National Conference of Catholic Bishops
November 15, 1999
My brother Bishops,
The end of the millennium is also the end of an amazing but tumultuous century. In just a few weeks we will talk about the twentieth century in the past tense. Few past centuries have witnessed the display of sin and grace as starkly as the one now ending. In this century humanity saw the spread of democracy but also the rise of totalitarian and barbarous governments. Charters of fundamental human rights were proclaimed, and yet millions upon millions perished in political, racial and religious persecutions.
In our own country it became legal to kill unborn babies and deny them the fundamental human right -- the right to be born. Without legal protection for their right to life, every child born in the United States since 1973 has faced a death threat from conception to birth. Technology increased life's benefits, but in the areas such as human reproduction and the development of weapons of mass destruction, technology seemed to outstrip our moral and ethical development. Amazing advances in communications increased our sense of being one human family inhabiting one planet. Yet narrow and selfish interests still stand in the way of living respectfully and lovingly as brothers and sisters in one human family. The globalization of the economy has not produced the globalization of prosperity or a sufficient sense of responsibility in the few who have the greater share of earth's riches for the many who are entrapped in poverty. Too many still labor in sweatshops or other inhuman places of work that increase the profits of the few owners and shareholders.
This discouraging and depressing survey of the horror of the twentieth century is only half the picture. We are heartened by many good things that were accomplished during the past 100 years. And we come to realize that the power of sin is not as strong as the power of grace. The words of St. Paul aptly describe the century rapidly coming to a close: "Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more" (Romans 5, 20).
In God's providence, this century was the time of the Second Vatican Council, and the grace of that Council is a continuing blessing which returned the Church to the wisdom of the early Fathers and, as Pope John XXIII hoped, relieved the Church from accretions which developed during the centuries that hid the splendor of faith behind a defensive posture. The Council prepared the Church to engage the world with the truth of Christ and without fear. We wholeheartedly concur with our Holy Father who, in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, identifies the Council as a providential act of God preparing the Church for the Third Millennium: "It was a council focused on the mystery of Christ and his Church, and at the same time open to the world."
These few, clear words tell what the Council was all about. Through it, the Church was filled with new vitality. The Council created a new confidence in what the Church could do both in cooperation and confrontation with the world. It expressed the Church's solidarity with humanity, saying that the "the joy and hope, the grief and anguish" of humanity, especially the poor and afflicted, were all shared by the followers of Christ (Gaudium et Spes, # 1).
In calling for the establishment of national episcopal conferences, the Council gave the Church a significant means for cooperating with and confronting the world with the saving message of Jesus, the only savior of the world. Here in the United States, it gave new form and substance to what our predecessors had long been doing. Looking back to the nineteenth century and beyond, we can see how deep-rooted and consistent has been the common concern of the Bishops for the well-being of the Church in the United States. For that we can only be grateful for the foresight, courage and zeal of those who served before us.
The 1791 Synod of Baltimore, when the United States was one diocese, found Bishop Carroll and the twenty-two priests who attended dealing with the administration of the sacraments, mixed marriages, the order of Sunday worship, and the provision of catechism classes. By making provision for reading the Gospel of the day in the vernacular, it also dealt with what we think of as an entirely contemporary concern. The subsequent meetings of the seven provincial councils of Baltimore all dealt with matters which, taking into account the changed circumstances, would not look much different from our agenda today.
After the Church grew in size and complexity, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore dealt with parochial schools in all parishes, the erection of a Catholic University, and the preparation of what was to become the Baltimore catechism. We can see how greatly our predecessors shared our commitment to education and the religious formation of children.
The development of parochial schools naturally led to the question of the relationship of the burgeoning Catholic system to the public school system. Clearly involved in this discussion was the issue of maintaining our Catholic identity through education. The Bishops engaged in an intense discussion on the relationship of these two systems. Some saw a benefit in thorough cooperation with the public system; others felt such cooperation compromised what was uniquely Catholic about the Catholic school system.
