ROME—During the last week, a group of over 150 bishops who were appointed by Pope Francis during the past year were in Rome to participate in what some have dubbed the “baby bishops’ boot camp.”
As is always the case for this yearly appointment, which began in 2001, the lessons were kept private. This is due mostly for two reasons: Some are dubbed of little interest to the general public, while others will potentially be collected in a book, as was last year’s case.
Yet many social media savvy prelates have been sharing tidbits on what went on in Rome from Sept. 10-18.
Since its inception, the week-long course is addressed to all the bishops appointed by the pontiff in the previous year, aiming to teach them how to run their dioceses.
For this reason, it touches on a wide range of topics, including finances, pastoral care of the family, the relationship between a bishop and his priests, interreligious dialogue and evangelizing through digital media.
The one address that was published in full was Pope Francis’s, who delivered a 40-minute prepared talk on Friday.
He urged bishops not to get caught up in a “game of numbers” with vocations, and to instead focus on forming high-quality, mature priests, who are not “prey to their whims and slaves of their fragility, but free to embrace what God asks of them.”
Francis also warned the new bishops against using their office to be self-serving, urging them to use it instead to share the holiness, truth and love of God.
“The world is tired of lying spellbinders and, allow me to say, ‘trendy’ priests or bishops. The people sniff them out – they have God’s sense of smell – and they walk away when they recognize narcissists, manipulators, defenders of their own causes, auctioneers of vain crusades,” he said.
The pontiff also reminded them of the fact that they were appointed during the Holy Year of Mercy, and for this reason, the most “precious richness” each of them can bring to their diocese from their week in Rome is the “awareness of the mercy with which you have been seen and chosen.”
“Mercy,” Francis told them, “should form and inform the pastoral structures of our Churches.” Bishops, he said, are called to make mercy pastoral, for they have experienced “the thrill of being loved by God.”
But the pope’s address, and the following meet-and-greet, occupied only a few hours of the bishops’ training.
After last year’s edition Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the top official at the Congregation for Bishops, hence the organizer of the seminar, said he wanted to invite “suggestions for improving the experience.”
One point that emerged clearly was the desire for stronger presentations on the fight against clerical sexual abuse, and the Church’s responsibility on protecting minors. Given what a cancer this issue has been for the Catholic Church, the Vatican this time attempted to give the bishops a state-of-the-art presentation on best practices in terms of preventing such meltdowns in the future.
For this edition, the speakers were members of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, including Boston’s Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who heads the commission, and Irish lay woman Marie Collins, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse.
Also on this topic, the baby bishops heard from the Vatican’s former sex-crimes prosecutor, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, currently in Malta.
Commission members lauded the decision of being included in the grid, particularly because it stands in sharp contrast to last year’s training, when French Monsignor Tony Anatrella told the bishops’ course that they didn’t have to report abuse allegations to the civil authorities, since this responsibility fell to the victims or their parents.
Anatrella also failed to discuss any of the abuse prevention and detection initiatives launched by bishops in various parts of the world over the past decade.
Anatrella’s address was published in a book collecting some of the key remarks given in last year’s edition of this course, called “Testimonies of the Risen” (Testimoni del Risorto) which compiles the remarks in the language they were given: Italian, French, Spanish and English.
When Anatrella’s remarks were made public, O’Malley quickly released a statement saying that bishops had an “ethical and moral” obligation to report abuse allegations.
Although his full remarks from Friday are not available, Boston’s cardinal, the only American member of the pope’s council of nine cardinal advisors, posted an excerpt of his remarks on his personal blog.
“Thirty-two years ago, when I was named bishop, these programs did not exist,” O’Malley said. “If there had been such programs, and they discussed child protection, perhaps our recent history as a Church would be much different.”
Yet, he continued, the Church can learn from the mistakes of the past and take a new path, “where the protection of children is the highest priority. No other topic is more important for the life of the Church.”
If the Church is not committed to protecting children, O’Malley told the bishops, including his two newly appointed auxiliaries, the efforts of evangelization will be to no effect: “We will lose the trust of our people, and gain the opprobrium of the world.”
