Report of the President: 2005 Plenary Assembly

Sunday, September 18 2005

My fellow bishops, invited guests and members of the staff:

1. Background to Conference activities over the past year

In a matter of weeks, the Church will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, which had opened on 11 October 1962 with Pope John XXIII and ended 8 December 1965 under Pope Paul VI. Reflecting on the past 40 years, one sees at least one marked difference. Media today rarely talk of the “just society” or “renewing society”, or the “Great Society” as they did so often in the 1960s and 1970s. Headlines and book titles in our day tend to focus on “the clash of civilizations” and “threats to civilization”. The stakes have become more far-reaching and more profound than any society. What is now of particular concern, and necessarily to the Church, are the values and principles that animate and inspire civilizations and which shape and determine the vocabulary and the dominant images of the day.

At the beginning of his pontificate, in his first general audience on 27 April, Pope Benedict XVI explained that he had chosen his name “in order to create a spiritual bond with Benedict XV, who had steered the Church through the period of turmoil caused by the First World War,” and also to call to mind the “Patriarch of Western Monasticism”, Saint Benedict, who is “a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of his culture and civilization”.

In a recent address, on 8 September, to the Bishops of Mexico on their ad limina visit, the Pope said the Church today finds itself “in a new culture”. The implications, he stated, are that the Church’s pastoral activity must echo the profound desire for the recognition of human rights and cultural values. To do this, he noted, pastoral activity needs to involve “integral formation in all areas of the Church”.

While I do not want to be numbered among those who proclaim “the end of civilization”, it seems to me that the debate on the basic values of civilization provides a useful perspective from which to look at the past year and at our Conference’s continuing review of its activities and services. This already began at the last Plenary with our examining how we can be better stewards of our finances and resources, including our Conference offices.

The question this year is even more basic: What shape do we wish to give to the episcopal structures of our Conference, in order that we, the Bishops of Canada, can be more effective in responding to urgent pastoral questions?

Two examples of these urgent pastoral questions are the redefinition of marriage, and the ongoing exploitation and “commodification” of humanity – in global trade, the growing gap between rich and poor, and the appeal to profits to justify technological deployment, no matter the human or ecological costs. In the words of the recent Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (no. 334), echoing the encyclical letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis of Pope John Paul II, “This is the so-called civilization of ‘consumption’ or ‘consumerism’.” 

When Bill C-38 was passed this June by the House of Commons, I said in my statement that:

… at risk is the future of marriage as a fundamental social institution, together with the importance that society accords the irreplaceable role of a husband and wife in conceiving and raising children…

… Canadians are witnessing a dangerous deterioration of their communal values. This worrisome decline in shared concern and care for the common good is also evident in the continuing high rates of marriage breakdown, the annual number of abortions, and the declining number of births.

Our Plenary will have an opportunity to begin addressing the ramifications of the new legislation that obscures and weakens the committed relationship of a man and a woman in marriage, which has proven to be the most basic element in the construction of society and for the survival of civilization. Moreover, the Executive Committee is inviting the regional episcopal assemblies and the metropolitan archbishops to ensure their respective provincial and territorial laws for the solemnization of marriage, as well as in the areas of education and human rights, provide adequate protection for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

In addressing the dangers of human exploitation and commodification, our Conference continues to be greatly assisted by the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) and by the Commission for Social Affairs, including the latter’s new secretariat (shared with the Commission for Evangelization and the Council for Reconciliation with Aboriginal Peoples), namely, the Office for Justice, Peace and Missions. With the help of both, the CCCB has been, and will be, involved this year on questions that include embryonic stem-cell research, human reproductive technologies, just trade, globalization, world poverty and access to water.

 2. Activities of President and Executive

In addition to the interventions and reflections on the redefinition of marriage, among other activities over the past year that involved the President and the Executive were the following:

3. Relationships and Communion

In reviewing the past year, I wish to note three other developments which are indicative in terms of the collaboration of our Conference with other ecclesial organizations.

Following the tragic news in late December of the tsunami which affected so much of Southeast Asia, our Conference worked hand in hand with the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) in appealing to dioceses, Catholic organizations and all the faithful to assist in emergency aid and long-term development. In all, $19.7 million was raised, an extraordinary outpouring of generosity by Canadian Catholics. Bishops Luc Cyr and Martin Currie, the CCCB representatives on the CCODP National Council, will be reporting on this in more detail later during our meeting.

To mark the World Day of the Sick and the recent restructuring of the Catholic Health Association of Canada (CHAC), as well as in view of changes to the governance of many Catholic health-care institutions, the Permanent Council on 11 February released a pastoral letter on Catholic involvement in health care. The drafting of this text was assisted by Bishop James Wingle as the CCCB episcopal liaison with the CHAC, Bishop Pierre Morisette, then Chair of COLF, and the Commission for Theology.

With the authorization of the Permanent Council, the CCCB on 10 July issued a decree of promulgation and the Ordinances for the implementation in Canada of the Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, regarding the identity and mission of Catholic colleges and universities. Beginning with a consultation of CCCB members and of the Commission for Canon Law / Inter-Rite, this has involved a series of conversations with the Congregation for Catholic Education, the rectors and principals whose institutions are members of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Canada (ACCUC), and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., who until recently was our episcopal liaison with the ACCUC. It is already evident the Ordinances will guide an ongoing process of dialogue and reflection, now entrusted to Archbishop Thomas Collins who is our new liaison with the ACCUC.

