The week before Thanksgiving I was in Baltimore for the annual fall assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York serves as our President and opened our meeting with a challenging presidential address.  He had just returned from the Vatican where he had been a participant in the synod on the New Evangelization.  He reminded us that the New Evangelization cannot be reduced simply to a program, a process or a call to conversion.  It must first and foremost lead each one of us to a deeply personal conversion.

Many people ask questions these days like, “What’s wrong with the world?” “What’s wrong with the church?”  Lots of people look to politics, the economy, secularism, sectarianism, globalization and global warming for the answer.  The Cardinal reminded us of what G.K. Chesterton wrote long ago, “The answer to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?”  is just two words, ‘I am.’”  

The season of Advent is about to begin on this first Sunday of December.  Like Lent, it too is a time to embrace the Lord’s call for conversion of heart and repentance.  Cardinal Cahal Daly of Ireland, in speaking to the American bishops some years ago, observed, “If we want the New Evangelization to work, it starts on our knees.  The church in Ireland is in the dirt on her knees.  Maybe that is where the church is at her best.”  Yes, the church in the land of shamrocks and leprechauns had come upon hard times.  Humiliation and alienation became the hallmarks of Catholic life.  Much the same remains true here in the United States.  Here too the work of the New Evangelization, bringing people back to Christ, must begin on our knees.

Many matters were on the minds of the bishops during our four days of meeting in Baltimore.  Last summer we had invited our Catholic people to observe a Fortnight for Freedom.  Our concern then was the need for prayer and action in defense of religious liberty in our own great nation.  The Fortnight was prompted largely by the Health and Human Services mandate to provide employees with health insurance that includes sterilization and contraception, even drugs that may cause abortions.  The four-part religious exemption is a problem because it is far too narrow and excludes a number of church-based institutions.  Whom does the exemption include?  Only employers that satisfy all four of the following requirements: 1) their purpose is the inculcation of religious beliefs, 2) they primarily hire those who share their religious tenets; 3) they primarily serve those who share their religious tenets; and 4) they are a church, a convention or association of churches, an integrated auxiliary or a religious order.  

When a government assumes the role of determining which activities are appropriate for a church, there is a serious violation of religious freedom, an infringement of rights which, unfortunately, many still fail to concede, including some of our own Catholics in various branches of government.  Little progress thus far has been made in trying to turn the tables on this exemption.  Beginning with Advent, it will be a time for the church to be on our knees, praying for a change of heart and mind in our government’s approach to this regrettable decision.  There will be no change for the bishops engaged in the debate.  Our laity and religious, particularly those involved in the work of Catholic colleges and universities, Catholic hospitals and health clinics, Catholic Charities and other charitable service organizations that serve all people need to express concern about the government’s determination that their services fall outside the exemption.  

A number of other matters occupied the bishops’ attention during the days in Baltimore.  A formal statement was approved on preaching the Sunday homily.  Time and again we are reminded by parishioners how important it is that God’s word be proclaimed clearly, succinctly and relevantly.  We also agreed to a “scope of work” for an amended edition of the English translation of the Liturgy of the Hours, which all the ordained clergy are obliged to pray daily.  So too with many men and women who have embraced the consecrated life.  More and more laity are also praying Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer of the church, together or alone.  A new edition of the Liturgy of the Hours will eventually be ready, but only after a few years of study and re-writing, finalized by approval from Rome.

We bishops failed in our efforts to offer a pastoral message on work, poverty and the economy.  When we met last June we looked for an expedited manner of preparing such a statement.  The committee members assigned to do the work devoted themselves industriously to the task, but we weren’t able to agree on a final document.  During these difficult economic times it is our hope that the gospel will sustain our many needy, poor and unemployed sisters and brothers.  The widening gap between the rich and poor in our nation is not a good one.  In the recent election there was a lot of talk about the middle class, but not enough about the under-class.  I commend those who support the good works of the church in the service of the poor.

We approved a pastoral exhortation encouraging all Catholics to avail themselves of the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation during the Year of Faith.  Here in our own archdiocese this will be a pastoral priority for all our people in the Lenten season 2013.  If you find yourself among the Catholics who seldom avail themselves of sacramental Reconciliation nowadays, this is a good time to seek the healing grace and comfort of Jesus in this beautiful sacrament.

The Archdiocese for the Military Services, which provides so much support and pastoral care for our young families involved in the work of the armed services, has requested financial assistance.  It was decided that a national collection should be taken up every three years near Veterans’ Day beginning in 2013.  I wasn’t sure how wise it was to add another collection, but I certainly recognize the need to support this important ministry.  One of our own priests, Father Martin King, is a Chaplain in the Air Force.  He continues to provide good pastoral care for the men and women in the armed services and their families.

We bishops of the Pacific Northwest had two opportunities for regional meetings during our days in Baltimore.  There was some conversation among us about the referendum in Washington State which expanded the age-old understanding of civil marriage.  Three other states did the same.  Such failures in the defense of traditional marriage, the challenge of the pro-choice media and the on-going struggle for religious liberty are indeed all causes for concern, matters that require serious reflection, critical analysis, cogent arguments and much prayer.

All of this, of course, brings us back to where I began.  The work of building God’s kingdom of peace, justice and love here on earth is primarily God’s work.  He has entrusted it to those of us he has invited to be His church.  As Advent comes around once again, let’s not forget that we must tackle a large portion of this work on our knees.