By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
BALTIMORE – In his final remarks as president of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo encouraged the U.S. Church to continue to press ahead in the fight against clergy abuse and in defense of migrants and unborn human life.
DiNardo began his remarks on Monday at the start of the general assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) by recalling several highlights of his time as president of the conference over the past three years.
Among the stories he recounted were those of visiting a border detention center and seeing the hand drawn pictures of Jesus and Mary made by children separated from their families, the work of crisis pregnancy centers across the country, and meeting with clergy abuse survivors.
“When too many within the Church sought to keep them in the darkness, they refused to be relegated to the shadows,” DiNardo said.
The 70-year-old prelate, who is the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, was elected as head of the U.S. bishops in November 2016, and nearly half of that time has been dominated by the latest wave of clergy abuse scandals.
On Monday, he praised the outspoken and tireless efforts of abuse survivors, saying “their witness brought help to countless fellow survivors. It fueled the resolve of my brother bishops to respond with pastoral support and prevention programs.”
He then spoke about Pope Francis, saying that that he has “ushered in a new era of bishop accountability with a worldwide standard for investigating wrongdoing, protecting whistleblowers, and serving survivors.”
DiNardo said that the new protocols adopted by the U.S. bishops in June – where the bishops voted to enact standards for holding bishops accountable that include lay involvement – were a sign of a “renewed striving” from the Church hierarchy, but added that “they are only a beginning. More needs to and will be done.”
He also said that the Church must continue to root out a culture of clericalism, a constant theme for Francis.
“We cannot permit anyone who is ordained to act as if he is lord and master over others,” he said. “The privilege of a cleric is to be a humble servant to all,” he said.
On migration and abortion, the Texas cardinal was unapologetic in the Church’s stance on both issues.
Recalling a July delegation of bishops that went to the border, he said, “we went because Jesus was already there. We followed our shepherd.”
“I invite everyone who may hear this to share our journey of solidarity with migrants and refugees,” he added.
On abortion, he noted that, “the continued fight to defend unborn children is one of the most significant things we do. And it will remain so as long as the most innocent lives are left unprotected.”
In concluding his remarks, DiNardo encouraged the bishops to lead the way in overcoming national political and ideological divisions.
“Civil dialogue has been replaced by coarse rhetoric,” he said. “As followers of Christ, let us light a different path. Follow a simple truth: ‘God is always courteous.’ Let us be courteous.”
DiNardo’s remarks were especially brief, clocking in at just nine minutes. At the conclusion, he received a standing ovation from the body of bishops thanking him for his service.
Prior to his address, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, opened the morning by challenging the U.S. bishops to consider how their ministries are in communion with Francis and their fellow priests and bishops.
“The pope has emphasized certain themes: Mercy, closeness to the people, discernment, accompaniment, a spirit of hospitality toward migrants, and dialogue with those of other cultures and religions,” said Pierre. “Do you believe these are gradually becoming part of the mindset of your clergy and your people?”
Pierre, who has served as the pope’s representative to the U.S. since 2016, then added that while the pope has put mercy at the center of his papacy, “people are becoming more and more judgmental and less willing to forgive, as witnessed by the polarization gripping this nation.”
While Pierre commended the bishops’ focus on the “new evangelization,” he said that they must seriously consider how effective their efforts have been and if they have been reactive rather than proactive.
“Certainly, evangelization remains a pastoral priority, but do pastoral priorities, which we have chosen, truly touch the reality of the life of our people or do they need to be adjusted or realigned?” he asked.
As the U.S. bishops travel to Rome over the next four months in regional groups for their ad limina meetings with the Roman Curia and Francis, Pierre said that such questions are necessary to “reflect on our sense of mission.”
“How have we and our local churches received the magisterium of Pope Francis,” he asked the American hierarchy, some of whom have openly called into question the pope’s priorities and teachings.
In his remarks, Pierre seemed to challenge that sentiment, specifically highlighting two of Francis’s major teaching documents, Amoris Laetitia, which focuses on marriage and family life and in some corners of the U.S. Church has been controversial for its cautious opening to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, and Laudato si’, the pope’s landmark letter calling for greater attention to the environment.
As the nation’s Catholic bishops are gathered in Baltimore this week, they will face the two-pronged challenge of electing new leadership for the conference as they seek to improve a strained relationship with the Vatican and also prepare to engage in the public square at home ahead of a national presidential election.
On Tuesday, the U.S. bishops will vote to elect a new president of the conference, widely expected to be Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who has served as vice-president of the conference under DiNardo.
If elected, Gomez would become the first ever-Latino prelate to hold the post.
Prior to the meeting’s agenda being formally approved on Monday, Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan asked that an oral report be given regarding any updates on former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose downfall last summer sparked the latest wave of abuse scandals and prompted new questions about the lack of bishop accountability.
More than a year has passed since the Vatican pledged a full and comprehensive review of its archives to account for who knew what and when about the misdeeds of McCarrick. While no official date has been set for the report’s release, Crux has confirmed that it has undergone several drafts and its publication is widely expected before the end of the year.
The motion was approved by a majority of the bishops in a voice vote, although a time has not been set for when the report will take place.