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How many meetings does it take?

Any honest bishop will tell you that his life is one of meeting piled on top of meeting. At what expense? And to what end?

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, apostolic administrator of the Washington Archdiocese, speaks from the floor Nov. 13 at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

I am writing this reflection as the Synod on Youth in Rome has just ended and the annual fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is underway.

For further context, it should be noted that these same bishops will gather once again for some kind of retreat in January, presumably to atone for their mistakes in dealing (or not) with the sexual abuse crisis; this retreat will be conducted by none other than the papal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa. The presidents of all the world’s episcopal conferences will then convene in Rome in February for yet another confab on the same topic. Further, the C-9 (the council of nine cardinals constituted by the Pope, ostensibly to advise him on the governance of the Church) will hold its 26th meeting in December.

Without being negative, one must admit that next to nothing has been accomplished by this body, apart from merging a few dicasteries, which caused one Vatican wag to comment: “I could have done that in fifteen minutes.” Amazingly, those cardinals have not even been consulted about the appointment of new cardinals. I am told that most of them found out who the new members of the College were by reading the Vatican website!

Several years ago, I rescued an elderly Sister from the old folks home by giving her a part-time job for a couple of hours each afternoon. One day, Sister came in and said, “Father, I won’t be able to come in to work this Friday.” “Do you have a doctor’s appointment?” asked I. “No. I can’t tell you, Father, because I don’t want you to get angry.” “Sister, I could never get angry at you,” I replied. “Well, okay. We have a mandatory Community meeting,” she confessed. “Those damned meetings,” I snapped. “See, I knew you would get angry,” came her retort. Then she went on: “You know, Father, I have been a Religious for over sixty years. In the first fifty, we never had any meetings, but we all knew who we were, where we were supposed to be, and what we were supposed to do. For the past ten years, we haven’t stopped having meetings – and nobody knows who she is, where she is supposed to be, and what she is supposed to do!” That about says it all. Or, as another wag once remarked: “God so loved the world that He didn’t call a meeting.”

Aside from time involved (which I shall address momentarily), what about the massive expense these gatherings cost? At one of the press briefings connected with the Youth Synod, Edward Pentin asked the pointed question: “How much money has this Synod cost the Church?” Not a single official on the dais could answer. Let’s take a look at that question simply from the American point of view.

For 25 years, I attended the fall meetings of the USCCB as a theological consultant to various bishops or as part of the media. I have often quipped that I shall have to do no time in Purgatory as a result. It was fascinating (and instructive) to watch the demeanor of bishops: When discussions on faith and morals were the topic, most nodded off; when things turned toward finance or organizational structures, they perked up. They are attired in their clerical business suits (rather than in cassocks, like the Italians), thus giving the appearance of CEOs.

Now, onto the expenses involved. There are approximately 285 active bishops in the country and about 180 retired bishops (who are entitled to attend these events, but without voting rights; about half of them regularly attend), making for a rounded total of 375. If one takes $600 as an average air fare for the group, that comes to roughly $225,000 (most don’t travel economy class; also, the “fly-over” sections of the country can be very pricey). Given that the meeting generally goes from Monday to Thursday, that entails a minimum of four nights at the designated hotel (although some go earlier and/or stay later due to committee meetings); at $250 per night, that comes to $375,000. Unlike St. Catherine of Siena, few of them can survive on the Holy Eucharist, so next come meals. Let’s say $25 for breakfast, $35 for lunch, and $90 for dinner (they don’t frequent the local hot dog stands); we now have another $56,250 – for a grand total of a $656,250 (this not include USCCB staff and guests). A friend of mine in the convention planning business, accuses me of low-balling the figure; he maintains that it is closer to the “industry standard” of $4000 per person and thus over one million dollars!

We cannot forget the annual spring meeting of the Conference, which gift came about as the inspiration of “Our Brother Joe” Cardinal Bernardin. To be fair, many bishops have argued to eliminate that gathering. And, oh yes, the meeting on Catholic leadership in Orlando this past year, and the fifth “Encuentro” on Hispanic affairs (as we continue to hemorrhage that population to fundamentalist sects or even agnosticism).

