Wednesday, December 04, 2019

With Malone Ouster, Buffalo Is Vacant

10.30am – Beginning by saying that "this family is in need of a tremendous amount of healing" following 22 months of crisis, now capped by today's resignation of Bishop Richard Malone, below is on-demand video of this morning's first local appearance of the newly-named apostolic administrator of Western New York, Bishop Ed Scharfenberger of Albany; the Buffalo Chancery press conference extends for over an hour:



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(6.01am ET) And now, it's official – as first reported here on Monday, at Roman Noon this Wednesday the Pope has accepted the resignation of Richard Malone as 14th bishop of Buffalo, and named Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany as apostolic administrator until the 15th bishop takes office.

Both moves have immediate effect.

On a context front, while unnamed allies of the now-departed prelate have misled some Western New York outlets into portraying Malone's ouster as some sort of "early retirement," for clarity, it bears emphasizing that no such arrangement exists in the Catholic Church. Under canon law, a bishop resigns his office for one of two reasons: either upon reaching the age of 75, or otherwise due to ill health or another "grave reason" which has inhibited his ability to effectively govern.

Having become the sixth head of a US diocese to resign over his handling of abuse allegations since his hometown mentor, Cardinal Bernard Law, left the archbishopric of Boston 17 years ago next week, Malone nonetheless holds the title of "bishop emeritus" of Buffalo, and the diocese will remain responsible for his upkeep and living costs. According to the 2010 update to the USCCB norms on resigned or retired US bishops, a bishop emeritus is to receive a stipend of at least $1,900 a month, adjusted higher should the local cost of living index demand it.

Already said to be at his personal home on Cape Cod ahead of today's announcement, the extent of Malone's public role and activity – that is, to the degree that he seeks it – will be decided with his permanent successor, in consultation with the Holy See.

Switching gears, now tasked with beginning to right the ship – and facing tough calls that begin with the likelihood of seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy amid a crush of over 200 abuse lawsuits, to say nothing of an ongoing FBI investigation into the diocese – Scharfenberger is expected to appear at the Buffalo Chancery this morning to meet with the diocese's staff and, likely, hold a press conference.

While it is not unheard of for a Rome-tapped administrator to figure among the possibilities for the permanent successor, at 71, the Albany prelate is ostensibly beyond the preferable age for Buffalo's next bishop, who will need to provide stability over the mid-range future. At the same time, two names among the handful already cited in church circles as potentially matching the identikit for the post – Bishops Lawrence Persico of Erie and Gregory Hartmayer of Savannah (a Western New York native who joined the Conventual Franciscans) – are respectively 69 and 68.

As ever, more to come.

SVILUPPO (6.50am): Pledging himself to "a lot of listening and learning" in the interim role, Scharfenberger will appear at a 10.30am press conference – livefeed to come.

For his part, meanwhile, in a three-page statement on Rome's announcement of his resignation, Malone continued to mischaracterize his resignation as an "early retirement" while admitting "that the spiritual welfare of the people of the diocese of Buffalo will be better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed.

"It is my honest assessment that I have accomplished as much as I am able to," he said, "and that there remain divisions and wounds that I am unable to bind and heal."

As bishop-emeritus, he said he plans to remain living in the diocese.

For more context and the general state of play, shortly after the announcement, a familiar voice for this crowd showed up on Buffalo's WBEN news-radio:


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Monday, December 02, 2019

Dear Buffalo: It’s Over – Capping Year of Scandal, Malone Set To Resign

After a year and a half of crisis and torment for the 570,000 Catholics of Western New York, the wait is over – on Wednesday, the diocese of Buffalo is set to fall vacant upon the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone in the wake of a staggering outbreak of scandals.

The first and most important outcome of October’s Apostolic Visitation of the Buffalo church, four Whispers ops confirm the report first delivered to this scribe early yesterday.

Beyond announcing the Pope’s acceptance of Malone’s resignation at 73, house sources likewise indicate that the Holy See is to name Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany as apostolic administrator of Buffalo until a permanent replacement is installed.

Set to be granted the full faculties of the diocesan bishop for the duration of the vacancy – a significant contrast to an interim leader elected by the local Consultors – the Albany prelate is notably a product of Brooklyn, whose Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio conducted the Buffalo Visitation on Francis’ behalf.

For clarity, while the groundwork is already being prepared under these provisions, it nonetheless remains the case that – however unlikely – anything can change until an announcement is formally made by the Holy See, and no move has any legal effect until that point. Accordingly, in the process of reporting this story, one op relayed that the Wednesday time-frame for Malone's departure was not the initial planned date for it.

At the same time, no indication has been received on the future of Buffalo’s lone auxiliary, Bishop Edward Grosz, whose role in being the first point of contact on abuse allegations has come in for heavy criticism over the last year.

As the focus now turns to the succession, two things bear noting. First, all indications are that the process shouldn’t take too long – as reported here upon the Visitation’s launch, with the vacancy now triggered, the Roman investigation’s report will essentially comprise the opening stage of the search: the required consultation of the diocese’s rank-and-file, which establishes the state and needs of the local church. Beyond that, given the keen awareness in several quarters that the situation has already been dragged out to excess, it’s to be expected that the Buffalo file will be placed ahead of the nation’s 20 other diocesan openings in being processed through the Washington Nunciature and Congregation for Bishops with all possible speed.

Along these lines, as Whispers reported to the page’s stakeholders in their November briefing, with informal conversations on potential Malone successors having been underway in significant circles over the last several months, a rough frame of possible choices is already well in the works.