During his 19 August visit to the Cologne synagogue, Pope Benedict said that “Our rich common heritage and our fraternal and more trusting relations call upon us to join in giving an ever more harmonious witness, and to work together on the practical level for the defence and promotion of human rights and the sacredness of human life, for family values, for social justice and for peace in the world.” At the same time, the Pope noted that “dialogue, if it is to be sincere, must not gloss over or underestimate the existing differences: in those areas in which, due to our profound convictions in faith, we diverge and, indeed, precisely in those areas, we need to show respect and love for one another.”

Ecumenical and interfaith relations have been essential to CCCB involvement since Vatican II. These include ecumenical dialogues, interfaith consultations, collaboration with the Canadian Council of Churches, and engagement in a number of ecumenical social justice coalitions, particularly now KAIROS – Canadian Ecumenical Initiatives for Justice, and the Church Council for Justice and Corrections. I draw these to your attention, because part of our reflections at this Plenary Assembly is how we can find more effective means to be involved in these, ensuring reception and discussion in the wider Church community, avoiding duplication, and focusing on those questions and issues that need to receive priority in view of our resources as well as in light of current social and pastoral challenges.

At the same time as looking at how we can be more effective and efficient in our Catholic, ecumenical and interfaith collaboration, we also need to acknowledge the work of our national Commissions in fostering, encouraging and managing these various expressions of communion – among Catholic organizations, the Commission for Evangelization and the Commission for Relations with Associations of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Laity; among ecumenical and interfaith organizations, the Commission for Christian Unity / Religious Relations with the Jews / Interfaith Dialogue, and the Commission for Social Affairs. I also wish to make it clear that the decision of the Bishops of Canada to review these relationships is not in order to diminish their importance but to renew and rejuvenate our involvement.

Three other points regarding our episcopal ministry which is at the service of communion and unity. During our Plenary, we will have an opportunity to reflect on the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, as the source and summit of the life and mission of the Church. This Synod will close the current Year of the Eucharist, and in a way assist in the planning for the 2008 International Eucharistic Congress to be held in Quebec City. But fostering communion also means facing up to sin and its damage to communion. Our Plenary will discuss a proposed new decree for the Sacrament of Penance, as well as the pastoral need for ongoing reflections on healing the wounds inflicted on victims, on all our faithful and on the ministries of the Church because of sexual abuse.

4. Ongoing challenges

In addition to reviewing and revitalizing our episcopal structures, our Conference has some yet unresolved issues with respect to staffing. Hopefully, a successor to the late Father Richard Côté, O.M.I., will be announced over the coming weeks as Director of the Office for Ecclesial Relations and Doctrine. We also need to fill the position of assistant in the same office. As well, we are looking for a replacement for Mr. Joe Gunn, who recently decided to leave his work as Director of the Office for Justice, Peace and Missions. However, it is encouraging to note that new well-qualified personnel have filled other positions: in December last year, Ms. Micheline Dubé as Director of Administration Service, and more recently two other staff began in COLF and in the Office for Justice, Peace and Missions: Ms. Lea Sevcik and Ms. Julia Novitskaia.

At the same time, as part of our efforts to assure what Pope Benedict called “integral formation in all areas of the Church”, this Plenary will be reviewing the National Office of Religious Education, which in turn may have some impact, whether direct or indirect, on the CCCB Publications Service.

Reviews and restructuring are not new to the CCCB. There were major reflections on the structures of our Conference, 1964 to 1966, in the light of the priorities of Vatican II; again during 1972, particularly in view of regionalization; and most recently, 1986 to 1989, the Taskforce on Future Directions, from the perspective of subsidiarity and collegiality.

The current CCCB review is part of an ongoing challenge which our predecessors creatively and courageously had to face, just as the determination to renew and reform was also at the basis of the Second Vatican Council. The vision of hope and the promise of renewed life that the Council offered the world were possible because the Council Fathers were prepared to look at the structures of the Church, in order to determine the essentials in all their integrity and so assure their full service to humanity. A similar challenge faces us as a Conference with our own structures. Thus it is fitting, I believe, in closing to cite the words of Paul VI on 8 December 1965 at the conclusion of the Council:

This is a unique moment, a moment of incomparable significance and riches. In this … assembly, in this privileged point of time and space, there converge together the past, the present and the future. The past: for here, gathered in this spot, we have the Church of Christ with her tradition, her history, her councils, her doctors, her saints. The present: for we are taking leave of one another to go out towards the world of today with its miseries, its sufferings, its sins, but also with its prodigious accomplishment, its values, its virtues. And lastly the future is here, in the urgent appeal of the peoples of the world for more justice, in their will for peace, in their conscious or unconscious thirst for a higher life, that life precisely which the Church of Christ can and wishes to give them.

My brother bishops, this is not the moment for retrospection or nostalgia, but for refocused attention on our ministry as bishops and on the purposes of our Conference. Following the example of the Council, and of the Bishops of Canada after Vatican II, let us with creativity and courage renovate and renew the structures of our Conference, so it may be a more effective resource to assist us, the Bishops of Canada, in announcing to the men and women of our age God’s saving truth in all its purity and integrity, in all its urgency and efficacy.

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