At home and abroad: Bishops' conferences show collegiality, solidarity

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By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The role of the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops and other bishops’ conferences around the world is
“catholic” — working together to promote the church’s mission, but
also “to support peacebuilding and human development throughout the
world,” said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

Cardinal Parolin responded to written questions from
Catholic News Service Nov. 10, just before he was scheduled to travel to the
United States. He was to preside and give the homily at a Mass Nov. 12 in
Baltimore marking the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic

The U.S. bishops’ conference began in 1917 as the National
Catholic War Council to coordinate a common Catholic response to the need for
military chaplains and relief efforts once the U.S. entered World War I.

“Although primarily concerned with coordinating the
church’s pastoral activity in a specific area, bishops’ conferences are
naturally concerned for the welfare of the entire church by virtue of the
communion that unites bishops, and their particular churches, with one another
and with the pope as the successor of Peter,” the cardinal said.

“This collegial spirit has always marked the United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which began as a practical means of
providing relief to those suffering the effects of the First World War,”
he said. “Today, the conference continues to be ‘catholic,’ not only in
its concern for the missions and the needs of our fellow Christians, especially
those suffering persecution, but also, more generally, in its efforts to
support peacebuilding and human development throughout the world.”

The 62-year-old Italian cardinal, a career Vatican diplomat,
is Pope Francis’ top aide both for internal church matters as well as for
relations with governments and international organizations. He also serves on
the nine-member Council of Cardinals that advises the pope on church governance
and the reform of the Roman Curia.

Asked about the state of U.S.-Vatican relations,
particularly given the strong differences of opinion between Pope Francis and
the Trump administration on issues like immigration and climate change,
Cardinal Parolin responded, “It is not the first time a pope and a president
have held differing views!”

In 2003, he recalled, St. John Paul II strongly sought to
dissuade the United States under President George W. Bush and its allies from
waging a war in Iraq, “which he qualified as an ‘adventure of no return.’
The conflict unfortunately occurred with dire consequences right up to the

“What is important, however, is that although there can
be differences, as in any healthy relationship, this does not undermine or compromise
the bonds which unite us,” the cardinal said.

The U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relationship, he added, is
“strong and solid,” and he looks forward to working with Callista
Gingrich, the new ambassador to the Holy See.

In its diplomatic relations, he said, “the Holy See is
an advocate of the common good and does not seek to promote particular
interests or to oblige governments to follow its views. The values we defend
are based on the Gospel and natural law; they are the values of the universal church.”

Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops share those values, the
cardinal said, and while Pope Francis speaks on a global stage, the U.S.
bishops do so nationally “to safeguard the common good and promote
fundamental moral values. Doing that is a requirement of our faith.”

As for the renewed importance Pope Francis has given to
bishops’ conferences, citing their teaching in his own major documents,
Cardinal Parolin said that flowed naturally from the Argentine pope’s own
experience on his national bishops’ conference and, especially, on the Latin
America bishops’ council, CELAM.

Pope Francis’ vision “is essentially missionary, aimed
at a renewal of ecclesial life at every level for the sake of a more incisive
presentation of the Gospel message,” the cardinal said. “So it is
natural that the Holy Father should place a high value on the work of national
conferences in discerning the needs of the local churches and responding to
important moral and social issues affecting their area.”

The pope also has called for greater collegiality and
synodality in the Catholic Church, encouraging bishops to discuss matters
openly, frankly and prayerfully in order to address modern problems, concerns
and challenges.

The bishops’ conferences have an important role in that, the
cardinal said. “Within an ecclesiology of communion, they can serve to
build solidarity and enhance communication among the particular churches, while
at the same time building communion and Catholic unity on the level of the universal

Pope Francis, he said, “is convinced of the importance
of initiating processes, making sure that all voices are heard, and exercising
a farsighted discernment. We see this in his approach to the Synod of Bishops,
and we see it in his approach to episcopal conferences and their working.”

In 1998, St. John Paul issued an apostolic letter,
“Apostolos Suos” on the theological and juridical nature of bishops’
conferences. To many observers, it indicated a caution against conferences
growing too large and appearing to usurp the authority of an individual bishop
in his own diocese.

“Episcopal conferences have an essentially pastoral
responsibility,” Cardinal Parolin said. “Needless to say, this
activity must be carried out prudently and in a spirit of communion, both with
the bishop members of the conference and with the larger church. I believe that
time and experience are helping to clarify how this is best to be done in

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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