Beyond the now globally-known festival of misconduct – which, beyond charges of a cover-up of abuse cases, included what Malone himself termed a “love triangle” involving the bishop’s priest secretary, another cleric and a seminarian – as well as the general fury and distrust of the people (which saw 86 percent of locals in a Buffalo News poll call for the embattled prelate's ouster, and Malone's halt to publishing his calendar of public events due to protests at his appearances), the diocese’s financial and legal future have come to loom heavily on the scene, even beyond an ongoing FBI investigation.

Already a defendant in over 200 lawsuits filed under New York State’s one-year “window” suspending the civil statute of limitations, Buffalo is widely perceived as the most likely Empire State see to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, following the diocese of Rochester’s filing shortly after the “window” opened in August. According to one internal projection obtained by Whispers, a majority of the New York province’s eight sees could end up following suit as the decades’ worth of litigation piles up over the next nine months.

Lastly, however delayed it might be in the eyes of most observers, Malone’s ouster is likely to satisfy the consensus sentiment of the US bishops, one of whom called the now-departing prelate a “shit-storm” as the Buffalo crisis wore on, while several others have voiced exasperation in asking “What on earth is taking so long?” over the last year.

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All that said, though Malone’s departure has been prematurely heralded elsewhere at various points over these last months, for the purposes of these pages – guided as ever by a sense of process – it was simply impossible for Whispers to report the move until a decision and date were firmly in hand….

And so, here we are.

With thanks to the donors who’ve kept the shop afloat this far, with another process now at hand – and no shortage of other threads on tap, to boot – as ever, these pages only keep coming your way through your support:


SVILUPPO (9pm ET): And now, 15 months since the first alerts on Malone's handling of cases were reported by Buffalo's WKBW, earlier tonight this scribe talked the road ahead with the colleague whose diligent, often thankless work brought Rome to this moment, Charlie Specht:


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For Alberto, The "Empire" – Capping Long Transition Plan, Chicago Aux. To San Bernardino

In the space of just four decades, the church in Southern California's "Inland Empire" based in San Bernardino has grown at a nearly unparalleled rate in modern times: today, the two-county diocese's 1.8 million Catholics now comprise a fold as large as Brooklyn, and just slightly smaller than Boston – all told, American Catholicism's sixth-largest outpost, now some seven times its size upon its founding in 1978.

And now, for just the second time since then, San Bernardino is under new management... or will be soon – at Roman Noon, in a surprise pick, the Pope named Bishop Alberto Rojas (above), the 54 year-old auxiliary of Chicago, as coadjutor to Bishop Gerald Barnes. The Mexican-born choice (de Aguascalientes), who came to the US as a seminarian before his ordination in 1997, will succeed Barnes at the mammoth see's helm shortly after the veteran incumbent – who's led the diocese since 1996 – reaches the retirement age of 75 next June.

The culmination of a two-year transition plan charted by the East LA-bred Barnes, his succession has fallen to the only active Hispanic auxiliary in any of the nation's three largest dioceses. In other words, with Rojas' promotion, the only active Latino prelate serving in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago will – at least, for the short-term future – be LA's Archbishop José Gomez, now the USCCB President. While that reality underscores the immense docket-wide challenge of meeting demand for native sons to minister to American Catholicism's de facto rising majority, it's likewise no accident that Rojas – a soft-spoken type whose low profile on the wider scene (until now) belies the affection with which he's regarded both at home and among the bench – has been sent to a charge whose Latin contingent is among the nation's largest, with Hispanics comprising some three-quarters of San Bernardino's faithful.

At the same time, even as the Pope's pick has overseen two of Chicago's six ample-sized regions in turn since his 2011 appointment as an auxiliary to Cardinal Francis George, the incoming Californian nonetheless faces a remarkable change of scale. For one, it's been a decade since a Stateside prelate has been catapulted into a post of this size without experience as a diocesan bishop. Yet what's more, while the now-retired Bishop Rutilio del Riego still lends a hand with Confirmations and other functions, Rojas will have no active auxiliary upon becoming the third bishop. (By contrast, San Bernardino's more established peers in terms of size each have four or more active deputies.)

Home to an unusually collaborative ecclesiology – the fruit of Barnes' lifelong premium on forging consensus (and asking questions) – the Inland church's growth and the unusually public transition planning have combined to leave no shortage of decisions for Rojas upon his ascent. Among others, Barnes has reportedly left to his successor whether the diocese should embark on building a new cathedral given the relative inability of the 700-seat Our Lady of the Rosary (a parish church at the founding) to host major events due to its space limitations amid the ongoing boom. At the same time, though the growth has occasionally led to rumblings that the diocese could be split, with its Riverside County half spun off, that notion is currently on ice amid a prevalent sense that two separate local churches would have difficulties being financially solvent on their own.

On another logistical front, San Bernardino faces the challenge of finding and forming sufficient priestly vocations to serve the growth. Accordingly, it's notable here that the incoming bishop spent nearly a decade on the faculty of Mundelein Seminary, and has taken a lead role on Hispanic vocations as Chicago's lead Latin prelate.

His Welcome Mass reportedly set for mid-February, Rojas will be introduced to his charge-to-be at a 10am Pacific press conference:



While the naming of coadjutors does not impact the US' docket-totals in the immediate sense, as of today, five Stateside dioceses are vacant, with another dozen led by (arch)bishops serving past retirement age. To broad shock, the former count increased yesterday with the sudden death at 59 of Bishop Paul Sirba of Duluth from a cardiac arrest as the Minnesota prelate was preparing for morning Mass in a local parish.

