Reflecting about our contemporary American Catholic bishops and also working on my book about Archbishop Jean Jadot, I have been re-reading a number of Catholic historical documents. This morning I re-read documents from the October 1976 Call to Action in Detroit. Here, below, an excerpt from Cardinal Dearden’s opening address.
Cardinal Dearden’s words are not just pious nostalgia, but in their own way a special call to contemporary American Catholic action.
Opening Address : Call to Action Conference
John Cardinal Dearden, Archbishop of Detroit
Chairman, NCCB Ad Hoc Committee for the Bicentennial
The journey to this day and this place has been long.
You have come to Detroit in October of the bicentennial year, 10 years after Pope Paul VI issued his “Call to Action” urging us to take up the cause of justice in the world, and two years after our own bishops summoned us to consider our responsibilities for the preservation and extension of the national promise of “liberty and justice for all.” We are here to participate in an extraordinary assembly of the American Catholic community.
This assembly has been convened to respond to the needs of our people as these have been revealed through two years of discussions, hearings and reflection. All of us are here to assist the American Catholic community to translate its sincere commitment to liberty and justice into concrete programs of action designed to make those ideals a living reality in Church and society. We will do all this in a setting of prayerful reflection on the call of the Holy Spirit.
Our central preoccupation here should be how we can more authentically as a Christian community live our faith in God and His Son, bearing witness to our confidence in Him and our awareness of His image in every person, and, together as a Church and individually as workers, citizens and Church members, serve the cause of justice and human development.
Never before has there been an attempt to bring together in this way representatives of the whole ecclesial community of the United States: bishops, priests, religious, and laity. Yet, this extraordinary assembly is not a radical departure from our traditions.
Our first bishop, John Carroll, initiated a policy of practical collegiality among the American hierarchy which resulted in seven provincial and three plenary councils of Baltimore between 1829 and 1884. In these meetings, the bishops and archbishops of the country, working closely with the Roman authorities, legislated for the Church in America. The hierarchy cooperated to insure that, despite the rapid expansion of the nation across the continent and the even more rapid growth of the Catholic people from the polyglot nationalities of Europe, the American Church would remain one in spirit, practice and discipline.
In the latter part of the century, in 1889 and 1893, national assemblies of the laity met to discuss what role the lay people of the Church could play in spreading the Gospel and providing a fuller and freer life for all Americans. The enthusiasm spurred by these meetings did not last. Later efforts to bring about unity through federal of hundreds of lay organizations met with only modest success. Yet, there was a tradition of fostering regional, sectional, and ethnic diversity, and out of it to form a unified Church which could communicate among the groups and regions, and lead to mutual enrichment and provide a basis for united action.
Our efforts at renewal require both an affirmation of our rich pluralism and a strong national organization, and both must take account of the pressing needs of our own people and the people of our country and our world. To forward these objectives, the American Catholic bishops decided to dedicate the Church’s bicentennial celebration to the theme of justice. With the help of many people, we formulated a unique plan: we would hold a series of regional hearings, where teams of bishops would sit and listen to the concerns of our people on issues of justice in the Church and in the world. These hearings were a marvelous experience.
At each of the hearings — held in six different cities: Washington, San Antonio, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Sacramento and Newark — we heard clearly the cries of people for a chance to raise their families in peace and dignity, pass on their distinctive cultural traditions to their children, find a responsible government and a responsive Church. Later, in a special hearing at Maryknoll, New York, we heard a number of invited guests from around the world tell us of the issues of human rights, economic justice and human survival in nations struggling for development and liberation. The hearings were an exhilarating and challenging experience for all who took part. People today, rich and poor, are often studied by scholars and pollsters; their needs, hopes and concerns are defined by questionnaires or by computers. Only rarely are they asked directly to speak up and be heard; so rarely, in fact, that many greet the invitation with understandable skepticism. Yet, that is what we have tried to do, in our perhaps inefficient way.
We are left with an enormous sense of responsibility and an equally strong feeling that there is great power in the spirit and faith of the people who appeared before us. The human resources of our Church and our nation are vast; our task is to carry forward, today, together, the work that has been begun — to unlock the structures of Church and world so that the spirit and energy of our people can flourish and contribute to renewing our communities. No one who sat through those 21 days of hearings could doubt that it can be done and that it must be done.
The regional hearings presented a model of a listening, learning, and caring Church. We hoped that the model would be reproduced in parishes and dioceses around the country. And we were right. More than half the nation’s dioceses sponsored parish discussions. These and other dioceses held their own regional and diocesan-wide meetings to hear the voice of the people and, in some cases, to begin formulating new goals and objectives for the local churches.
From parishes around the country came over three-quarters of a million responses, listing the people’s own perception of the major issues before us and their recommendations to deal with those issues. Of course, it was not a scientific sample; many sections of the country held no program; even where there was a program, the level of participation depended upon many factors. Together with the testimony of the regional hearings, this massive body of material represents the hopes and fears, the anxieties and the aspirations of many of our people……….
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Actions almost always speak louder than words.