Signs of the Times

Vatican Asks Bishops to Focus on Wider Issues

Top Vatican officials are urging U.S. bishops to move beyond the sexual abuse crisis and restore their focus to the wider range of pastoral and international issues. That is the main message emerging from a series of encounters in late March between heads of curial agencies and the first group of U.S. bishops to make their ad limina visits to Rome. Bishops in the first group were from Florida, North and South Carolina and Georgia. The rest of the U.S. hierarchy will make similar visits over the next nine months, in a consultation process undertaken every five years.

This year’s ad limina visits are seen by many in Rome as an opportunity for pastoral regrouping in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal. That was the dominant theme in meetings at several Vatican congregations. On March 29, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, head of the Congregation for Clergy, told the bishops it was important to keep the sexual abuse cases in perspective.


He placed great emphasis on affirming the value of priests in our dioceses. He said that with the recent scandal, it could be very easy to lose sight of the fact that the great majority of priests were working faithfully, said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Ga. Cardinal Castrillón said we’ve got to be positive about the priesthood...we can’t allow our dioceses to be paralyzed by the [sexual abuse] crisis.

Archbishop John C. Favalora of Miami said one Vatican cardinal reminded the bishops that the U.S. church has a strong leadership role in the world and has much to offer. That is a perspective the bishops need to hear after focusing almost exclusively on the sexual abuse crisis, the archbishop said. When you’re in the center of the storm, you think that’s all there is, especially when the media keeps it in front of your eyes. It takes coming to Rome to understand thisnot that you get away from the problem, but you put it in perspective, Archbishop Favalora said.

The bishops discussed the handling of sexual abuse cases at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on March 31, but the talks there also ranged over wider topics. We don’t want to concentrate only on sexual abuse, because our competence is wider. Sexual abuse should not hijack the ministry of the church for the next 50 years, said one doctrinal official.

In discussions with Vatican officials, the bishops said pro-life issues received considerable attention. These include abortion, euthanasia, care of people in a vegetative state, advances in genetic technology and the death penalty, said Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla. Bishop Ricard said while it is recognized that church teaching on these issues may have political impact in an election year, it is important for the church to stay out of party politics.

The church is principled, not partisan. It is neither Democratic nor Republican, Bishop Ricard said. The church relates its concern with abortion as well as the death penalty. The church addresses issues at the beginning of life and at the end of life. And the church serves society best when it remains principled, when it seeks to educate, to inform, to engage and to dialogue, he said.

The bishops said they discussed in their other Vatican meetings:

formation of clergy and priesthood candidates, with an eye toward the upcoming visitation of U.S. seminaries;

the need for bilingual ministry in the South, where in many areas Hispanics make up about half the Catholic population;

proposals to legalize same-sex marriage and the church’s efforts to prevent that from happening;

the importance of catechesis, with reference to the U.S. bishops’ work on an adult catechism.

The bishops also spoke about international issues, ranging from the conflict in Haiti to the war in Iraq, during a meeting on March 30 with Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican’s foreign affairs specialist at the Secretariat of State. The agenda with Archbishop Lajolo included the role of the United States as the sole superpower, U.S. actions against terrorism, the question of preventive war and the issue of unilateralism and the role of the United Nations.

One important topic that came up in discussions at a number of Vatican offices was the increasingly multicultural makeup of the church in the United States. The immigration influx represents a great opportunity to revitalize the American church, said Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration. He said that well over 20 percent of the priests ordained in the United States last year were foreign born.

Bishops Stress Good News for Pope

U.S. bishops focused on good news when they sat down to talk with Pope John Paul II during ad limina visits in late March.

The bishops said they found the 83-year-old pontiff frailer and less verbal than in previous years, but they were certain that he was mentally attentive during their private audiences, which lasted 10 to 20 minutes. Unlike previous ad limina visits, this time the bishops were not scheduled to concelebrate Mass with the pope or dine with him in the papal apartment. That made their one-on-one meetings all the more important.

