Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
The bishops' summer assembly
by Bishop William S. Skylstad
(From the , 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Every three or four years, the U.S. Catholic bishops gather for a special assembly, usually in the late spring or early summer. The assemblies are hosted in different parts of the country – four years ago, for instance, we gathered in Denver.
The purpose of the gathering is not so much the administrative business of Church as it is a time dedicated more to prayer and reflection, addressing certain topics or themes. No business is to be conducted at these assemblies, but there are many different committee meetings scheduled a day or two beforehand. In addition to the special theme, a spiritual moderator shares reflections during morning and evening prayer. This year Cardinal Marc Ouellett, the Archbishop of Quebec City, was invited to fulfill that role.
This June, the assembly was held about 20 miles north of Albuquerque, in the Santa Ana Pueblo. This area of New Mexico is steeped with a rich indigenous history, and the Church has been present for over 400 years. On the last evening, we gathered at the Basilica/Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi in historic Santa Fe, about 40 miles north of where we stayed, for evening prayer and dinner. The local parish community was most hospitable and the singing for evening prayer was excellent. Many of the bishops from the East had not been in the high desert country before, so the trip and celebration was a special treat for them. Santa Fe has several historic churches, including the famous chapel with a startling wooden spiral staircase in the back, made by a stranger who built it and disappeared. No one knows his name.
The days of the assembly consisted of Morning Prayer, a presentation and discussion on a specific topic, followed by Eucharist at noon. In the later afternoon, Evening Prayer was sung, accompanied by a lengthy homily, followed by social and dinner. One of our gatherings for Evening Prayer consisted of a reconciliation service with the opportunity for private confession.
This year the focus was on four topics, one for each day, reflecting the priorities of the conference of bishops.
The first theme was faith formation and catechesis. Given the complexity of the culture and the world in which we live, the formation in our faith is very important. We must say at the outset that such a work is challenging. Many resources are now available, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. The bishops recently initiated work on a guide for catechetical texts for secondary students. Well-formulated catechetical tools, motivation, the development of skills, practical ways we can assist this effort: All of these are very important.
Some Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, a few weeks ago made the comment that we as Church know how to baptize people, but fail in evangelizing and catechizing them afterwards. That challenge falls to all of us in the Church: to continue to grow in the knowledge of our Church and our faith tradition. We live within a strong secular culture. How we grow in knowledge of our Church and our faith tradition remains a challenge, a challenge we must take seriously.
On the second day, the theme focused on family and marriage. The ordinary family has been under a lot of pressure from several directions. Marital breakup still is quite high; only about 50 percent of first marriages in our society are successful. Some of you have certainly experienced the hurt and pain of such marital failure. The Church must find ways of being supportive of couples, especially in the early stages of their marriage.
Yet support and sensitivity to those whose marriages fail is an important part of our being Church. We strive to prepare couples well through workshops and movements like Engaged Encounter. Sometimes motivation is not high at this stage of preparation, but the Church tries to take seriously preparing couples for this wonderful, yet challenging sacrament. Enrichment programs like Marriage Encounter assist couples after several years of marriage. Retrouvaille assists couples whose marriage is struggling.
While traveling to Albuquerque, a stewardess saw my bright yellow (great for identification) Marriage Encounter tag on my computer bag. She told me how that experience saved her marriage. One of the bishops in Albuquerque made the comment in discussion that of all the vocations to support, marriage is the most important.
Our third theme discussed vocations to priesthood and consecrated life. The constant refrain in the presentations and discussion was the need to develop a culture for vocations. One bishop from a large diocese commented to me that the culture in the diocese he serves is not supporting vocations native to his diocese. We need constantly to assess our attitudes in this regard.
The final theme focused on the need to enhance and protect human life from the moment of conception to natural death. I am proud of the Church’s work in this effort, but we have so much more to do. Violence toward human life takes so many forms in our culture, and as Pope John Paul II stated in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, we have much work to do to promote the culture of life. We have the message and the organization to continue to do something about that challenge.
These four themes provide all of us material for summer reflection and prayer. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I hope that we as a local Church can accept these challenges in a positive way as we build for the future.
Blessings and peace to all
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