USCCB's fall assembly puts greater emphasis on prayer, fraternal dialogue; elects officers
Friday, Nov. 18, 2022
WASHINGTON (CNS) — The U.S. bishops have been holding their November plenary session in Baltimore for many years, but at this year’s meeting, held Nov. 14-17, there were some furniture moves and schedule changes.
Out were the classroom-style seating, news conferences and the bishops being talked to for hours on end.
In were a greater emphasis on prayer, “fraternal dialogue” and less formal bishop-media encounters.
That’s the word from James Rogers, chief communications officer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who explained to Catholic News Service some of the changes and why they took place.
“The plenaries are business meetings,” Rogers said, “but they are not just business meetings. The bishops are recognizing that it’s also about discernment, about group discussion, about listening to one another, and about listening to the Holy Spirit.”
As in 2021, this year’s meeting started with prayer, followed by Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. The afternoon included regional meetings and an executive session. In a new addition, each day of the meeting ended with vespers.
Throughout the plenary, there also was 24-hour eucharistic adoration, which was instituted at the 2021 meeting.
Rogers said this emphasis on prayer and reflection was “absolutely” inspired by Pope Francis, who had encouraged the bishops to make a retreat together in a January 2019 meeting at Mundelein Seminary following the revelations concerning former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick.
“Bishop after bishop after leaving Mundelein said, ‘We need to do something like this more often.’ I do think that was a powerful experience for them,” Rogers said.
Regional meetings are standard fare for the plenaries, but this year’s meeting also included a time for “fraternal dialogues.” While the bishops have contact year after year with other bishops in their geographic regions, the fraternal dialogues were randomized, helping to “broaden their sense of community,” Rogers said.
“The opportunity for bishops to connect with one another is fairly rare and fairly precious,” he said. “It’s really about bishops, their ministry and how they can strengthen and support each other in their ministry.”
“That is the focus” of these changes, Rogers said.
Once the general, or public, session started, attendees saw one other change. Instead of the traditional classroom-style seating in parallel rows, the format included round tables in which the bishops could see each other and more easily see the room and who was speaking.
Rogers called the structure an experiment, and said organizers would be looking for feedback from the bishops on the change.
One final, and perhaps controversial, change was at least a temporary end to news conferences. Rogers denied claims by some that this meant less transparency on the part of the bishops.
The USCCB Office of Public Affairs asked, “how can the physical space better encourage dialogue and encounter,” Rogers said.
Traditionally, bishops are on a raised stage speaking to reporters arrayed before them. This year there were smaller seating arrangements with three or four reporters meeting with a bishop, creating more of a conversation than what can seem an interrogation.
Media access to bishops remained; the Office of Public Affairs continued to facilitate one-on-one interviews, he said, and publicly scheduled the smaller encounters. As usual, the entire public session, including votes for new officers and committee chairs, was livestreamed.
Rogers described the changes in media access also as an “experiment,” and said he was looking for feedback both from the bishops and from reporters when the meeting was over.
In one of their first actions, the U.S. bishops elected Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services as the new president of the USCCB. They also elected Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore as the new USCCB vice president. Their three-year terms begin at the conclusion of the fall general assembly.