Sensitive Topics on Agenda at Session With U.S. Bishops

Times Religion Writer

When the journeying Pope stops at the San Fernando Mission today to address the assembled American bishops, he will, perhaps, leave some signposts for improved relations between the Vatican and the U.S. hierarchy.

During the session, John Paul II will respond to four prominent bishops whose short talks are expected to embrace such sensitive topics as women's roles in the church, the shortage of priests, teachings on sexual morals and the exercise of authority among well-educated Catholics in a country accustomed to democratic procedures.

The morning address is anticipated "as one of the more important talks he will give in the United States," said San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, who will speak on the moral teaching of the church. Texts of all five speeches at the closed meeting will be made public.

"We will be interested to hear what he has to say (regarding) the status of the life of the church in this country and how he sees our relationship," said Roger M. Mahony, who as Los Angeles archbishop will be host for the gathering.

Seattle Controversy

But, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland contended in a recent interview that the meeting probably will not give the bishops the opportunity to discuss adequately with the Pope the implications of a controversy regarding the Seattle archdiocese.

Relations with Rome were severely strained last year when the Vatican appointed an auxiliary bishop to share authority with Seattle Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen, who was said to be too liberal in administering certain pastoral duties. Bishop James W. Malone, the outgoing president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, warned last November of "a growing and dangerous disaffection" threatening to divide the Vatican from elements of the American church who thought the action was impractical and disruptive, if not unfair.

A compromise was struck last May, following recommendations by a three-man committee of U.S. bishops, when the Vatican restored full authority to Hunthausen, moved the auxiliary bishop to another diocese and brought in Bishop Thomas Murphy as Hunthausen's assistant and coadjutor bishop with the right of succession.

Weakland, chosen to deliver one of the 15-minute talks to the Pope, said he did not think the Seattle case would come up in the very structured setting of today's meeting.

Seeks Frank Exchange

Weakland said that instead, the American bishops need the kind of free and frank exchange with the Pope that the pontiff had in 1986 in Rome with 21 leading Brazilian bishops amid criticism over the Brazilian hierarchy's tolerance of "liberation theology."

Msgr. Daniel F. Hoye, general secretary for the U.S. bishops' group in Washington, said "the Pope has agreed to do for the U.S. bishops what he did for the Brazilian bishops," and he guessed that such a meeting will occur in early 1989.

Thus, although it is widely agreed that tensions have eased since the resolution of the Seattle dispute, Weakland said different concepts of "procedure" remain in the unresolved issue between the Vatican and the U.S. hierarchy.

"We differ on how authority is exercised. We tend to do a lot more open consultation (than does the Vatican). I think Rome fears that kind of open consultation leads to too much democratization of the church."

Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, vice president of the U.S. bishops conference, conceded that tension with the Holy See is inevitable, in part because of cultural differences. "Their way of doing things isn't necessarily our way of doing things," Pilarczyk said.

But on a hopeful note, Pilarczyk added: "I think that the personal contact (during the Pope's U.S. pastoral visit) can serve to relax a lot of the tension."

The Pope will spend about four hours with the bishops. It is expected to be the largest-ever gathering of American Catholic bishops. Organizers said that about 320 of the more than 380 active and retired prelates are coming to Los Angeles. The previous high attendance was 312 at the annual U.S. bishops' meeting last November.

Like many travelers did in the heyday of California's 21 missions, the Pope will also pray, eat and possibly rest at the San Fernando Mission. Named after a sainted 13th-Century Spanish king, the San Fernando Mission dates from 1797 and is the only one located within the Los Angeles city limits--actually in a section called Mission Hills.

When the Pope lands by helicopter at the mission complex at 9 a.m., he will go directly to the chapel already packed with bishops to join them in 20 to 30 minutes of prayer. The long, narrow chapel seats 275 "comfortably" and 300 if the choir loft is used, a mission spokesman said.

Hope It's Not Hot Day

"We'll get them all in, and hope that it's not a hot day," said an archdiocesan official.

For more than two hours in between the chapel session and an outdoor buffet that will conclude the session, the setting will be the roomy, functional dining hall of the high school-level Our Lady Queen of Angels Seminary, a short stroll from the mission complex.

Matters of church leadership will be at hand.

John Paul will deliver a prepared response to the 15-minute talks that were written and sent to Rome months earlier. Church officials said it is possible that the Pope may make additional comments and speak privately to groups of bishops during lunch.

Unlike the 1979 U.S. pastoral visit when the bishops simply gathered to hear the Pope address them, the practice on papal visits now is to have selected bishops launch an exchange of talks. A survey among the American cardinals, archbishops and bishops provided a committee of bishops, headed by Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville, with preferred topics and speakers.

Top Priority Subject

The subject handed to Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a former president of the U.S. bishops conference, was given the top priority in the survey--the relationship between the Vatican and local dioceses.

"I will talk about some of the realities we face here, then some suggestions as to how we might deal with them," he said in an interview, adding that he refers more to positive situations than to problems.

"A great deal of (news media) attention is focused on tensions and conflicts, but I think that it's important to realize that there is another side," Bernardin said.

"If I sat in my office and simply looked at the mail I get and the problems brought to my attention, I would get the feeling that it's all slipping away. But when I leave and visit the parishes and talk with the people, I'm reminded that the church is very vital and dynamic with wonderful people of deep faith."

Weakland's topic at the bishops' meeting is the role of Catholic laity in society and the church, with an emphasis on women--a topic he will also address at the October Synod of Bishops in Rome. For his talk, the archbishop said, he described the sociological changes in American Catholicism from a largely immigrant, blue-collar class to people with a fairly sophisticated education.

Maier said conservative Catholics tend to see Mahony, Archbishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Pittsburgh and Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston as theological conservatives who are "evangelical, confident" and not defensive in representing the church's teachings. If they take liberal social stances--such as favoring worker's organizing rights, opposing the death penalty and the nuclear arms race--they are consistent with church positions.

Bernardin, Quinn and Weakland are considered among the most "progressive" U.S. bishops, yet they are not unrepresentative. "These are the people who get elected over and over to posts in the bishops' conference," Kelly said.

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