Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
"We are a pilgrim church"
by Bishop William S. Skylstad
(From the Dec. 2, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)
Our nation’s celebration of Thanksgiving has its roots in the pilgrim people who came to this land seeking a new life. That was almost 500 years ago. They were profoundly grateful for what they found in this new land, and appropriately Thanksgiving Day has become part of our national fabric of celebrations.
In the Church’s calendar, we have concluded a liturgical year and begin the season of Advent, another liturgical cycle to be lived and celebrated. The newness of a liturgical season has a sense of hopeful expectation about it as we prepare for the coming of the Lord Jesus. Given what we have experienced in the Catholic Church for the last couple of years, we need to look to the future with a combined sense of hope and gratitude. None of us knows the way exactly. Yet we are comforted by the reality of a good and gracious God who promises to be with us always. St. Paul reminds us that no matter what the pilgrim journey might be, God’s grace is sufficient.
I’m typing these thoughts on the flight home from Washington, D.C., and the meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Every November, the bishops meet in the nation’s capital the week before Thanksgiving. In my 27 years of attending these November meetings, this particular one will have a profound impact upon my ministry as bishop: I am humbled to have been elected as president of the USCCB. The term is for three years, so I will conclude my term in November of 2007. Elected vice-president was Cardinal Francis George OMI of Chicago, the former bishop of Yakima and former archbishop of Portland, Ore.
I have publicly stated that my first priority as bishop is my responsibility to all of you in the diocese. But flowing from that is my responsibility – our mutual responsibility – for the larger Church as well. We are all connected in the Body of Christ.
What is involved in this new role on the national level?
National meetings of the bishops’ conference are held twice a year, one in November in Washington, D.C., and the other in mid-June; that June meeting takes place in a different city each year. For example, next June, the meeting will be held in downtown Chicago, on the occasion of the centennial celebration of the Extension Society. The president of the USCCB presides over these meetings. In addition, in preparation for these meetings, an Administrative Committee, consisting of about 50 bishops, meets in March and September for two days, and a single day as well before the meeting in November. This committee consists of the chair of 14 different regions in the country and the chairs of some 35 standing committees, such as the committees on liturgy and family life.
Each April and October, the president, vice president and the general secretary of the USCCB go to Rome to meet with Vatican officials about the business of being Church. These meetings last about a week and usually include a brief meeting with the Holy Father. The meetings are very helpful in strengthening relationships and in addressing certain issues of common concern of the bishops’ conference and the various offices in the Vatican. I must say that for the past three years these meetings have been crucial as we addressed our particular situation here in the United States.
Once a year, there is a meeting in February of the executive committees of the Canadian Conference of Bishops, the USCCB, and CELAM (Episcopal Conferences of Latin America). The meeting usually last several days. We use the time to discuss mutual concerns and strengthen relationships with one another. CELAM is a united group of some 23 bishops’ conferences, from Mexico to Argentina. Some conferences are small, like Guatemala, with about 10 dioceses. CELAM also includes the largest bishops’ conference in the world: Brazil, with its 266 dioceses. (Incidentally, we have 190 in the U.S.) The place of this meeting rotates from Canada, to the United States, and then to Latin America. This February, the meeting will be held in Bogotá, Columbia.
In addition, we have a one-day meeting in late summer with the Executive Committee of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. There we discuss common issues and share information.
Since I just concluded a three-year term as the USCCB’s vice president, I’ve already been involved in all of these meetings. What will change for me is the handling of correspondence that comes with the office of president. Fax, e-mail, and overnight package delivery facilitate that responsibility. There may be a few more trips back to Washington, depending on the needs of the moment.
The president of the Conference also serves as a good ear for bishops who wish to share concerns. I hope that during my time of service to my brother bishops, I can offer support in time of need and strengthen our relationships with one another.
In the days ahead, we bishops will continue our work to implement the Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth. Also, the bishops are taking a serious look at how we might structure our general meetings to more effectively use our time together and discuss significant pastoral concerns.
I have to share with you what a privilege it has been to serve these past three years as vice-president of the USCCB with Bishop Wilton Gregory as its president. He has done a tremendous job in difficult circumstances, serving selflessly the Church in the United States. He was the right person at the right time. We all need to be very grateful for his leadership.
As we approach Advent, may God bless us with a new appreciation of our faith journey, accompanied by the presence of the celebration of Eucharist. That gift of Eucharist nourishes us and keeps us grounded in addressing the full reality of life.
Much peace and blessings to all of you. Please remember me in prayer as well.
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