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Earthly and heavenly concerns dominate meeting of U.S. Catholic bishops in St. Louis

Two hundred fifty U.S. Catholic bishops are meeting in St. Louis this week to discuss earthly and heavenly concerns, ranging from the airborne danger posed by drones, to the smuggling of migrants on turbulent seas, to the environmental impact of underground shale oil recovery. The bishops say their concerns will be tempered to model Pope Francis' emphasis on the gospel themes of love and mercy.

The formal 2015 spring General Assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops begins its hard work in committees, much like Congress does. On Monday at the Hyatt Regency downtown, some three dozen committees and sub-committees began candid discussions after hearing the views and research of experts and theologians. No sessions are open to the public; the Wednesday day-long and Thursday morning sessions will be open to news reporters.

The administration will not set an agenda  until late Tuesday when most of the three dozen committees, sub-committees, ad hoc committees and agency boards have met and asked for time at the assembly’s microphone. 

On Wednesday — when the group's president, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, rocks his gavel to open the formal session — much of the program will be updates on the yearlong work from the committees. Any votes or decisions will likely require just a tweaking: a word change or a paragraph to amend a document. 

Knowing the exact agenda in advance matters little to Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore. He’s been coming to the assemblies for nearly 10 years, and he has a worldview far wider than his diocese. He is the former director of the pontifical mission for Palestine in Jerusalem. He chaired a committee on ecumenical and interreligious affairs and is an author of books on clinical psychology.

During an interview at the hotel on Sunday evening,  Madden said he always has much to learn from other bishops and experts. 

“It is mostly about fraternity,” he said.

Worldly concerns

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will update the assembly on plans for Pope Francis’ visit to his city in September for the long-planned World Meeting of Families.

U.S. bishops have been encouraging families in their dioceses to participate for more than two years, but interest zoomed when Francis confirmed that he was attending. 

Bishops at the St. Louis conference will hear a preview of the pope's  emphasis on the role of parents as the primary evangelizers to their children, the theme of the meeting in Philadelphia. Alice and Jeffrey Heinzen of LaCrosse, Wis., official lay observers at the Vatican’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family last fall, will report on the synod. Two other married Catholic couples will discuss the role of the family at the assembly.

Peter Wyse Jackson
Peter Wyse Jackson

Peter Wyse Jackson, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, will talk to one agency board and its staff about how botanical research gardens can work with development agencies. He would like to see a partnership that would educate people in the Third World about heating alternatives to the traditional, disastrous cutting and burning of their forests. He will address the quarterly meeting of the board of Catholic Relief Services at the garden.

One set-in-stone agenda item is a brief update on immigration, a passionate cause of the assembly for decades. And Pope Francis has now put immigration in the spotlight. U.S. bishops have been cooperating with Mexican and Central American bishops, dramatically saying Mass together across the border fence to awaken their nations to the devastating toll poverty-powered immigration has on children and family life.

Every four years — before each U.S. presidential election — the bishops publish a booklet “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which urges Catholic voters to look at ethical issues in choosing political candidates. Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston likely will propose revisions to the pamphlet to include issues like single-sex marriage; the Cuban blockade, long opposed by the bishops; and the impact of international debt on the poor.   

Church concerns

In the hallways of the Hyatt Regency on Sunday evening, it was apparent that bishops were talking about the latest cases connected to child sexual abuse. Last week in Minnesota, Ramsey County attorney John Choi criminally charged the St. Paul archdiocese for its “contribution to the unspeakable harm" to children. The abuser, former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, is in prison for abusing three minors.
Some visiting bishops have pushed Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn to resign after a western Missouri judge found Finn guilty of failing to report a priest suspected of child abuse. Missouri law and the bishops’ own Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth mandate swift reporting to civil authorities.  

The assembly will vote on just one item: a new English translation of the Catholic daily prayers called the “Canticles for the Liturgy of the Hours.” It’s the result of a decades-long translation effort overseen by a committee of English-speaking bishops selected by the Vatican that bishops must approve before distribution. Catholics in the pews are sensitive to these changes.

June meetings are a bit more relaxed than those in the fall. There's time for coffee, lunch or dinner to share “best practices” about tasks ranging from recruitment to the priesthood to financial housekeeping.

Local flavor

St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson has chaired several committees for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in past years.
St. Louis Public Radio
Archbishop Robert Carlson

St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson has served on many committees or sub-committees and is well liked among the bishops. On Sunday, he led a Corpus Christi procession down Lindell Boulevard while his chancellor Nancy J. Werner and other office staff were assisting national staff at the hotel.

One New England bishop greeted this reporter with a question about the name of an Italian restaurant he wanted to visit. A dozen bishops are going to spend an evening viewing the Chinese lanterns at the Missouri Botanical Garden.   

Green Bay Bishop David Ricken conveyed the thoughts of many when he tweeted, “Would you please keep us in your prayers?”

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Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.