All told, the current pile-up of pending moves is merely a prelude to the "generational wave" set to hit through the next two years, over which time Francis will have a rare ability to recast the American hierarchy as more than 50 diocesan seats – nearly 30 percent of the nation's 179 Latin-church postings – come open due to age-outs and upward movement.

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Monday, November 25, 2019

In the Blast Zone: "No" To Nukes... "Hai" To "The Faith 'In Dialect'"

Over Francis' nearly eight years on Peter's Chair, a critical emphasis of his pontificate on the wider scale has been a concerted effort to burnish the Holy See's "soft power" – the degree to which the church's geopolitical emphases are heeded on the world stage not through economic nor military might, but as a moral arbiter with a standing able to convene disparate interests.

Of course, the push has notched some remarkable achievements, above all in facilitating the US' Obama-era opening to Cuba, and playing a key role in securing the global consensus that brought the 2015 approval of the Paris climate accords. Specifics aside, though, what the marked increase in papal advocacy has wrought is that, to a degree last seen at the zenith of John Paul II after the fall of Communism, when The Man in White speaks, the world's leaders pay attention.

Ever aware that diplomatic capital has its limits, and constrained by the Holy See’s status as a neutral entity in international law, while Francis & Co. have largely aimed their spotlight toward the general imperatives of the Gospel – welcoming migrants, seeking peace, defending the poor – this weekend brought a prominent shift from the usual, as Papa Bergoglio amplified the already-formidable heft of his office with the powerful optics of Ground Zero at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, using his stops at the sites of the nuclear annihilation of August 1945 to urge the worldwide abolition of atomic weapons.

As if the scene itself wasn't enough, Francis punctuated the moment even further by making his first-ever use of the prayer to be made "an instrument of your peace" often cited as being written by his patron (even if, in reality, it most likely wasn't).

Accompanied by another repetition of the pontiff's now-standard warning that, already, "a third World War is being waged piecemeal," Sunday's statements on nuclear war are but the culmination of the Holy See's increasing alarm, mostly expressed at lower levels over recent years amid developments on several fronts.

Yet more than the individual outbreaks of concern – whether sparked by the great powers or smaller states desiring a lane in the arms race – for the Vatican, the urgency of seeking a total nuclear ban is underpinned by the general sense the Pope underscored today: namely, that "we are witnessing an erosion of multilateralism" which, "made even more grave in the face of the development of new technologies for arms," threatens to diminish the reserve of state-level actors and erase the progress toward disarmament made over the last three decades.

Significant as the messaging is on the global stage, the Pope's call nonetheless had an even more loaded resonance for his hosts in their current context. Over the last year, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun to pursue a controversial bulk-up of the nation's Self Defense Forces – a plan that would require a significant reversal of Japan's pacifist constitution, enacted after World War II, which explicitly "renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation" and stipulates that the country's "war potential" in terms of weaponry "will never be maintained."

As the memorial-sites of the nuclear blasts stand as the most powerful reminder of the consequences of Japan's last militarized age, a papal plea of "Never again!" at that very spot is about as close as you'll get to an on-site Vatican intervention in domestic politics.

The Pope was slated to have his customary bilateral meeting with Abe, followed by the usual speech to the civil authorities, as this piece was going to print.

(SVILUPPO: In his address to the nation's leaders, Francis reiterated his anti-nuclear call, but hinted again at the domestic tensions over the proposed defense expansion, saying that "History teaches us that conflicts and misunderstandings between peoples and nations can find valid solutions only through dialogue, the only weapon worthy of man and capable of ensuring lasting peace.")

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Meanwhile, as for the church's internal fallout from this weeklong trek – Francis' 32nd international tour – as noted at the outset of this Fall Cycle, the significance is bolstered by the timing... and the proof's been in the product.

Fresh off the emergence of inculturation as the dominant fault-line of the Amazon Synod, again, that the pontiff chose these very same weeks to visit the historic main "battleground" of efforts to integrate local cultures into the proclamation of the Gospel – an effort often met with Roman skepticism, or worse – was hardly an accident.

Accordingly, with his authoritative "last word" on the October event now pending – and a rebooted papal magisterium on "valid" inculturation set to be critical to the result – given the anticipation for the Synod's closing text, it is telling how no shortage of the last week's preaches and speeches offered an enthusiastic green-light to the Asian Church and its leaders to keep at "find[ing] ways to profess the faith 'in dialect,' like a mother who sings lullabies to her child.

"With that same intimacy," the Pope told Thailand's clergy and religious on Friday, "let us give faith a Thai face and flesh, which involves much more than making translations.

"It is about letting the Gospel be stripped of fine but foreign garb; to let it 'sing' with the native music of this land and inspire the hearts of our brothers and sisters with the same beauty that set our own hearts on fire."

While the point hardly needed doubling down, Francis did it anyway – "Let us not be afraid to continue inculturating the Gospel," he said, the Vatican marking the line in italics to stress his emphasis.

In the same vein, barely an hour after landing in Tokyo a day later, the visitor shared with the Japanese bishops his admiration of how, from its inception 400 years ago, "the mission in these lands was marked by a powerful search for inculturation and dialogue, which allowed the formation of new models, independent of those developed in Europe."

Noting the initial era's use of "literature, theatre, music and various types of instruments, for the most part in the Japanese language" as aids to evangelization – and, for its first century, to widespread effect in terms of conversions – the Pope termed that legacy "a sign of the love that those first missionaries felt for these lands."

