Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Bishop Skylstad concludes term as USCCB president – a servant to his brother bishops
by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register
(From the Dec. 6, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Last month, Bishop Skylstad concluded his ministry – and it has been a ministry – to his brother bishops, serving them for three years as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and, for three years before that, as vice-president.
During a recent interview in his office, Bishop Skylstad reflected on those six years, but also on the larger picture of the ministry of a bishop in the Church today.
“For me, the bishop has responsibility not only for his own diocese, but also the larger Church,” he said.
With that responsibility comes the gift of experience, of learning.
Just as each parish has a unique character, so have each of the dioceses in which he has served – first in Yakima, in 1977, and then in Spokane, in 1990.
“Obviously, the experience of serving the diocese is very rich,” he said. He has found “a tremendous diversity among the parishes. Each parish has its own personality, gift, source of inspiration.” Beyond that, though similar, is the experience of Church on a broader scale that brings with it “a broadening of one’s vision,” he said.
Bishop Skylstad already had worked extensively in a number of committees in the bishops’ conference: Catholic Relief Services; ecumenism; Hispanic Affairs; the Catholic Campaign for Human Development; and diaconate.
The last afforded him the opportunity to speak with Pope John Paul II, during the pontiff’s first visit with a diaconal community, in Detroit. They spent a few minutes “backstage” before the public meeting, discussing the state of the diaconate.
He also has worked with the Committee for Bishops’ Life and Ministry, Priestly Life and Ministry, and a number of years on the bishops’ Domestic Policy committee.
As he phrased it, his ministry as a bishop has provided “an opportunity for learning so much.”
And what sorts of things has he learned?
As vice president of the conference, he said he experienced the ministry of the USCCB “in a very different way. That includes the work of the committees, and the general meetings.”
There is more profound involvement in the Church globally as well – meetings of the bishops of both North and South America; meetings of the Canadian and United States bishops, to share information and discuss mutual concerns, such as evangelization, catechesis, communications, and opportunities for advocacy.
There are twice-yearly meetings in Rome, with the various departments, or dicasteries, of the Vatican, to share information and insights, and to receive in return.
During those meetings, he would get “a very clear sense of the pulse of the Church Universal,” he said. “Whether it’s visiting, for example, with the offices of the Secretary of State, to see how we can better respond to the situation in the Near East, or to the lack of religious freedom in China, for example. And the wonderful privilege of meeting the Holy Father at least once a year to discuss issues of mutual concern.
He also was a delegate to the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist in Rome, and attended the meeting of the bishops of the Americas in Aparecida, Brazil, this year.
All of it provides “rich opportunities for learning.”
“You come to appreciate the complexity and the diversity of the work of the Church, on both the national and international levels,” he said. The rich range of experiences “will always be precious in my own memory.”
Economics have had an impact on the Church in Eastern Washington, but Spokane Diocese Catholics are not alone. Many dioceses in the United States have had to execute budget cuts lately, and the Conference has done the same. The recent reorganization of the USCCB has been “very significant,” he said, and the first such massive overhaul of the organization.
Despite the travel, despite the meetings, the office of president of the USCCB is not one of power, he said with a laugh. Rather, it is very much a role of service: chairing and organizing meetings (“And I’m very grateful for Robert’s Rules of Order,” he said), speaking on behalf of the Conference.
One of the most prominent examples of that public stance occurred during the bishops’ discussion and passage of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, at their meeting in Dallas in 2002. With that was the passage of the Norms, which gave “canonical clout” to the Charter’s demands and responsibilities.
The leadership roles he has fulfilled for the bishops have not been without their surprises.
“That I was even elected,” he said. “That came as a shock. I almost threw away the paper that allowed my name to be submitted” as a candidate. “I never desired the position.” He allowed his name to be included “more to fill up a slot” on the ballot, than with any expectation of election.
No one from the Northwest had ever been elected by the bishops, and only one – Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco – from the West.
