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Posted November 20, 2004

Bishop Gregory reflects on three turbulent years
and changes to come

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

In a Nov. 15 speech opening the last meeting he will chair, the outgoing president of the U.S. bishops emotionally thanked those who helped him through a tumultuous three years for the U.S. Catholic Church and predicted that "the conference as we know it is likely to be a much different conference five or 10 years from now."

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory opened the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops with the traditional president's address, in which he reflected on the difficulties of his term, particularly the sexual abuse crisis, which he called "the greatest scandal that the church in the United States perhaps has ever confronted."

He commended the bishops, the National Review Board they created to address the sexual abuse crisis and others who have been involved in the process, but noted that "the work of the protection of children and young people in the church is a work of the whole church."

Bishop Gregory, who heads the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., encouraged the bishops to support a study on the causes of abuse by clergy planned as a follow-up to one released earlier this year on the extent of abuse that has taken place in the church.

"It is vital for us to move forward with the second study," he said. "It is our hope that the results of this study will enable us to affirm our current procedures for the prevention of abuse and to realize additional methods that would promote safety for children in all types of environments."

The process of addressing the abuse crisis has led the bishops in new directions for themselves as a conference, Bishop Gregory said.

What he called three "very healthy forces" include a proposal to hold a plenary council, an evaluation of how the bishops' meetings themselves work, and a study of how their conference operates and how its expenses might be held down.

"As I look at these three forces at work, I am drawn to conclude that the conference as we know it today is likely to be a much different conference five or 10 years from now," he said.

"There is an increased energy among the bishops that we name more effectively what our priorities are and should be," he continued, "for a greater holiness within the church and a more successful evangelization of the society in which we live; that we marshal our resources more efficiently toward those priorities; and that we find new and improved ways to ensure that our time together in general meetings is better used."

Bishop Gregory noted that the bishops "have been through some very difficult times together in the past three years," and that "those demanding moments were more often, thank God, blessed with an outpouring of God's grace which we gratefully received and thereby were sustained in our unity in Christ."

There also, however, were moments "when we perhaps did not reach as eagerly as we should have for the grace that the Lord was offering us," he said, and repeated some of Pope John Paul II's remarks to the bishops of New York during their "ad limina" visit to Rome last month.

The pope quoted from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians in asking the bishops to "work diligently with one another in that spirit of cooperation and unanimity of heart that should always characterize the community of disciples."

"I beg you, brothers, in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to agree in what you say. Let there be no factions; rather, be united in mind and judgment," as the passage from Corinthians reads.

Bishop Gregory also called for the bishops to set an example of civil discourse for all of society.

He said "a strengthened sense of collegiality among ourselves can only redound to the common good of the church in the United States which we tend and love. It will also serve as a very important witness to our beloved nation of how religious and civil discourse can and must take place. That example, I believe has never been more needed by the society in which we live than at this moment."

Bishop Gregory also apologized for mistakes and missteps he has made during his tenure, and noted that because of pressing circumstances there were times when he had to take steps that went further than the tradition of leadership set by his predecessors.

He also recalled that as a body and as individuals the bishops have faced criticism that was both true and justified, and that was misdirected, unfair or unjust. Through those times, he said he has been inspired by the faith of his fellow bishops as well as "rich examples of the goodness and generosity of the people of God."

Toward the end of his speech, Bishop Gregory choked up a bit, as he thanked the staff members of the bishops' conference and his diocesan staff, and he recalled a passage from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans that has guided him through his priesthood:

"None of us lives as his own master and none of us dies as his own master. While we live we are responsible to the Lord, and when we die we die as his servants. Both in life and in death we are the Lord's" (Rom 14:7-8).

Bishop Gregory said those words from St. Paul "taught me that in the end the work that any one of us does must be the Lord's and not our own."

His address was met with a lengthy standing ovation from the bishops, staff and guests in the room.