Blog di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA – Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa MISSIONARY ONGOING FORMATION – A missionary look on the life of the world and the church
Bishops must not use “harsh and divisive language” and must not limit themselves to “preaching and proclaiming to those without”, because they need to “find room in people’s hearts” without ever “making of the cross a banner of worldly struggles”. The speech Pope Francis addressed to bishops of the United States at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington is one of the most significant addresses of his entire trip – a mini encyclical almost, dedicated to the American Church, that aims to do away with the “culture warrior” model of bishops who are only engaged in certain battles.
“It is not my intention to offer a plan or to devise a strategy. I have not come to judge you or to lecture you.” I speak to you as “a brother among brothers”, Francis said. “The heart of the Pope expands to include everyone.” “May no member of Christ’s Body and the American people feel excluded from the Pope’s embrace … may the Pope be not simply a name but a felt presence.”
“Whenever a hand reaches out to do good or to show the love of Christ, to dry a tear or bring comfort to the lonely, to show the way to one who is lost or to console a broken heart, to help the fallen or to teach those thirsting for truth, to forgive or to offer a new start in God… know that the Pope is at your side and supports you. He puts his hand on your own, a hand wrinkled with age, but by God’s grace still able to support and encourage.”
Francis “heartily” thanked US bishops for their “generous solidarity with the Apostolic See and the support you give to the spread of the Gospel in many suffering areas of our world”. “I appreciate,” he added, “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. I am well aware of the immense efforts you have made to welcome and integrate those immigrants who continue to look to America.”
A paragraph of the speech was dedicated to the child abuse scandal which remains an open wound. “I am also conscious of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the Church in this country 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. I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you and I have supported your 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.”
Francis spoke to his fellow North American brothers as the “Bishop of Rome, called by God in old age, and from a land which is also American” and confided that he did not feel like a “stranger” among them. He pointed out that it is not his intention to lecture bishops but rather to “turn again to the demanding task – ancient yet never new – of seeking out the paths we need to take.” He explained that “our greatest joy is to be shepherds, and only shepherds”. Not, therefore, men who are perennially at war with someone. “The heart of our identity is to be sought in constant prayer, in preaching and in shepherding the flock entrusted to our care.” A bishops’ task “is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake”.
Bishops must 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”. “Who also watch over ourselves, so as to flee the temptation of narcissism, which blinds the eyes of the shepherd, makes his voice unrecognizable and his actions fruitless.” While is it “certainly” “helpful for a bishop to have the farsightedness of a leader and the shrewdness of an administrator, but we fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us”.
“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.” “So we cannot let ourselves be paralyzed by fear. I know that you face many challenges, that the field in which you sow is unyielding and 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.”
The Pope points to the path of meekness and dialogue with everyone: “The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. 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.”
If bishops do not “set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue,” “we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has 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.”
“We need to learn from Jesus, or better to learn Jesus, meek and humble” and “to lead our Churches and our people – not infrequently burdened by the stress of everyday life – to the ease of the Lord’s yoke”. Division is everywhere, consequently “the Church cannot allow herself to be rent, broken or fought over”: a bishop’s mission “is first and foremost to solidify unity”.
Francis came up with a list of essential issues: “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 … It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent.” Abortion, same-sex marriages and euthanasia are not all; there is much more to men and women’s lives in between conception and death.
These are all “essential aspects of the Church’s mission”, which “nee[d] to be preached and proclaimed to those without” whilst “find[ing] room in people’s hearts and in the conscience of society”. That is to say that one does not evangelise with aggressive proclamations and battles but by being close to people and having the capacity to speak to everyone’s hearts. “To this end,” Francis added, “it is important that the Church in the United States also be a humble home, a family fire which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love”.
“Be pastors close to people, pastors who are neighbours and servants,” Francis urged bishops. “Find ways to encourage their spiritual growth, lest they yield to the temptation to become notaries and bureaucrats, but instead reflect the motherhood of the Church, which gives birth to and raises her sons and daughters.”
The Pope concluded his speech with a recommendation and a word of encouragement regarding hospitality for immigrants. “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. Even today, no American institution does more for immigrants than your Christian communities. Now you are facing this stream of Latin immigration which affects many of your dioceses. Not only as the Bishop of Rome, but also as a pastor from the South, I feel the need to thank and encourage you.”
In his mini-encyclical, Francis does not ask for doctrinal changes. He asks bishops to go directly to the heart of the Gospel and to be humble and open, able to engage in dialogue and evangelise, caring for the wounds of all. The Pope’s speech to bishops is not a social responsibility manifesto but a reminder of what is really essential. Today may mark the start of a new chapter in the history of the US Church.