The bishops of Alaska have been in Rome for the past week meeting with officials of the Vatican. This visit is referred to as the “ad limina apostolorum”, meaning, “at the threshold of the apostles”. Every five years bishops are called to the Vatican to give an account of their work within their diocese. First and foremost, this is a pilgrimage to pray at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. We celebrated Masses at the sites where both of these men were martyred for their profession of the faith. While the details of St. Paul’s martyrdom are a bit sketchy, it is understood that St. Peter was crucified upside down.
The bishops of Alaska are part of Region XII of the U.S. Bishops which make up the northwest section of the country including the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. We met with the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, at the beginning of the week. During this meeting, each bishop gave the Pope a description of our life and ministry.
The bishops agreed to present different topics to the Holy Father, and I accepted to share with him the work that has taken place in creating a safe environment within our dioceses and parish communities. This June we will mark 10 years since the U.S .bishops have promulgated the ‘Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People’. Since this Charter was put into place, the Catholic Church in the US has trained more than 2.1 million clergy, employees and volunteers in how to create a safe environment. This work has also prepared more than 5.2 million children to recognize abuse and protect themselves. Background checks have been conducted on more than 1.8 million volunteers and employees, 166,000 educators, 52,000 clerics and 6,000 men preparing for ordination. We were pleased to be informed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the Church in the U.S. has taken the lead in addressing the issue of sexual abuse which has permeated all of society. Nevertheless, I mentioned to our Holy Father that much more needs to be done. First and foremost in being pastorally present to those who have been abused, to increase our collaboration and communication with others about this issue and to continue to restore trust among the members of the Church.
In our meetings, the Archbishops in our group (from Portland, Seattle and Anchorage), told the officials that the population in the Northwest U.S. and Alaska are mostly unchurched. That is so say, the majority of people do not belong to a particular faith community, but it does not mean that they are not believers — although many identify themselves as agnostic or atheist. While the humanitarian efforts of the people in the region are very well organized, as spiritual leaders within the community, we discussed the ways in which to raise the anthropological questions of our time to foster a ‘human ecology’. The teachings of Pope Benedict XVI call us to defend creation while at the same time protecting humanity from self-destruction. As we were informed by one young theologian, these teachings ‘…are meant to alert us to the fact that self-emancipation from creation and the Creator is an illusion.’
It is a well known fact that the Catholic Church will uphold natural law, defend the sanctity of life and continue to present these truths within the discussions that make up the public forum. In light of this, we discussed the issues of the definition of marriage between one man and one woman as well as the gift of life beginning at the moment of conception until natural death. It was reinforced during our meetings that these issues are divinely inspired. As spiritual leaders, these topics are paramount. Within our meeting with the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Archbishop of that office said that politicians, who are concerned about the popular voice or vote, do not have the competence to define marriage which has been instituted by the Creator of the human family. He also applied this sentiment to the issues regarding the sanctity of life.
Through the course of the meetings, the message to the bishops of Region XII was to stay steady on the course of proclaiming the gospel message, working with those in the community and continue the mission of the early apostles like St. Peter and St. Paul. One Archbishop in our group quoted John Henry Newman relative to our work: “Such is the law which God has annexed to the promulgation of the Truth; it’s preachers suffer, but it’s cause prevails.”
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.