The bishops of the United States arrived in Baltimore for the start of their June 11-14 annual spring assembly having endured a bruising year of media coverage of the reawakening sexual abuse crisis, pressure from multiple state attorneys general investigations, and expressions of outrage and grief from the lay faithful.
After a series of near-unanimous votes, they left the gathering having accomplished what they had set out to do in response to the crisis, namely: making a formal pledge to honor their commitment as successors to the apostles to be accountable to “higher moral standards” and act decisively in abuse cases; implementing Pope Francis’ new norms for investigating allegations against bishops with prominent lay involvement while establishing a third-party reporting system for such allegations; and establishing a protocol for diocesan bishops to follow in curtailing the public ministry of a retired bishop in his former diocese.
But just a few hours into the gathering, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron gave a presentation on engaging the disaffiliated “nones” of today’s generation — one of the main objectives of his ministry and that of his media apostolate Word on Fire.
That led to an hourlong discussion that saw bishops talking about young Catholics leaving the Church, Reddit, the appeal of Jordan Peterson, and high suicide rates among teens.
The abuse crisis was not mentioned once.
Instead, the bishops became visibly excited and engaged as they discussed the primary mission of the Church: evangelization.
As hundreds looked on via livestream, there were some who wondered aloud on social media: Was it appropriate for the bishops to talk about things like the announcement of the “kerygma,” engaging “the nones” on social media, the accompaniment of young people, and the “fruits” of baptism at a time of so much scandal, when so many have felt disgusted, and in some cases, been directly harmed by sexual abusers within the ranks of the clergy?
The bishops asked that question by Angelus News in Baltimore all answered that eliminating the scourge of sexual abuse from within the Church was the “priority” of the meeting. But they also agreed that the crisis was no excuse to leave evangelization on the back burner.
“The situation regarding the sexual abuse of minors continues to be a priority no matter what,” Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez told Angelus News in an interview moments after the assembly passed the final abuse crisis-related measures June 13.
“At the same time, obviously, the mission of the Church is to bring the message of Christ to the people of God. So I think that’s a priority for us too, and everything it has to do with the call to holiness is important for the Church.”
Part of that call to holiness, Archbishop Gomez said, is caring for people in need, “and obviously victim-survivors [of abuse] are in need especially at this time.”
The chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ communications committee, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, called preaching the Gospel the “heart” of a bishop’s ministry, but said the bishops came to this year’s assembly with “a sense of urgency demanding our full attention.
“It doesn’t mean we stop evangelizing and sanctifying and teaching, but we were here today and we were here these days for a very particular task — and with God’s grace we’ve moved forward,” said Burbidge at the meeting’s closing press conference, referencing the series of votes that had just taken place.
Newark’s Cardinal Joseph Tobin said he believed the Holy Spirit was acting in helping the Church address both priorities together.
“The enthusiasm in the hall … when Bishop Barron was speaking, was because that’s what we like to do,” answered Tobin in response to the same question at the press conference. “That’s what we, if you will, signed up for. But we take very seriously what we have to do.”
For Tobin, seeing the approximately 1,500 catechumens and candidates enter the Church in his archdiocese this Easter was a sign of hope.
“It really moved me to tears, just thinking how good God is, and how wonderfully the Holy Spirit, while pointing out these terrible things that we have to address, still calls people to fullness of life in Christ,” said Tobin.
Meanwhile in cyberspace, responses from Catholics outside the Marriott Waterfront’s ballroom poured in after the USCCB’s Twitter account suddenly went into overdrive.
During Barron’s presentation on the first day of the meeting, the conference’s Twitter account tweeted a photo of Barron with the caption, “If you are a young Catholic who is still Catholic, what has made you stay?”
Within hours, the tweet had garnered more than a thousand replies and several hundred retweets. Some users cited the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, while others credited the witness of the saints as well as that of mentors like priests and teachers.
Throughout the assembly, the account replied to users with memes, GIFs, and follow-up questions — not to mention a hugely popular shot at felt banners in churches.
“The @USCCB twitter account is doing more today to make the U.S. bishops relatable than anything they have done in the past 50 years,” tweeted Thomas Peters of AmericanPapist.com.
The face behind the account was revealed to be 31-year-old USCCB staffer Connie Poulos. She told Catholic News Agency (CNA) that when she received instructions from her superiors to “be bold,” she took the task seriously.
“To put a human face on the bishops is important, I think, and to be a presence [online],” Poulos told CNA’s Christine Rousselle on the last day of the meeting. “Just as they say ‘Christ has no hands, but yours,’ Christ has no Twitter account, but yours.”
“This is where people are; we need to meet them there.”
Even at a time of crisis and disillusionment with some in Catholic leadership, the overwhelmingly positive response to the account’s approach suggested that there wasn’t much scandal in still bearing witness to how the Church continues to change people’s lives, despite the past crimes of some within its ranks.
Pablo Kay is the editor of Angelus.
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