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Online Edition
Vol. IV, No. 8
December 1998/January 1999

NCCB Report (Part I of II)
Bishops Elect Officers, Approve "Patchwork" for Moving Ascension Thursday to Sunday, Continue Debate on Age of Confirmation

(Editor's Note: AB's coverage of the bishops meeting will appear in two parts. Click here for the conclusion, printed in the February 1999 edition.)

A very full agenda occupied the National Conference of Catholic Bishops at their semi-annual meeting held in Washington, DC, November 16-19, 1998.

The bishops elected new conference officers, bade farewell to Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, Pro-nuncio to the United States for the past eight years; issued a major pastoral letter and several statements; continued debate on liturgical items and approved two short Spanish-language texts; and discussed their long-delayed implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiæ, the 1990 Vatican mandate on the Catholicity of Catholic colleges and universities.

The meeting concluded with another long discussion on a proposal to restructure the conference, including changing the way statements are produced and released.

Following the closing session on November 19, 1998, some bishops stayed for the Forum on Translation at Catholic University, which would "attempt to create a process for clarifying and addressing the issues".

Most media attention focused on the powerful new pro-life statement, "Living the Gospel of Life," and on shorter statements on racism, social justice, adult "faith formation", vocations, and persons with disabilities. But several action items were relevant to the liturgy, not the least the election of officers.

As expected, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Vice-president for the past three years, was elected to succeed Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla as president of the NCCB. (By custom the vice-president succeeds to the conference presidency.) Bishop Fiorenza is a former director of the Campaign for Human Development.

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville was elected vice-president. Bishop Gregory is a member of the Doctrine Committee and a former chairman of the Liturgy Committee. Bishop Gregory and St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali were the two final candidates for vice-president. Archbishop Rigali is a member of the Liturgy Committee, and was one of the team of US bishops who worked with Vatican officials on the final version of the Lectionary for Mass.

Bishop Gregory was elected on the third ballot by a vote of 175-75.

Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile is the new chairman-elect of the Liturgy Committee. Archbishop Lipscomb, who succeeded the late Cardinal Bernardin as head of the Common Ground Initiative, will become bcl chairman following the term of Archbishop Jerome Hanus of Dubuque, who has one more year to serve.

Action items most directly affecting liturgy included a proposal to permit a "local option" for Provinces on changing the celebration of Ascension Thursday to the following Sunday, and another to make the age of Confirmation uniform throughout the United States.

East-West Split over Ascension?

Since December 4, 1993, five Western Provinces have been permitted to transfer the celebration of the Feast of the Ascension from Thursday to the following Sunday, under a five-year rescript or indult from the Vatican's Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments [cdw], due to expire December 4, 1998.

A Province is a geographic area containing an archdiocese (Metropolitan See) and at least one diocese (Suffragan See). The five Western provinces include the 21 dioceses in the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska.

In 1994, similar permission from the Holy See was sought by Archbishop Patrick Flores for the Province of San Antonio (the 14 Texas dioceses), but the indult was refused by the cdw. Because this change would inevitably affect Catholics all over the US, the cdw said, it should be "presented according to the normal procedure, which presupposes a decision on the part of the Episcopal Conference in this matter".

In 1996, Archbishop Michael Sheehan requested a nihil obstat from the president of the Conference for a similar indult for the Province of Santa Fe (the five dioceses in New Mexico and Arizona). The topic was discussed by the bishops at their spring meeting in June 1997, after Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony had earlier asked the bcl to consider the transfer for the entire country.

The discussion continued at the November 1997 meeting. The cdw had ruled that no new indults would be granted until the five-year ad experimentum period had been evaluated by the Western Provinces, and reviewed by Rome. Cardinal Jorge A. Medina Estèvez is the prefect of the CDW.

Most of the bishops opposed to the change argued that it would further confuse the faithful over the significance of holy days, and that Ascension was too central to the Easter season, the holiest days of the year, to transfer the celebration.

Those in favor of the change cited the existing experimental practice in the five Western Provinces, the possibility of getting more Catholics to attend on Sunday, and other "pastoral" considerations

Liturgy chairman Archbishop Jerome Hanus presided over the debate, assisted by Cardinal Mahony, a consulter to the BCL. Archbishop Hanus read the proposal for NCCB action:

Do the de jure Latin rite members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops approve the transfer of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord to the Seventh Sunday of Easter for any Province in the United States which shall request it by indult from the Holy See as provided for in the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, no. 7b?

