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Cardinal Discusses Role of Priests, Need for Unity Within Church
Patricia Zapor
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Tuesday, November 17, 2009
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BALTIMORE (CNS)—Reflecting on what the church would be like without the sacrament of holy orders, Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called on his fellow bishops to reflect on their relationships with their priests and help them grow in holiness and unite with them around Jesus.

In his Nov. 16 speech opening the bishops' fall general assembly in Baltimore, Cardinal George also addressed ways of strengthening church unity, particularly with regard to Catholic universities, "to media claiming the right to be a voice in the church" and to organizations that do various work under Catholic auspices.

He also spoke about the challenges of the church being "a leaven for the world's transformation," such as in the ongoing national debate about health care reform.

In his traditional presidential address at the beginning of the Nov. 16-19 meeting, the cardinal framed his thoughts on the role of priestly ministry as a part of the Year for Priests proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI in June.

Without a priestly ministry rooted in holy orders, he said, the ministry of teaching about the faith would fall primarily to professors, "whose obligation is first to seek the truth in the framework of their own academic discipline and whose authority to teach derives from their professional expertise."

Without ordained priests, the "only instance of real governance in any society would be that of civil and political leaders," Cardinal George continued. While their authority comes from God through the people they have sworn to serve, he noted, that role confers no religious authority and "a civil government has no right to deprive the church of freedom to govern herself by her own laws and under her own leaders."

Cardinal George also noted that without ordained priests, the role of spiritual counseling would fall to therapists—"dedicated to their clients and skilled in examining the dynamics of human personality, but without consideration of the influence of God's grace."

And finally, without ordained priests "the church would be deprived of the Eucharist, and her worship would be centered only on the praise and thanksgiving."

Cardinal George told the bishops that they are called during this year to reflect upon their relationships with their priests, "to help them grow in holiness, to deepen our fraternity with them, to unite them with us around Jesus Christ."

But also, he said, bishops are called to examine their particular ministry in the governance of the church. He quoted a letter written by St. Ignatius of Antioch in the first century about that role:

"Your submission to your bishop, who is in the place of Jesus Christ, shows me that you are not living as men usually do but in the manner of Jesus himself, who died for us that you might escape death by belief in his death," the saint said, writing to the people of Tralles in Asia Minor. "Thus one thing is necessary, that you do nothing without your bishop."

As to other segments of the church, Cardinal George said the bishops must look to other ways to strengthen unity.

"Relations do not speak first of control, but of love," he said. He noted that discussions have recently begun about how the bishops might strengthen their relationship to Catholic universities, "to media claiming the right to be a voice for the church" and to organizations that direct various works under Catholic auspices.

"Since everything and everyone in Catholic communion is truly interrelated and the visible nexus of these relations is the bishop, an insistence on complete independence from the bishop renders a person or institution sectarian, less than fully Catholic," Cardinal George said.

The bishops' efforts in these areas are intended "to clarify questions of truth or faith and of accountability or community among all those who claim to be part of the Catholic communion," he explained. He did not elaborate about which institutions he was referencing.

"I believe I speak for all of us here when I say that the bishops look forward to the dialogues that will clarify and strengthen the conditions necessary for all of us to be Catholic," the cardinal said.

Cardinal George talked about the bishops' role "as a leaven for the world's transformation."
Recently, he noted, "we have tried to be such a leaven in the debate about health care. It is not for us to speak to a particular means of delivering health care; it is our responsibility, however, to insist, as a moral voice concerned with human solidarity, that everyone should be cared for and that no one should be deliberately killed."

He said the challenge to govern effectively as bishops "is to be public without being co-opted and to be who we are without being isolated."

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