Bishops discuss upcoming encyclical, pope’s visit, top priorities

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

ST. LOUIS (CNS) — The U.S. bishops gathered in St. Louis for their spring general assembly heard presentations on the pope’s upcoming encyclical on the environment, the U.S. church’s ongoing work in promoting traditional marriage and the need to remain vigilant in protecting children from abuse.

On the first day of their meeting June 10, there also were reports on the bishops’ efforts to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform and their help in rebuilding work in Haiti, which is still recovering from the 2010 earthquake.

In the second day of the assembly’s public sessions June 11, the bishops heard a report on a draft for priorities and plans for the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishop for 2017-2020. The report, which was up for a vote, started a lively discussion about what the bishops’ top focus should be.

Several bishops spoke up about the need to put concern for poverty at the top of the list to keep in line with the message and ministry of Pope Francis. The bishops voted to rework the draft document, incorporating the feedback given.

In an afternoon presentation, married couples talked to the bishops about how they can encourage the vocation of marriage in their dioceses. The bishops also heard from Curtis Martin, founder and CEO of FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. He encouraged them to continue to lead young people to live the Gospel message.

During the two daylong public sessions of the June 10-12 assembly, there was a lot of discussion on the much-anticipated arrival of Pope Francis in September for the World Meeting of Families and other stops and other upcoming gatherings such as next year’s World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland and a 2017 convocation.

The bishops also were urged to keep pace with technological advances as a means to spread the Gospel message and advised to keep the "digital doors" of the church open.

In the discussion of the pope’s upcoming encyclical on the environment and human ecology, eight days before its scheduled release, the bishops were called on to help Catholics understand its message.

Pope Francis will challenge the assumptions of "both the left and the right" with the document, said Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

He also said it would have international implications, particularly regarding solidarity with the world’s poor.

Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said the document will likely highlight climate change as "a moral issue," pointing out that the poor suffer the most from consequences of improper care of the environment even though "they have contributed the least to climate change."

He said the pope would not be speaking as a scientist or a politician but as a shepherd and that the bishops, who "aren’t novices" on care for the environment, can’t "opt out" of this conversation.

A major topic of the day was Pope Francis’ September visit to the U.S. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said the Sept. 22-27 World Meeting of Families — the pope will be there for the last two days. He said an expected crowd of more than 1 million will be in Philadelphia.

A few of the bishops told reporters in an afternoon news conference that they hoped the pope would address religious liberty and immigration reform during his U.S. visit.

The bishops did not specifically address the June 10 announcement from the Vatican about a new process for holding bishops accountable for protecting children from abuse, but in response to a reporter’s question about it, it was clear they welcomed and supported the Vatican action.

"We have a long track record of wanting to help the bishops be transparent" in their efforts to protect children, said Archbishop Kurtz.

At the start of the meeting, the USCCB’s president noted that for their spring meeting, the bishops were gathered not far from Ferguson and that the bishops’ November general assembly will be in Baltimore — two places roiled by protests, violence in the streets and looting following the deaths of two young African-Americans after confrontations with white police officers.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged the bishops to encourage Catholics to take concrete measures to help end racism, including praying for peace and healing, promoting justice for all people, being "truly welcoming" of families of different racial and religious backgrounds. People also should get to know their community’s law enforcement officers, he said.

Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle, chairman of the Committee on Migration, encouraged the bishops to visit immigrant detention centers in their dioceses to better understand the conditions under which immigrants who enter the country without documents are being held.

He said his committee has been advocating for migrants who might be eligible for asylum or other forms of legal status in the U.S., and pushing for a dramatic increase in the number of refugees from Syria, especially, and others who are fleeing their countries due to religious persecution.

He said a pervasive concern is that new interdiction efforts in Mexico to turn back Central American migrants before they can reach the U.S. border mean that many people who would be eligible for asylum in the United States instead are summarily sent back to their home countries.

"This is a violation of international law," said Bishop Elizondo, adding that the committee and its USCCB staff are raising the issue with the U.S. government.

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