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.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!