“We must be promoters of the culture of encounter” and “dialogue is our method.” Pope Francis said this to the Catholic bishops of the United States when he addressed them in Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington on his first full day in the United States.
“The path ahead is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society,” he stated.
“Do not be afraid to set out on that ‘exodus’ which is necessary for all authentic dialogue,” he told them. “Otherwise we fail to understand the thinking of other, 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.”
Pope Francis is well aware that for more than a decade now many U.S. bishops, as well as the U.S. Conference of Bishops, engaged in “the culture wars” but, as he made clear in his homily, he believes that dialogue, not confrontation, is the way ahead for the Catholic Church in the United States in the 21st century if it wishes to attract people to Jesus.
Francis had much to say to the bishops, he had written a long speech—more that four pages, and so decided to speak in Italian since many of them know that language having studied in Rome. But, to ensure everyone could follow his talk, each one was provided with earphones and could hear it in an English translation.
During his incisive and inspiring talk, Francis laid out the credential with which he spoke.
“I come to you as the Bishop of Rome, called by God in old age, from a land which is also American, to watch over the unity of the Church and to encourage in charity the journey of all the particular Churches toward ever greater knowledge, faith and love of Christ,” he told the bishops.
“I do not speak to you with my voice alone, but in continuity with the words of my predecessors,” he said and recalled that three popes had visited the United States “and left behind a remarkable legacy of teaching.”
He told the bishops that he was “conscious of the devotion which you have always shown for the Successor of Peter” from the birth of this nation, and recalled that “the Church of Rome has always been close to you.”
Some commentators had suggested that Francis was coming to the United States to slap the bishops on the wrists, to rebuke them and the Congress, but that is not Francis style or way. “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 have no wish to tell you what to do, because we all know what it is that the Lord wants of us.”
Instead, he said, “I would like to share with you some reflections which I consider helpful for our ministry.” The central reflection related to promoting encounter and dialogue, as mentioned above, but there were others.
Speaking as one who was bishop for 21 years in Buenos Aires, and pope for the past two and a half years, he said, “certainly it is helpful for a bishop to have the farsightedness of a leader and the shrewdness of an administrator, but—he warned—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,” Francis said. He frequently refers to the Devil or the forces of evil and in his talk he warned them too saying, “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.”
Furthermore, he said, “harsh and divisive does not benefit 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.” In fact, “we need to learn from Jesus,” he added.
Francis reminded them that “the great mission which the Lord gives us is one which we carry forward in communion, collegially.” He noted that “the world is already so torn and divided, brokenness is now everywhere” and “consequently the Church… cannot allow herself to be rent, broken or fought over.”
As bishops, he said, “our mission is first and foremost to solidify unit, a unity whose content is defined by the Word of God and the one Bread of Heaven.” He affirmed 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.”
Pope Francis told them that “this service to unity is particularly important for this nation, whose 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. It is an essential part of your mission to offer to the United States of America the humble yet powerful leaven of communion.”
“This kind of witness—he said—is a beacon whose light can reassure men and women sailing through the dark clouds of life that a sure haven awaits them, that they will not crash on the reefs or be overwhelmed by the waves.”
He encouraged them “to confront the challenging issues of our time. Ever present within each of them is life as gift and responsibility” and said, “the future freedom and dignity of our societies depends on how we face these challenges.”
He mentioned some of those challenges, saying, “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 but not masters. 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.”
Francis insisted 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”
He urged them 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.”
With this goal in mind, the pope said, “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.” Consequently, he said, “only a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others.”
There were 292 diocesan bishops in the cathedral, together with the archbishops and cardinals. They applauded warmly when he entered the cathedral, accompanied by Cardinal Donal Wuerl, after the grand state welcome given to him by President Obama at the White House earlier that morning.
After praying in silence for a few minutes in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, the pope presided at the sung noonday prayer. The choir sung powerfully and magnificently, and afterwards a great silence descended on the assembly.
Francis then went to the lectern in front of the altar and began by telling them that “The heart of the Pope expands to include everyone. To testify to the immensity of God’s love is the heart of the mission entrusted to the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of the One who on the cross embraced the whole of mankind.”
Nobody should “feel excluded from the Pope’s embrace,” he said. “From your great coastal cities to the plains of the Midwest, from the deep South to the far reaches of the West, wherever your people gather in the Eucharistic assembly, may the Pope be not simply a name but a felt presence, sustaining the fervent plea of the Bride: ‘Come, Lord!’”
The bishops applauded Francis three times during his long talk. They applauded first when he told them that whenever they reached out “to do good or show the love of Christ, to dry a tear…, know that the Pope is at your side and supports you.”
They applauded again when he told them that he was aware of “the immense efforts” the church in the United States has made and is making “to welcome and integrate those immigrants who continue to look to America, like so many before them, in the hope of in the hope of enjoying its blessings of prosperity and freedom.”
He receive a third very strong applause when told the bishops that he was “conscious of the courage with which you 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.” He recalled that they “have not 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.” He said he “realized how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you,” and told them, “I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims” and “to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.”
Pope Francis concluded his talk with two specific recommendations which, he said, “are close to my heart.” He urged the bishops “to be pastors close to people, pastors who are neighbors and servants” and to be close especially to their priests. His second recommendation related to the immigrants from South America. He thanked the US Church for all it has done for them, and encouraged them “do not be afraid to welcome them”, and “offer the warmth of the love of Christ and you will unlock the mystery of their heart.” He told them, “I am certain that, as so often in the past, these people will enrich America and its Church.”
All the bishops spontaneously got to their feet and applauded energetically when Pope Francis finished speaking. They applauded for some minutes, clearly in appreciation of the great but challenging talk that he had delivered to the American church.