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Maintain hope despite church troubles,
USCCB president tells priests

By Joseph Kenny
Catholic News Service

Look to the future with hope, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., told priests of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Bishop Gregory also discussed the accountability of bishops and the need for a closer association with lay people as a result of recent events in the Catholic Church in the United States. He is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which adopted the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" at its June meeting in Dallas.

The document outlines the response of U.S. dioceses to acts of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy.

Bishop Gregory was invited to discuss "A Joyful Recommitment to Priestly Ministry." His July 8 talk focused on answering the question "Where Do We Go From Here?"

"Forward in hope is where we are destined to proceed," Bishop Gregory said in the talk at the archdiocesan pastoral center. He noted that priests cannot return to the same unquestioned and presumed public esteem that they might have known at the beginning of their priesthood. But he assured them the future will lead to "a much better place."

He suggested that "we must go forward in faith, in hope and in love for our people as proud sharers in the priesthood of Jesus Christ." He urged the priests to build a more supportive bond.

Because of unsettling recent events, "there has never been a moment in the history of the church in the United States where bishops and priests may have needed one another more," he said.

"We bishops must admit that we may not have been prudent in all of our past decisions and you, my brothers, must likewise acknowledge that you did not always call one another to holiness and integrity of life. In short, we must re-examine how we are to be real brothers to one another," he added.

The Dallas meeting was possibly the most significant in the U.S. bishops' history, he said. "It was a time when we needed to chart a new direction. I think we were able to do that -- not with absolute perfection and not with definitive and absolute clarity, but with true Christlike hope and determination."

The meeting was a time to focus on the safety of children and establish procedures to ensure that every child would be safe in every church environment, he said.

"Dallas was a beginning and not an end. ... Dallas left unresolved many other issues," Bishop Gregory said. "Among those is the matter of the accountability of bishops -- this has been noted on more than one occasion and will continue to receive careful scrutiny both by the bishops ourselves as well as by our priests, religious and faithful. May I say it should receive that attention."

The people of the church have every right to expect bishops to faithfully, prudently and candidly exercise their ministry, Bishop Gregory said.

"We must find ways to provide an accounting for our stewardship that both respects the unique relationship bishops enjoy with the Holy Father and the vital connection we must always maintain and seek to strengthen with those we are sent to serve."

The future of the priesthood "will necessarily include a much closer association with our faithful laity," Bishop Gregory said.

That relationship, "contrary to the suggestions and perhaps in spite of the manipulative designs of some protagonists," he said, must not "result in the loss of our sacramental identity as priests of Jesus Christ."

Lay people represent wisdom and life experiences that must never be ignored in the strengthening and building up of each local church, he said.

The laity has every right to expect and demand priests to be holy men, generous men and dedicated men of faith, the bishop said, adding that the entire church likewise is called to holiness of life, no matter one's calling.

He called for candid conversation between bishops and priests.

"The great danger of the present moment is that the church becomes alienated among itself," Bishop Gregory said. "Clergy (alienated) from their people, bishops from their priests and their people, this is the greatest danger that we face."