June 14, the bishops had their first real, public debate over a proposal related to instituted lay ministry, heard groundbreaking next steps to fight sexual abuse, and listened to an urgent warning regarding the ability of foreign-born priests, religious and seminarians to continue serving in the U.S.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ June 14 public session began with prayer — not from the Latin Church’s tradition, but chanted mid-morning prayer in the Byzantine tradition, a nod to the conference’s bishops from Eastern churches. The prayers with resplendent biblically inspired imagery kept returning to the theme “Lord, have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

In the first order of business, the bishops voted overwhelmingly to approve “Keeping Christ’s Sacred Promise: A Pastoral Framework for Indigenous Ministry” in a vote of 181 to 2, with three bishops abstaining. The framework had been delayed since the bishops’ meeting in November to take into account the concerns brought forward by Western and Southwestern U.S. bishops.

In a morning press conference, Bishop Chad W. Zielinski of New Ulm, Minnesota, indicated the framework is a step forward and that further action, such as national liturgical guidelines, will be developed. In response to a question from OSV News, the bishop also indicated his Subcommittee on Native American Affairs could look at how the wider U.S. church can leverage its collective resources to help dioceses advance or begin sainthood causes of holy Native American men and women without diverting their own resources from urgent needs of Native American communities.

The bishops of the Latin Church also voted to approve all their agenda items related to English translation texts for the Liturgy of the Hours and the Roman Missal.

The bishops’ chair of the Committee on Divine Worship, Bishop Steven J. Lopes of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, told the bishops that their votes represented the culmination of 12 years of work by the bishops in producing a new English version of the Liturgy of the Hours.

“The whole process now shifts over to the Holy See,” said the bishop, who dryly added, “Hopefully we will have the new English edition of the Liturgy of the Hours — soon,” prompting laughter from the bishops on the floor.

But laughter gave way to surprise. While the Indigenous pastoral framework had hit a brief snag back in November delaying its approval, this time it was the pastoral framework on youth and young adult ministry’s turn.

The 178-4 vote (with four abstentions) on the pastoral framework “Listen, Teach, Send: A National Pastoral Framework for Ministries with Youth and Young Adults,” failed to reach its two-thirds majority threshold — largely due to the fact that by this time too many bishops had trickled out of the room to catch plane flights home before the conclusion of the day’s business.

Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, looked stunned in front of the body of bishops. He left the podium shaking his head in disbelief, and the room itself murmured in disbelief — as the pastoral framework failed the threshold by only two votes.

What Bishop Barron had called on June 13 a “watershed moment” in how the church accompanies youth and young adults and forms them for “missionary discipleship and Christlike leadership in society” was certain to pass ultimately — but it would now have to wait until the absent bishops were polled.

The most animated discussion, with a vigorous exchange of viewpoints, took place around a proposal, advanced by the USCCB president, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, for creating a “National Directory for Instituted Ministries.”

Pointing to Pope Francis’ recent decision to not only permit women to be instituted acolytes and lectors, but also to establish the catechist, an ancient office in the church, as an instituted lay ministry, Archbishop Broglio, who heads the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, said this development was needed to help answer key questions, such as the theological understanding of these vocations, their formation, minimum ages, the duration of the ministry, how they relate to the pastor and the diocese, among considerations needed to implement these ministries effectively. He said the Canadian and Latin American episcopal conferences also share these concerns.

This portion of the meeting was the one time the plenary assembly manifested a public debate, with bishops sharing their concerns in a respectful back-and-forth.

Many bishops expressed the urgency of instituting catechists, and the importance of having catechists in the church who would be well-formed. 

Others expressed concern that instituted ministries not be turned into a clerical caste for the laity. Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, told the bishops that his archdiocese had 1,000 catechists, most of whom are from Latin America, and he expressed concern that the approach to formation, not lead to a “professionalization” that would effectively exclude most of them.

Other bishops emphasized that Latin America has an appreciation of the catechist’s vocation that the body of bishops should heed and learn from their experience.

Retired Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans, spoke to the body on behalf of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, to propose Archbishop Broglio’s proposal be “tweaked” so that the bishops could evaluate in November a preliminary document on the institution of catechists, pointing to the high rate of disaffiliation from the church by baptized Catholics.

Bishop Lopes held aloft a card from his table, and upon being recognized, urged the bishops to consider that Pope Francis is inviting them into expand their conception of these ministries and enter into “a new way of thinking” about these lay ministries — and that there was time to work out how each ministry can complement the other, given that November 2025 was likely the earliest opportunity the bishops would have to vote on a translation for the rite of institution for catechist.

“I don’t think the distinction between acolyte, lector and catechist is as clear as perhaps we might think it is,” he said. The bishop himself has instituted a large number of acolytes for his ordinariate’s communities, since in the ordinariate’s form of the Roman Missal, they have a liturgical role, vested as a subdeacon, for solemn Mass.

But Bishop Lopes explained lay ministries have a “larger reality” as a vocation expressing their “life of discipleship” rather than simply fulfilling a liturgical function at Mass. He pointed out that instituted acolytes help the parish priest in deepening people’s appreciation of the liturgy and bringing Communion to people who are sick or homebound; and lectors seem envisioned to be ideal laypeople tasked with breaking open the Word of God for people, such as in the catechumenate. He added that Pope Francis seemed to be inviting them to see how they interrelate to each other and work together to serve the church’s mission.