Though Francis avoided engaging in the specifics of the recent open plea from Tokyo's recently-retired archbishop urging that Rome let the locals take the lead on how to integrate their culture into ecclesial life, in hindsight, he didn't have to – his phrasing did the trick.

And as a pontiff's words to local communities enter into the canon of his teaching for the universal church, it wouldn't be a surprise to see at least some of this week's salient passages resurface when the Apostolic Exhortation on the Amazon Synod rolls out, potentially as soon as next month.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Fulton's Feast – For "Blessed Sheen," Peoria Races To Beatification Day

As last week in Baltimore was marked by a general mood of siege mentality among the US bishops, these last weeks of 2019 will bring a rare feel-good moment for the bench: for just the second time ever, the elevation of one of their own to the altars... and the Big One at that.

Barely four months since the decade-long "Body Wars" ended with the transfer of Venerable Fulton Sheen's remains from St Patrick's Cathedral in New York back to his native Peoria – then the Pope's confirmation within days of a miracle attributed to his intercession – late yesterday the Illinois diocese announced that the Beatification Mass for the pioneering televangelist will be held on Saturday, December 21st in its St Mary's Cathedral, where Sheen was ordained a priest and is now entombed.

Per custom since the last step before sainthood was returned to the local churches by then-Pope Benedict XVI, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, will lead the rites as papal legate.

While a month's notice for an event of the kind is unusually rapid – all the more in a prominent instance like this – the timing reflects Peoria's wish that Sheen's beatification be held in the centenary year of his ordination to the priesthood, which took place in St Mary's 100 years ago last September, as well as the 40th anniversary of the archbishop's death on December 9th. That said, the site-choice and timing (on the Saturday before Christmas, amid rural Illinois' eventful winters) make for a Sheen-sized logistical headache, above all as what will likely be the most high-profile elevation of any Stateside Blessed will be limited to roughly 1,000 attendees.

Given the mammoth devotion to "Bishop" Sheen – in particular, among the baby boomers who made his weekly prime-time catecheses television's highest-rated program of the 1950s and early '60s – odds are they could fill the cathedral just with the clergy who'd want to show up.

In the two prior instances of major beatifications on US soil, the 2016 Oklahoma City Mass that elevated the homegrown martyr Stanley Rother was held in the city's convention center, and what was initially pegged as an over-ambitious setup for a crowd of 15,000 ended up being swamped by a turnout that stretched outside the space. Moreover, two years ago yesterday in Detroit, the beatification of the Capuchin friar Solanus Casey – revered throughout the Midwest as a miracle-worker in life – took over Ford Field, the city's NFL stadium, filling most of its 70,000 seats.

Again, given the exponential magnitude of Blessed Sheen's cult on the global stage – to say nothing of the landmark of the first US-born bishop to reach the threshold of canonization – the move for a small venue, however symbolic, is baffling at best. As one commentor noted, though, perhaps the most fitting thing about the decision is how it means practically everyone will be left to watch the rites on TV: the medium that arguably made Sheen the 20th century's most significant and beloved American cleric.

On a happier front, one of the key calls Rome and Peoria face over the next month is the choice of Sheen's feast-day – a celebration which, by definition, will initially be restricted to either the latter diocese alone or the wider Chicago province (which comprises all of Illinois).

Given the tradition that a feast is held on the date of death of the respective saint or blessed, that's not an option in this case as December 9th is taken by the commemoration of the Guadalupe visionary St Juan Diego, while in a more general sense, observances ranked as memorials are muted in deference to Advent. Among other dates likewise off the table are September 20th – Blessed Fulton's priestly ordination-date – as the mandatory memorial of the Korean Martyrs already holds it, as well as June 11th (his ordination as a bishop), the feast of St Barnabas.

The one significant life-date that is open, however, is Sheen's birthday, May 8th... which, falling as it does during the Marian month, also makes for an apt call-back to the poem he famously made his own on-air:


All told, with Sheen becoming the first US bishop to be sanctioned for devotion since John Nepoumecene Neumann, the Czech-born fourth bishop of Philadelphia, was beatified in 1963 (then canonized in 1977), the new blessed adds to an impressive array of figures elevated over the last decade or so whose feasts would potentially argue for inclusion on the national calendar.

Beyond the emergence of Rother – the first North American in modern times to be declared a martyr in odium fidei – and Casey, as the recent canonizations of Óscar Romero and John Henry Newman now allow for their global veneration, there is a notable backlog of observances which to some degree enjoy the requisite "national cultus," yet are not currently permitted for celebration across the States. Of course, any bishop may petition the USCCB's Secretariat for Divine Worship for the addition of a feast, which (upon the recommendation of its staff) would then be presented to the entire bench for a vote and need the confirmatio of the Holy See before taking effect.

Even for the ample queue, however, something says the wider take-up of Fulton's feast won't take terribly long.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

And Now, The Vote

(Updated 10am with election results)

BALTIMORE – Nine years ago on this Election Morning, as the leadership of the nation's largest religious body hung in the balance, this scribe asked a favorite op what he thought would unfold as we headed onto the Floor... and Bishop Morlino of Madison (now gone to his reward) shot back in imitable form: "I really don't know what's gonna happen, but I'm gonna make like Chicago today – 'Vote early and vote often!'"

To be sure, this body has never lacked for characters. Still, no take on this edition of the Making of the President will be as memorable as that.

