Bishop Howard J. Hubbard isn't sure what to expect when he sits down with Pope Benedict XVI this fall to parley about the Church in the Capital District, but he isn't nervous about the discussion.
Having met Pope Benedict when the future pontiff was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Bishop Hubbard recalled that "he wanted to hear what was on your mind and understand better. He was always the one you looked forward to meeting the most."
It's been seven years since the bishops of New York State last visited Rome to present reports on the status of their dioceses, also known as "quinquennial reports."
All the bishops of the world previously reported to Rome every five years for "ad limina" visits, but Blessed Pope John Paul II's poor health, his death and the election of a new pope froze the process.
This will be Bishop Hubbard's seventh visit - and probably his last, as he will reach retirement age before the next quinquennial report is due.
The Bishop has heard that Pope Benedict XVI, unlike previous popes, will be prepared with specific questions about individual dioceses instead of general queries about the Church in the U.S.
After six months of collaboration with dozens of diocesan department heads and, for the first time, lay leaders, the Albany Diocese shipped the quinquennial report to Rome in early June.
The massive report, when assembled, filled an entire office at the Pastoral Center in Albany. When it arrives in Rome, different sections will be read by Vatican offices dealing with those ministries.
It was the most thorough report to date, Bishop Hubbard said. Since 2004, the Diocese has dealt with:
waves of the clergy sexual abuse crisis;
a decline in vocations, Catholic schools and the local Catholic population;
a decline in the overall population in the Diocese's cities;
an increase in requests for Catholic Charities assistance by people in need; and
a lengthy pastoral planning process that ended in the closure or merger of dozens of parishes.
Bishop Hubbard said he is proud of the way the "Called to be Church" pastoral planning process played out, noting that there was only one canonical challenge over a Tridentine Mass in Troy and there were no protests over the mergers.
"It was such a participatory process," he said. "It went as best as it could go when there's so much attachment to one's spiritual home."
During Called to be Church, more than 1,400 laypeople acted as facilitators, participants in local planning groups and advisors to the Bishop. The quinquennial report shows that laity have emerged as leaders in parishes and Catholic organizations in recent years.
Though there are 25,000 fewer registered Catholics in the Diocese since the last quinquennial report was filed, almost 3,000 laypeople work in area parishes, college campuses, Catholic Charities organizations, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and Catholic schools.
More than 4,000 laity volunteer as catechists; 21 serve as parish life directors. Almost 300 people participated in lay ministry formation programs.
This makes up for the 42 fewer priests, 221 fewer women religious, 11 fewer men religious and 38 fewer religious order priests since the last quinquennial report.
List of concerns
Still, Bishop Hubbard has his concerns:
The number of lapsed Catholics or those who have converted to other faiths has grown. The Diocese intends to address this with the three-year "Amazing God" evangelization effort currently underway, and with a revised communications strategy.
"I think we have to do more to tell our story," Bishop Hubbard told The Evangelist. "The people of our Diocese are very generous, but we kind of take that for granted and don't really tell people - not to toot our own horn, but to help people see the good that we do in the name of the Church."
There is increased secularization, individualism, consumerism and narcissism in society, all of which make pastoral counseling difficult.
As noted in the quinquennial report: "If it is inconvenient, then it is all right to change the rules. Where abortion was considered a grave evil in the past, it is now the law of the land. One of the reasons behind this relativism is the fact that our society is so fast-paced that what is relevant today becomes obsolete tomorrow."
The economy in upstate New York never fully recovered from the downturn in the 1970s, when industrial factories closed.
"When young people graduate," Bishop Hubbard said, "there are no job opportunities for them, and so our communities are losing population."
Every city in the Diocese except Saratoga Springs, he said, has lost 35 percent of its population during his time as bishop.
The clergy sexual abuse crisis "has eroded our moral authority and our advocacy efforts on behalf of social justice," Bishop Hubbard said. But "I want the pope to know that there's going to be a lot of healing."
The quinquennial report includes details on the Diocese's safe environment program, background checks, screening programs and money spent on counseling and therapy for victims.
Bishop Hubbard also chose to include reports from the 2004 independent investigation that cleared him of allegations of sexual misconduct.
"I wanted to demonstrate that it's not only the priests that have been accused," he explained. "I wanted to be candid about the matter."
Government cuts to social service programs are placing more burdens on Catholic Charities agencies and parishes.
Twelve new Catholic Charities institutions sprang up in the last seven years. Although not ideal, Bishop Hubbard says this could prove a successful advertising tool for the Church.
"Integral human development is a form of evangelization every bit as important as the Gospel message. It shows where the priorities of the disciples of Jesus lie," he remarked.
The first day of the trip to Rome will fall on Thanksgiving, when Bishop Hubbard usually says Mass in the Diocese and spends time with family.
"You'd like to be in your Diocese at Thanksgiving," he admitted. "I'll miss that. On the other hand, the Holy Father's got the whole world to attend to."