I was startled. One of my Jesuit confreres had just introduced me to a fellow graduate student, not by name but as “our superior.” We were classmates; we lived in a small community, but somehow I had turned from Drew into “Father Superior.” I was no longer an individual. I was a role. I sensed at that moment that I was being put at a distance, a distance, I intuited, that would later bloom into problems.
Authority figures, when they cease to inspire awe, are in for trouble. That trouble often includes having the good they have done ignored or shadowed by doubt. I have thought of that phenomenon often over the years when audiences have quizzed me about the U. S. bishops’ responses on public issues. Even before the scandal of clerical sexual abuse, the audience questions had an edge: J’accuse. The bishops didn’t do enough, or they failed to respond promptly enough; or if they responded, they should have done so differently. One result of this antagonistic stance is that much of the good the bishops do goes unacknowledged. Indeed, it is resisted.
The work I know best is in the international field, where I served from 1991to 1998 as director of the bishops’ conference’s Office of International Justice and Peace. Currently, at the request of the bishops of Burundi, for example, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has committed itself to work with the Burundian episcopal conference in promoting reconciliation in that country. This summer 13 Burundians, including three bishops, will be trained in techniques of conflict resolution, reconciliation and the healing of memories. The trainees will return to Burundi to form others as peacemakers.
In Northern Ireland, the conference joined with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. to form the Interchurch Committee, a collaborative effort with sister churches in the province. Committee activities included promoting fair employment and investment, ecumenical speaking teams and training for civil servants in the conduct of human rights and fair employment reviews. Before the Good Friday Agreement, Lord Alderdyce, leader of the Alliance Party, told the U.S.C.C.B. that the churches’ work had been the best thing happening in the conflict.
In 1994, when the United States set out to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, many doubted that Haiti’s problems would be solved by force. Cardinal William Keeler, then U.S.C.C.B. president, together with the presidents of the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Latin America and the Canadian Catholic Conference, wrote to President Clinton to express their worries about armed intervention. Before the troops went in, Clinton sent former President Jimmy Carter, Senator Sam Nunn and General Colin Powell to persuade the junta to step down and prevent a bloody confrontation. Later Clinton confided that it was the bishops’ letter that spurred him to try one last time to negotiate before ordering the troops ashore.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, has singled out the U.S. bishops for their support of the church in the Holy Land. So significant has their contribution been that in 1997 the Holy See asked the conference to coordinate with European and western hemisphere conferences in formulating and executing policies and programs in the region. The coordination began with the United States, England and Wales, France and Germany. Over time it has been, joined by Canada, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Scandinavia, along with the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe and the Commission of Bishops of the European Union. The coordination has led to emergency contributions, a return of European pilgrims, close consultation among aid agencies and a variety of policy initiatives.
The horrors of the sexual abuse scandal have overwhelmed the good work bishops do, but there are countless “good news” stories like these waiting to be told: about debt relief, peacemaking in Colombia, reconciliation in the Balkans. It is good news that deserves to be told—and heard.