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Bishops’ fall General Assembly, day one: Synodality, evangelization, eucharist and sex abuse just a few issues of the day

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Bishops wearing protective masks attend Mass Nov. 15, 2021, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the first in-person bishops' meeting since 2019. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

On day one of the Bishops’ General Assembly, these were some topics of discussion or interest:

Synod on synodality should not avoid problems, archbishop says in homily

BALTIMORE — More than 200 bishops and archbishops and six cardinals concelebrated the opening Mass for the fall assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the first in-person gathering for the prelates since November 2019. The pandemic moved their past three full meetings to videoconferencing. Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the USCCB’s president, was the principal celebrant.

The bishops, masked and adequately spaced, along with some laypeople, filled the pews of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the evening Mass Nov. 15. Among the concelebrants were Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, Pope Francis’ representative, who was scheduled to address the bishops at their morning session Nov. 16. One of the most contentious items on the bishops’ agenda for the meeting was to be discussion and action on a new statement titled “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” Preliminary discussion in June about such a document was extensive and showed some division among the bishops about the themes of the document and even whether the conference should issue one.

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Papal nuncio urges U.S. bishops to closely listen to the church

BALTIMORE — Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, spoke to the U.S. bishops Nov. 16 about the importance of listening to people in the church and being open to the work of the Holy Spirit. He addressed the bishops on the first day of two days of public sessions at their fall general assembly Nov. 15-18 in Baltimore. The archbishop noted that he has been in the role of apostolic nuncio for five years and has been on a journey with the U.S. bishops through challenges of religious disaffiliation, the sexual abuse crisis, increasing secularization, polarization within the nation and the church, and most recently the global pandemic. He quickly jumped into discussing a topic fresh on the bishops’ minds from hearing about it the previous night at their opening Mass and one they will continue discussing in preparation for an upcoming world Synod of Bishops: synodality. “I believe that synodality is an answer to the challenges of our time and to the confrontation, which is threatening to divide this country, and which also has its echoes in the church,” Archbishop Pierre said. “It seems that many are unaware they are engaged in this confrontation, staking out positions, rooted in certain truths but which are isolated in the world of ideas and not applied to the reality of the lived faith experience of the people of God in their concrete situations,” he said.

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Church’s evangelizing mission can heal division, archbishop tells assembly

BALTIMORE — The U.S. church today is called more than ever to carry out its centuries-long evangelizing mission at a time of spiritual awakening rising from “under the clouds of the pandemic” and the country’s uncertain future, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told his fellow prelates. “People are starting to examine what they truly believe and what they value most deeply in their lives,” said Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, who spoke Nov. 16 during the opening public session of the USCCB’s Nov. 15-18 general assembly in Baltimore. The questions people have allow the church to continue its mission, even in an increasingly secularized society, the archbishop said. The challenge, he said, is “to understand how the church should carry out her mission.” Archbishop Gomez acknowledged that differences among members of the church exist because of the differing views people hold on how to move forward. Still, he said, “there are also many signs of hope” that present new opportunities to bring the Gospel to others. The archbishop turned to a 19th-century prelate to find inspiration for the path ahead. Archbishop John Ireland, who as a young priest served as a chaplain in the Union Army, was a “powerful advocate for African Americans and for the rights of immigrants,” he explained.

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Don’t make Eucharist statement partisan, urges advisory council’s chair

WASHINGTON — The U.S. bishops’ proposed statement on the Eucharist “cannot be partisan,” nor should it be made such “through calculated expression or calculated suppression of our doctrine and belief,” said the head of the bishops’ National Advisory Council. “The Eucharist cannot be a tool for division, cannot be ideological,” said Mark Sadd of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, who is chair of the council. He made the remarks during a Nov. 16 address to the bishops gathered in Baltimore for their fall general assembly. The council’s members — a group made up of 32 laypeople, priests, women religious, and permanent deacons as well as four bishops — were briefed on the proposed statement Oct. 15, according to Sadd. The council, he said, did not come up with a consensus, but made comments voicing their “idiosyncratic” opinions on what the document should and should not contain. The statement, Sadd said, has to be accessible “to those who wish to hear it and to those who do not.” Some council members, he said, asked: “How will this (statement) be transmitted to the faithful? How will it be received, and how will pastors share it?”

