BALTIMORE – Kicking off the centennial gathering of the U.S. bishops, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, praised the U.S. bishops for their defense of both the unborn and access to healthcare in a homily for the opening Mass of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall assembly.
Parolin, the pope’s top aide, praised the work of the conference over the past hundred years, recalling that its formation was a response to the “demands of human suffering brought about by the First World War” and “so many families forced to leave their homes and come to the New World in search of security and a better life.
“In the very same circumstances of today, that mission remains timely,” said Parolin. “As the Church in your country seeks to bring material assistance, but also the spiritual balm of healing, comfort, and hope to new waves of migrants and refugees who come knocking on America’s door.”
Parolin hailed Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) as a model for presenting the faith in today’s world and encouraged the U.S. bishops to model their ministry on it.
“In an age increasingly marked be secularization, materialism, and a coarsening of human relations, an essential aspect of your task as pastors of the Church in America is to propose that hope in season and out of season trusting in its power to attract minds and hearts to the truths of Christ,” said Parolin.
He specifically highlighted the recent Convocation of Catholic Leaders, which took place in July to discuss the exhortation and its applications in the American context, along with the recent Encuentros, which have focused on pastoral programming and priorities for Hispanic and Latino Catholics.
“In this way you are seeking to foster that heightened sense of missionary discipleship that Pope Francis considers the heart of the New Evangelization,” said Parolin.
Giving a nod to the current political climate in America, Parolin extolled the U.S. bishops for their active engagement in public life in this country, saying they offer a particularly necessary example for today.
“In the century prior to the founding of your conference, the challenge facing the Church in this country was to foster communion in an immigrant church to integrate the diversity of peoples, languages, and cultures in the one faith and to inculcate a sense of responsible citizenship and concern for the common good,” said Parolin. “Today too, the urgent need to welcome and integrate new waves of immigrants continues unabated.
“At the same time the Catholic community is called under your guidance to work for an ever more just and inclusive society by dispelling the shadows of polarization, divisiveness, and societal breakdown by the pure light of the gospel,” he added.
In his most direct mention of the specific policy engagement, Parolin singled out the U.S. Church for their work in the fight against abortion and ensuring access to healthcare.
“Here I cannot fail to mention the responsible contribution made by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to the discussion of important social issues and political debates. Above all, when this involved the defense of moral values and the rights of the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable, and those who have no voice,” he said.
“I think in particular of the outstanding witness that the Church in this country has made to defending the right to life of the unborn, but also in more recent times to its efforts to ensure due protection of the family in access to affordable healthcare.”
During his 2015 visit to the United States, Francis also commended the U.S. bishops for the work to defend the unborn during his address at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
The practice of synodality — listening to people’s concerns, and making decisions on a local level – has been central to Francis’s papacy, hence a heightened deference to the role of local bishops’ conferences.
In an interview last week with Catholic News Service, Parolin praised the role of local bishops’ conferences.
“Within an ecclesiology of communion, they can serve to build solidarity and enhance communication among the particular churches, while at the same time building communion and Catholic unity on the level of the universal Church,” he said.
While in the United States, Parolin will deliver a major lecture at the Catholic University of America on the Second Vatican Council, titled “The Council: A Prophecy that Continues with Pope Francis.” The university will also award him an honorary doctorate when he speaks there on Tuesday.
The opening mass for the bishops was held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore and is the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States.
The U.S. bishops will officially begin their meetings on Monday morning, which will continue through Wednesday.
Stay tuned for Crux’s latest news and updates from the USCCB fall assembly, where Crux’s national correspondent Christopher White is providing ongoing coverage. Follow him on Twitter @CWWhite212 and visit Crux for daily updates and interviews from Baltimore.