November 17, 2017

Reflection / Daniel Conway

100th anniversary of bishops’ conference urges ‘looking forward’ as well as ‘looking back’

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson’s first fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as archbishop of Indianapolis was an historic occasion, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the bishops’ conference. One hundred years ago, in response to the immense human suffering and displacement of people brought about by the First World War, the American bishops came together as never before to bring the Gospel message of hope and joy to immigrants who came to the New World seeking security and a better life.

Much has changed in the past 100 years, but the bishops’ mission is the same: to be the welcoming arms of Jesus Christ for all who come to this country seeking freedom, justice and economic well-being. The bishops’ stance toward immigration was not always understood, or popular, a century ago. But it was grounded in the Church’s absolute conviction that every human person is made in God’s image and is, therefore, worthy of dignity and respect.

As Archbishop Thompson reflected on this anniversary, he noted, “Our celebration of the centenary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops marks a wonderful milestone in the collegiality and unity of the U.S. bishops with one another and the Holy Father.

“Marking the 100th anniversary of our conference, noting that each bishop is a successor to the Apostles, impresses upon me the link of my own ministry with all those who have gone before, are currently serving and to come after me. The Church in the United States has known some incredible shepherds, not the least of which includes Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget of Bardstown [Ky.] and Bishop Simon Bruté of Vincennes [Ind].”

Pope Francis’ personal representative in the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio, brought greetings from the Holy Father. But he also brought a challenge. Quoting Pope Francis’ remarks during his recent trip to Colombia, the nuncio said, “The essential things in life and in the Church are never written in stone, but remain a living legacy.”

Archbishop Pierre went on to remind bishops—once again in the Holy Father’s words—that their mission requires “passion.”

“We need to have the passion of young lovers and wise elders, a passion that turns ideas into viable utopias, a passion for the work of our hands, a passion that makes us constant pilgrims in our churches,” he said. “I ask you for passion, the passion of evangelization.”

These stirring words, and the experience of this historic meeting, prompted Archbishop Thompson to say: “I am also reminded of a prayer found in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, imploring the Lord to not leave the shepherd without a flock nor the flock without a shepherd, which only increases my gratitude for the wonderful clergy, religious and laity that make up the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Together, as members of both the local and universal Church, we are the Body of Christ called to give witness as missionary disciples to the joy of the Gospel.”

There was plenty of passion on display as the American bishops discussed at length the challenges we face today in the areas of abortion, immigration reform, racism, gun violence, physician-assisted suicide, protection for the rights of conscience among health care providers and employers and other “headline issues” of our time. Political advocacy is crucial, but so is the moral education of our people and, above all, the conversion of hearts.

As the apostolic nuncio reminded the bishops, Pope Francis urges all of us to beware of “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness.” Once again, passion, not pragmatism, is what should characterize the ministry of bishops, the successors of the Apostles called to be in “a permanent state of mission.”

Archbishop Thompson’s reflections on his own call to passionate ministry on behalf of the people of central and southern Indiana says it all: “Perhaps a personal renewal to the universal call to holiness and mission is the best way for me to celebrate this grand centennial moment in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. To that end, I ask all to please pray for me.”

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.) †

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