Friday, November 04, 2011

At Long Last, The Threshold: US' Ad Limina Begins

Seven years since the American hierarchy last made its required Quinquennial Visit to the Holy See, the bench's first ad limina of B16's pontificate began earlier today -- three days ahead of schedule -- as the Pope received 13 prelates of New England's Region I in private audience.

While Benedict will meet with each of the bishops over the next week, this morning's Apartment-bound group was led by the area's top cleric, Boston's Cardinal Séan O'Malley OFM Cap., joined by his five active auxiliaries.

Likewise on the Opening Day audience slate were Bishops George Coleman of Fall River, Salvatore Matano of Burlington, Maine's Richard Malone of Portland, Timothy McDonnell of Springfield, Robert McManus of Worcester, and New Hampshire's retiring John McCormack of Manchester, with his auxiliary, Francis Christian.

Named in mid-September, the Long Island native Peter Libasci will be installed as McCormack's successor on 8 December. The Manchester appointee will ostensibly be making his visit with the bishops of the next group -- New York State's Region II -- which takes place over Thanksgiving Week.

The bishops of Region III (Pennsylvania and New Jersey) will make their pilgrimage from 1 December, with the lower Mid-Atlantic's Region IV (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, the Virgin Islands and the Archdiocese for the Military Services) picking up in mid-January.

With several of the 15 USCCB groups yet to receive their dates, the visit will extend at least through the first half of 2012.

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Even as the roughly 68 million-member American church continues to grow -- a reality driven by Hispanic migration and booming communities in the South and West -- New England has arguably experienced the nation's most difficult and drastic change of ecclesial landscape over recent years, enduring the Stateside fold's most substantial plunge in terms of membership, a trend likewise apparent among other aspects of the region's Catholic life.

In the wake of the sex-abuse scandals which first erupted from the area in 2002, a 2008 survey of the nation's religious identity reported that the Catholic population of its six states had fallen by almost 30 percent over the prior two decades, from a full half of the general population in 1990 to 36 percent of its residents today. New England's share of religiously unaffiliated people, meanwhile, tripled over the same period, with Vermont now said to have replaced Oregon as the country's "most unchurched state."

According to 2010 Census figures, the region's population grew by 3.8% over the decade prior, a third of the nationwide rate.

During the near-decade since the last visit, the demographic shift has led to a significant number of parish closings in the region, most notably Boston's 2004 "realignment" of some 60 churches (a second wave of which is currently in the works). Across the affected dioceses, a handful of the shuttered parishes are still being occupied by distraught members. Canonical appeals of several of the moves likewise remain ongoing in Rome.

On a significant external note, on this week's visit are the bishops of four of the seven US jurisdictions which have legalized same-sex marriage since Massachusetts first gave full recognition to the unions in 2004 (the others among the region are Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire). While that thread will now carry over into the next group following the New York legislature's June vote to enact the change, tensions over gays and lesbians in the church made national headlines again this week after a column in the Boston church's newspaper, The Pilot, stoked fury with its assertion that scientific research into homosexuality "provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil" as a cause of same-sex orientation.

After mainstream media picked up the story, the paper quickly pulled the piece from its website, replacing it with a retraction and apology "for having failed to recognize the theological error in the column before publication." As public reaction continued to mount, the piece's author, Daniel Avila, resigned earlier today as the second-ranking staffer at the US bishops' recently-established Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

Prior to taking the USCCB post, Avila had been a policy aide to the Massachusetts bishops, working for the state's Catholic conference during its fight against the redefinition of marriage, which was decided by the courts, yet failed to garner sufficient legislative opposition to be challenged in a subsequent referendum.

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While standard practice for ad liminae has always been for the Pope to receive the visiting bishops individually (e.g. above), the USCCB will be the largest conference yet whose members won't have one-on-one face-time with Benedict.

In light of his intent to conserve his energies as he approaches 85, the pontiff recently altered the visit's script to now engage with most of the prelates in small groups, but with significantly longer sessions than the private encounters, which traditionally ran for 15 minutes each. Individual audiences will still be held with some bishops should a particular situation warrant it.

Rumored over recent months, the change was first reported by Catholic News Service in late October.

In another energy-saving shift, the wire related that Benedict will not prepare full addresses for each of the 15 USCCB regions. The public speeches that outline his advice and concerns will only be given to five of the "larger" groups.

The Pope's prime focus for the visit is expected to be the New Evangelization in the context of the United States.