In a few short weeks during the Season of Advent, we shall listen again to the opening words of the 40th Chapter of the Book of Isaiah. The prophet is speaking in the name of God to the people of Israel who have long been in exile in Babylon. The Israelites are broken and afraid; they are dispirited and uncertain of their future. They needed a word of hope. Isaiah steps into their midst and declares in God's name: "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God."....
My brother bishops, the word of the Lord, as prophesied by Isaiah, sums up profoundly the mission that has been given to us by God as bishops. We bishops, by the grace of our sacramental consecration, are the authentic bearers of that mission and the message it contains. Like the Apostles whom we succeed, we have been sent to announce God's word that genuine comfort in human life can only be found in communion with Him.
...The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council spoke simply, yet profoundly of the ministry of bishops. According to the Council, bishops are chosen by the Lord to lead the faithful, "presiding in place of God over the flock whose shepherd they are, as teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship, and officers of good order" (LG 20). My brother bishops, to the degree that we fulfill this mission that God has given us, to that degree will God's People know and experience the true comfort that God wishes for them.
....The 1973 Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade has been disastrous for our nation. Based on a complete disregard for human rights and enshrined for almost thirty years in false logic and rhetoric, that decision, more than any other in our recent history, has been responsible for blinding our national conscience to the truth about our God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The statement before us this week, "A Matter of the Heart," reflects on the impact of Roe v. Wade, calls again - in the name of truth and justice - for that ruling to be overturned, and expresses the gratitude of the bishops to all those who have kept the truth about human life alive. Our prophetic persistence in preaching the Gospel of Christ on this issue cannot but allow falsity to give way to the truth, and truth to bring rightful comfort to the unborn.
....As bishops, we should have no illusions about the intent of some people who have shown more than a casual interest in the discord we have experienced within the Church this year. There are those outside the Church who are hostile to the very principles and teachings that the Church espouses, and have chosen this moment to advance the acceptance of practices and ways of life that the Church cannot and will never condone. Sadly, even among the baptized, there are those at extremes within the Church who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas. One cannot fail to hear in the distance – and sometimes very nearby – the call of the false prophet, "let us strike the shepherd and scatter the flock." We bishops need to recognize this call and to name it clearly for what it is.
As bishops, we need to attend, thoughtfully and constantly, to the way in which the Council exhorted us to give both the religious and laity their rightful place and share in the mission of the Church. Much of the Council's intention has been identified and codified in Church law. Religious and laity assist us well in our chanceries and tribunals, and on our diocesan financial and pastoral councils. We should continue to encourage our pastors to ensure that their gifts are well recognized and called forth in their parishes. The opportunities for the laity to assist us are great and we need to seize upon them in order to fulfill effectively the mission the Lord has given us.
As president of our Conference during the past year, I have been particularly privileged to witness the extraordinary contribution of the religious and laity at the national level. I think first of the very talented lay men and women who serve us at the Conference in Washington, Miami and New York. I include here my own faithful lay colleagues in the Diocese of Belleville. I also acknowledge the very gifted laity who serve at our Catholic national organizations in the areas of health, disabilities, education and social services. In a special way, I want to express my thanks to the members of our recently established National Review Board for the generosity and expertise that they bring in assisting us in the protection of our children.