Of course, that 2010 vote produced a shock result, upending a half-century of precedent to give the bench's helm not merely to a figure other than the sitting vice-president, but the archbishop of New York. That trajectory is virtually set to continue today as, for the first time, the bench chooses the head of the nation's largest diocese as its elected leader.

As for the rest, the rule of thumb holds – namely, no one knows until everyone shows up... and this time, that's all the more the case.

With the voting set to begin shortly after 9am Eastern, here's the livefeed:


...and all the rest as it ensues.

SVILUPPO (10am ET): To no one's surprise, history came – and with a sizable mandate....
With the vote, Gomez represents several "firsts": beyond being the first Latino to lead the bench – and, again, the first bishop ever to hold the nation's largest diocese and the presidency at once – the Opus Dei numerary is the first chief (¿o jefe?) to be chosen from Southern California, now home to nearly one in seven American Catholics, the largest regional concentration of the faithful on these shores. (He is not, however, the first Californian president, all told: that was John Raphael Quinn – the "godfather" of the post-Conciliar progressive bloc – who stormed to the post in 1977, months after being named archbishop of San Francisco.)

For the Vice-Presidency, meanwhile, with Detroit's Archbishop Allen Vigneron having bested Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Miltary Services in a 151-90 vote, the outcome bears a notable curveball – with the incoming #2 currently 71, Vigneron would be 74 (read: a year short of the retirement age) at the next executive vote in 2022.

In the lone prior instance of the scenario, Cardinal John Carberry of St Louis, then the incumbent vice-president, declined to stand for the presidency in 1977, when he was 73. Ergo, the next executive cycle could well bring an open contest for the top slot for the first time in nearly a half-century.

As ever, more to come.

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Monday, November 11, 2019

On Opening Day, More Questions Than Answers

BALTIMORE – A hundred years since the bishops of the United States – freshly gathered into an episcopal conference – made their first collective strike on the national stage with a sweeping Program of Social Reconstruction, the bench has returned to its cradle in this Premier See with a considerably less ambitious agenda, but the specter of history still hanging over the place.

Per usual, the Fall Classic opens shortly after 9am Eastern, the morning sessions headlined by the programmatic talk by the Nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, and what'll be Cardinal Daniel DiNardo's farewell address from the USCCB presidency at the close of his three-year term as the de facto leader of the nation's largest religious body. As for the rest, the agenda is posted.

The marquee item of this three-day plenary – the election of the bench's new executive – takes place first thing Tuesday morning. In a change from standard procedure, nearly a tenth of the electorate (the 21 bishops of New York State) will be voting by paper ballot from the North American College in Rome due to their ad limina visit, which will prevent the usual immediate result of the electronic voting carried out on the Floor itself.

Means aside, while the body is widely expected to maintain its half-century custom and elevate the current Vice-President, Los Angeles' Archbishop José Gomez, to the top spot – itself a shattering of precedent on several fronts – even more uncertainty than usual looms over the choice of the next #2. Then again, this opening Monday is always "Super Tuesday" on that front: in other words, it's still very early in the process, and a lot can (and likely will) happen over the next 24 hours.

All that said, as a thanks to everyone who's made the coverage at hand possible, the donors received a 4,000-word curtain-raiser going into the weekend... and in it, they learned how this place isn't the only scene of movement over the days ahead.

You'll see the others as they emerge – for now, here's your livefeed on-demand feed from the Floor; texts, etc. to follow:



SVILUPPO (10.25am): While every one of these meetings opens with some sort of curveball, this time featured two.

First, a sudden motion on the Floor to add a particularly live-wire topic to the agenda....

...and above all, a rare, stunning direct prod at the bench from the Pope's representative – one all the more extraordinary as the bishops prepare to meet with Francis at length over the next two months:
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Sunday, November 03, 2019

"Dialogue Is Our Method" – As Pope's US "Exam" Begins, The Style Is The Substance

If you're thinking the "Main Event" is over, in reality, it's just beginning....

Only now, see, will this scribe need to "bilocate."

Eighteen months in the making, the all-important ad limina visit of the US bishops – the national church's first report to Pope Francis – begins early tomorrow as the bishops of New England celebrate Mass in St Mary Major. Already, however, this edition has broken precedent: in a first, the visitors are staying at the pontiff's residence, the Domus Santa Marta behind the Vatican walls, as opposed to their traditional lodgings up the Hill at the (USCCB-run) North American College – in other words, this time they're in Peter's House, not their own.

Last conducted under Benedict XVI in 2011-12, this visit has the added facet of a historic milestone, coinciding with the bicentennial of the first Stateside ad limina, made in 1820-21 by Ambrose Marechal, the French-born Sulpician who had become third archbishop of Baltimore.

Despite the change of circumstances since, as it turns out, the backdrop to this visit is almost eerily similar to that first pilgrimage: on one front, with the crippling trusteeism wars raging to Marechal's north, the most powerful fault-line in American Catholic history – the balance of power between clergy and laity in the church's internal affairs – made for a scandal-inducing dilemma that cried out for Roman intervention, while on the brighter side, an ever-diversifying crop of immigrants brought new energies and new tensions to the table, and the creation of new dioceses at Richmond, Charleston and Cincinnati underscored an aggressive growth in points beyond the church's Mid-Atlantic cradle.

Two hundred years later, all these threads are well in evidence again, even if the responses to them will be different this time.
A cycle set to be repeated 15 times between now and mid-February (with only a brief pause for Christmas), the weeklong treks by each of the USCCB regions combine prayer at the major basilicas – above all, before the tombs of Peter and Paul, the act which gives this exercise its name – with extensive group meetings at each Curial dicastery: a total of 16 offices, but only five of them mandatory for all the visiting prelates.