On perhaps a more pleasant note – certainly, more encouraging – he found himself blessed by the other bishops’ support for his work as president. “They’ve been most gracious in terms of support, and prayers, and assistance,” he said.
Technology has made communication among them “so much easier today. There’s an almost constant conversation, back and forth, among the bishops about our responsibilities in serving the Church,” and the millions of people whom they serve.
Despite the support, however, it could still be “intimidating” to stand before “300 brother bishops, all of whom are very gifted,” said Bishop Skylstad. “You quickly learn to accept yourself as you are. You have to become comfortable in your own skin. I think I’ve really grown in appreciating criticism – not to dismiss it, but take it seriously. And making sure to maintain a balance between gifts and limitations.”
Though the USCCB president has “no authority” over any of the other bishops, he did have goals for his term of office.
“One of my goals as I began serving was: How can we all as bishops work more closely together in serving our Church? Being of assistance to one another in our mutual ministries?”
Although each bishop is different, and each diocese is different, his brother bishops often share similar challenges, similar concerns: strengthening and renewing the Church; effectively proclamation of the Gospel. “How do we address evangelization and the culture in which we live? How do we make liturgy a more vibrant part of our life as Church? How do we catechize?”
Bishops, too, on a more personal level, find their time filled and stretched, with packed schedules and commitments.
“Every bishop struggles with a frenetic schedule,” said Bishop Skylstad. The role of the bishop has become more “service oriented,” which means greater demands on a bishop’s time. “And as he makes himself more available to others, that has its own positive aspects, but it can also keep one much busier,” he said.
During Bishop Skylstad’s term as vice president, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Bellevue, Ill., was president (and is now archbishop of Atlanta). Archbishop Gregory “led the conference with great skill during a very challenging time, as we began to deal with the sexual abuse crisis in the United States. I admire tremendously his equanimity, his insights, and wisdom. He has a great sense of humor, a great wit. And that,” said Bishop Skylstad, “is part of being comfortable in your own skin.”
Succeeding Bishop Skylstad is his vice president, Cardinal Francis George OMI of Chicago, who also succeeded Bishop Skylstad as Bishop of Yakima.
“It’s been a real privilege to serve with Cardinal George,” he said. The cardinal brings to the office “tremendous world experience, intellectual ability – a great sense of Church.”
The Conference’s role on the world stage affords the bishops numerous opportunities to teach. “Advocacy,” both national and international, has been “very important,” said Bishop Skylstad. The Conference proclaims the “social teaching of the Church, for the common good.”
The Conference also does well in supporting various ministries. High on that list would be the support the Conference has given to the growth of the diaconate in the United States, which the Church in this country has experienced “on a massive scale.”
Besides pastoral letters, the Conference also brings the bishops together periodically to work “cooperatively and collaboratively on significant issues of concern.” That has led the bishops to be “more mindful of an affective collegiality, which assists us in supporting one another in prayer, reflection, and sharing,” he said.
An outgrowth of that is a move toward including time for afternoon prayer and reflection as part of the national gatherings, and opportunities to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Every few years, the bishops gather in the summer, as they did this year in Albuquerque, for “prayer and relaxation together, rather than for business – a bishops’ retreat.” The bishops have come to see that as “more and more important – to be supportive of one another, to renew ourselves.”
His last meeting as president included a number of positive notes, including the release of the new edition of “Faithful Citizenship,” a document the bishops revisit every four years. The document’s task is not to tell people how to vote; rather, it seeks to help form consciences.
This was the first year “Faithful Citizenship” was presented to the entire body of bishops for discussion and vote. It was affirmed by a margin of about 98 percent, said Bishop Skylstad. “I was tremendously pleased about that,” he said.
There is always work to be done, always ministry waiting. Even after stepping down as president, Bishop Skylstad’s life will be full, and then some.
"I’m very grateful and humbled to have served in this capacity,” he said. “My own life has been enriched. I hope that the Spokane Diocese has benefited as well.”