Challenges and opportunities facing Catholic Church focus of first day of annual Plenary Assembly of Canadian bishops

Screen capture image from the online media briefing on Salt and Light Media about the opening day of the 2020 CCCB Plenary Assembly with Salt and Light Producer Deacon Pedro Guevara Mann (left) and Calgary Bishop William McGratten (from

By Brian Dryden, Canadian Catholic News

[Ottawa – CCN] – The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a challenging learning experience for the Catholic Church in Canada, and that learning experience continued when the first-ever online Plenary Assembly of Canada’s bishops started Sept. 21 with the church’s leaders gathered in front of their computer screens.

“We are only meeting for two hours a day so we have to pack a lot of things into that,” Calgary Bishop William McGrattan said during a post assembly opening day briefing that was broadcast online by Salt & Light TV.

Bishop McGrattan said that while the “new normal” for the bishops having to gather online for this year’s plenary assembly can get confusing at times – especially when there are matters that require a vote – the bishops will adapt to the challenges of an online assembly during the weeklong virtual gathering that concludes Sept. 25.

“I expect it will go more smoothly as we proceed,” he said.

The decision to go online and not meet in person this year has changed what will be addressed at the assembly and the schedule is different than it has been in past years when there was a public aspect to the meeting.

The CCCB president’s report reviewing the past year has usually been one of the first presentations made at the assembly, but this year the report by CCCB president Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg will come later in the week. However, Gagnon did deliver the traditional “Message to the Holy Father” at the start of the assembly on Sept. 21.

“Holy Father, know that we will hold you in sincere prayer throughout this week as we meet in plenary. We humbly ask that you bestow your paternal and apostolic blessing upon our fraternal assembly and the work that lies before it,” stated the message. The CCCB president also laid out some of the key issues that will be discussed by the bishops at the plenary assembly.

“There are a number of different topics which will require our focused attention and communal prayer throughout the Plenary Assembly. Each affects the life of the Church in Canada and indeed all persons in this vast country,” Archbishop Gagnon said.

“The following topics, in particular, stand out: the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults; family and life-related matters; reconciliation and relationship-building with the Indigenous Peoples; formation for and within the presbyterate; charitable and development initiatives in the Global South through our national Caritas agency; the impact of the COVID-19 reality upon our faith communities and the different ways the latter are responding to new challenges; questions related to proposed federal legislation concerning ethical matters and Catholic social teaching,” he said.

“These topics, and many others, will occupy our time and prayer during this plenary meeting, where we gather as shepherds who strive to accompany our wounded world into the abundant life of Jesus Christ.”

The need to adapt the agenda of the plenary assembly to an online format means representatives of Catholic lay organizations who have attended the first day of the assembly when it has been held in person in Cornwall, ON, in recent years, will not be involved this year. As well, there will not be a keynote speaker at the 2020 Plenary Assembly.

The first day of the meeting did include a presentation by Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, the Apostolic Nuncio to Canada, who delivered greetings on behalf of Pope Francis.

Bishop McGrattan said Archbishop Bonazzi’s message about the how the pandemic and the disruptions it has caused in the ability of the church to engage with its flock has provided an opportunity for leaders in the church and parishioners as well to “reflect on what we are being called to.”

He said that message is being taken to heart by Canada’s bishops.

“It has offered some challenges, but also some opportunities,” Bishop McGrattan said, adding that how the Church in Canada has adjusted to the ongoing pandemic and what has worked and what hasn’t were key topics of discussion on the opening day of the assembly and will continue to be a focal point of the gathering until it concludes on Sept. 25.