On top of the required stops at the Vatican's "foreign ministry" in the Secretariat of State and the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, Bishops, Clergy and Catholic Education, all the regions will have a scheduled time with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors – a first as it was founded in 2014. Yet according to early indications, attending the session with the child-protection dicastery is only mandatory for some of the groups.

Of course, however, the highlight of each region's pilgrimage will be its audience with the Pope – an unscripted "free dialogue" with Francis after each prelate introduces himself, and one for which the pontiff has blocked out an extraordinary two and a half hours for each US group. (As Papa Bergoglio's ad limina audiences generally run about an hour shorter, the length here is ostensibly due to the need for translation.)

To repeat an earlier line, as history's repeatedly shown how one papal comment on a plane can dominate – and, indeed, outrage – the nation's Catholic discourse and beyond for days, if not weeks on end, 15 weekly doses of an unfiltered Francis expounding at length on his sense of the domestic scene might just see a run on antacids or certain prescription meds in some quarters.

Along those lines, with the first of the audiences slated for Thursday, Whispers has learned that the Pope has gone beyond the traditional sole means of information in hand – the sprawling Quinquennial Reports submitted by each diocese – to reach into his own network of US contacts outside the hierarchy, seeking their advice on "what [he] should say to the bishops."

Add in that since only half of the nation's prelates have met Francis since his 2013 election – and most of those encounters have been fleeting, reception-line pleasantries – the variables that could end up figuring into the talks are strikingly broad, and even that's putting it mildly.

On matters ranging from parish mergers and the rise of the "nones" to crisis response, the role of laity in governance and more still, the weeks ahead will have an outsize impact on the life of the nation's largest religious body over the next decade. Put another way, for all the focus and energy lavished on the Amazon Synod, the moment now beginning is the one this shop has awaited most.

For an American Catholic news-outlet, the kaleidoscopic range and depth of the weeks ahead makes the ad limina our equivalent to the Olympics... and just in recent days, developments here at home have again served to add to an already loaded plate of issues this visit will likely see addressed at one or another point over these four months to come.

As this scribe's own region has its turn with Francis on Thanksgiving morning, suffice it to say, sic transit gloria turkey. Still, for all the planning and prep of the last year and a half, it's admittedly a relief to finally get this most critical of cycles up and running.

That said, as the work can only proceed if its bills are paid – an even bigger concern than usual as the pending road costs for next week's plenary in Baltimore remain to be met – in these days as ever, the budget depends on you:


A fuller look-ahead is in the works... but for now, as the scene can use a reminder of the lone on-record "baseline" we have, here below is the Pope's first and only address to the full US bench during his September 2015 visit at St Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, in which Francis laid out his impressions and expectations of the bishops in stark, memorably intense terms.

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ADDRESS OF POPE FRANCIS TO THE BISHOPS OF THE UNITED STATES
CATHEDRAL OF ST MATTHEW THE APOSTLE
WASHINGTON
23 SEPTEMBER 2019


Dear Brother Bishops,

First of all, I wish to send a greeting to the Jewish community, our Jewish brothers and sisters, who today are celebrating Yom Kippur. May the Lord bless them with peace and help them to advance on the path of holiness, as we heard today in his word: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 19:2).

I am pleased that we can meet at this point in the apostolic mission which has brought me to your country. I thank Cardinal Wuerl and Archbishop Kurtz for their kind words in your name. I am very appreciative of your welcome and the generous efforts made to help plan and organize my stay.

As I look out with affection at you, their pastors, I would like to embrace all the local Churches over which you exercise loving responsibility. I would ask you to share my affection and spiritual closeness with the People of God throughout this vast land.

The heart of the Pope expands to include everyone. To testify to the immensity of God’s love is the heart of the mission entrusted to the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of the One who on the cross embraced the whole of mankind. May no member of Christ’s Body and the American people feel excluded from the Pope’s embrace. Wherever the name of Jesus is spoken, may the Pope’s voice also be heard to affirm that: “He is the Savior”! From your great coastal cities to the plains of the Midwest, from the deep South to the far reaches of the West, wherever your people gather in the Eucharistic assembly, may the Pope be not simply a name but a felt presence, sustaining the fervent plea of the Bride: “Come, Lord!”

Whenever a hand reaches out to do good or to show the love of Christ, to dry a tear or bring comfort to the lonely, to show the way to one who is lost or to console a broken heart, to help the fallen or to teach those thirsting for truth, to forgive or to offer a new start in God… know that the Pope is at your side, the Pope supports you. He puts his hand on your own, a hand wrinkled with age, but by God’s grace still able to support and encourage.

My first word to you is one of thanksgiving to God for the power of the Gospel which has brought about remarkable growth of Christ’s Church in these lands and enabled its generous contribution, past and present, to American society and to the world. I thank you most heartily for your generous solidarity with the Apostolic See and the support you give to the spread of the Gospel in many suffering areas of our world. I appreciate the unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family, which is the primary reason for my present visit. I am well aware of the immense efforts you have made to welcome and integrate those immigrants who continue to look to America, like so many others before them, in the hope of enjoying its blessings of freedom and prosperity. I also appreciate the efforts which you are making to fulfill the Church’s mission of education in schools at every level and in the charitable services offered by your numerous institutions. These works are often carried out without appreciation or support, often with heroic sacrifice, out of obedience to a divine mandate which we may not disobey.

