Bishops have candid conversations with lay theologians about Pope Francis, the American Church and Vatican II in semi-official meeting

It is not too common for a few dozen American Catholic bishops to meet in one place, outside of the regular meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. But last week in Chicago, bishops from across the United States and a few other parts of the world engaged in dialogue with theologians, scholars and journalists about the state of the Church. The rally aimed to explore how Catholics could escape the political polarization gripping their lives and how they could contribute to better civic life and a more charitable public discourse.

The conference sparked curiosity on social media, in part because a special Mass was held at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago in response to Pope Francis’ call to pray for peace in Ukraine. This Mass, presided over by Cardinal Blase Cupich, was concelebrated by dozens of bishops, including Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, who led the assembly to read the Pope’s prayer for peace. But as Michael Sean Winters noted at The National Catholic Journalistthe conference itself was “difficult to describe”, as it was “held under Chatham House rules, which means that the participants agreed that they could talk about the content of the discussions afterwards, but without revealing who had made a particular comment”.

But as a conference attendee (I moderated a panel on the rapidly changing Catholic media landscape), a few things struck me.

First, there seemed to be a willingness among bishops to listen to their lay collaborators.

Last week in Chicago, bishops from across the United States and a few other parts of the world engaged in dialogue with theologians, scholars, and journalists about the state of the Church.

Two of the keynote addresses were given by lay theologians — Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University and Therese Lysaught of Loyola University Chicago — and the panels were made up of lay experts in theology, media and economics. Cardinals and bishops asked thoughtful questions and offered observations, but much of the conversation came from lay people. (Thus, I wonder if the Chatham House rules were necessary. As a journalist, I would probably say no, because transparency is good and the conference message was hopeful. But maybe the promise anonymity made it easier for bishops to agree to participate.)

Ms Lysaught, who presented on the political culture wars and divisions in the church, said the spirit of collaboration was close to her heart.

“This is the first time in my 30-year career as a Catholic theologian that I have been invited to spend two days meeting, eating, listening and discussing the Church, theology and pastoral realities with bishops,” I said. she said in an email following the conference. “I was impressed by how attentively they listened, by the honesty of their comments and to see them in such a serious conversation with each other and with the other participants in the meeting.”

She said she hopes these conversations demonstrate to bishops that they have a reservoir of support from lay Catholics who want to see their leaders succeed.

“This is the first time in my 30-year career as a Catholic theologian that I have been invited to spend two days meeting, eating, listening and discussing the Church, theology and pastoral realities with bishops.”

“I hope they left with the feeling that they are supported, that there is hope for the church in the United States, that there is a large number of scholars and laity who have their backs and that building relationships and engaging in conversations with each other and these scholars and lay people will only enhance their ability to lead the church, and even make it easier,” he said. she declared.

Second, participants recognized that threats to the implementation of the Second Vatican Council should be taken more seriously and that Pope Francis’ emphasis on synodality could be the way to counter these attacks.

Mark Massa, SJ, Chief of Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College-who co-hosted the rally with Loyola University Chicago’s Hank Center for Catholic Intellectual Heritage and the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University—said that understanding resistance to conciliar reforms explains why some Catholics oppose Pope Francis.

“We want to show that opposition to Pope Francis, not universally, but to a large extent, is opposition to Vatican II,” Fr. Massa said. The torch, a Boston College student newspaper. “Francis is trying to cash the check that Vatican II wrote: synodality was the big thing.”

“We want to show this opposition to Pope Francis, not universally, but to a large extent it is opposition to Vatican II,” Fr. Massa told The Torch.

Third, perhaps the most fruitful part of the conference was the interactions made possible by the fact that the event takes place exclusively in person, during meals and coffee breaks and speed meetings in an elevator.

“Our Catholic tradition places a unique emphasis on the value of face-to-face relationship and dialogue,” Mike Murphy, who directs the Hank Center, told me in an email. “After two difficult years of amputated community, I see why again.”

He added: “It was helpful in preparing for the Zoom conference, but nothing can replace the power of person-to-person presence, and so many people have talked about it, how closeness and closeness is everything. the difference.”

Some bishops have spoken candidly about the challenges of the re-emergence of the pandemic and how routines have been disrupted and many people are simply not returning to parishes. Others explained that the Catholic media landscape can be frustrating, especially when the media portray themselves as Catholic but seem intent on undermining the pope or attacking other believers. But those same outlets are reaching the flocks of those bishops, providing a constant stream of anger and gossip that church leaders seem unable to control.

Organizers hope the gathering will become a regular opportunity for bishops to come together with each other and with lay experts to consider challenges facing the church.

Finally, organizers hope the gathering will become a regular opportunity for bishops to come together with each other and with lay experts to consider the challenges facing the Church.

“This is an opening meeting that we hope will become an annual or semi-annual event that will provide a forum where bishops and theologians can speak candidly to each other about important things that are really buried in the press,” said Father Massa.

There have been similar efforts in the past. The Chicago conference resembled a gathering held at Boston College in 2017, where bishops and theologians engaged in a dialogue about implementing “Amoris Laetita,” the pope’s 2015 encyclical on family life. And in Catholic colleges and universities across the country, thoughtful conversations about the challenges facing the Church are taking place regularly. The effect of these types of rallies is not quantifiable, but the fact that they are happening, especially in an age of hyperpartisanship and polarization, is a sign of hope and possibility.

“In an environment of radical polarization, the church is in a unique position to offer practical remedies,” Mr. Murphy told me. “Why? She has known and experienced such tensions for her entire existence. Imperfectly but authentically with strong periods of light, hope and nourishment.

He added, “The challenge is to dwell in the tensions fruitfully because that is the true gift of the Gospel and at the heart of the Church’s way of proceeding.”

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