Pope Francis, in one of his insults directed to particular audiences, has famously condemned “airport bishops”, yet come 2019 five international gatherings of bishops would have been held in just under six years! Ironically, through his minions, he has apparently told Bishop Athanasius Schneider to stay home; of course, he has not told that to Cardinal Oscar Rodriquez Mariadiaga of Honduras (whose archdiocese is awash in financial and sexual scandals and whose country is in a free-fall).

Any honest bishop will tell you that his life is one of meeting piled on top of meeting: pastoral council; finance council; presbyteral council; priest personnel board; board of consultors; school board; clergy “convocation” (a hifalutin name for, yes, another meeting); weekly staff encounter. A parish finance officer told me that last year, during the first week of Lent, all the finance personnel of the parishes of a major archdiocese were summoned to a meeting which ran from nine to five. My friend observed, “In that entire time, the name of Jesus Christ was not spoken once.” Or, as many clergy of that same archdiocese joked for years about their chancellor, “If it could be categorically proven on Sunday that God did not exist, Harry would still open the chancery on Monday morning.” Harry went on to become an archbishop.

A pastor is similarly afflicted with the disease of “meetingitis.” A pastor of my acquaintance avoided meetings like the plague. Convinced that they constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” (and were thus unconstitutional), he neglected to convoke annual meetings of bodies required by his diocese and thus failed to submit the requisite reports. He got a call from a diocesan functionary, who asked, “What happened to your reports, Monsignor?” “We were so busy evangelizing,” came the response, “we forgot to meet!”

Ironically, in most dioceses, there is not the same level of interest and diligence about securing fidelity to doctrinal and liturgical matters as there is to bureaucratic concerns. When it became de rigeur to fashion “mission statements,” a harried pastor asked for my input. I replied: “That everyone in our parish become a saint!”

With nearly a million dollars being spent this week in Baltimore by our bishops – and millions more for useless gatherings at the Vatican over the past five years – we have to ask how many saints have been made for this expenditure of time and money. After fifty years, it should be clear that bureaucracy and institutional maintenance don’t make saints.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 82 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

14 Comments

  1. Isn’t this the “clericalism” that the Pope complains about? How ironic. We don’t need more meetings; we need someone to stand up and say – enough, do something! I’m still trying to make my way through understanding this whole crisis. Who would it be who would stand up and do something? The laity? The faithful priests, bishops and cardinals? What can anybody do? I hear a lot of reporting, a lot of complaining editorials on the web, a lot of criticism, but what’s a lay person to do, in addition to prayer? As a Hebrew Catholic, I come from a long line of activists in my family who protested effectively at local levels for the education they wanted for their children and for political purposes also. I find all this talk very frustrating. Certainly I’m praying, because prayer is the first line of defense. None of the prelates involved in all these problems is God or should think that they are. With all due respect, does anyone have any ideas about what could be done to effect any real change?

  2. So many things evident here. Thank you Fr. Stravinskas for the article. First, the glaring lack of effective leadership. Just talking heads milling about and the rest listening, or nodding. None of them understand what they need to focus their personal time on and how to delegate most of the rest. Nor is there any thought on managing by exception. If all is well in a particular area, leave it alone. Focus only on what needs to be fixed (but then they don’t know how to fix it, do they?). Second, a complete lack of any focus on pursuing holiness. If we asked how much time in true contemplative prayer is spent each day by each bishop, the answer would be depressing. Pursuit of Holiness, the one thing that would solve so many of the problems, is completely missing from both the conversation and the recommended actions, and actual actions. I do not see the bishops being the model to follow in pursuit of holiness. They are the modern Apostles. They are supposed to represent Christ to us, the laity. After all, Jesus said, “Imitate me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” When was the last time you met a bishop who openly pursued holiness, and who was “meek and humble of heart.” That ought to be a job requirement but it clearly is not.
    So, the two things that should be a hallmark of every bishop, good leadership and a model of holiness, are apparently lacking in almost every case. The very few exceptions we do have, like Bishop Chaput – whom Francis spurns, are not nearly enough. They get lost in the mass of ineffectiveness and lack of concern for the Catholic in the pew. True at every level, from the local bishop to the very top.

