Amid much anticipation and speculation, the 2021 fall plenary assembly of the U.S. bishops took place this week, and, as it should be, the Eucharist was at the center.
Not only was there conversation around and approval of a much-discussed document on the Eucharist and a lengthy presentation on the upcoming Eucharistic Revival, the bishops incorporated the Eucharist more fully into their agenda.
And that seemed to make a significant difference in the events of the week. Here are five ways in which a focus on the Eucharist seemed to positively impact the bishops’ 2021 fall plenary.
The bishops’ summer assembly, conducted remotely via video in June, had some contentious moments during a discussion on a document on Eucharistic consistency — that is, that one is to pattern their life after Him who they receive in the Eucharist. This was not wholly unexpected given the sensitive and, for many bishops, frustrating reality of the pro-abortion agenda of many Catholics in public service — Catholics who, despite their political professions, continue to receive the Eucharist regularly and, sometimes, publicly.
The bishops’ fall meeting was expected to be more of the same. But after a host of opportunities for the bishops to come together as brothers in recent months — via regional meetings, committee meetings, and in an unprecedented number of executive sessions at this fall gathering — the bishops instead modeled unity. We did not see public debates over what lies at the heart of the Church’s life, giving fuel for skewed or misleading narratives in traditional or social media.
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, as chair of the bishops’ committee on doctrine, delivered a document as promised. A display of partisan and ideological divisions was kept at bay, at least in public.
The bishops have rightly made the Eucharist — in terms of both strengthening Eucharistic faith and emphasizing the centrality of Eucharistic living — a key priority in the years ahead.
In a move that seemed to set the tone for the rest of their meeting, the bishops began the fall plenary with several hours of prayer and adoration, and many bishops later participated in eucharistic adoration throughout that night. The bishops have modeled that, when in the midst of challenges, the way forward is found when we turn to the Lord and gaze upon his face. By their witness, and by collegially exercising their teaching office, the bishops have focused our eyes on the Eucharist and set our feet on the path Christ lays for us through the mystery of the Eucharist.
Much to the disappointment of some, the bishops’ document on the mystery of the Eucharist in the life of the Church avoided addressing politicians or entangling itself with partisan politics. However, the bishops rightly pointed out that receiving the gift of the Eucharist compels each of us to change — to become more conformed to the One who sacrificed His life for ours.
It is not the job of the bishops to prohibit those perceived as political opponents from the Eucharist. But it is their job, as pastors, to call and challenge their flock to conversion for the good of their souls. The unity of the Church does not just depend on nice words, but on action. The call to holiness is never complacent or accommodating, and those who do not take action to unite themselves more closely to Christ, with reliance on his grace in the sacraments, put a strain on their relationships with God and the community. Our shepherds have rightly called us to better eucharistic consistency.
Some bishops expressed concern about how Eucharistic theology might be presented in the Eucharistic Revival process. One bishop expressed concerns about the $28 million projected cost of a national Eucharistic Congress slated to be held in Indianapolis in July 2024. (No bishops, however, proposed that their two yearly assemblies might be scaled back to help fund the initiative.)
But, surprisingly, more bishops voted against the proposal to hold the national event than against the document on the Eucharist (which still passed with a significant majority). By choosing to move forward with the national event — with an impressive list of deliverables presented by Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Catechesis and Evangelization — the bishops have concretely responded to the need to strengthen belief in what informs all else about our faith.
Aside from the center-stage discussions on the Eucharist, nestled into the agenda of the final day of public meetings were three formal consultations with the bishops regarding canonization causes. The Church, the Body of Christ, has been scandalized and torn apart by the sins and crimes of clergy. Indeed, the faithful have also called their shepherds to greater eucharistic consistency because, in the clergy sexual abuse crisis, we have seen seed planted amid the rocks and thorns.
In the holy ones, in the saints, we find seeds that fell on good ground and bore fruit. It seems a nod of providence that two of the causes supported by the bishops come from the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, which was one of the first American dioceses sent reeling from the clergy abuse scandals. By providence, the bishops’ meeting helped remind us — and themselves — that holiness must be our aim and priority. There is no better topic than holiness to sit amid discussions on the Eucharist, which itself nourishes, challenges and compels us to stay focused on that goal.
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