Sunday, November 12, 2017

On Plenary Eve, Lockdowns and Ballots

BALTIMORE – In the life of a 1.2 billion-member church, there's no event quite like this.

Among global Catholicism's major outposts, the Italian bishops meet at the Vatican or their Roman headquarters, the Brazilians at the country's patronal shrine, the Mexicans in a hall that resembles a parliamentary chamber, all of them more or less behind closed doors.

For the US, however, the annual convening of some 450 prelates, staffers, press, observers and interest groups – and all of it in the glare of TV cameras – can only be compared to one thing: The Circus. And, this time, that's already more the case than usual.

A century since its inception in what's now called the "Gibbons Room" at the Archbishop's Residence here (above), while this 100th Plenary of the Stateside Bench had a quiet first lap in yesterday's opening round of committee meetings, last night brought a bit of panic to the harborside hotel which has now hosted a dozen of these mid-November weeks.

Amid the impending arrival of the Cardinal-Secretary of State Pietro Parolin – as the Pope's principal deputy, the Holy See's head of government – last-minute word spread quickly that the Secret Service would be swooping in for today's events commemorating the USCCB's centennial. And considering this crowd's experiences of hours-long sweeps during papal visits to these shores – not to mention the Federal squad's customary lack of specifics – the news didn't so much produce a sense of security as a siege mentality.

(SVILUPPO: Now on-site, the shot below of Parolin with the American cardinals and the conference's Administrative Committee was released this afternoon by the USCCB general secretary, Msgr Brian Bransfield, via his Twitter account; flanking the Cardinal-Secretary are the bench's president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, and the Nuncio to Washington Archbishop Christophe Pierre.)

While Parolin's visit to mark the conference's milestone has been in the works for over a year, plans for an overarching protection effort have only transpired over the last 48 hours. Even so, the cardinal's diplomatic status as the #2 official of a sovereign state has made a Secret Service detail for him on American soil a given from the get-go.

As senior officials were still grappling with the shape of the Feds' security demands for the plenary's hotel-base and the Basilica of the Assumption – where Parolin will lead the bench in a 5pm Eastern Mass tonight – the full protection protocols remain unclear, but access to both an afternoon symposium on the conference's history and an evening dinner has been restricted to the bishops and closed to staff and press. Though the liturgy in the nation's first cathedral has been slated to be open to the public, lest anyone was planning on it, actually getting in will take a bit of jumping through hoops.

In any case, the Mass will be broadcast by the usual suspects, and live-streamed here at the hour. As for the rest, just pray that it won't be too tough for this scribe to make the rounds... gratefully, this ain't one's first rodeo.

Given the scenario here, it's apparently the case that a similar flurry will be descending Tuesday morning on the campus of the Catholic University of America, where Parolin will deliver a major lecture on Vatican II as "a prophecy that continues" under Francis.

As if the Floor needed another distraction – and just when the votes are being taken, no less.

Even before embarking on his first solo US trip, the Cardinal-Secretary previewed his message for the occasion in a significant written interview to Catholic News Service, the conference's official outlet.

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Speaking of Tuesday's climactic round of elections and ballots, while no shortage of ink's been spilled to foment a showdown in the body's vote on the chairmanship of its most prominent and intensive portfolio – the formidable arm for Pro-Life Activities – a brief lesson on Episcopal Calculus 101 is in order.

To be sure, the matchup between Chicago's Cardinal Blase Cupich and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas is like catnip for a chattering class divided along partisan lines – depending on how one views it, the choice between unusually contrasting figures is being portrayed as a "plebiscite" on either the definition and scope of the church's pro-life witness amid the current challenges to it, or on the soundness of calling public officials who support abortion laws to refrain from Communion. Yet between the dueling perceptions lie just as many simple facts: first, that since the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide, the bishops' pro-life efforts have always been led by a cardinal to underscore their significance... and second, that long before he took the reins of the nation's third-largest diocese three years ago this week, no living prelate has so needled – and infuriated – this conference's rightward flank as the one who suddenly emerged as cardinal-archbishop of Chicago.

All that said, though, any sense that these votes take place in some sort of vacuum where ideology is the sole, or even prime criterion simply has no foundation in practice.

In reality, conference elections function more according to an algorithm of factors: a shifting mix of qualifications, geography, relationships and seniority, with just a pinch of ecclesiology – or, for lack of a better word, "political" leanings – thrown in. (As a corollary to this, strange as it may sound, you could take the same two people, run them against each other for two different posts, and end up with diverging results.)

As a case in point, for those who buy the narrative of a "conservative" Stateside bench, then logic would dictate that this scribe's archbishop would've been the top vote-getter among the committee chairs chosen here two years ago. The thing is, he wasn't – by three votes, 2015's most decisive pick was the then-archbishop of Indianapolis, his decade-plus bond with the Pope now in full light on his ascent as that most unprecedented of things: a Cardinal in Jersey.

That Joe Tobin took the post overseeing clergy, consecrated life and vocations by besting Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver – a favorite of the "orthodox" set and, indeed, the founding rector who built his hometown's seminary into one of the nation's largest formation houses – merely reinforces the principle.

Back to this week's voting, a factor which has gotten little attention is the ever-changing makeup of the electorate, which has been set into overdrive of late.

To be specific, at last year's annual Roman course for new bishops – widely known as "Baby Bishop School" – there were 15 new US prelates.

This past September (above), that figure was closer to 25.

Change forty slots within two years in a 230-member body – let alone one in which a 60-40 margin is akin to a "landslide" – and a wave is bound to be felt, especially considering the tweaked identikit Francis has sought for the candidates presented to him: one in which "pastoral" isn't a politicized euphemism for a progressive, but a descriptor of a life and ministry lived with a heart for people, albeit one in which its different exemplars won't always reach the same conclusions.

How that mass infusion of new blood will impact the shape of things – not just votes, but the tenor of the debates – is a key focus of the week ahead. Along the way, though, what's arguably this coming week's most significant ballot isn't the Pro-Life chair, but one being reported here for the first time.

In its executive session on Wednesday, the bench will select the US' usual complement of four delegates (and alternates) to next year's Synod on Young People. Yet at least in a few cases, the voters didn't get the memo – literally: while requests for nominations were sent to each bishop by mail early in the fall, several told Whispers over the last week that they had never seen the letter.

Per custom, the 12 most-cited names submitted from that consultation form the first round of a Synod ballot. On a related note, meanwhile, as the Synod Secretariat has made an unprecedented effort to seek direct consultation from young people on the Vatican summit's topics via an online survey, the deadline for responses to it comes at the end of this month.

Long story short, given Francis' super-emphasis on an increased synodality – and with it, the monthlong meeting's evolution from rubber-stamp Roman junket to an intensely collaborative, even contentious process – once it emerges, the makeup of the US delegation to next October's gathering won't just serve as a snapshot of the bench's state of mind on its 100th anniversary, but where a new generation is taking the project for the road ahead.

And to think, this is just the start of what's always a long, full week.

As ever, more to come... yet since pulling off this kind of coverage has its (boatload of) costs, it bears recalling that all this comes your way solely by means of your support.