My colleague Brian Roewe had a report last week on Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport and his plans to hold a diocesan synod. +Caggiano met with 500 Bridgeport Catholics, many of them delegates to the upcoming synod, to share his thoughts on the state of the diocese. Among other challenges, they face a $32 million debt, which is a challenge for +Caggiano and a big question for his predecessors: How do you rack up a $32 million debt when your diocese consists of one of the wealthiest counties in the entire country?
Bishop Caggiano has been making waves, in the good sense, since his arrival. His decision to convoke a diocesan synod is yet another piece of evidence that he is taking steps to get people moving, to generate some enthusiasm for the Church and, hopefully, help entice those who have stayed away to return, and those who have never thought about the Catholic Church or thought about the Church only in negative stereotypes, to give a second look.
I often hear reports about bishops who are out of touch with their clergy and their laity, who can be found on the golf course and are said to be a delight on the links, but whose tenure in office reflects a view that ours is a moribund local Church, destined to decline, not worth making much of a fuss about. Too often, bishops are not out visiting their parishes and schools, initiating programs for on-going faith formation, meeting with seminarians and those thinking of pursuing a vocation to the priesthood, all the things we should, rightly, expect a bishop to do, all the things the Council of Trent required bishops to do. As Pope Francis has said, the Church needs bishops who have the smell of the sheep and some bishops act more like princes, hoping to find a bottle of Eau d’Agneau at the airport duty-free. +Caggiano is not this kind of bishop.
I would add that +Caggiano is not alone. While I was away, my own ordinary, Cardinal Donal Wuerl sent one of his periodic email letters to the Catholics in our archdiocese. +Wuerl concluded an archdiocesan synod this year and last week’s letter linked to the final documents from that meeting. When the cardinal announced his plans for an archdiocesan synod, some of my more liberal friends snickered about it. They thought it sounded awfully old-fashioned and would likely be little more than a rubberstamp for whatever the chancery wanted. Of course, the fact that something is ancient does not mean it is not useful, and according to our parish’s delegate, Tony Annett, the synod was no mere rubberstamp. “The archdiocese put a lot of work into bringing together a large and diverse group of Catholics from all across the archdiocese - from all backgrounds and walks of life,” Annett told me. “This was impressive. It was a truly open and consultative process, and everyone was encouraged to voice their opinion and give feedback - including critical opinions. The whole process was also highly transparent, as synod members were invited to assess the summaries put together by ADW staff as well as the recommendations of other subgroups. All told, it was a lay driven process.” The archdiocesan synod processed some 15,000 recommendations submitted through parish structures or the archdiocesan website. Everyone had their say.
Were any of the synod’s recommendations earth-shattering? No. This was a 21st century synod not a 4th century synod and the participants were not debating the divinity of Christ. But, the process achieved what it was intended to do, it took the temperature of the parishes, it gave new energy to the whole, it imparted a sense of direction and movement. Perhaps it is simply because I am just back from Austria that I recall the words of Captain von Trapp: “Activity suggests a life filled with purpose.”
Cardinal Wuerl’s letter also included a link to a new video and pamphlet prepared by the archdiocese called “Catholic Impact.” A friend had recently given me a copy of the pamphlet. It is filled with information about all the many and varied ministries going on in our archdiocese. These ministries are, in each and every instance, the healing hands of Jesus in a broken world: educating the young, caring for the infirm, consoling the imprisoned, feeding the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless, raising up a new generation of priests to accompany the people of God. I should add that most of these works of mercy have been going on for decades, long before Pope Francis reminded us that they are at the heart of evangelization. Every parish has an inquiry program for those deciding whether or not to become Catholics and join the RCIA. I can’t think of a better way to introduce someone who is inquiring about the Church then to show them this video and give them a copy of the pamphlet to take home. (I shall post the video at the end of this blogpost.)
Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane just issued a pastoral letter based on a diocesan-wide consultation that was a synod in all but name. His “Know, Love, Serve” program brought together representatives of all the parishes and other ecclesial entities in the diocese and they began by reading Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium. Then, they made recommendations for the diocese to move forward after a bruising time, beset by clergy sex abuse scandals, recalling the local Church to its core mission of evangelization and mercy.
Several things jump out at the reader of +Cupich’s pastoral letter. First, like +Wuerl and +Caggiano, +Cupich set up a process to gauge the sentiments of the diocese and to impart some energy to the whole. To use a popular metaphor given to us by modern day capitalists, this pastoral initiative helps the people of God “buy in” to the work of the local Church. Setting out a four-year cycle of themes, +Cupich’s pastoral letter indicates what the people and clergy can expect from the bishop’s office and what the bishop expects from the parishes and the clergy. Will everything that is suggested happen and happen well? Of course not. We are human beings. But some, perhaps much, of it will happen. People will gather in their parishes to ask how they can better assist the poor. They will reflect upon the Word of God with greater regularity. They will see that their work at the parish level is connected to the work of the bishop and the wider Church. Indeed, one of the best parts of +Cupich’s letter is the way it is littered with quotes from both the Sacred Scriptures and from Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium.
Too often of late, some of our bishops whine and moan about the ambient culture but do not actually do much to get the Church moving in the dioceses entrusted to their care. Too often, the only thing non-Catholics know about the Church is that we are opposing this referendum or battling that lawsuit. Too often, some prelates strangely accept the popular narrative that the forces of secularization are so powerful, the Church is in an inevitable state of decline. And, far too often, bishops do not consult any but a few advisers who share their dark, gloomy sense of the situation of the Church today. These three bishops propose a different approach. They consult, they invite, they encourage, they tell us to get to work spreading the joy of the Gospel. For those inclined to the darker view, I would remind them that the historian searches in vain for any document written in France between, say, 1792 and 1815, that predicts the flourishing of the French Church in the rest of the nineteenth century. The Spirit is at work in the Church. If we don’t believe that, what are we doing? A bishop’s job is to help his flock go out and see where the Spirit is rustling the leaves, to listen to the soft voice that Elijah heard, to get moving, especially in the direction of the peripheries of life where we will encounter Jesus Christ in the poor and the marginalized. +Caggiano, +Wuerl and +Cupich are doing their job.
Here is the "Catholic Impact" video prepared by the Archdiocese of Washington.