Anne-Marie Welsh

            A letter sent to all of the active and retired bishops of the United States asks that in response to the sexual abuse crisis in the church, they spend seven days “of intensified prayer, from Nov. 5 through Nov. 11. In addition,” the letter continues, “each bishop is asked to commit to some form of fasting or sacrifice during those seven days.”
            The request is one of three new invitations to prayer the American bishops will respond to between now and the beginning of 2019. The seven days of prayer will be followed by a full day of prayer and penance when the bishops gather for their annual general assembly in Baltimore, Nov. 12-15, and a full seven-day retreat in Chicago during the first week of January 2019.
            “Usually, on the last day of our meeting in Baltimore, we have a holy hour and a spiritual talk by one of the bishops,” Bishop Lawrence Persico said. “Then we have time for confession and adoration.” This year, prayer will open the meeting, and extend for an entire day. The commitment to prayer comes in response to a call from members of the U.S. bishops’ administrative committee, which helped set the agenda for the November gathering. Bishop Persico serves on the committee, having been elected by the bishops of Region III, which covers Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
            “This is a time of deep examination of conscience for each bishop,” the committee said in a statement after its planning meeting in September. “We cannot content ourselves that our response to sexual assault within the church has been sufficient. Scripture must be our guide forward: ‘be doers of the word and not hearers only,’ (James 1:22).”

            The bishops are being asked to offer their prayer and penance for three intentions: the healing and support of all victims of clergy sexual abuse; the conversion and just punishment of perpetrators and concealers of sexual abuse; and strength for bishops to be holy shepherds in protecting and leading their sheep from all harm.
            In a letter to all bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that all Catholics are welcome to join in praying for these intentions, but “this is specifically an effort of prayer and reparation by the bishops.” Parishes also may include the intentions in the Prayers of the Faithful during Mass.
           Bishop Persico said he hopes the bishops “get it right” at the meeting in Baltimore.
            “The faithful — all people — need to see that we’re serious about our response to the crisis,” he said. He believes people are especially interested in seeing more accountability for bishops.

 “We have to have laypeople involved,” he said. “I understand that ultimately, action needs to be taken by Rome when it comes to bishops. But there’s no reason why laypeople can’t do the investigating and inform the Holy See of their results.” Traditionally, bishops have addressed concerns about other bishops through fraternal correction.
            “We’ve seen that doesn’t work,” Bishop Persico said. “We need to make ourselves accountable.” He also said the majority of the meeting will be dedicated to the topic of the sexual abuse crisis in the church.

            The third and arguably most intense opportunity for the bishops to pray comes at the request of Pope Francis. The bishops of the United States will make a weeklong retreat together at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary beginning Jan. 2. The Holy Father is sending Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the papal preacher, to lead the retreat.
            Both Bishop Persico and Bishop Emeritus Donald Trautman are planning to particpate.
            “It’s extraordinary,” Bishop Persico said. “This is the first time that the Holy Father has invited us, as a body of bishops, to go on a seven-day retreat. The object will be to allow the Holy Spirit to talk to us. Father Cantalamessa has been the official homilist for the papal household, which is significant.”
            Although the schedule for the January gathering has not yet been shared, Bishop Persico said he expects it will include penance and prayer.
             “I hope we will use that time to pray for victims and to pray for leadership in the church,” he said. “And to pray for the people who make up the body of Christ. We have been extending our sorrow and recognizing the suffering of victims of clergy sexual abuse. But parishioners are suffering, as well.”