WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The U.S. bishops are scheduled to elect the next president and vice…
USCCB vice president: Evangelization is ‘the priority that informs everything else’
In addition to electing a new president, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops chose a new vice president on Nov. 12 during its fall general assembly in Baltimore: Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit. At 71, it is unclear if Archbishop Vigneron will be a frontrunner for the USCCB presidency in three years, as is the usual trajectory, since he would be a year from retirement at the time of the next election of conference leadership.
Nonetheless, the former professor — a philosopher by training — offers thoughtful insights into the role of bishops today, especially in light of abuse scandals, corruption and disunity. He emphasizes the importance of doctrine as “inviting people to come to Christ” and hopes to facilitate unity amid deep ecclesial polarization by focusing on the fundamentals. He spoke with Our Sunday Visitor after his election.
Our Sunday Visitor: What duties will be included in your role as vice president?
Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron: I’m not really sure yet. I’m waiting until the meeting ends. I want to get a better take both from the (USCCB) general secretary and also [newly elected president] Archbishop [José] Gomez. As I understand it, it’s principally being a part of the executive committee, which has responsibilities according to the guidelines of the conference. I’m also part of the larger group of the administrative committee. Basically I want to be of assistance to the president in any way I can.
Our Sunday Visitor: Do you think you can help shape the vision of the conference?
Archbishop Vigneron: I think so. The conference is very focused on broad participation, and so any of us who are in leadership — the president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and others in leadership roles — have to come up with ways to help advance the work of the conference. But really the conference moves forward through consensus. The way I envision helping shape things is to help shape the consensus.
Our Sunday Visitor: Your election signifies that your brother bishops have great confidence in you. Which bishops have been influential in your ministry as a model of episcopal office?
Archbishop Vigneron: I think one of the most impressive men that I have known in the conference is Cardinal [Francis] George [late archbishop of Chicago]. I often think about him when we are deliberating on a question: “What is the word of wisdom he would bring?” And also Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, who has been retired these many years, but I’ve always found in him a very steady hand and a man who brought a gentleness to the conference, especially when I was beginning my service as a bishop.
Our Sunday Visitor: What have been your top priorities in Detroit?
Archbishop Vigneron: Right now, evangelization. To be all-in regarding the vision Pope Francis articulates in Evangelii Gaudium, which goes back all the way to Pope Paul VI and Evengelii Nuntiandi. And I took a lot of encouragement at the turn of the millennium where Pope St. John Paul II called us to launch out into the deep. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re making it not the top priority, but the priority that informs everything else: to be about evangelization.
Our Sunday Visitor: Looking at the Church today, evangelization can be somewhat compromised in two significant ways: the abuse scandals and reports of ecclesial corruption as well as the deep ideological polarization in the Church. How would you respond to Catholics who are deeply concerned by what they see as a lack of transparency and honesty in the wake of, not just [former cardinal Theodore] McCarrick and [former Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, Bishop Michael] Bransfield, but reports of Vatican financial corruption as well? How would you respond to Catholics to help them get through this moment, to give them hope?
Archbishop Vigneron: A simple thing we have to begin with is to renew our commitment — my commitment — to be a good leader, to be an honest man. But a more significant response is to hold up Christ as the conqueror of evil and to say, as countercultural as it is, that there is even grace in all of this. And that is what I’m a witness to in my evangelizing. There isn’t any situation, any trouble, even any sin that is so bad that Christ can’t turn it toward the good if we hand it over to him. A little reflection I offer people a lot when I preach is to ask them to think about what I say to them after they say, “It is right and just.” And I say, “It is right and just always and everywhere to give God thanks and praise.” And I would say even in the time of people being rightly angry and upset, there is a way that we can find here to give God thanks and praise. Perhaps it’s something as simple as giving God praise and thanks for being faithful to the Church in spite of the sin of her pastors and her members. And I know for some people that can sound like pablum, but it isn’t pablum; it’s a witness to the Resurrection.
Our Sunday Visitor: So it is really a great task to be able to open up people to this reality. Would new leadership in the conference, with you and others included, help lead people to just what you’re describing here?
Archbishop Vigneron: Well, I don’t know about new leadership. Pope Benedict said that the Church is always getting young. I’m 71; I’m one of the oldest members in our conference. But I hope I can be an agent for this rejuvenation in the Holy Spirit.
Our Sunday Visitor: And regarding the deep divisions in the Church today, there is a deep polarization that is undeniable in places such as some Catholic media outlets and on social media. How can the bishops help move the Church toward reconciliation and unity on so many of these issues?
Archbishop Vigneron: It seems to me you have two basic strategies to try and create harmony. One is to find compromise — sort of split the difference, meet in the middle. And the other is to rediscover what’s fundamental. We can do some of the split the difference on some of the issues in the Church, but it has to be principally the Gospel that provides the unity, the cohesion, in the Church, and that’s what I offer people. I think the polarization (in the Church) reflects a polarization in society today. And I think as a pastor, my job is to call people out of holding on to those things that create the polarization and say: “Come to Christ. Come to his Church. Come to his doctrine.” And that’s about conversion. So I think reconciliation that we need can only come through conversion.
Our Sunday Visitor: You mention doctrine specifically. Confusion on doctrine right now exists on many levels. How do you envision that the U.S. bishops will be able to bring people to right doctrine?
Archbishop Vigneron: Well, somebody quoted [Jesuit Gerard Manley] Hopkins in the hall, who noted that if you want to gain someone to adherence to right doctrine, you have to bring them into living our way of life, into the Christian ethos. So it has to be all of that. Or otherwise, as Pope Benedict said, it’s not an encounter with a person, it’s about asking people to accept a set of principles. And doctrine isn’t a set of principles — in its deepest level, it’s the Good News. Doctrine is about inviting people to come to Christ. I do think this is becoming more and more the way we bishops and our priests are recognizing how to go about this effort.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic. He writes from Indiana.