He noted that if the item were passed, each Province would be free to decide whether or not to change, by means of a simple majority vote of the bishops of the dioceses in a Province. No further approval from Rome would be necessary. In case of a tie vote in those Provinces with an even number of dioceses, the Thursday observance would continue as at present.

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston opened the discussion: "Archbishop Hanus and Cardinal Mahony, as you know, I wrote to Cardinal Medina to ask if it would not be possible to achieve the same desired result by the Holy See simply renewing the rescript to the five Provinces of the West, and had an opportunity to discuss that issue...directly with Cardinal Medina. He...was very sensitive to the fact that it would be a complicating factor were our nation to become a patchwork of observances on this issue, and he wondered aloud whether there might not be some way of seeing the West as the hub for that desire, and not to see this as a general phenomenon.

"Evidently you have had subsequent conversations with Cardinal Medina and this seems to be the only way to move forward. But he was very strong in our conversation that it should not simply be a matter of Province, as it is now in the five Provinces of the West, but a collection of Provinces."

Archbishop Hanus responded: "I did not have a conversation with Cardinal Medina about this. It's just that the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy is aware...that at least two other Provinces for some time have been requesting this. And each time they have approached the Holy See, the Holy See directed that they wait until the bishops' conference takes a stand on this issue, and that the five Western Provinces complete their review.

"That's not from Cardinal Medina, that's from what we received as the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy."

Cardinal Mahony stated, "Cardinal Medina told us quite specifically, myself and Archbishop Levada, that his recommendation would be along the lines that we have before us; recognizing that there is some diversity in pastoral needs and practices around the country, ...and we've had this for five years with no negative impact whatsoever on any of our neighbors or any other part of the country..."

Cardinal James Hickey, who opposed the move in earlier debates, said, "I am going to surprise those who think I want to wage one last battle. I think this is a good solution. My only question would be that once we make the decision, we stay with it. Or does some future successor to myself have to rise each year to launch an attack?"

Archbishop Hanus responded that this is "the pleasure of the BCL", and he hoped "this would be settlement".

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua was opposed: "Archbishop Hanus, I speak in the name of all the bishops of Pennsylvania. The action item as presented... seems very appealing because it gives us choice. [But] we are afraid that it will lead to such a diversity of practices - as Cardinal Law said, really a "patchwork" -that it will only lead to greater confusion and division on the whole issue of holy days. Whenever we have discussed the subject of the transfer of the Solemnity of the Ascension to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, we have heard many, many reasons for the transfer. But I fear that we have stressed more the practical and pastoral reasons for the transfer. . But we are not giving enough attention to the reason for the celebration of the Solemnity. Because of its centrality, the reasons should be first liturgical and theological, then secondly practical and pastoral. I oppose this change."

Archbishop Hanus said he thinks the liturgical and theological reasons are already reflected in the liturgical books, and the bishops had already debated this sufficiently in 1991.

Bishop Alfred Hughes (Baton Rouge) was also opposed: "I'm rising to 'wage one last battle' (but it won't be the last). I am aware that we are not talking about all the holy days. I'm aware...that you are trying to reach something that will be acceptable to 2/3 majority of this conference. ...[m]y continuing concern is accommodation to our culture, and the backing away from sacrifice, and the loss of a sense of transcendence. And these are issues that are recurring, and every time we take a step in the direction that's being proposed, it seems to me that we yield a little bit more about our identity in the culture that we want to transform as well as find ourselves incultured into.

"I'm aware that the decisions that we've already made about holy days have introduced a lot of confusion in our faithful, and it seems to me that the uneven implementation of this is going to introduce further confusion. So I would rise to speak against this particular proposal."

Bishop Raymond Burke (LaCrosse) opposed the change for three reasons: "First of all, from a theological and liturgical point of view the Ascension is central to the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the most sacred time of year in our whole liturgical year. And its placement within the forty days after Easter and ten days before the coming of the Holy Spirit is a key to the whole observance of this time: Our Lord, at His Ascension, instructing His disciples to pray for the new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and then the observance of that first novena of prayer before the coming of the Spirit.

"Practically, this transfer is not dictated by hardship or necessity. It has never been easier for our people to assist at Mass on Sunday or the holy days. [W]e are making the transfer in order to make it more convenient for people to observe the solemnity at the price of losing the sense of sacred time, and the sacrifice which we need to make in order to observe sacred times.

