A Shepherd's Message: Ad limina visit, HHS mandate

March 9, 2012

Every diocese periodically reports to Rome on the status of its life and ministry. Each bishop is asked to send the Vatican a written summary of the state of his diocese and then, with brother bishops from his region, go to Rome to visit the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul – as well as confer with the successor of St. Peter, the Pope, and meet with various Vatican offices. This event is called an “ad limina” visit, or a visit to the “thresholds” of the apostles, Peter and Paul.

The Bishops of Region X – that is, from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas – are making their “ad limina” visit from March 14 to 21 of this year. Last November, I sent to Rome an extensive report about the Archdiocese and I look forward to my meeting with the Holy Father and various Vatican officials. Bishop-Elect George Sheltz will accompany me on this visit. Aspects of this pilgrimage are being covered in the current issue of the Archdiocesan newspaper.

Our last “ad limina” visit to Rome was in 2004; with the election of the new Pope the following year and other delays, the usual five-year interval has been extended. I do look forward to meeting with Pope Benedict and will extend my greetings to him from all of us here in the Archdiocese.

Our local Church is blessed with a genuine, dynamic sense of faith and of evangelization. In the last three years, an average of 2,300 adults and young people have entered the Church at Easter. We have significantly large Confirmations every year of our high school youth and over 1,000 adult Catholics, who for one reason or another were never confirmed, are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit each Pentecost weekend. Our schools and religious education programs are large, though many thousands of children still remain untouched by religious and catechetical formation. Our various forms of social outreach have expanded in the last five years, as have our offerings for adult education and formation. The number of seminarians has risen from 31 in 2004 to 53 this year.

Signs of growth are present, yet challenges and problems remain. Perhaps one of our most significant worries is the number of couples living together without the benefit of sacramental marriage. This issue preoccupies our priests, deacons and pastoral ministers and is an area where we must pay attention. We also have a local Church of incredible ethnic and linguistic diversity. This both enriches us and also presents important pastoral challenges. Finally, the sheer growth in numbers of people in our Catholic population puts great pressure on our priests, deacons, religious and pastoral ministers. We continually need to find ways of collaboration so that all are served and the priests and ministers do not “burn out.”

Please pray for me that I will represent this local Church well in its faith, its holiness, its challenges and its room for greater progress. I know that I can count on your prayers and on your love and affection for the Holy Father, whose role is “to strengthen the brothers” in their apostolic service to their people. (On a lighter side, I will be in Rome for the Feast of St. Joseph on March 19, when every Lenten discipline is laid aside and the food is truly magnificent!)

I have been greatly blessed in being the Shepherd of this archdiocese and I hope that I can share my gratitude more fully after I return from the “ad limina” visit.

HHS Mandate

I also want to offer a brief second reflection. In recent weeks the Bishops of the United States have asked the collaboration of our people in protesting the mandate set out by the Department of Health and Human Services that all health insurance plans, both public and private (including self-insurance plans) include coverage (without a waiver or extra payment) of all sterilization and contraceptive drugs, including possible abortion-inducing drugs. What is significant to note is that the mandate is FEDERAL and is thus COERCIVE. The list of those exempt from such a mandate is very NARROWLY DEFINED. Even the compromise proposed on February 10, 2012 still includes the basic mandate WITHOUT ANY CHANGE.

The accommodations proposed are still very confusing and murky. Further, the mandate bifurcates which religious agencies are exempt and which are not. In effect, the federal government is defining whether religious agencies are “religious enough” to meet the stringent standards of an exemption. It is at these basic levels that the religious liberty proclaimed by the First Amendment is compromised. It is not simply a question of quibbling over complicated policy issues, though such issues are involved. More fundamentally, the federal government is defining what constitutes a religious institution. The Bishops of the United States consider a number of these non-exempt agencies, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, to be a part of the very mission of who we are as Catholics. The federal mandate compromises such a fundamental right and begins to weaken the role that faith communities can play in the public square. This is very disquieting. Just as worrying is any lack of accommodations to individuals who object to the mandate on religious grounds.

I am grateful for the grassroots efforts that have been mounted here in our archdiocese to contact both the executive and legislative branches of our federal government. I believe that we may have to have recourse to the judicial branches of our government in the future. I will try to keep you informed about the issues and ways we can approach them to bring a different result than what we currently have with this mandate. Beyond our work on this matter in the public square, I believe prayer is crucial in this effort! †