The thing that surprised me was how alert he was. He listened and asked questions about what I said. He was wonderful, said Archbishop John F. Donoghue of Atlanta. His mind is clear as a bell, Archbishop Donoghue said after his meeting on March 29.

But bishops who met the pope on March 30 said the pope seemed less energetic and less able to express himself. He takes medication for a neurological disease, and his energy level seems to vary considerably from day to day. His reactions are slower, and he’ll respond to you in one or two words, said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Ga. The pope remained seated, often nodding in affirmation at what he was told.

The pope’s first questions were always about vocations, and bishops from the Southern states found they had something positive to report. I was able to tell him that I ordained 84 priests in the past 10 years, said Archbishop Donoghue; Thank goodness I had good things to share. As for the sexual abuse crisis, the archbishop said: It didn’t come up at all. He didn’t mention it, nor did I. Bishop Boland said he told the pope he was about to ordain four priests and also reported growing interest among young people in religious life. He reached out to touch my arm, in a sign of affirmation, Bishop Boland said.

Accused Bishops Could Face Church Trial

Under a new Vatican procedure, bishops accused of sexual abuse against minors could face a church trial overseen by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Until now, cases of sexual abuse or other serious crimes against church law were reserved to the pope if the accusations involved bishops, patriarchs or cardinals, said Msgr. Charles Scicluna, an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But Pope John Paul II is delegating the handling of those cases to the doctrinal congregation, Monsignor Scicluna said. Vatican sources stressed that the prospect of a church trial is hypothetical. The expectation is that a bishop facing well-founded accusations would agree to resign rather than be tried.

News Briefs

More than 150,000 people will complete their initiation into the Catholic Church in the United States during this year’s Easter Vigil on April 10, according to figures compiled by the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Evangelization.

Pope John Paul II appealed on behalf of the sick and suffering children around the globe, saying their silent cry should stir the world’s conscience. The pope, who made children the focus of his Lenten message this year, said he was worried about the many young people who suffer from serious diseases like tuberculosis and AIDS, as well as from hunger and lack of education.

Kenya’s bishops expressed concerns about their country’s draft constitution. In their March 24 statement, the bishops criticized the inclusion of a traditional Islamic legal system. The bishops have said that religion should be kept out of the Kenyan constitution.

Passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act by the U.S. Senate drew praise from the U.S. bishops’ conference. We applaud the Senate for voting for justice for women and their children, said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, director of planning and information for the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. No woman should ever be told she lost nothing when she loses her child to a brutal attacker, Ruse added.

The Diocese of Joliet, Ill., announced on March 22 that the Rev. Thomas White has been exonerated and reinstated as a pastor after James Tibor of Naperville recanted charges of sexual abuse he had made against the priest. Father White had been placed on administrative leave on Oct. 22, in accordance with diocesan policy.

Israel’s refusal to grant residence visas to more than 130 Catholic clergy or sisters is straining relations with the Vatican, said David-Maria A. Jaeger, O.F.M., according to Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper. Jaeger, the spokesman for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, said that for the first time since Israel was established, priests have been unable to renew their visas to stay in the country. It is insufferable, he said. Some of the church personnel have lived in Israel for many years. Jaeger said many who would like to visit family members overseas are afraid to leave Israel for fear of not being allowed to return.

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11 years 8 months ago
Thanks so much for your exhortation about pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Of Many Things, 4/12). I was there last year, and I am going back this year. Yes, the Via Dolorosa is no cakewalk, but when was it ever? The Holy Land pilgrimage has become a form of adventure travel for today’s Christian, who needs to find some of the faith and courage that carried John Bunyan’s Christian on his travels in spite of terrors and difficulties. It is an unforgettable experience that will change you, spiritually, physically, politically and in every other way. I wish the church would preach pilgrimage from every pulpit. How much more rewarding it would be than yet another dreary jaunt to Las Vegas, Cancún or Disney World. This is reality—not the contrived version on television, but the real reality. There you will find the original Good Samaritans, and they really are like that.


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