Report of the President: 2003 Plenary Assembly

Monday, October 27 2003

Shortly after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI wrote in his last will and testament, “I close my eyes upon this sad, dramatic and magnificent earth, calling once again still on divine kindness.” We also can say that in many ways our times too are dramatic and magnificent.

This is a magnificent moment for the Church. Once again we make the urgency of evangelizing our fundamental mission. We work on reconstituting the fabric of the faith through catechesis. We marvel at the new generations of young people who found rebirth in World Youth Day and now come to give new hope to our particular Churches.

But this is also a dramatic moment, marked by conflicts which never seem to end; a time when the outward expressions of the Church are often discredited, and when the most basic of human and religious values are seriously questioned.

It is for us to speak out – to reaffirm those values that are so essential. Our declarations on the conflict in Iraq and on reproductive technologies have been eloquent examples of this.

I also wish to recall other moments that marked this past year. Soon after the 2002 meeting of the Plenary Assembly, I made a most successful visit to Rome in company with the Vice President and General Secretary, meeting with some 15 dicasteries. Of special note was a breakthrough with Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which later enabled a delegation of Canadian bishops to meet with Curia officials in Rome and, at long last, to make progress on the Canadian Lectionary. Recognitio, though not yet requested, at least now seems possible. There was a good dialogue on the Canadian document for implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae, thus providing a basis for the substantial work undertaken by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., as you saw in the proposed new text sent to you this September.

The latter part of 2002 also opened a new chapter in the history of our Conference. After some 40 years at 90 Parent Avenue, our offices moved into a building at 2500 Don Reid Drive, now owned and operated by the Conference. The new facilities were blessed and formally inaugurated on 19 March; may good Saint Joseph keep a watchful eye on them.

However, the first formal meeting in the new building had already taken place on 3 January. That was a “bad news” meeting. Because of a sewage backup after the Papal Mass closing the Toronto World Youth Day celebrations, it appeared the insurance would not cover the possible liability and that there was an exposure in excess of $15 million. This was catastrophic, since bishops across the land were in the midst of one of our most difficult tasks, to pay off the monumental World Youth Day debt. But divine Providence did not abandon us. The issue made a complete turn-around in late spring when, after much creative discussion, we learnt that World Youth Day insurance would cover the matter. The issue is not yet completely settled, but it seems we can definitely and collectively sigh in relief. Also, while some dioceses continue to smart because of the financial repercussions of World Youth Day, the debt has been extinguished.

Also in January, I attended the third symposium in the Holy Land involving a number of the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences who met with the Ordinaries of the Holy Land. This experience reinforced my conviction from the previous year: while the situation there is almost unsolvable, we cannot abandon the valiant Christians who, as certain documents from the Holy See have said, are all that prevents the holy sites of Christianity from becoming mere museum exhibits, and who instead maintain a living witness. One small contribution on our part can be to promote the Good Friday collection for the Holy Land.

In February, our Conference hosted the annual meeting of the Bishops of the Church in America. By good fortune, the dates for the meeting occurred immediately after the Carnaval de Québec, and so a “sweetheart deal” was possible with the Château Frontenac where we had our meeting. There were good exchanges on the topic of the cultural impact of globalization. The context of a Canadian winter made quite an impression on the Latin American guests, several of whom took advantage of the Château’s toboggan slide.

In March, the Catholic Organization for Life and Family maintained its tradition of organizing a seminar on bioethics, its fourth annual forum, with emphasis on the human embryo. What is so enriching about these seminars is that members of the scientific as well as of the theological communities come together in a climate of mutual respect and with a desire to learn from one another. For those who are not necessarily believers, this opportunity has been a revelation, and the experience has done much to bridge the gap that too often exists between science and faith.

The Conference was also host to several important delegations. His Eminence Lubomyr Cardinal Husar, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, visited the CCCB offices on 13 February. The visit highlighted the rich dividends we receive by having among us members representing the Oriental Churches. This mutual solidarity was enhanced by the CCCB note sent earlier this year to all the Bishops of Canada, in order to ensure respect for the Oriental law according to which the priest is the minister of the sacrament of marriage. The Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, Patriarch Cardinal Ignace Moussa I Daoud, has applauded this action.

Another important visit was by a delegation from the Patriotic Church of China. This was in response to an earlier visit to China by a Canadian delegation that had included Bishop André Vallée, P.M.É. The meeting took place 17 February, with 25 people in all attending, including Archbishop Marcel Gervais who headed the CCCB representatives.

I also want to note the visit by a delegation from the Episcopal Conference of the Congo during the first week of October. With the wonderful collaboration of Development and Peace, I invited Cardinal Frédéric Etsou and a delegation of bishops to come to Canada in order that we could strengthen our ties, and also offer support at a moment when the Church has such a key role in the democratization of that country. With their land emerging from a war in which more than 3.5 million victims have paid their lives for freedom, we can assist the Church there in obtaining greater aid from the Government of Canada toward helping the Congo provide peace and security for all its people.

The matter of sexual abuse of minors by clergy continued to involve the Church in a media controversy. The preliminary working group that was formed last year has recommended that a taskforce of 10 people, mainly from outside the Conference, be mandated to study the following elements in particular:

· The proactive creation of safe environments for pastoral work, with emphasis on the protection of children
· Increased transparency at all levels
· Without diminishing the primacy of diocesan autonomy, encouraging accountability at all levels

Archbishop James Weisgerber and Bishop Eugène Tremblay have agreed to chair the taskforce, with Associate General Secretary Benoît Bariteau as staff. The complete list of the members will be announced once arrangements are complete. The hope is the taskforce will have a substantial report to the Permanent Council before the end of 2004.