I am also conscious of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the Church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice. Nor have you been afraid to divest whatever is unessential in order to regain the authority and trust which is demanded of ministers of Christ and rightly expected by the faithful. I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims – in the knowledge that in healing we too are healed – and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.

I speak to you as the Bishop of Rome, called by God in old age, and from a land which is also American, to watch over the unity of the universal Church and to encourage in charity the journey of all the particular Churches toward ever greater knowledge, faith and love of Christ. Reading over your names, looking at your faces, knowing the extent of your churchmanship and conscious of the devotion which you have always shown for the Successor of Peter, I must tell you that I do not feel a stranger in your midst. I am a native of a land which is also vast, with great open ranges, a land which, like your own, received the faith from itinerant missionaries. I too know how hard it is to sow the Gospel among people from different worlds, with hearts often hardened by the trials of a lengthy journey. Nor am I unaware of the efforts made over the years to build up the Church amid the prairies, mountains, cities and suburbs of a frequently inhospitable land, where frontiers are always provisional and easy answers do not always work. What does work is the combination of the epic struggle of the pioneers and the homely wisdom and endurance of the settlers. As one of your poets has put it, “strong and tireless wings” combined with the wisdom of one who “knows the mountains” (Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology).

I do not speak to you with my voice alone, but in continuity with the words of my predecessors. From the birth of this nation, when, following the American Revolution, the first diocese was erected in Baltimore, the Church of Rome has always been close to you; you have never lacked its constant assistance and encouragement. In recent decades, three Popes have visited you and left behind a remarkable legacy of teaching. Their words remain timely and have helped to inspire the long-term goals which you have set for the Church in this country.

It is not my intention to offer a plan or to devise a strategy. I have not come to judge you or to lecture you. I trust completely in the voice of the One who “teaches all things” (Jn 14:26). Allow me only, in the freedom of love, to speak to you as a brother among brothers. I have no wish to tell you what to do, because we all know what it is that the Lord asks of us. Instead, I would turn once again to the demanding task – ancient yet never new – of seeking out the paths we need to take and the spirit with which we need to work. Without claiming to be exhaustive, I would share with you some reflections which I consider helpful for our mission.

We are bishops of the Church, shepherds appointed by God to feed his flock. Our greatest joy is to be shepherds, and only shepherds, pastors with undivided hearts and selfless devotion. We need to preserve this joy and never let ourselves be robbed of it. The evil one roars like a lion, anxious to devour it, wearing us down in our resolve to be all that we are called to be, not for ourselves but in gift and service to the “Shepherd of our souls” (1 Pet 2:25).

The heart of our identity is to be sought in constant prayer, in preaching (Acts 6:4) and in shepherding the flock entrusted to our care (Jn 21:15-17; Acts 20:28-31).

Ours must not be just any kind of prayer, but familiar union with Christ, in which we daily encounter his gaze and sense that he is asking us the question: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Mk 3:31-34). One in which we can calmly reply: “Lord, here is your mother, here are your brothers! I hand them over to you; they are the ones whom you entrusted to me”. Such trusting union with Christ is what nourishes the life of a pastor.

It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake. The “style” of our mission should make our hearers feel that the message we preach is meant “for us”. May the word of God grant meaning and fullness to every aspect of their lives; may the sacraments nourish them with that food which they cannot procure for themselves; may the closeness of the shepherd make them them long once again for the Father’s embrace. Be vigilant that the flock may always encounter in the heart of their pastor that “taste of eternity” which they seek in vain in the things of this world. May they always hear from you a word of appreciation for their efforts to confirm in liberty and justice the prosperity in which this land abounds. At the same time, may you never lack the serene courage to proclaim that “we must work not for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures for eternal life” (Jn 6:27).

Shepherds who do not pasture themselves but are able to step back, away from the center, to “decrease”, in order to feed God’s family with Christ. Who keep constant watch, standing on the heights to look out with God’s eyes on the flock which is his alone. Who ascend to the height of the cross of God’s Son, the sole standpoint which opens to the shepherd the heart of his flock.

Shepherds who do not lower our gaze, concerned only with our concerns, but raise it constantly toward the horizons which God opens before us and which surpass all that we ourselves can foresee or plan. Who also watch over ourselves, so as to flee the temptation of narcissism, which blinds the eyes of the shepherd, makes his voice unrecognizable and his actions fruitless. In the countless paths which lie open to your pastoral concern, remember to keep focused on the core which unifies everything: “You did it unto me” (Mt 25:31-45).

Certainly it is helpful for a bishop to have the farsightedness of a leader and the shrewdness of an administrator, but we fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us. Bishops need to be lucidly aware of the battle between light and darkness being fought in this world. Woe to us, however, if we make of the cross a banner of worldly struggles and fail to realize that the price of lasting victory is allowing ourselves to be wounded and consumed (Phil 2:1-11).

We all know the anguish felt by the first Eleven, huddled together, assailed and overwhelmed by the fear of sheep scattered because the shepherd had been struck. But we also know that we have been given a spirit of courage and not of timidity. So we cannot let ourselves be paralyzed by fear.

I know that you face many challenges, and that the field in which you sow is unyielding and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.

And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty. We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response.

Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).

The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.

We need to let the Lord’s words echo constantly in our hearts: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, who am meek and humble of heart, and you will find refreshment for your souls” (Mt 11:28-30). Jesus’ yoke is a yoke of love and thus a pledge of refreshment. At times in our work we can be burdened by a sense of loneliness, and so feel the heaviness of the yoke that we forget that we have received it from the Lord. It seems to be ours alone, and so we drag it like weary oxen working a dry field, troubled by the thought that we are laboring in vain. We can forget the profound refreshment which is indissolubly linked to the One who has made us the promise.