  3. At last. Someone finally exposes them, those time consuming awful endless meetings for what they are. My former bishop attended them all but escaped the drudgery by falling asleep. Excessive meetings are indicative of lack of direction as implied by Fr Stravinskas’ elderly nun. Our Church has lost it’s sense of mission to proclaim Christ. Everywhere, faithfully, and constantly like the bishops of old, at least the good ones like St Augustine, St Athanasius of Alexandria, St Charles Borromeo. Good bishops preach constantly on the Apostolic Tradition to their priests, laity. What is severely lacking and for which we now pay the price. Good priests preach the faith on Sundays and teach parishioners the faith during the week. If we resume this there’ll be no time for wasting time. An added note. The meetings called by the Pontiff now the February global call to address sexual abuse is a tactic to delay and diminish action and to surreptitiously promote his own agenda. The USCCB are not united on either subject or response and only the Pontiff can instill that but declines for reasons said. My advice to them is decline to attend the global bishops’ conference [can there be a better excuse?], repudiate what is being inflicted on the Church, and instead preach the true faith – as Archbishop Vigano recently urged the USCCB.

  4. Quote from Thomas Sowell: “When an organization has more of its decisions made by committees, that gives more influence to those who have more time available to attend committee meetings and to drag out each meeting longer. In other words, it reduces the influence of those who have work to do, and are doing it, while making those who are less productive more influential.”

  5. I walked out of a mandatory weekly meeting of our student union building’s
    supervisory staff, and out of the job – mandatory meant mandatory – when I
    was in college. It was noon on Sunday and I had just worked nearly straight
    through since Thursday night. It was Parents’ Weekend and my folks had not come, so I was covering others’ shifts. As I left, my boss – supervisor of supervisors –
    told me to be at the meeting at 2. I went, I said my piece about fruitless,
    time consuming meetings, and I walked.
    Some years later, beginning my job search I eschewed the corporate world. I never got rich. I never even got to be well off. But, I’ve never been to a meeting.

  6. Fr. Stravinsky, always so precise. We are so thankful for your vocation and your loyalty to the Church. With heartfelt gratitude from many in the Diocese of Boise.

  7. I agree with everything you say, Father Stravinskas. And I share some of those and similar frustrations.
    I work in a pro-life organization that focuses on educating, converting, retaining and mobilizing university students into the pro-life perspective. We recognize these are the leaders of tomorrow, and it is imperative we expose all the complete scientific, phycological and moral information surrounding abortion that most doctors and personal that support it go to great lengths to suppress. We also help women on campus that may be pregnant by connecting them to organizations that offer financial and moral support if they want to keep their baby, or adoption services. We operate under donor contribution yet are not a charity, which means we cannot give tax receipts. The reason is because we advocate against something the current government supports, which in itself is not wrong. However, when asking some churches for help, very little help trickles from there, as they are afraid of losing their charitable status or trigger an audit, yet a lot of money is spent on the types of things you mentioned above.
    Having said that, and as frustrating as that may be to me, I do in a way understand that the church is being attacked from all angles, and perhaps a lot of these discussions is on how to keep the church afloat [while at the same time bleeding it out… it seems] But this bring two things to mind:
    1. The fact that there is always a Judas that kisses the cheek of The Lord, and without a Judas, God’s plan would not have come to pass. As horrific as this sounded to Peter, as much as he wanted to prevent it from happening, Jesus’ strong words to him remind us that God has a plan and His church is in His hands. Later He also promises that even if His church walks so far away as to be right next to the gates of hell, it will not prevail against it.
    2. The movie The Scarlet and The Black is a perfect example of the bureaucracy that the Pope at the time [during WWII and the Nazi occupation of Rome] had to play, the game of men, in contrast of the work that Monsignor O’Flaherty actually did to help Jews and other Nazi targeted people escape their grip. We can judge that Pope for negotiating in such times, however, we also see that had that not taken place, Monsignor O’Flaherty would not have had the immunity that helped him carry out all of his work of mercy; he was at the front lines of that battlefield.

