In the longest speech of his trip so far, Pope Francis on Wednesday praised U.S. bishops for their commitment to defending life, their handling of the clerical abuse crisis, and their welcome of immigrants, while urging them not to be afraid to do more.
In his Sept. 23 address to the bishops of the United States, Pope Francis asked to be excused “if in some way I am pleading my own case,” and brought up immigration as a key challenge of current times.
Right now the United States is “facing this stream of Latin immigration which affects many of your dioceses,” he said, and thanking the bishops for what they have already done to welcome migrants “who continue to look to America, like so many others before them, in the hope of enjoying its blessings of freedom and prosperity.”
“The Church in the United States knows like few others the hopes present in the hearts of these ‘pilgrims’.”
“From the beginning you have learned their languages, promoted their cause, made their contributions your own, defended their rights, helped them to prosper, and kept alive the flame of their faith,” he said.
However, he also noted the challenges presented by such a large influx of diverse peoples, and recognized that it’s not always easy to look beyond differences into the soul of the person.
“But know that they also possess resources meant to be shared. So do not be afraid to welcome them. Offer them the warmth of the love of Christ and you will unlock the mystery of their heart. I am certain that, as so often in the past, these people will enrich America and its Church.”
Pope Francis made his comments to the more than 400 U.S. bishops gathered in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on his first full day in the United States, following the celebration of Daytime Prayer.
Following the liturgical celebration he was greeted by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who said that “as a nation founded by immigrants seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity, we have a special responsibility to ensure the promise of one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all remains an American dream accessible to everyone.”
Archbishop Kurtz, who is also president of the US bishops’ conference, added that “true to to our heritage, we seek to spread the Good News so that each human life is cherished and given an opportunity to flourish.”
The Pope delivered his speech in Italian, and began it by greeting the Jewish community in the United States, noting that today marks the observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of a Atonement and the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
In his speech the Pope stressed his closeness to the pastors of the United States, and praised “the unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family, which is the primary reason for my present visit.”
He also gave a shout-out to the Church in the United States for her commitment to integrating immigrants into American society, as well as her emphasis on education and charity.
Francis also acknowledged the courage with which the Church in the U.S. has faced the difficulties arising from the clerical sex abuse crisis “without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice.”
“Nor have you been afraid to divest whatever is unessential in order to regain the authority and trust which is demanded of ministers of Christ and rightly expected by the faithful.”
With the pain and heaviness of the crisis in mind, the Pope offered his support for the Church’s “generous commitment to bring healing to victims – in the knowledge that in healing we too are healed – and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.”
Pope Francis offered the bishops his own reflections on being a pastor, saying, “I speak to you as the Bishop of Rome, called by God in old age, and from a land which is also American, to watch over the unity of the universal Church and to encourage in charity the journey of all the particular Churches toward ever greater knowledge, faith and love of Christ.”
He said his intention is not to offer a specific strategy, or to judge or to lecture, but to speak to them “as a brother among brothers.” He added, “would turn once again to the demanding task – ancient yet never new – of seeking out the paths we need to take and the spirit with which we need to work. Without claiming to be exhaustive, I would share with you some reflections which I consider helpful for our mission.”
He emphasized the need to remember the joy of being shepherds, as well as that of a personal encounter with Christ in prayer.
“It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake,” he said, explaining that the style of one’s preaching should always reach listeners on a personal level.
Francis urged the bishops to remember to be “shepherds who do not lower our gaze, concerned only with our concerns, but raise it constantly toward the horizons which God opens before us and which surpass all that we ourselves can foresee or plan.”
While affirming that “it is helpful for a bishop to have the farsightedness of a leader and the shrewdness of an administrator,” he added that “we fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us. Bishops need to be lucidly aware of the battle between light and darkness being fought in this world. Woe to us, however, if we make of the cross a banner of worldly struggles and fail to realize that the price of lasting victory is allowing ourselves to be wounded and consumed.”
Pope Francis also pointed to the importance of dialogue, saying it needs to happen at all levels, including among themselves, and with their priests, and with lay persons, families, and society.
“I know … that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition. And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty. We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response. Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love.”
The Pope said, “I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that exodus which is necessary for all authentic dialogue.”
“Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem … counts more than their positions.”
Language was also touched on by the Pope, who stressed that “harsh and divisive” words don’t befit a true pastor, and have “no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”
He also spoke on the importance of being humble and of fostering collegiality among themselves. In a divided and broken world, the Church can’t allow herself to be “to be rent, broken or fought over.”
“Our mission as bishops is first and foremost to solidify unity, a unity whose content is defined by the Word of God and the one Bread of Heaven,” he reminded them. “With these two realities each of the Churches entrusted to us remains Catholic, because open to, and in communion with, all the particular Churches and with the Church of Rome which ‘presides in charity’.”
He added that it is therefore imperative “to watch over that unity, to safeguard it, to promote it and to bear witness to it as a sign and instrument which, beyond every barrier, unites nations, races, classes and generations.”
Their service to unity is particularly important for the United States, he said, because its “vast material and spiritual, cultural and political, historical and human, scientific and technological resources impose significant moral responsibilities in a world which is seeking, confusedly and laboriously, new balances of peace, prosperity and integration.”
Pope Francis then encouraged the bishops to face the current challenges of our time with courage.
“The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who
drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature – at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards,” he said.
“It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent. No less important is the Gospel of the Family, which in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia I will emphatically proclaim together with you and the entire Church.”
He reminded the bishops that “these essential aspects of the Church’s mission belong to the core of what we have received from the Lord. It is our duty to preserve and communicate them, even when the tenor of the times becomes resistant and even hostile to that message. I urge you to offer this witness, with the means and creativity born of love, and with the humility of truth. It needs to be preached and proclaimed to those without, but also to find room in people’s hearts and in the conscience of society.”
In light of the loneliness, neglect, fear and despair which are manifested in various methods of escapism, even amid material wealth, “only a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others,” Francis observed.
Pope Francis concluded by giving two final recommendations to the bishops: to welcome immigrants and to always be pastors who are close to their people, especially to their priests.
Support them, but do not let them “be content with half-measures … Find ways to encourage their spiritual growth, lest they yield to the temptation to become notaries and bureaucrats” instead of reflecting the motherhood of the Church.
“May God bless you and Our Lady watch over you!”