November 30, 2007


American bishops focus on leadership and pastoral priorities

(Listen to this editorial being read)

When the U.S. bishops met in Baltimore for their annual meeting on Nov. 12-15, their discussions were not “business as usual.”

While they engaged in many of the same activities as in years past, everything the bishops discussed took place in the context of a new focus—the pastoral priorities they established during several years of intense planning and discussion.

These priorities include:

  • Implementation of the pastoral initiative on marriage.
  • Faith formation focused on sacramental practice.
  • Priestly and religious vocations.
  • Life and dignity of the human person.
  • Recognition of cultural diversity with special emphasis on Hispanic ministry.

As a result of this new focus, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is reshaping itself into an organization that is reduced in size—up to 30 percent smaller—and requires less annual support from dioceses throughout the United States (an overall reduction of 16 percent).

In his opening remarks during the annual meeting, the outgoing USCCB president, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., offered some reflections on the important leadership role that the USCCB is called to exercise on behalf of the Church in the United States.

“As I complete my own service of leadership to this body,” Bishop Skylstad said, “it seems to me that one of the great challenges to our society and culture is increasingly one of just that—leadership.”

Contrasting the Christian understanding of leadership as service with the age-old tendency to view leadership exclusively in terms of power, he went on to say: “Our collective [U.S.] history during the past few decades is one marked heavily by divisions.

“Our politics have been very closely contested, and the resulting bitterness has been palpable. In our age of exploding communications, the rhythm of discourse, of reflection, and of expression has heightened the scrutiny and sometimes the bitterness surrounding many issues and decisions. This, to be sure, is characteristic of both the left and right, believers and not. It has led to a conception of leadership in certain circles, not as a service to the common good, but as a means to victory and dominance.”

That is not the kind of leadership that Catholic bishops are called to exercise.

Looking to the words and example of Jesus Christ, Bishop Skylstad said that the USCCB should reflect “a deep and Christ-like vision of leadership” that is fundamental to everything the bishops say and do.

“Christ has called us, as successors of the Apostles, to be his voice in our time,” he said. “And our time needs to hear the voice of Christ. … We cannot shrink from our calling to be shepherds, to be leaders.”

What are some of the ways that the USCCB responds to the call to pastoral leadership?

Certainly by working to promote vocations to ordained ministry, consecrated life and lay ecclesial ministry.

By educating adults, youth and children in our Catholic faith—especially in the sacramental life of the Church.

By continuing to be clear about the fundamental injustice of abortion and of sacrificing sacred human lives at their earliest moments for the sake of supposed progress in medicine and science or for convenience.

By seeking to move minds and hearts to care for those who are needy and disadvantaged. By speaking the truth to all our elected leaders, and to those whose policies affect our society and our world, which so longs for justice and equity.

By serving as teachers who advocate a moral tradition that can shape and inform the full range of public policy issues—from marriage and family issues, to matters of life and human dignity, to immigration reform, to matters affecting war and peace.

This is the focus given to the USCCB by its recently articulated list of five pastoral priorities.

But Bishop Skylstad went on to say that Catholic bishops are called to a distinctive style of leadership following the example of Jesus Christ.

“He came among us and lived with us in a way that proclaimed the truth, but he did so first and foremost by example,” Bishop Skylstad said. “Without compromise, Christ reached out with love and patience. But his leadership was not one that measured success moment to moment. It was a service, summarized by the magnificence of the washing of the feet, of the prayer for unity, and of submission of himself to the cross for us, in accordance with the will of his Father.”

This is not a leadership style that many would regard as successful.

“But with the eyes of faith, and not of the world, it is precisely that,” Bishop Skylstad said. “And that is the model we are called to emulate.”

All Catholics in the United States should pray that our bishops achieve their objective—to lead as Jesus did by word and example.

May the priorities established by the USCCB guide their work on behalf of our Church and our nation. “That in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Pt 4:11).

—Daniel Conway

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