The prelate also underlined the value of Collins’ participation in the training, saying it’s important that Church leadership “meet and hear from victims, in order to begin to understand the seriousness of this situation, the need of the Church to protect children and vulnerable adults, and to minister to the countless victims of abuse inside and outside the Church.”
“Marie’s care and concern for healing for victims and assurance that all that is possible will be done to prevent future occurrences of abuse in the life of the Church is a blessing for all of us,” he said.
Though it’s not published in his blog post, some of the attendees shared that he also spoke about the need for transparency, accountability, and zero tolerance.
Collins said she spoke of her own experience of the devastating damage child sexual abuse does to the adult life of the victim, and to their spiritual life, when the abuser is a priest.
“I included in my short talk as much as I could to help the bishops’ understanding of victims/survivors, and how cases of child abuse must be handled in order that more suffering is not caused and other children are protected from the abuser,” she told Crux.
Collins said the “baby bishops” were very attentive and positively engaged with questions.
Other speakers included Jean-Clément Jeanbart, Archbishop of Aleppo, Syria, who spoke about the situation of Christians in the Middle East, and about having to give answers to his people as to why God would allow the destruction his country is seeing.
As it’s been the case since 2001, the “Bishops 101″ boot camp was held at the Regina Apostolorum University, run by the Legion of Christ, just outside Rome.
Among the most active prelates in social media during these days were O’Malley’s two new auxiliary bishops, Mark O’Connell and Robert Reed, who shared their musings on Twitter.
O’Connell’s tales began on Sept. 9, when he was still at the airport headed to Rome, and he shared a parishioner’s request: “Don’t flunk!”
On the last day, O’Connell wrote that even though the school was “great,” the best part of it was meeting his brother bishops, who have “filled me with hope for the Church.” In a previous post, he had defined the experience of meeting prelates from all over the world to be “inspirational.”
Reed instead gave some insights into their daily schedule, posting short videos along the way. Mid-week, for instance, he spoke about days beginning with 7:30 morning Mass, sharing meals, and discussing topics such as the celebration of the liturgy, being a brother and friend to priests, canon law, and governance in charity of a diocese, and the two synods on the family.
Their days ended at 10:30, with only a two-hour break to pray the rosary and meditate.
For what it’s worth, the prelates themselves refer to the training as “baby bishops’ school.”
Los Angeles’s new auxiliary bishop, Robert Barron, even joked about it with one of his many Facebook followers, who asked if the senior bishops were trying to “stuff you in lockers or taking your coffee money.”
“Yes! But they’ll be called to Principal Francis’s office,” was Barron’s response.
In a Sept. 14 post the prelate shared that they had attended a session on “communications and the new media,” led by Argentine Monsignor Lucio Adrian Ruiz, from the Vatican’s new Communications Secretariat.
During the Q&A period, Barron shared, the Secretary of the Congregation for Bishops, Archbishop Ilson de Jesus Montanari, called on him by name and invited him to make a comment, “‘as a ‘famous communicator’ — his words, not mine!”
Though he didn’t share his full remarks, Barron wrote about sharing “several lessons” he’s learned over the years, including:
- The need to read, read, read before diving into the new media.
- The importance of not dumbing down the faith.
- The need to highlight the beauty of Catholicism.
- Learning from the effective evangelization tactics of the New Atheists.
On the same day, Australian Bishop Richard Umbers shared a video on Facebook, giving his impressions of the quality of the new 154 bishops: “You can see the Francis effect, all the bishops here are great guys, they’re good priests, all of them. There’s no clericalism, it’s really quite something to live that unity.”
He even talks about the “Commonwealth bishops” organizing their own lunch for the following day, imitating a tradition from the U.S. bishops, who always have at least one lunch at the North American College, the house for seminarians studying in Rome, where many of them stayed if they had part of their training in the Eternal City.
Reed actually tweeted about the challenge of getting all 14 US bishops ready for a photo:
Trying to get the American bishops together is like… pic.twitter.com/9nUcYRX3rK
— Bishop Robert Reed (@BpRobertReed) September 16, 2016
The gathering concluded on Sunday, when, as Umbers wrote on Twitter, “One will return to the western isles of Scotland, one to Iceland, another to Aleppo!”