That discussion long ago seems to me to be not substantially different from our discussion on Ex corde ecclesiae, except that our discussion is in the realm of higher education. The intensity and length of the earlier school debate resulted in a school system which has been one of the glories of the Catholic experience in the United States. We trust that God's grace will bring an equally fruitful outcome to our current discussion.
As we move into the twentieth century, we see the cooperation among the Bishops taking the form of the National Catholic Welfare Conference whose 80th anniversary we celebrate this year. Formed originally in response to the first international crisis of truly global proportions -- the First World War and its aftermath -- in 1919 it provided the forum for the first formal meeting of the U.S. Hierarchy in thirty-five years. After a period of time during which the NCWC clarified its role as a voluntary organization with no jurisdiction in relation to diocesan bishops, it played an increasingly effective role in presenting a united Catholic voice on issues of importance to the Church and society.
From the ground breaking "Program for Social Reconstruction" issued on February 12, 1919, (and signed by Bishop Muldoon of Rockford, Bishop Schrembs of Toledo, Auxiliary Bishop Hayes of New York, and Bishop Russell of Charleston), the Bishops of the United States truly made their own "the joy and hope, the grief and anguish" of humanity, especially the poor and afflicted. The volumes of our pastoral letters and statements published by the Conference remind us of how wide were the concerns of our predecessors.
Just as today the murderous rampage directed, in a large part, at the Church in East Timor caused us to speak out, so our predecessors spoke of the persecution of the Church in Mexico and in many other lands, especially those which eventually came under communist domination. As the Depression deepened, the Bishops spoke on behalf of the unemployed and a more just social order. Their concerns were not limited to people's economic well-being but extended to their moral and spiritual good, as when the Bishops in the 1930s and 1940s addressed indecency in literature and film.
World War II brought another crisis in which many innocent people suffered on account of war and persecution. The Bishops raised their voices on behalf of all the suffering, mentioning specifically the Jews in 1942, as the Nazi policy of extermination was becoming public knowledge. They said, "We feel a deep sense of revulsion against the cruel indignities heaped upon the Jews in conquered countries and upon defenseless people not of our faith. ... We raise our voice in protest against despotic tyrants who have lost all sense of humanity by condemning thousands of innocent persons to death in subjugated countries as acts of reprisal; by placing other thousands of innocent victims in concentration camps, and by permitting unnumbered persons to die of starvation" (Victory and Peace, November 14, 1942). As the nation moved into the decades of the 1950s and 60s, the Bishops took up the challenge of the civil rights movement and, in the midst of the Vietnam war, the issue of conscientious objection. In 1965 the Bishops returned home from Rome to begin implementing the documents of the Second Vatican Council. This was a monumental task which included renewing long-established patterns of worship with a revised liturgy, the Novus Ordo of the Mass, and the transformation of the long-standing coolness toward those of other religions and faiths into warm relations and cooperative ventures with our ecumenical and interfaith brothers and sisters.
In 1966, the Conference was restructured according to the mind of the Council, and, along with new responsibilities for the life of the Church in our nation, it continued to work for the spiritual and social well-being of U.S. Catholics. Year after year, through the Conference, the Bishops defended life from conception to natural death from the threats of abortion, hunger and poverty, racism, war and weapons of mass destruction, capital punishment, and euthanasia. The needs of Catholic schools were addressed as was the importance of the religious formation of all Catholics: children, young people, and adults. Our recently released statement on civic responsibility, Faithful Citizenship, is an excellent example of how we as a Conference have been active in the realm of public policy.
If this limited review of our agenda over the decades calls to mind many of the matters we will be addressing in the next few days, then it is a wholesome reminder that we are part of a great tradition of episcopal service which stretches across the centuries and, in our case, from Archbishop Carroll and the other Bishops who have gone before us. We owe a special debt of gratitude to the Bishops of the Council, especially those members of our Conference, both living and dead, for their wisdom and patience in keeping the Church united during a time of immense change, sometimes fraught with serious tensions and misunderstandings. Now this tradition stretches excitingly into a new century and a new millennium, and we are the ones who, in God's providence, will bring the teaching of the apostles into the next millennium of Christian faith.
