By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Four prelates from the United States and Canada were asked tonight to address “The Challenge of the Call to Be a Bishop in North America Today,” and while each approached the topic differently, their presentations seemed to converge on at least one point: It ain’t easy.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Bishop Donald Pelotte, of Gallup, New Mexico, Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee, and Auxiliary Bishop Richard Grecco of Toronto spoke in Los Angeles to the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
Mahony said he understood the challenge of the episcopacy, in part, to be a matter of attention to “the vital forces in human history, in the wider world, and specifically in this local church.” He identified three such forces in Los Angeles: diversity, vibrancy and movement, and suffering.
Mahony called Los Angeles the most diverse diocese in America, noting that each Sunday the Mass is celebrated in 42 languages and dialects. In that regard, he said, the challenge is to welcome such a diverse community, “member for member,” so the church “can be the Body of Christ, as the sacrament of reconciliation and peace in and to the world.”
In terms of vibrancy, Mahony described the results of a recent archdiocesan synod in Los Angeles. Among other things, that synod identified “the Eucharist and sacramental living” as a key priority.
“How do we remain a truly sacramental church with an increasing number of Catholics and a decreasing number of priestly vocations?” Mahony asked. He said he believes it involves “much more than ensuring that a certain number of Masses are celebrated in each parish.”
Specifically, Mahony said, it’s a matter of being faithful “not only to the supper command to ‘do this in memory of me,’ but also to the diaconal mandate to ‘do unto others as I have done for you.’”
As for suffering, Mahony recounted his experience in the 1960s and 1970s of being involved in bitter agricultural labor struggles led by Cesar Chavez. The majority of both the grape workers and the owners, he said, were Catholic, and both expected the church to be on their side.
At the time, Mahony said, he never thought he would see such hurt and anger again – until, he said, the sexual abuse crisis broke out.
“One form my ministry has taken,” he said, is “meeting with the victims of sexual abuse, looking at them face to face, listening to their pain, seeing the pain written in their faces, the scarring at the heart of their stories.” That experience, he said, has revealed that “this Body of Christ which I am called to oversee and serve, is a body still bearing wounds.”
Pelotte began by describing the unique nature of his diocese, one of only two in the United States that extend into more than one state.
In the case of Gallup, that’s so the diocese can include the entire Navajo nation, which includes portions of Northwestern New Mexico and Northeastern Arizona. Some 53 percent of the Catholics in the diocese, he said, are Native Americans, belonging to seven different tribes. For that reason, Pelotte said, it’s also the poorest diocese in the country, and could not survive without outside support.
The key challenge Pelotte said he faces is “promoting and empowering lay involvement and ministry in the church,” as well as systems of “collaboration and shared responsibility.” He described his diocesan pastoral council, for example, as the “local church in miniature.”
“It holds me to accountability to all, in terms of my leadership and the implementation of the pastoral decisions we have made together,” Pelotte said.
In Gallup, however, building consensus doesn’t mean just utilizing the ecclesial structures envisioned in canon law. Native American Catholics also draw on traditions from their own culture, such as a “talking circle,” to make sure the whole parish is involved in decisions that affect everyone.
Such efforts at dialogue can often be exhausting, Pelotte said, but “the key words are persuasion and consensus-building, not imposition.”
Sklba outlined a series of factors which make episcopal ministry challenging in North America:
•tBecause the Catholic church in the United States operates an extensive network of schools, hospitals, social service centers, and other institutions, bishops often find themselves “chairing dozens and dozens of corporate boards.” Efforts to make sure that these institutions operate transparently and with accountability, he said, “consumes a great deal of time and energy.”
•tPolarization in the broader society and in the church, Sklba said, often involves the bishop in “exhausting efforts to bring two parties within shouting range.”
•tIn an increasingly global church, Sklba said, a bishop must try to ensure that the voice of the rest of the church is heard in the United States. “It can be painful to discover that other parts of the church not only do not share our perspective as American Catholics, but that they even consider our concerns fundamentally flawed,” he said. Sklba said that in the midst of the sexual abuse crisis, an African Catholic warned him against “ecclesial imperialism,” meaning the assumption that America’s answers were right for the entire church. “I have been haunted by that comment,” he said.
•tReligious illiteracy in the church, Sklba said, is another serious challenge. “Contemporary Catholic experience is deeply wounded by pressing need for adult formation at every level,” he said. Too many people, he said, have “no sense of cohesive theological texture of our tradition and our faith.”
As an example of religious illiteracy, Sklba said an op/ed writer in Milwaukee recently asserted that the Catholic church refusals burial for someone who has donated an organ. When he asked the writer where he got such an erroneous idea, the writer’s answer was, “My whole family believes that’s what the church says.”
Grecco focused on the role of the bishop in reanimating parishes, saying the church in recent decades have given great attention to anthropology and to culture, meaning to the individual and the broader society, but not much to the intermediary institution of the parish.
Noting that the Vatican has recognized 120 new lay movements, Greeco implied there’s a danger that these movements could replace the concept of the parish altogether without a new vision. He stressed treating the parish as a “center of contemplation” and promotion of an “authentic personal spirituality.”
During the question and answer period, the bishops were asked to what extent the national conference is a way for them to support one another. Pelotte said that since the conference consists of around 400 bishops, “it’s difficult to get much done other than vote through documents.” He said that he finds regional meetings of bishops more useful. Mahony added that the church might consider revitalizing the ancient concept of the metropolitan province as another way for bishops to cooperate on a smaller scale.
Another questioner asked the bishops how they handle a situation of conflict between the desires of their people and the policies of the Vatican. Both Sklba and Mahony replied that sometimes the problem isn’t just Rome, but that the rest of the church doesn’t see things the same way.
“In North America, sometimes we have this impression that our pastoral priorities are priorities for the entire universal church. They’re not,” Mahony said. “It takes a great deal of patience and humility to listen to the rest of the church.”
Perhaps the best illustration of the challenges facing bishops in North America, however, came at the very end of the hour-and-a-half-long session.
A theologian from Pittsburgh said that when she was hired at her university, the president said he might end up defending her to the local bishop. She advised the president to explain to the bishop the difference between moral theology and moral catechesis. A theologian, she said, must have the room to explore, not merely reiterate official teaching. She asked the four bishops if they agreed.
After several awkward moments, none of the bishops appeared eager to respond. At that stage, Margaret O’Gara, a professor at the University of St. Michael’s College and President-Elect of CTSA, mercifully drew the evening to a close, suggesting that perhaps this was something to talk about informally.