United in Faith: Archbishop Fisher addresses US Bishops

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Prelates pray during the 2017 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. Photo: CNS/Bob Roller
Prelates pray during the 2017 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. Photo: CNS/Bob Roller

“If the Church is meant to be a foundation of unity for humanity, we bishops are meant to be that for the Church,” Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has told the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) during their Spring retreat.

The US bishops meet every three years for a private retreat, called a “special assembly”, and invited Archbishop Fisher to preach on the topics of episcopal fraternity and communion in a fractured and secularised world.

The USCCB faces significant challenges as US society becomes more divided over race, gender and a host of other issues, with polarisation on abortion reaching fever pitch in the wake of a leaked US Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v Wade, and the exclusion of Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Holy Communion.

Archbishop Fisher told The Catholic Weekly that he was warmly received by the US bishops and had a “wonderful week”.

While the divisions over key issues are real, the US bishops enjoyed each other’s company during the retreat. Archbishop Fisher commended them for courageously facing up to their situation.

“It is important they recognise those openly, don’t try to paper over the cracks and pretend consensus when it’s not there,” he said.

“The bishops come from diverse backgrounds and traditions of piety: Irish and other Europeans, the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Hispanic and African-American communities and Native Americans.”

“But I didn’t sense that this was so deep that it was going to be paralysing for them.”

With 300 bishops in attendance, a USCCB retreat is bigger than the Councils of Nicaea or Trent.

The sheer scale of the US Church and its involvement in every element of life – education, healthcare, welfare – brings immense blessings and poses difficulties.

The bishops come from diverse backgrounds and traditions of piety: Irish and other Europeans, the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Hispanic and African-American communities and Native Americans.

“It’s a real challenge how they even get to know each other!” Archbishop Fisher said.

“They don’t know each other’s names, let alone each other’s stories. Often what they know about each other is what they read in the media.”

Boston Bishop Mark O’Connell of the Archdiocese of Boston with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP during the US bishops’ retreat.
Boston Bishop Mark O’Connell of the Archdiocese of Boston with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP during the US bishops’ retreat.

Division between bishops was caused by political polarisation “infecting” the US Church, he added.

“People think there are red [Republican] bishops and blue [Democrat] bishops. There’s real pressure on them to take a side.

“There are groups out there valourising or condemning them for the side they’ve chosen.

“Some bishops become gladiators in these cultural games, and others hide from the limelight.”

Archbishop Fisher’s addresses focused on the reality of episcopal collegiality and friendship, and the schedule allowed the bishops time to get to know each other in small groups.

Drawing on St Thomas Aquinas and other saints, in one address to the US bishops Archbishop Fisher said that human beings are “paradoxes”.

“Above all, we need fraternal charity and well-practiced love. And such love begins at home, with our brothers.”

“We can reach spiritual heights or fall to great depths. This should be humbling and drive us to lean on God and our brother bishops for support,” he said.

“We must help each other cultivate a holy heart, a virtuous will, and an informed mind.

“Above all, we need fraternal charity and well-practiced love. And such love begins at home, with our brothers.”

He said that bishops were “yoked” together in the work of the Church, and that “teaming up in Christ can be the foundation of our fraternity with each other and with him, the source of our communion, alongside any natural friendship”.

Archbishop Fisher also preached on the meaning of synodality, and said preparing the talks was a useful exercise for him personally.

“I think people throw around words like ‘synodality’ and ‘co-responsibility’ and ‘collegiality’ left, right and centre,” he said.

Pro-life advocates gather near the US Supreme Court during the annual March for Life in Washington on 19 January. PHOTO: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

“They’ve almost weaponised the words to press their own particular agendas, but they really have very little idea of the theology behind them.

“That’s not just politicisation or ill-will. The language around synodality is new, and somewhat elastic. I think it hasn’t crystallised into a clear range of theological propositions or definitions yet.”

True synodality means the Church “moves from one place or way of thinking or acting to another and is united rather than fractured in the process”, Archbishop Fisher said in one address to the US bishops.

He repeated warnings from the Holy Father that synodality was neither a parliament nor an opinion poll, and should avoid becoming a “tick-a-box” exercise in which the Church goes through the motions of consultation instead of bringing forth pastoral fruits.

“Rather than achieving consensus and making deals, a synodal Church seeks to proclaim the truth and save souls,” Archbishop Fisher said.

In his final talk, which he dubbed the “State of the Communion” address, Archbishop Fisher “delicately” raised the immediate future challenge for the Church: the overturning of Roe v Wade.

“What is the Church going to contribute to the society by way of new thinking, new action? … Some kind of new settlement around abortion?”

“When that happens, what is the Church going to contribute to the society by way of new thinking, new action?” he said.

“Some kind of new settlement around abortion? A new approach, so it’s not just re-litigating and re-legislation and re-contesting the same cultural battles that have gone on for the last 50 years since Roe v Wade?”

The reaction to the forthcoming Supreme Court decision will vary enormously state-by-state. In the South, states will likely move to rapidly restrict abortion, while states like California are signalling they will become “abortion sanctuaries”.

“Not only do you want the Bishops to be a united voice on this, but they also have to think locally and prudentially what’s best in their own state,” Archbishop Fisher said.

“It’s going to be a complex thing for them.”