Our Holy Father has summoned the Church to a new evangelization. Throughout the Great Jubilee Year 2000, our constant cry must be: "Open wide the doors to Christ," so that nothing in our culture, in our society, in our individual lives is closed to the truth of Christ. The cry is directed first to us, and to all believers in him, in case our hearts are only partially open to him who desires to enter and dine with us (Revelation 3,20).
Looking to our own particular Church and country, this new evangelization ought to have a receptive audience. The Christian roots of our culture run very deep; and far from seeing religion as a crutch, millions of our fellow citizens find their strength, not merely in numbers, but in the person of Jesus Christ, the rock and foundation of their lives, who enables them to act and to love strongly.
Many who do not yet believe in Christ are, at least, on a spiritual quest, unwilling to lead superficial and material lives. The new evangelization has the power to increase the ardor and sense of mission of those who already believe and to provide a safe harbor for those who are seeking the One who alone can satisfy their longings.
But our culture has an enormous number of distractions that entrap some people and draw them away from spiritual values. Never before have people had such freedom to direct their own lives and yet squandered that freedom so completely as to become the slaves of their own possessions.
One sign of our times is the nearly overwhelming flow of information which comes at us from so many sources that the result can be confusion and not enlightenment. The new evangelization must cut through this complacency with things and this din of voices to reveal to people that Christ stands at the door of every heart and knocks (Revelation 3, 20).
This task is doubly hard with those who think they have heard the authentic message of Christ and found it wanting. For these, who see nothing new in the good news, it is often not words but the witness of a life intensely lived after the example of Christ that makes the difference.
Those who stood at the dawn of the 20th century could not have foreseen the conquest over space and time and the radical changes in people's way of living that would come with the airplane, the television, the computer, or the atom bomb -- to name but a few of the inventions of the passing century. A hundred years ago men walked on the moon only in the imagination of fiction writers. So too we, who stand at the dawn of the 21st century, can only imagine what will transform our lives in the years ahead and how it will help or perhaps hinder the new evangelization.
But we are filled with hope. Our predecessors bequeathed to us a strong and dynamic Church. They faced the significant issues of their times, and, like them, we must face the issues that will come our way in the future. We must accept our responsibility with the trust and courage that was characteristic of our episcopal predecessors.
As did their leadership in the past, so our leadership in the opening years of the new millennium will help maintain the vitality of the Church in the United States and determine how the faith, which we received from the apostles, will be transmitted to new generations. At the core of our leadership is fidelity to the bond of unity we have with our Holy Father, the successor of Peter, whose ministry as supreme pastor is to strengthen us, his brothers, in faith.
This week we will exercise our leadership in critically important areas, and what we decide will affect the course of the Church as did the decisions of our predecessors. But we have also been given the rare opportunity of leading our people into a new century and a new millennium, following the cross of Jesus lifted high for the new evangelization. We have been called to guide the Church in the United States, with the help of the Holy Spirit, so that the people of the Third Millennium will believe in the Church as the sacrament of Christ in the world, the chosen instrument of God's truth and his salvation. Our words and actions can inspire every heart to open its doors and receive him who knocks, and thereby bring to fruition the "new springtime of Christianity" which the Pope foresees in our future.
As we face this new century and new millennium, I am confident that we will keep faith with our predecessors and that we will not fail the trust that Providence has in our leadership. This confidence is not based not on any human power but on our belief in Christ's lordship so powerfully recalled in the words of our Easter Vigil: "He is the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega. All time belongs to him and all the ages." With one heart and one mind, we proclaim to the world the good news which is relevant in every age: Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13,8).
Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza