Bishops look to deal with diminished resources

 — Sept. 28, 200728 sept. 2007

by Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News

In their upcoming plenary  Oct. 15-19, Canada’s bishops will focus their national activities to have more impact and will consider new communications strategies.

The bishops will debate reducing the number of national episcopal commissions from six to three, and the possible creation of standing committees that would include lay experts, said the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) General Secretary Msgr. Mario Paquette.

The bishops will also put evangelization front and centre during the public portion of the week-long gathering in Cornwall, Ont. On opening day, sociologist Reginald Bibby will present an array of social data on Canadian attitudes towards religious faith. The next day Halifax Auxiliary Bishop Claude Champagne will lay out the theological and teaching dimensions.

The bishops, however, must find a way to accomplish their mission with fewer resources.

“Now they will discuss how they do things together, their activities, what are the fields to be covered, that they have to cover as a national conference,” Paquette said. “Do they have to do everything on the national level?”

Issues such as ecumenism and concern for refugees and migrants will remain national concerns, he said.

The present bilingual national commissions include: social affairs, canon law and inter-rite, relations with associations of clergy, consecrated life and laity, evangelization of peoples, Christian unity, religious relations with the Jews, and interfaith dialogue and theology.

Paquette said the bishops will examine whether they need all six, or if three commissions covering doctrine or theology, social affairs and relations with the churches, ecumenism and interfaith groups would be enough.

An ad hoc restructuring committee has suggested the creation of standing committees that would include not only bishops, but also lay experts.

“Some feel it would be more efficient,” Paquette said, noting these committees might be able to meet more frequently than the present twice-a-year schedule for most commissions.

The bishops will also look at whether there is a need for bishops to meet with cabinet ministers, such as the minister of immigration or of foreign affairs to make the bishops’ position known. Some groups, such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, have a regular presence on Parliament Hill. “We don’t have it at this point,” said Paquette.

Having a stronger presence, perhaps annual meetings where bishops get a chance to meet with politicians to give their opinions are “one possible area that would be studied,” he said. The CCCB may look at joining forces with like-minded groups already active on the Hill. The bishops may decide to create a standing committee on communications or public relations made up of bishops and lay experts.

The bishops will also look at whether the French and English sectors’ social communications commissions could be replaced by something more effective, he said.

Because of a lack of resources, the bishops will also be asking what they can afford, Paquette said. The restructuring began in 2004 with painful staff cutbacks at the CCCB’s general secretariat in Ottawa to eliminate a budget deficit. Since then, the CCCB has maintained balanced budgets, but Paquette pointed out expenses keep rising, while revenues have not.

While he does not anticipate staff cuts this year, the per capita rates the dioceses pay may have to rise.

“We will try to have a balanced budget this year again,” he said. “It means that some arrangements have to be done on contributions, otherwise there will be a deficit.”

Last year, the bishops reviewed the conference’s internal governance, especially the role of the permanent council and its executive committee, composed of the president, vice-president and two treasurers. One of the options considered was folding the executive committee into the permanent council. They opted to keep the two bodies but reduced slightly the number on the Permanent Council from about 16 members to about 14 members. The bishops also decided to keep the president’s term at two years instead of increasing it to three.

Conference President André Gaumond, archbishop of Sherbrooke, will wrap up his two-year term as president after chairing the October plenary. The next president will come from the English sector.  In recent years, the vice president has moved into the president’s slot.  If the pattern holds, Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber will become the next president.

For the first time, the bishops’ conference has invited an Imam to bring greetings to the gathering. In previous years, a guest from another Christian denomination has performed this role.

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