The bishops ultimately overwhelmingly approved the national directory proposal, and also accepted the committee’s amendment to get something on the instituted catechist before them in November.

The bishops then heard from Suzanne Healy, chair of the National Review Board, who exhorted the bishops to continue to build upon best practices for protecting minors from sexual abuse since their implementation of safeguarding measures known as the Dallas Charter.

But Healy also invited the bishops to take up proposals that would break valuable ground in the fight against abuse in the U.S. She said NRB members support “wholeheartedly” a proposal by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to study the credible abuse allegations reported since their last abuse study from 2011 “to learn, after decades of safeguarding implementation: how did these recent allegations happen?”

“You again have the opportunity to break ground and establish the foundation for the next evolution of safeguarding,” she said.

Healy also said the NRB members proposed a national day of prayer for 2027, the 25th anniversary of the Dallas Charter, a commemoration that “will honor the commitment to spiritual healing and restorative justice.”

But Healy also emphasized to the bishops that “there is a growing expectation — and hope — that there should be also a similar document to establish a framework” for responding to adults who allege they have been subjected to sexual abuse as adults.

She said NRB members have been fielding the question “when are we going to have standards and pastoral care for those adults who have experienced sexual or spiritual abuse as adults, not minors?”

The next presentation for the bishops meant to raise the alarm that federal immigration law and regulations were now directly impacting the Catholic Church’s ability to bring in priests and religious from other countries for ministry in U.S. parishes and dioceses.

Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Migration, reported to the bishops on the status of the federal Temporary Religious Worker Visa Immigration program. He said a priest applying for a green card today will be “forced to wait an estimated 15 years before a resident visa becomes available to him.” However, the maximum time for a temporary visa for religious workers — known as the R-1 visa — is five years.

“This is simply not sustainable for our ministries,” Bishop Seitz said, noting that dioceses were already feeling the impact, parishes were feeling devastated, and many had been left unable to plan for the future. A recent study of U.S. Catholic dioceses determined that 90% of those surveyed relied to some extent on foreign-born religious workers, with larger dioceses, rural dioceses, and metropolitan dioceses having a greater need for these workers.

Other bishops voiced from the floor that the conflicting rules were not only confusing — but could lead to them refusing to incardinate foreign-born seminarians who could end up sent back to their countries of origin shortly after ordination.

Bishop Seitz emphasized to the bishops that while federal departments were mulling some regulatory changes that could be a “partial fix,” only Congress could fix the problem, and thus, it necessitated lawmakers hear “our collective voice.”

Toward the end of the day, the bishops heard from Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and voiced their unanimous approval for his plans to open a cause for the canonization of Adele Brise, a Belgian-born immigrant from the 19th-century whose visions of the Virgin Mary Bishop Ricken had declared worthy of belief in 2010.

“The virtuous life and sanctity of Adele still has relevance to people today, first of all her simple obedience,” Bishop Ricken said June 14, saying she demonstrated “heroic obedience to her family, to her parish priest, to the bishop, to Our Lady and ultimately to Our Lord and his will for her … often accomplished by great acts of faith.”

Bishop Ricken suggested Brise serves as a model for catechesis and the new evangelization.

Finally, the bishops heard an update on the National Eucharistic Congress from Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens, board chair of the National Eucharistic Congress Inc.

Bishop Cozzens talked about how the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s four routes had given people an experience of the church “in all her multicultural beauty” noting that at their halfway point already 50,000 people — which he said was a “low estimate” — had experienced the pilgrimages. Pilgrims had also visited prisons, nursing homes and homeless shelters, given catechetical talks and testimonies, and served the poor along the way.

The bishop said they met their fundraising goals for the National Eucharistic Congress, and had sold 40,000 five-day passes for the July 17-21 National Eucharistic Congress. He said “50,000 is a sold out stadium” and they expect a sold out stadium for the weekend of the congress. He noted there were still solidarity funds left to help people attend who otherwise could not participate.

“Also everything will be livestreamed,” he said, without further specifying. He noted that individuals or groups can participate via the National Eucharistic Congress’ website and their media partners’ broadcasting.

He shared a couple important initiatives following the congress. The “Walk with One” initiative would invite Catholics to “consider walking one person back to the faith.” Another step would be to form “Eucharistic missionaries,” leveraging the tens of thousands of contacts the NEC had made, and to plan for future Eucharistic congresses.

“The hope is this will not be a one and done,” he said, adding they hope to hold another nine years from now.

Bishop Cozzens welcomed any questions or comments; hearing none, Archbishop Broglio quipped that the pressure of plane schedules, not lack of interest, was doubtless the motivating factor.

“See you all in Indianapolis!” Bishop Cozzens said cheerily as he left the podium.

The bishops then recited the Angelus and finally made their way back to their dioceses from the city known for bourbon, baseball — and for a few days — bishops.

Peter Jesserer Smith is the national news and features editor for OSV News. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @peterjesserersmith.

(Editor’s note: Story was updated on June 15 at 5:45 p.m. EST)

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