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Sex abuse survivors urge bishops to denounce Church Militant’s agenda

BALTIMORE — On the first of two days of public sessions during the U.S. bishops fall general assembly, a group of sex abuse survivors in a Nov. 16 news conference called on the prelates meeting in Baltimore to focus less on who can take Communion and instead do more to end sex abuse and other abuses by clergy.

The survivors also demanded the bishops condemn a group that was holding a nearby protest claiming homosexuality is linked to pedophilia.

“We wanted to come here today on behalf of survivors, a group of survivors of sexual abuse who are committed to fighting for justice and to also highlight what’s not being talked about when they’re focused on the Eucharist,” said Sarah Pearson, a sex abuse survivor from Wisconsin who joined other members of the organization Ending Clergy Abuse in addressing bishops.

“They’ve shown us in focusing on this culture war, about the Eucharist, what they care about and what’s important to them: talking about one man’s ability to take Communion,” Pearson said in an apparent reference to President Joe Biden, a Catholic who supports legal abortion.

“Meanwhile, there’s millions of Catholics around the world who’ve been impacted by this (sex abuse) issue,” she said, “and they’re not being recognized inside there (the hotel where the bishops were meeting) today and that’s a shame.”

The bishops still had to debate and vote on their statement on the Eucharist and an early version of it — without amendments — did not specifically call out Biden and other Catholic politicians who support abortion.

The survivors also demanded that the bishops, as a group, denounce Church Militant, a right-wing group that had organized a rally nearby, and the ideas they said the group was dispersing.

“Bishops have an opportunity here to address what’s being said out here,” said Peter Isely of Ending Clergy Abuse, indicating the nearby pavilion where Church Militant was holding a rally, which former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon and far-right polemicist right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos were to address.

“The primary thing that we’re most concerned (about), as survivors of sexual abuse from around the world,” Isely said, “is this really pernicious, dangerous position that this group Church Militant, Steven Bannon, and others have taken, that homosexuality is linked to pedophilia, and this is the excuse that they have generated for why there has been so much abuse in the church.”

Isely, Pearson and Tim Law, founder of Ending Clergy Abuse, spoke to Catholic News Service following the news conference they held just as bishops began the first of two days of public sessions during their Nov. 15-18 meeting. It was the first time the prelates had met in person since the pandemic.

Various groups protested their gathering outside the hotel where the meeting was held.

Security guards and police were dispersed near the hotel; a helicopter flew overhead of the pavilion where Church Militant held its rally. About 20 people showed up to protest that gathering.

Law claimed that by not condemning the group, the bishops “are supporting an agenda that is wrong and that is demonizing and scapegoating a class of people.”

“They are failing to denounce Church Militant and what that group is saying, and some probably believe in their heart a lot of what they are saying,” he said.

A few days before, members of Church Militant tweeted a photo of some of its members with Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, and said they had received his blessing. But some of the Church Militant supporters carried signs also criticizing the bishops, calling them “Judases” and one dressed up in a wolf’s costume wearing a miter.

“The bishops and Pope Francis need to speak out forcefully that pedophilia and homosexuality” are not same thing, Law said.

Isely said the comparison was harmful, in particular to victims of clergy sex abuse who are gay and who struggle to cope with what has happened and who sometimes contemplate and carry out suicide because of it.

“They’re a particularly vulnerable group,” he said. “This compounding of precarious messages that they’re hearing digs deeply into their minds, into the hearts … and that simply has to stop.”

A news release from Ending Clergy Abuse accused Church Militant of having “capitalized off the rape and sexual abuse of children, using their suffering as an opportunity to court donors and gain followers.”

The organization said that Church Militant, “at the behest of wealthy donors,” has a propaganda network “to mobilize support for their agenda of recriminalizing homosexuality by fear-mongering about the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups.”

“By attributing the Catholic clergy abuse crisis to gay priests,” said Ending Clergy Abuse, Church Militant has “contributed to heightened stigma around gay men while ignoring every non-male victim of clergy abuse.”