"Practically, too, the possibility of the transfer will generate more confusion about the importance of this solemnity, as well as the other holy days of obligation, and with regard to the obligation to participate in the Eucharist on Sunday and on the holy days. With the mobility of our society and the ease of communications, this confusion is inevitable. ..."

Bishop Joseph Adamec (Altoona-Johnstown) said that he opposed the motion. We should recognize the "real witness Catholics make by attending Mass on holy days", he said. Further, "we should also observe holy days in our chanceries and nccb offices".

Archbishop Levada, who had accompanied Cardinal Mahony to his meeting with Cardinal Medina, stressed that Cardinal Medina believes it is not appropriate to renew the indult unless the Conference as a whole speaks on it. He also said "there has been no identifiable confusion" in his Province, adding that one of the reasons for changing the celebration to Sunday is that the feast can be more effectively celebrated on Sunday than on Thursday.

Cardinal George asked if there is a timetable for making the decision, and also asked, "Can we just ignore this until it becomes a matter for discussion and vote?" (There is no timetable.)

Bishop Anthony Bosco (Greensburg) pointed out that there is already confusion over transferred Holy Days: "I would not want to compound a felony... We have confusion. ... I hear from people, 'When are you going to quit fooling around?' I believe there's a time to call this to a halt and stop fooling around".

Cardinal William Keeler noted that the phrase "appropriate consultation" with other Provinces is important. But said he could not "see us moving except in consort with our close neighbors".

Archbishop Michael Sheehan said, "...I am very convinced by the experience of Cardinal Mahony and the experience that Archbishop Levada mentioned, and the experience of those five Provinces in the west. In addition to those five Provinces that are in favor of this motion and have requested the indult, the Province of Santa Fe, which would be New Mexico and Arizona, are very much in favor of it and have requested it, and also the Province of San Antonio, which would be Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas"...

Bishop Donald Trautman (Erie) suggested amending the language to limit the indult to the five Western Provinces, commenting that "we want to avoid an East - West conflict". There were several objections, and his motion was defeated on a voice vote.

Bishop Donald Montrose (Stockton), said, "I just wanted to mention that our neighbors to the South in Mexico have transferred the feast to Sunday, and celebrate it down there on Sunday every year. And we have a large number of immigrants in our diocese and all over the West and the Southwest, and so this, I think, should be a factor in our thinking. ..."

Archbishop John Vlazny (Portland in Oregon) said that when he was in the Midwest, he had no problem with the five Provinces in the West having a different pastoral practice. "...I have to say really, it's okay, and it's okay that others feel differently, and I think we have to allow one another, through some mechanism, to make a different judgment about this pastoral matter. And it really won't divide the Church."...

Bishop James Moynihan (Syracuse) observed, "Our people are not easily confused, but with some difficulty we have succeeded in confusing them", and said that the American practice should be in conformity with the universal Church.

Archbishop Hanus said that he did not know how many other conferences have transferred the Ascension celebration to Sunday, but "I know Cardinal Medina doesn't have a problem with different solutions to pastoral problems within a country".

Bishop Roberto Gonzalez (Corpus Christi) was the only Texas bishop to question the transfer. "This kind of decision will have a profound effect on the spiritual life of all our people", he said, and suggested that any decision be postponed until after the papal document following the Synod for the Americas. "These kinds of issues should become part of the dialogue as a result of increased collaboration within the American hemisphere", he said.

Archbishop Hanus urged a positive vote, stressing that "this is the solution recommended by Cardinal Medina... I think it's important we do trust the bishops within their Provinces to make the correct decisions for their people".

In the end, by a vote of 181-66, one over the required two-thirds majority, the bishops agreed to allow Provinces to move the observance of Ascension Thursday to the following Sunday by means of a simple majority vote of the bishops of a Province, thus setting the stage for more proposals and debates over the issue within each Province in the future.

At a press conference following the session, in answer to a reporter's question about the reason why the transfer of the Feast of the Ascension was thought desirable, Archbishop Hanus said that the main reason was that the Churches in Mexico and Canada have moved the celebration, and this would bring the US practice more in line with these countries.

Age of Confirmation to remain diverse- for now

Bishop Pilla presented a summary of the Conference's efforts to arrive at a uniform age for Confirmation.

