Friday, November 03, 2017

For USCCB's 100th, "Peter" Takes the Wheel

Ten days from now, it's showtime again in Baltimore, as the nation's bishops return to American Catholicism's birthplace for another edition of the Fall Classic – and, this time, a week with history at the forefront even more than usual.

As this plenary marks the centenary of what's now known as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in just the second such instance through the years, the gathering will be presided over by the Pope's top deputy – the Cardinal-Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, who'll lead the bench in an Opening Eve Mass in the Basilica of the Assumption (above), the nation's mother-church.

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli (who represented John Paul II in the same place to mark the American hierarchy's bicentennial in 1989), the presence of the Vatican's "prime minister" in the chair of John Carroll highlights the moment's extraordinary significance, all the more as the trip represents Parolin's first US visit that isn't at Francis' side or to lead the Holy See's delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

At the same time, however, there's more to it than just the keen symbolism: as the milestone commemorates the global church's first modern effort of collegial governance by a national body of bishops – and with it, the inception of the church's return toward a spirit of synodality which the pontiff has aimed to turbo-charge – between Parolin's current role and his personal history as a doctoral student of the Synod of Bishops, the message the Cardinal-Secretary delivers with his master's voice is likely to have a resonance far beyond these States. (Adding to the context, while the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, was initially slated to preach the Centennial Mass, the Canadian hatmaker-in-chief suddenly evaporated from the plans over the last year, with Parolin taking the homily for himself.)

Indeed, the scene is bigger than the moment: after decades of Curial attempts to crack down on the purview of the conferences, Francis' new norms on liturgical translations (and the pontiff's subsequent doubling-down on them) are just the latest proof of how dramatically the pendulum has shifted back in the benches' direction. And considering the historic tension in which the oldest conference has been perhaps the ultimate pawn – namely, in the age-old battle between Rome and America for the soul of the Stateside Church – amid its 100th anniversary, the state of affairs today almost couldn't be more poetic.

Accorded abroad with the rank of a head of government – that is, of the Holy See (the church's central authority), not the Vatican City-State – Parolin's only known public event apart from the centenary will be a visit to the Catholic University of America in Washington, the specifics of which remain to emerge.

*   *   *
As a well-timed primer for the moment ahead, yesterday Francis' designated hand in the States – the Nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Christophe Pierre – traded his usual easy humor for the role of a professor, giving one of the year's key lectures for the canon law faculty at CUA, and choosing Francis' synodality push as his focus.

Much as the topic has become increasingly worthy of attention, in the wake of Magnum Principium, that the lecture serves as the university's annual memorial to Msgr Fred McManus – the legendary Catholic dean in the canons, who played an instrumental role in the founding of ICEL – became all the more fitting over recent weeks.

While the hourlong talk makes for a sound primer on the Pope's concept of shifting the church's balance of deliberation back to the local churches, what might be its most brow-raising line was one of Pierre's trademark unscripted asides.

"We are still far away in this church from receiving Evangelii Gaudium – maybe in a few years," the Nuncio mused on Francis' "blueprint" for his papacy. "But we could accelerate the process."

And as the principal architect of the US bench's next generation, he's aiming to do just that.

That said, here's video of the complete lecture....