Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Into the Woods – In Obedience To Pope, US Bench Sets January Retreat

With less than three weeks until a November meeting that's arguably even more consequential than its seismic 2002 predecessor in Dallas – and amid a fraught planning that's come under pointed criticism from no shortage of fronts – this afternoon brought another sudden development in the gradual response of the US bishops: the Mothership's announcement that the bench would convene for a weeklong retreat at Chicago's Mundelein Seminary (above), beginning on January 2nd.

As Whispers first reported last month, the initiative was born from the direct initiative of the Pope, who urged the conference's leadership to cancel next month's traditional plenary in Baltimore in favor of a closed period of spiritual exercises during the US executive's initial crisis talks with Francis on 13 September. As subsequently relayed here, the pontiff's rationale for the push was so the polarized body of bishops could begin "to heal the division" amongst themselves. (In terms of context, meanwhile, it is notable that Francis began last May's Roman summit with the abuse-tarred Chilean bishops by passing out the text of a lengthy Ignatian meditation of his own, leaving the group a day to ponder it before they presented their resignations en bloc.)

Given the lack of feasibility of nixing the Fall Classic due to its years-in-advance hotel bookings – and with it, the untold funds already spent on the arrangements – the move to gather at Chicago's "Enchanted Forest" seminary in quite penitential weather doesn't just represent a lightning-speed response as the bench's usual timing goes, but is essentially a response as close to the spirit of Francis' request as the pinnacle of American Catholicism's institutional behemoth could ever hope to muster.

In today's invitation letter to the prelates – which, without explicitly saying so, repeatedly indicated the "command performance" nature of the event – the conference president, Houston's Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, revealed that the Pope "has kindly offered" the Vatican's lead in-house homilist, Capuchin Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, to lead the retreat.

As if the exercise itself wasn't going to be interesting enough.

No stranger to controversy, over his nearly four decades as preacher of the Papal Household – a post seen by the world only on Good Friday, but likewise tasked with giving the pontiff's private Friday reflections in Lent and Advent – the 84 year-old friar (long a favorite of the church's Charismatic movements and frequent visitor to the States) has compared the world's focus on the abuse scandals to "the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," equated the 2006 film release of the The DaVinci Code to Judas' betrayal of Jesus, and infuriated traditionalists with an homage to the late Sulpician biblicist Fr Raymond Brown as "the greatest scholar of the Passion."

(For the record, the preceding lines were merely from Cantalamessa's Good Friday turns in St Peter's – in other words, the one annual moment when he should've been expected to "behave." In that light, considering the shape of a body whose red meat specialists tend to attract the bulk of the national hierarchy's news-focus, in this preacher, it'd seem they've met their match.)

At the same time, however, in a late 2005 sermon (read: to Benedict XVI), Cantalamessa lamented over how the church's "immense doctrinal edifice" obscures its Lord, calling attempts to enforce Catholic teaching in an unevangelized world as akin to "putting one of those old heavy brocade capes all of a sudden on the back of a child," while telling Francis' Curia eight years later that humility "is possessed by those who think they do not have it, and it is not possessed by those who think they have it."

To be sure, the Raniero Desk doesn't lack for "greatest hits." Still, regardless of what one makes of the man and the moment, this much is clear: amid January's bitter cold, the preacher comes to Chitown as the Pope's agent, and with him, a heavy focus on both the central role of the Holy Spirit in ecclesial renewal – at least, if He's given space to work – as well as a Franciscan "stripping" of ecclesiastical decadence is to be expected.

After all, as the bench's newfound "guest" put it in another 2013 homily to Pope and Curia:
"One of the factors of the obscuring of the Gospel was the transformation of authority understood as service to authority understood as power, which produced infinite conflicts within and outside the Church...."
*  *  *
On a couple related context fronts, the January retreat will open a calendar year whose end already has another big bang lined up: the previously-broken ad limina visit of the entire US episcopate, which is slated to unfold over a matter of weeks in November and December 2019.

While the last four months have already put the Stateside church under heavy focus in Rome and beyond, only the year-end pilgrimage will mark the national fold's – and its leaders' – first in-depth Vatican "physical" of Francis' pontificate.

And lastly, confirming Whispers' reporting over the weekend, DiNardo told the USCCB-owned Catholic News Service yesterday in Rome that the opening Monday of the 12-15 November meeting in Baltimore will be given to a communal time of "prayer, penance and fasting" for the bishops; again, the form and speakers for the Floor sessions remain in the works.

As ever, more to come.