He reported that he has asked Cardinal Lucas Moriera Neves, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to extend the Congregation's current indult allowing dioceses to administer Confirmation between ages 7 and 18. The indult was first granted February 8, 1994, promulgated by Cardinal Keeler on May 1, 1994 and became effective on July 1 of that year, for a five-year period.

He said that in 1996 he had received a letter from Archbishop Cacciavillan concerning the implementation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the "norms that the nccb can, or must, formulate." The letter mentioned the age of Confirmation, noting that the "variety of ages in dioceses geographically close to one another cannot be considered well suited for the good of the faithful".

Bishop Pilla said that he consulted with the Administrative Committee about how to proceed, and that he had appointed an Ad Hoc Committee for the Canonical Determination of the Age of Confirmation, consisting of representatives from the Com-mittees on Doctrine, Pastoral Practices, Liturgy, and Education to study the matter.

Bishop Pilla re-ported that a survey conducted by the Subcommittee on Cate-chesis of the Committee on Education "found a wide range of practices. ... To illustrate the range of practice, we found that seven dioceses celebrate confirmation prior to Eucharist or are in transition toward such a policy. And thirty other dioceses are studying the sequence of the Sacraments of Initiation."

He told Cardinal Moriera Neves that the "variety of traditions, customs, and circumstances make it difficult for the bishops of the United States to agree on a single age for conferring the sacrament" and therefore requested a three-year extension of the current practice.

While Bishop Pilla said that though Cardinal Moriera Neves approved the request for an extension for further study, he urged the bishops to work towards establishing a uniform age, because "it is necessary to combine respect for diversity with the need for pastoral unity".

In contrast to the issue of the Ascension transfer, the bishops did not advance a clear rationale either supporting or opposing the existing diversity of practice. Some bishops said that the theological understanding of Confirmation is not sufficiently advanced to provide clear guidance on the issue.

The confusion surrounding these two issues prompted Bishop Bosco to say: "I've just had a severe case of canonical and theological whiplash. We've been told by Cardinal Medina [of the Congregation for Divine Worship] that we should ask for a general permission in the country to have the Feast of Ascension Thursday on the seventh Sunday, and then each Province could decide what it wants. Now we're being told that as far as Confirmation is concerned, it must be uniform across the country. So liturgical diversity is permitted, but not sacramental, at least as far as age is concerned..." Bishop Bosco provoked laughter when he suggested that prefects of different Vatican congregations "sit down and have an espresso together".

Bishop Emil Wcela, auxiliary bishop of Rockville Centre, said that he had "asked Cardinal Ratzinger if there was any movement in Rome toward a theological or general, universal understanding of what the Sacrament of Confirmation meant. He said...the time was not yet ripe - not mature yet for a decision". Bishop Wcela remarked that without definitive guidance on this issue, bishops are left with the conflicting advice of liturgists, catechists, and sacramental theologians.

Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane suggested studying the "impact of the Sacrament of Confirmation in terms of its effect on young people once they're confirmed, at say, the secondary level .. and to analyze their participation in the Church." He did not mention that he very recently issued a pastoral letter for his diocese mandating that all children be confirmed just before their first Holy Communion.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland asked if there is a way to "put pressure on the dicasteries of Rome to come up with some solution to the dilemma", and said there is a conflict between the RCIA document, which presupposes the order of the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Communion), and the document on Confirmation from Paul VI "which doesn't presuppose that".

Bishop Pilla replied, "[W]e're dealing with different congregations on the same issue. And I did express that concern, that we need to know which congregation has the competence and how we're to relate.... Whenever we get directions from two congregations, I always mention to each congregation that we have received directions from another congregation."

He asked the bishops to request the three-year extension for further study of the age of Confirmation. The motion passed by unanimous voice vote.

If genuine confusion seemed to characterize these discussions, the same was true of the bishops' continuing debate on conference "restructuring".

A revealing conversation took place on the final day of the meeting, when the bishops were considering how conference statements are produced and released. One cardinal protested that a statement on church architecture, "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship" has been given "a status beyond all comprehension."

AB will conclude its report on the November meeting in its next edition.

-Adoremus Bulletin Staff

(Helen Hull Hitchcock and Susan Benofy attended the November meeting. This story was compiled from their notes and tapes. Photos by Father Jerry Pokorsky. David Murray also contributed to this report.)

***

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