Germane to this question, a meeting was held in Ottawa on 21 June involving a CCCB delegation – composed of Archbishop Roger Ébacher, Bishop Paul-André Durocher and the General Secretary – together with representatives from the Canadian Church Abuse Survivors’ Alliance. The dialogue was fruitful for all concerned, with any follow-up to be the responsibility of the taskforce.

The Ad Hoc National Committee to ensure follow-up to World Youth Day and the North American Vocations Congress has also been active. Composed of Most Reverend Gerald Wiesner, O.M.I., James M. Wingle, André Rivest and Valery Vienneau, the Committee proposes to present a detailed strategy to the 2004 Plenary Assembly.

The Catholic Health Association of Canada held an historic meeting in Montreal in May, and is now actively adapting itself to the new realities of Catholic health-care institutions in Canada. As a response to these efforts, the Conference has established a writing committee in view of issuing a major pastoral letter early next year on Catholic health care and Catholic health-care institutions.

The recent publication of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the ministry of the bishop gives me an opportunity to note the significant contributions of the Canadian delegates at the last Synod of Bishops, with Most Reverend James Weisgerber, Raymond Lahey, Gilles Gazabon, O.M.I., and Pierre Morissette bringing forward concerns that are important to us all. There will be overviews of the Apostolic Exhortation later during this Plenary which will clearly indicate the significance of their input.

As well, I wish to pay special tribute to the Conference staff, not only because of the continuously excellent work that has become a hallmark of our organization, but also because of the particular loyalty and dedication displayed this year with the achievement of a new collective agreement with the Employee Association. The sacrifices made are greatly appreciated.

Among the issues that took up much time and effort was the controversy on the unions of same-sex partners. I am pleased that out of this difficult moment we achieved a good Conference document on marriage, one that will stand up well for the future.

The Indian Residential School question which has befuddled us for many years seems to be progressing. There appear to be signs the federal government is realizing a so-called pan-denominational solution is out of the question for the Catholic Church, and that discussions must take place directly with the first-tier parties. This is not to say the matter can be laid to rest. Continued vigilance and monitoring are required, as well as the continuing positive work of the Council for Reconciliation, Solidarity and Communion. Your financial assistance to this Council and the fund that it administers is much appreciated. In addition, I want to give public recognition to the Knights of Columbus whose generous contributions have made possible our much-needed Secretariat for Aboriginal Affairs.

Before concluding, I would also like to list a number of other significant projects that were either completed or initiated over this past year:

· The National Office of Religious Education (NORE) has embarked on the writing of a Grade 12 curriculum, scheduled to be published in time for September 2004. A market study endorsed this project, which is “cutting edge”. Special thanks to Bishop Richard Grecco who is so personally involved.
· The French Sector National Liturgy Office held a successful weekend event during August on the campus of Laval University, bringing together over 300 parish delegates from 29 French Sector or bilingual dioceses for a public colloquium, followed by a scholarly seminar for a hundred or so participants from higher institutions of learning in France and Belgium as well as Canada. These initiatives marked the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.
· A new CCCB statement on the Canadian Catholic Charismatic Renewal was issued.
· Our Archives were equipped with state-of-the-art mechanical shelving, meaning significant space savings and greater efficiency in conserving our documents.
· The establishment of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in Canada was especially facilitated with the help of Archbishop Marcel Gervais.

In addition, our Conference’s international mission has significantly expanded over recent years. This growth in international meetings and other forms of international involvement in the Church is a heavy responsibility that needs careful attention. Increased Conference representation as well as requests to participate in gatherings and forums, and the growing number of meetings being called by the Roman dicasteries – all these involve significant costs and demands in terms of time. At the same time as looking at these invitations in a spirit of frugality, our Conference did decide to be present at a number of international forums this past year involving the liturgy, international peace and development work, Christian education and also ecumenism. My thanks to our episcopal confreres who have made themselves available for these “foreign missions”, which mean having to be away from their dioceses, yet at the same time assisting the Conference in this special service.

As I come to the end of this report, let me emphasize how much during these years as President I have come to realize the importance of our Conference. Each one of us is immersed in the multitude of situations that comprise the life of our local Churches. Each day we hear cries for renewed evangelization, the call for vocations so our Church may remain truly Eucharistic, and so many other voices asking for answers.

Over and above this life in each diocese, there are growing problems that none of us can deal with alone, but that we must carry together as brothers. Over the years we have built a national secretariat that serves us with loyalty and professional competence. This secretariat completes our episcopal leadership and provides us with invaluable assistance.

Having recently returned from the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the pontificate of His Holiness Pope John Paul II, again I had the occasion to observe the scope of the Holy Father’s ministry over the past 25 years, and also to remark how episcopal ministry and collegiality benefit in importance and fruitfulness through our links with the Holy Father. These links with the Church in Canada were also expressed in a particular way during the Consistory of 21 October when one of our own was elevated to the rank of cardinal. I wish to offer him our respects and congratulations. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, our prayers are with you, as you join Cardinals Jean-Claude Turcotte and Aloysius Ambrozic in the College of Cardinals, and as it prepares for a heavy responsibility which we trust will not be soon.

At the same time that our Conference celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, our Plenary Assembly is being called upon to make some important decisions about the Conference itself. Let us hope that we can find the means to maintain the team that supports our episciopal ministry and our work in common. Thank you for your confidence and support. Ours is a magnificent Church.

+ Jacques Berthelet, C.S.V.
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops