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Michael J. O’LoughlinNovember 14, 2023
Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks during a news conference at a Nov. 14, 2023, session of the bishops' fall general assembly in Baltimore. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

Two high-ranking church officials offered differing assessments of the U.S. church’s level of commitment to Pope Francis’s signature church renewal initiative on Tuesday, with the pope’s representative urging a greater emphasis on listening and synodality and the president of the bishops’ conference defending evangelization efforts.

In his first address to U.S. bishops since the conclusion of the first part of the Synod on Synodality, Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the United States, encouraged the U.S. hierarchy to embrace a listening church and to strive for unity in order to better serve the faithful.

The Synod on Synodality, which last month wrapped up a weeks-long listening session in Rome that included bishops, priests, members of religious communities and lay people, served as an opportunity to discuss questions about the future of the church. Pope Francis launched the consultative process in 2021, and it will conclude next October in Rome. The pope is expected to release a document after next year’s meeting that will summarize the findings and offer ideas for implementation.

Supporters of the initiative say that the synod gives voice to Catholics who have historically not felt welcome or heard in the church, though some critics have said that the real goal is to change church teaching on a range of issues under the guise of listening.

Two high-ranking church officials offered differing assessments of the U.S. church’s level of commitment to Pope Francis’s signature church renewal initiative on Tuesday.

Speaking to the plenary session of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gathered this week in Baltimore, Cardinal Pierre urged bishops to embrace the listening model of church, even if outcomes are uncertain and shaped by the stories of those whose experiences differ from their own.

“We must have the courage to listen to people’s perspectives, even when those perspectives contain errors and misunderstandings,” Cardinal Pierre said. “If we stay on the journey with people, the moment of enlightenment will come as a work of God’s grace.”

The nuncio acknowledged that the synodal process had raised concerns among some church leaders, echoing remarks he made in a recent interview with America.

“We may have had fears or anxieties about this synod, especially if we were focusing on a particular ‘agenda’ or ‘idea,’ whether negative or positive,” he said. “But this is not what synodality is about.”

Instead, he said, synodality is about “evangelizing today’s world, which is in such desperate need of the Gospel of hope and of peace.”

The president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who participated in the synod last month, said in his remarks that the church in the United States is already synodal. Later, speaking to reporters, the archbishop took issue with Cardinal Pierre’s assessment of the U.S. church.

Archbishop Broglio in his presidential address seemed to downplay the notion that the church in the United States needed to adopt new structures as it relates to synodality, and he offered a robust defense of its efforts at evangelization.

He said that during the synod, he reflected “on the many synodal realities that already exist in the church in the United States.” Among the examples he pointed to were the regular gatherings of bishops, diocesean pastoral councils and U.S.C.C.B. committees.

“At least those [committees] on which I have served, the interaction among bishops, staff and consultants have been active, healthy and extremely useful,” he said. “While it is true that only the bishop members vote, they do so after a robust exchange among all of the participants.”

He also said church leaders “strive to meet people and find ways to invite them to participate in the life of the community of faith” and praised priests “on the front lines of these efforts” who are “on fire with the Gospel.” The archbishop also highlighted several programs that “contribute to the new evangelization,” including Focus, Evangelical Catholic and Reach More.

Still, Archbishop Broglio left open the idea that new structures or methods of consulting the lay faithful may be needed.

“That is not to say that we do not have to grow and open ourselves to new possibilities,” Archbishop Broglio said, “but we recognize and build on what is already present. We open our hearts to the action of the Holy Spirit, and we listen to that voice.”

Both Archbishop Broglio and Cardinal Pierre acknowledged divisions in the church, though with different viewpoints about how that division plays out.

In an interview with America published Nov. 2, Cardinal Pierre suggested that bishops are “struggling” to find ways to evangelize in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

The cardinal, 77, who began his mission to the United States in 2016, also expressed doubt in the interview about how seriously some U.S. bishops have taken up the pope’s call to become a missionary church.

“There are some priests and religious and bishops who are terribly against Francis as if he was the scapegoat [for] all the failures of the church or of society,” Cardinal Pierre said.

In his talk on Tuesday, Cardinal Pierre said Catholics need bishops “to be united with one another. They need to see how our diversity, harmonized, displays the beauty of the church and of the Catholic faith.”

Cardinal Pierre also tied the synod to the ongoing eucharistic revival, a series of meetings promoted by U.S. bishops aimed at increasing understanding of church teaching about the Eucharist among the U.S. faithful. The initiative, which has been criticized by some Catholics for its cost and effectiveness, will culminate with a national gathering next year in Indianapolis.

“I believe that we will have true eucharistic revival when we experience the Eucharist as the sacrament of Christ’s incarnation: as the Lord walking with us together on the way,” the nuncio said.

Archbishop Broglio also spoke about unity in his remarks, though he acknowledged that there may not be a single approach to evangelization.

“We are unified in our commitment to Jesus Christ and his Gospel,” he said. “We may approach the mission in different ways, but we are convinced that our mandate is to bring everyone to an experience of Jesus Christ, which leaves no one indifferent or the same.”

Responding to a question during the press conference about Cardinal Pierre’s interview with America, Archbishop Broglio said he disagreed with the nuncio’s assessment that the church in the United States is struggling with evangelization or synodality. He said participating in the synod was a positive experience for him and other U.S. bishops and that the synod process remains one of two “major concerns” for the church in the United States, along with the eucharistic revival.

“Certainly, our churches are not empty—yet,” Archbishop Broglio said. “We’re trying our best to make sure that continues to be the case.”

“So I think there might be a little bit of a dichotomy between what was presented in that article and what the reality is,” he continued. “That’s my perception. He’s open to his opinion, and I’m open to mine.”

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