VATICAN CITY — A group of senior American Roman Catholic bishops Saturday ended three days of closed-door talks with top Vatican officials concerning Pope John Paul II's forthcoming visit to the United States by joining the pontiff for a long Vatican lunch and a cheerful songfest.
Fears that the meetings might become confrontational because of longstanding differences between the Vatican and elements of the American Catholic Church proved to be groundless, according to representatives of the bishops who met with reporters after the song-punctuated luncheon.
All four active American cardinals and 14 archbishops representing all but one of the nine U.S. dioceses that the Pope will visit during his marathon Sept. 10-19 Sun Belt tour attended the sessions, two of them with John Paul and the rest with senior members of the Vatican Curia.
"The meetings went extremely well, and it was a wonderful songfest at the end," said Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles. He said that the pontiff, Vatican officials and the American bishops almost spontaneously broke into song after the lunch. The bishops concelebrated Mass with John Paul in his private chapel at the beginning of their sessions on Wednesday.
Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the sessions were a two-way exchange, with the Americans advising top figures in the Curia such as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the powerful and often controversial Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the American church scene, and the officials replying with the hopes and expectations of the Vatican concerning the papal visit.
May said both sides "expressed their appreciation of the atmosphere of mutual and congenial attention and understanding that marked the meeting."
In their meeting with reporters, Cardinals John Krol of Philadelphia and Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati and May, representing the U.S. Bishops Conference, played down questions concerning areas of conflict that many observers had expected would be raised in the closed-door sessions.
The idea for the face-to-face talks arose last November after the Bishops Conference, meeting in Washington, heard its outgoing president, Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, warn of "dangerous disaffection" between the Vatican and elements of the U.S. church.
"I think it is a mistake to concentrate on the negative things, . . . including what you call 'disaffection,' " Bernardin told the reporters. Although he conceded that he believed Malone's remarks were "right on the mark," Bernardin said it was more important to look at the positive side of the church and at its many members who are engaged in good works, not in controversies.
However, Bernardin acknowledged that the bishops did discuss the possibility that the Pope's visit could be marred by protests from dissenting groups within the church, such as homosexuals who were offended by a recent Vatican document condemning homosexuality as "intrinsically disordered" and homosexual acts as immoral.
"There was discussion concerning these matters, not directly to the Holy Father but to members of the Curia," Bernardin said. He added that he did not believe the turmoil such protests might arouse will impede the Pope as he proceeds on a long, tiring itinerary that will include Miami, Columbia, S.C., New Orleans, San Antonio, Tex., Phoenix, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Francisco and Detroit.
"The Holy Father is used to this. He has run into this in many places and he knows how to handle it," Bernardin said. "We don't see it as a very big problem. This is a sign that the church is vital, that it's alive."
Pilarczyk added, "When we speak of disunity in the church in the U.S. we are talking about differences of opinion. We are not talking about a church that's coming apart at the seams."
He said he does not believe John Paul would stir up more controversy by taking a hard stand in his speeches during the visit. "We do not expect the Holy Father to come and say there are X number of things wrong with the church in your country and here is what you've got to do to set them right. It doesn't work that way," Pilarczyk said.
The general theme of the pastoral visit will be "unity in the work of service, building up the body of Christ."
In addition to Cardinals Krol and Bernardin, Cardinals Bernard Law of Boston and John J. O'Connor of New York took part in the discussions, along with Archbishops Edward A. McCarthy of Miami, Philip M. Hannan of New Orleans, Patrick F. Flores of San Antonio, Thomas J. O'Brien of Phoenix, Mahony, John R. Quinn of San Francisco, Edmund C. Szoka of Detroit and Bishop Thaddeus A. Shubsda of Monterey. Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler of Charleston, S.C., was reportedly ill and unable to make the trip to Rome.