We need to learn from Jesus, or better to learn Jesus, meek and humble; to enter into his meekness and his humility by contemplating his way of acting; to lead our Churches and our people – not infrequently burdened by the stress of everyday life – to the ease of the Lord’s yoke. And to remember that Jesus’ Church is kept whole not by “consuming fire from heaven” (Lk 9:54), but by the secret warmth of the Spirit, who “heals what is wounded, bends what is rigid, straightens what is crooked”.

The great mission which the Lord gives us is one which we carry out in communion, collegially. The world is already so torn and divided, brokenness is now everywhere. Consequently, the Church, “the seamless garment of the Lord” cannot allow herself to be rent, broken or fought over.

Our mission as bishops is first and foremost to solidify unity, a unity whose content is defined by the Word of God and the one Bread of Heaven. With these two realities each of the Churches entrusted to us remains Catholic, because open to, and in communion with, all the particular Churches and with the Church of Rome which “presides in charity”. It is imperative, therefore, to watch over that unity, to safeguard it, to promote it and to bear witness to it as a sign and instrument which, beyond every barrier, unites nations, races, classes and generations.

May the forthcoming Holy Year of Mercy, by drawing us into the fathomless depths of God’s heart in which no division dwells, be for all of you a privileged moment for strengthening communion, perfecting unity, reconciling differences, forgiving one another and healing every rift, that your light may shine forth like “a city built on a hill” (Mt 5:14).

This service to unity is particularly important for this nation, whose vast material and spiritual, cultural and political, historical and human, scientific and technological resources impose significant moral responsibilities in a world which is seeking, confusedly and laboriously, new balances of peace, prosperity and integration. It is an essential part of your mission to offer to the United States of America the humble yet powerful leaven of communion. May all mankind know that the presence in its midst of the “sacrament of unity” (Lumen Gentium, 1) is a guarantee that its fate is not decay and dispersion.

This kind of witness is a beacon whose light can reassure men and women sailing through the dark clouds of life that a sure haven awaits them, that they will not crash on the reefs or be overwhelmed by the waves. I encourage you, then, my brothers, to confront the challenging issues of our time. Ever present within each of them is life as gift and responsibility. The future freedom and dignity of our societies depends on how we face these challenges.

The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature – at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters. It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent. No less important is the Gospel of the Family, which in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia I will emphatically proclaim together with you and the entire Church.

These essential aspects of the Church’s mission belong to the core of what we have received from the Lord. It is our duty to preserve and communicate them, even when the tenor of the times becomes resistant and even hostile to that message (Evangelii Gaudium, 34-39). I urge you to offer this witness, with the means and creativity born of love, and with the humility of truth. It needs to be preached and proclaimed to those without, but also to find room in people’s hearts and in the conscience of society.

To this end, it is important that the Church in the United States also be a humble home, a family fire which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love. As pastors, we know well how much darkness and cold there is in this world; we know the loneliness and the neglect experienced by many people, even amid great resources of communication and material wealth. We also know their fear in the face of life, their despair and the many forms of escapism to which it gives rise.

Consequently, only a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others. And not any fire, but the one which blazed forth on Easter morn. The risen Lord continues to challenge the Church’s pastors through the quiet plea of so many of our brothers and sisters: “Have you something to eat?” We need to recognize the Lord’s voice, as the apostles did on the shore of the lake of Tiberius (Jn 21:4-12). It becomes even more urgent to grow in the certainty that the embers of his presence, kindled in the fire of his passion, precede us and will never die out. Whenever this certainty weakens, we end up being caretakers of ash, and not guardians and dispensers of the true light and the warmth which causes our hearts to burn within us (Lk 24:32).

Before concluding, allow me to offer two recommendations which are close to my heart. The first refers to your fatherhood as bishops. Be pastors close to people, pastors who are neighbors and servants. Let this closeness be expressed in a special way towards your priests. Support them, so that they can continue to serve Christ with an undivided heart, for this alone can bring fulfillment to ministers of Christ. I urge you, then, not to let them be content with half-measures. Find ways to encourage their spiritual growth, lest they yield to the temptation to become notaries and bureaucrats, but instead reflect the motherhood of the Church, which gives birth to and raises her sons and daughters. Be vigilant lest they tire of getting up to answer those who knock on their door by night, just when they feel entitled to rest (Lk 11:5-8). Train them to be ready to stop, care for, soothe, lift up and assist those who, “by chance” find themselves stripped of all they thought they had (Lk 10:29-37).

My second recommendation has to do with immigrants. I ask you to excuse me if in some way I am pleading my own case. The Church in the United States knows like few others the hopes present in the hearts of these “pilgrims”. From the beginning you have learned their languages, promoted their cause, made their contributions your own, defended their rights, helped them to prosper, and kept alive the flame of their faith. Even today, no American institution does more for immigrants than your Christian communities. Now you are facing this stream of Latin immigration which affects many of your dioceses. Not only as the Bishop of Rome, but also as a pastor from the South, I feel the need to thank and encourage you. Perhaps it will not be easy for you to look into their soul; perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity. But know that they also possess resources meant to be shared. So do not be afraid to welcome them. Offer them the warmth of the love of Christ and you will unlock the mystery of their heart. I am certain that, as so often in the past, these people will enrich America and its Church.

May God bless you and Our Lady watch over you! Thank you!

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