This year, the US bishops are taking turns (region by region) to visit the Pope. This is more than just a coffee clatch with guys in skullcaps: the bishops bring detailed reports (to the Holy Father and to the various Vatican offices) with statistics about the general population in their diocesan area, the Catholic population, numbers of parishes, priests, baptisms, Catholic weddings, etc. They share with the Holy Father their biggest concerns, their plans, their reasons for hope. While the local bishop is presenting his perspective, though, the Pope is hearing that in the context of the picture given him by bishops from very different territories. This allows the Pope to get a sense, from the ground up, of the whole Catholic picture around the world.
So when the Pope reflects back, in his talks to the bishops (as well as in those messages "to the city and the world" on Christmas and Easter), he is able to give more of the "big picture" than any one bishop or bishops' conference could come up with.
Just yesterday, in speaking with the bishops from the mid-Atlantic region, the Pope told them that, in view of the serious threats to religious freedom in the United States, the pastoral priority had to be on lay Catholics' being better instructed in the faith and in its implications for society, and empowered to witness to it in the public square.
The challenge here is for Catholics to "come out of the closet" of limiting their religious expression to a matter of where they go to worship on Sunday. It means being unafraid and unintimidated by accusations that they are "forcing their beliefs" on others. In one sense, our democratic traditions tend to pressure minorities to surrender before the power of numbers, but even a minority has the right to proclaim what it holds as unfailingly true. And even though Catholics are a substantial percentage of the US population (as are fallen-away or alienated Catholics), it can be hard to recognize them in a society with such homogenizing tendencies as our consumer culture.
How can ordinary Catholics begin to awaken to the need to bring society into conformity with the whole truth about the human person?
Read the Pope's full talk here.
In case you thought this was "yesterday's news," today's brings us back to the Health and Human Services mandate that requires employers to provide full medical insurance coverage for contraception, sterilizations and other morally repugnant services. This mandate acknowledges only the slimmest "religious exemption," one which basically only covers parish-level ministry personnel. The White House has offered Catholic institutions a generous extension of one year to get with the program. Cardinal-designate Dolan summed up the administration's position: "In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences."
Here's the rest of the story; here's the official statement from the US Bishops (confirming the Pope's observation yesterday of "grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism "); here's Cardinal-designate Dolan speaking as head of the US bishops:
Archbishop Timothy Dolan on HHS Conscience Regulation from Rocco Palmo on Vimeo.