    I am not saying we should aplaude what is happening right now, nor am I suggesting we do nothing. I myself am preparing a very poignant and challenging presentation to speak with some of our local religious leaders. Which is similar to what you, Father Stravinskas, are doing with this articles. In addition to that, I am doing some research on possible solutions I will pitch in my meeting, which may end up creating a win-win situation. I believe a potent speech that inspires action, together with some suggestion on how we may overcome the issues at hand can go a long way. It is not a “cure it all” solution, but for me, it is a start. It is funny how in order to generate some of the change I’d like to see, I too have to spend time to brainstorm with my colleagues, time to do research, time to develop a presentation, time speaking out, and time to “go to a meeting”… But the reality is that without that meeting, we might not get the support we need to spend the time going to university campuses, where we are in fact executing our mission to help enlighten the brilliant minds of students that are miss-informed or lack more evidence surrounding the nature of life in the womb. These leaders will have to play the bureaucratic game in parlament, in hospitals, in schools, in law firms… But perhaps that very work they do in abolishing abortion through their own personal conversions may in fact pave their way to sanctity. Another movie that comes to mind in this regards is Amazing Grace, and when I think of all the struggles that Willam Wilberforce had to endure, and all the meeting that were held to strategize their moves, it sure makes it all seem so worthwhile when at the end it produces the abolition of slavery. So we can’t be scared in engaging in getting involved in meetings, so long we have very clear what is our goal and the result we want to get out of it.

    Regarding Leslie Bresnick’s question on what steps can be taken in order to generate a real change, I think it involves some of what I addressed above. We do need to make a very clear goals on the change we want to see. We tackle one particular issue, we brainstorm a potential strategy and research on our own, not over stake dinner, but at home or a simple office sipping tea or coffee… We PRAY for the Holy Spirit to guide our course, our thoughts on work, and ask Him to inspire us with some ideas on possible solutions we can pitch to our target audience within the church. We must do this in order to ensure that whatever change we are involved in creating is in fact in accordance with church teaching and with God’s blessing. We talk, not so much to win a debate, but keeping in mind the person we speak to is a soul that can also benefit from the action taken. We talk, and we offer solutions so that taking action after such meeting is made easier, and where the lack of action would be seen as a blatant rejection of action, or a very evident lack of courage.

    • ” The movie The Scarlet and The Black is a perfect example of the bureaucracy that the Pope at the time [during WWII and the Nazi occupation of Rome] had to play, the game of men, in contrast of the work that Monsignor O’Flaherty actually did to help Jews and other Nazi targeted people escape their grip. We can judge that Pope for negotiating in such times, however, we also see that had that not taken place, Monsignor O’Flaherty would not have had the immunity that helped him carry out all of his work of mercy; he was at the front lines of that battlefield.”

      Don’t take the movie as accurate history. Read about all the things that Pope Pius actually did.

  8. This disease which could be called “meetingitis” (in Spanish some have invented the word “juntitis”, “junta” being a meeting), came with Vatican II, and later based on it, the 1983 Code of Canon Law. All bishops are supposed to have a Priests’ Council, a group of consultors and where I am the bishops have invented another council which is not required by Canon Law and it is called an “Episcopal Council”. In my diocese, it meets every Monday morning. Then there is a long list of other councils all of which have many meetings. When I was in Melbourne, all the priests were sent a ream of paged with the minutes of the several meetings which took place every month in the Archdiocese. In other places, the priests have never been informed of what goes on at any of these meetings. Some years ago, I remember reading a book on how to run meetings. The first rule was, not to have one if it was not absolutely essential. The second one was that there be a bell and each speaker would get 3 minutes and the bell would cut him off. and that the meeting end at the time it was supposed to. I have noticed that not a few people love meetings.

    How about this?:
    “Joseph Ratzinger /1927- ) then a peritus at the council would be created cardinal archbishop in 1977, later named to the International Theological Commission and made prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of hte faith. He would become pope in 2005 until 2013. In his book Principles of Catholic Theology, Building stones for a Fundamental Theology, trans, Sister Mary Francis McCarthy, S.N.D. (San Francisco: Ignatius press, 1987, 368 quotes from Epistle 130 AD Procopium, of St. Gregory Nazianzus: “To tell the truth, I am convinced that every assembly of bishops is to be avoided, for I have never experienced a happy ending to any council; not even the abolition of abuses… but only ambition or wrangling about what was taking place” (See Louis Bouyer, Memoirs. San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014, p. 251.
    Wise words from one of the great doctors of the Eastern Church, called the Theologian.

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