Bishops’ fall meeting brings Hispanic moment

The fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was the one where Hispanics came into their own.

The bishops elected a Latino, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, as vice president of the conference, with a good chance that, following USCCB tradition, he will be chosen president three years from now.

They launched the Fifth National Encuentro — a nationwide consultation on Hispanic ministry that is to take place in parishes and dioceses starting early next year and that culminates in September 2018 in a national gathering in Fort Worth, Texas. The launch featured a filmed message from Pope Francis.

The bishops heard a report on new research on growing cultural diversity in the Church, then discussed its implications at length in a daylong closed-door session. Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. now number over 30 million in a total Catholic population of 68 million and make up 60 percent of the Catholics under the age of 18. And although the bishops left no doubt that they’re prepared to work with the administration of President-elect Donald J. Trump on matters where they agree, they also said repeatedly that they will remain advocates on behalf of migrants and refugees.

Pope and president

Along with its emphasis on Hispanics and Hispanic issues, the Nov. 14-16 assembly was notable for the pervasive presence of two men who weren’t physically there: Pope Francis and the president-elect.

For three years now, reporters who cover the bishops have routinely measured the hierarchy by what they call the “Francis effect,” how well or poorly the bishops mirror the impact that journalists think Pope Francis should be having on them.

By that standard, this gathering of the USCCB passed the test with flying colors. Time and again, in rhetoric and substance, the bishops dutifully reflected the pope in what they said and did.

Episcopal interventions were full of words like “mercy,” “peripheries,” “encounter” and “accompany” — all of them terms much favored by Francis. The bishops also adopted a USCCB strategic plan for 2017-20 conference activities bearing the Franciscan title “Encountering the Mercy of Christ and Accompanying His People with Joy.”

As for the pope’s impact on substance, that, too, often was visible.

Consider the planning for still another big Church gathering, this one to be held next July in Orlando. It will bring together some 3,000-4,000 lay leaders, bishops and others for discussions on the future of the Church with Pope Francis’ 2013 document Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) as their guide.

Among other things, said Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, one of the planners of the convocation, it will seek to close the “pro-life/social justice divide” between groups of activists who don’t always see eye-to-eye on what the Church should be doing.

Mixed feelings

Missing from the USCCB assembly’s open agenda and apparently from the executive session agenda as well, however, was discussion of the pope’s document on marriage, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), whose interpretation remains a matter of controversy in some quarters.

As for Trump, the bishops shared the general uncertainty about what he will actually do once he takes office. Clearly, they welcome his stated intention to pursue pro-life policies — for example, by naming pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court and leaving the Hyde amendment barring federal funding of abortions intact.

But on migrant issues, where the president-elect lately has talked about swiftly deporting several million of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, the hierarchy is either iffy or opposed.

In his presidential address, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, outgoing president of the USCCB, hinted at the bishops’ mixed feelings:

“Whether it is protecting the child in the womb and her mother or a family seeking a better life as they migrate from another country, it is our task not to think of our own interests but of the common good. We embrace that task with enthusiasm and enter respectful dialogue with President Donald Trump and with both houses of Congress.”

Trump also has talked about getting rid of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature national health insurance law. For years the bishops have supported the concept of universal health coverage, but they fought the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate under which many Church-related institutions, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor homes for the elderly, would have to facilitate coverage of contraception and abortifacient drugs in employee health plans.

Asked at a news conference where the bishops stand after Trump’s election, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, newly elected president of the USCCB, repeated their opposition to contraception and abortion but said “we are in favor of care for people,” especially the poor.

Needed leadership

Hispanics weren’t the only minority group to be given special attention at this bishops’ meeting. Instead of celebrating Mass together in Baltimore’s historic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as they’ve done in years past, the bishops concelebrated in St. Peter Claver Church in west Baltimore. Established in 1888, St. Peter Claver is the largest African-American congregation in the city and has a tradition of civil rights activism.

During the meeting, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, head of a bishops’ task force established earlier this year in the wake of violence following the killing of black men and police in several cities, expressed hope for the early issuance of a new bishops’ document on racism.

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The bishops also chose chairmen-elect of several committees, who will take over as chairmen a year from now: Bishop Robert P. Deeley of Portland, Maine, canonical affairs and Church governance; Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania, ecumenical and interreligious affairs; Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles, evangelization and catechesis; Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, international justice and peace; and Bishop Timothy L. Doherty of Lafayette, Indiana, protection of children and young people.

Before his election as Conference vice president, Archbishop Gomez had been slated to become chairman of the bishops’ migration committee. To replace him in that capacity, the bishops elected Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin.

But if this was a Hispanic-themed bishops’ meeting, talk of mass deportation wasn’t the only looming threat. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, papal nuncio in the United States, spoke of the urgent need to evangelize youth. And at the end of the discussion of the Fifth Encuentro, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston rose to speak darkly of Hispanic attrition from the Church. Young Latinos are badly underrepresented in Catholic schools and religious education programs, he noted, adding: “We really need to reach out to them.”

What happened in Baltimore was reaching out up to a point. Much evidently remains to be done.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.