By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Inside a hardware store in Grinnell, planning to buy a light switch, Father Steve Witt answered a phone call from Bishop Martin Amos. The bishop wanted Fr. Witt, administrator of St. Mary Parish, Iowa City, to serve as a regional observer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore. Two other priests serving on the Davenport Diocese’s Presbyteral Council had been asked to go but were unable to attend. Fr. Witt, who serves as the council’s treasurer, quipped that the bishop told him: “You’re going!”
Fr. Witt is glad he did. “It was interesting. The bishops tangle with some pretty tough issues. I have to say we should be pretty proud of our guy. He’s good. They took on the whole family issue, such as how to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage.” Their response: they’ll develop a pastoral plan on marriage and family life.
The bishops approved a formal statement on pornography and a new introduction to their “Faithful Citizenship” document. Discussions were contentious, Fr. Witt said. “But unlike our civil forum where people call each other names, these guys got a little edgy, but were always polite. It was good, I was very impressed.”
The bishops also took up the causes of several candidates for sainthood and drafted a letter expressing support for resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. The bishops “did a lot of things in a few days,” the priest said.
Fr. Witt especially appreciated the sense of comradery at the conference and described Mass on the first night at the old cathedral in Baltimore as “beautiful.” He enjoyed traveling with Bishop Amos to the conference and “discussing what was going to happen before it happened.” Fr. Witt drove back to the airport with Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia. “All of the bishops and cardinals were friendly. I knew a lot of them by reputation. Cardinal Tim Dolan was there. He always remembers names. I met him in Milwaukee. And the whole Iowa contingent of bishops was wonderful, the priest said.
One of 22 observers at the conference, Fr. Witt represented the 17 dioceses of the four-state Region IX – Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. Bishops from each of the states take turns selecting observers to represent the region. Observers sat to the left of the dais while bishops and cardinals sat in the center of the fourth-floor ballroom of the East Harper Marriott in Baltimore.
During regional meetings, “They talked about things I’m interested in as part of the Newman Catholic Student Center (in Iowa City). Topics included how to minster to young adults and the difference between young adult ministry and youth ministry,” Fr. Witt said. “Obviously, there’s a difference between high school kids and the millennials. In all honesty these folks have different needs and we have to have different approaches.”
Asked what he took away from the conference, Fr. Witt jokingly said “a lot of shampoo.” In all seriousness, the conference was “an experience to witness.” Compared to legislative sessions he’s sat through in secular government, “none have the same collegiality as this. People went out of their way to be friendly to each other and they faced the concerns of the church with heartfelt consistency.”