By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published November 27, 2017 | En Español
In 1917, the year that the United States episcopal conference of bishops cites as its beginning, the main concern was to respond effectively to the pastoral needs of our nation, then at war. In fact, the conference’s first name was the National Catholic War Council (NCWC). At that moment in time, American Catholics were (and still remain) deeply patriotic in our love for this nation. The bishops wanted to be pastorally engaged with our soldiers and their families as the world found itself at war at that moment in time. Catholics in the U.S. then were largely identified as an immigrant people from Europe and were anxious to prove the sincerity of their patriotism.
After that war, the name of our council changed. We were then called the National Catholic Welfare Council, and the organization dealt with more social and pastoral issues. Not every bishop was an enthusiastic supporter of the council and a few of the more influential ones let their feelings be known in Rome. Eventually the Holy See approved the council but called for the name to be changed to the National Catholic Welfare Conference. It remained a Washington-based structured organization until in 1966, when in response to the Second Vatican Council (Christus Dominus No. 38), all nations were directed to establish a conference of bishops.
Cardinal John F. Dearden, the archbishop of Detroit, was elected the first president in 1966 of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and its joint public policy arm, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). These two structures were eventually united into a single entity—the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)—in 2001.
When Bishop Joseph L. Bernardin was transferred from being auxiliary bishop of Atlanta in 1968 after the death of Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan, he went to Washington to become the secretary of the conference, and he played a pivotal role in its organization. Before being appointed archbishop of Atlanta in 2004, I served as the 12th president of the USCCB. Thus, the Archdiocese of Atlanta has had a long personal connection with the conference over the years.
Pope Francis has called for bishops throughout the world to use our episcopal conferences more effectively and frequently in addressing the pastoral and social issues that we must all face. Episcopal conferences are not “super-dioceses,” and bishops lose nothing of our individual authority and responsibility over the local churches that we serve. Nonetheless, our conferences ultimately strengthen our governance by helping us to learn from one another, advise one another, and support one another in our pastoral ministry. Episcopal conferences build up the spirit of fraternal collegiality, an indispensable gift that each bishop needs.
Conferences must accomplish certain activities together, such as approve liturgical translations to be used in a given nation and establish fiscal limitations that govern diocesan actions. However, beyond those few activities, episcopal conferences serve to unify bishops of a country in confronting pastoral and public issues that touch all of the people of a particular nation—always in union with the Holy Father. We have approximately 400 bishops in our episcopal conference: 200 diocesan bishops, 100 auxiliary bishops and 100 retired bishops. Each one is an important member of the conference, although responsibilities vary for each category.
After nearly 34 years as a member of our conference, I always look forward to being with my brothers and to renewing friendships, praying with them, sharing in the ministry of service and being reaffirmed in my ministry. We bishops would be so much less effective without the conference. I’m very glad those bishops 100 years ago came up with this idea. It has served the Catholic Church well for the past century, and I believe it will continue to do so for the next 100 years.