The Catholic Bishops of the dioceses of the United States meet this week in Baltimore, from Nov. 12 - 15. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops traces its origins to 1917, when the United States entered the First World War. The Catholic bishops then formed the National Catholic War Council (NCWC), and its purpose was to help the dioceses work together to raise money and commit people to provide spiritual care and recreation for serviceman. At that time, the patriotism of Catholics, especially that of immigrants from Ireland and Germany, was suspect, even by the U.S. government. The NCWC was the Church’s response. After the war, Pope Benedict XV asked the bishops of the world to work in their respective countries to help create just conditions of work and life in order to prevent another war. In 1919, the U.S. Bishops changed the name of their organization to the National Catholic Welfare Council (still NCWC) and set up the first Administrative Committee of seven bishops to handle the Council’s business between the meetings of all the bishops. The headquarters were established in Washington, D.C. In 1922, the bishops of the United States again changed the name of their organization while keeping the same initials: the National Catholic Welfare Conference. They set up standing committees concerned with education, immigration and social action. In 1966, the bishops changed their conference yet again, because the Second Vatican Council had told bishops to “jointly exercise their pastoral office” (Christus Dominus, 38). The response was two organizations: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, to address jointly internal concerns of the Church, and the United States Catholic Conference, to address jointly those activities and issues that concern the Church as part of the larger society. In 2001, in response to a change in Canon law, these two organizations were combined into the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). What does this organizational history have to do with the lives of Catholics? Sometimes quite a bit, although usually somewhat indirectly. The Church was born as a community of believers led by the apostles, who preached the Gospel, celebrated the sacraments and set up governance structures to direct and shepherd the followers of Jesus. In order to direct and shepherd effectively, pastoral institutions were gradually created: parishes, where Christians could be pastored by priests; and synods or councils, where bishops could come together to decide jointly on pastoral practices. Neither parishes nor bishops’ conferences are of divine origin; the Church could exist without them, but both have proven pastorally useful. The actions of the USCCB that have some impact on the lives of Catholics are the publication of documents of various kinds and the decisions about liturgy and ministerial practices that keep the Church united in her worship and life in our country. Bishops automatically belong to the Conference by reason of their being sent to pastor a diocese in the United States. The Conference is not a parliament, because the Church is not a country. The Church is a communion, a network of relationships created by sharing the gifts of Jesus Christ. The bishops’ coming together in Conference makes that sharing easier. What will happen at the meeting this week in Baltimore? Another reorganization! A couple of years ago, the bishops decided to make the Conference more useful to the mission given the Church by identifying the major challenges to that mission in our country now. They recognized five concerns that must be addressed together to increase pastoral effectiveness today: 1) strengthening marriage and family life; 2) addressing cultural diversity, with a special emphasis on meeting the needs of Hispanic Catholics; 3) handing on the faith, especially through catechesis and sacramental practice; 4) protecting the life and dignity of the human person; 5) encouraging vocations to ordained priesthood and consecrated life. The Conference has been streamlined in order to meet these challenges, while continuing to provide those services that each diocese cannot provide without help. The Conference staff will be smaller, the number of committees cut almost in half, and the diocesan subsidies to the Conference reduced. In all this, the Conference somewhat resembles a diocesan curia, the pastoral center in each diocese. The major difference between Conference structures and diocesan structures lies in the fact that a diocese has its own pastor who directs the mission and ministries of the diocese; but there is no pastor of the United States, no bishop of the whole country. There is only a president of the Conference, elected with other officers for a term of three years to carry out the policies decided upon by the bishops in Conference. There will be election of officers in Baltimore, and the reorganization of the Conference will be voted on. The bishops will also discuss and probably pass a few documents, the most important being the update of Faithful Citizenship. Every four years, the U.S. bishops issue a letter written to help Catholics form their consciences according to Catholic moral and social teachings before they vote for candidates for national office. Every four years, the document, always called Faithful Citizenship, becomes almost as much a subject of contention as the national political process itself. Please pray for the U.S. bishops during our meeting. We will most certainly be praying for the Catholics in our country and for the country itself and all its citizens. May God be good to us all.