Vatican City, 24 September 2015 (VIS) – The challenges of a nation whose vast resources require not insignificant moral responsibility in a world seeking new equilibria of peace, prosperity and integration, the importance of never again repeating past “crimes” against victims of abuse, the need for dialogue instead of hard and bellicose language, and the defence of the excluded, migrants and the environment were some of the themes that Pope Francis considered yesterday in the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington D.C., during his meeting with the episcopate of the United States. The following are extensive extracts from his address.
“My first word to you is one of thanksgiving to God for the power of the Gospel which has brought about remarkable growth of Christ’s Church in these lands and enabled its generous contribution, past and present, to American society and to the world. … I appreciate 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, like so many others before them, in the hope of enjoying its blessings of freedom and prosperity. I also appreciate the efforts which you are making to fulfil the Church’s mission of education in schools at every level and in the charitable services offered by your numerous institutions. These works are often carried out without appreciation or support, often with heroic sacrifice, out of obedience to a divine mandate which we may not disobey. 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 realise 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.
“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. … I too know how hard it is to sow the Gospel among people from different worlds, with hearts often hardened by the trials of a lengthy journey. Nor am I unaware of the efforts made over the years to build up the Church amid the prairies, mountains, cities and suburbs of a frequently inhospitable land, where frontiers are always provisional and easy answers do not always work. What does work is the combination of the epic struggle of the pioneers and the homely wisdom and endurance of the settlers”.
“It is not my intention to offer a plan or to devise a strategy. ... I have no wish to tell you what to do, because we all know what it is that the Lord asks of us. Instead, I 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. … We are bishops of the Church, shepherds appointed by God to feed his flock. Our greatest joy is to be shepherds, and only shepherds, pastors with undivided hearts and selfless devotion. … The heart of our identity is to be sought in constant prayer, in preaching and in shepherding the flock entrusted to our care”.
“Ours must not be just any kind of prayer, but familiar union with Christ, in which we daily encounter His gaze and sense that He is asking us the question: 'Who is My mother? Who are My brothers?'. One in which we can calmly reply: 'Lord, here is Your mother, here are Your brothers! I hand them over to You; they are the ones whom You entrusted to me'”.
“Such trusting union with Christ is what nourishes the life of a pastor. It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ Who died and rose for our sake. The 'style' of our mission should make our hearers feel that the message we preach is meant 'for us'. … May the closeness of the shepherd make them them long once again for the Father’s embrace. Be vigilant that the flock may always encounter in the heart of their pastor that 'taste of eternity' which they seek in vain in the things of this world”.
“Shepherds who do not pasture themselves but are able to step back, away from the centre, to 'decrease', in order to feed God’s family with Christ. Who keep constant watch, standing on the heights to look out with God’s eyes on the flock which is His alone. … 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 unrecognisable and his actions fruitless”.
“Certainly it is 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. 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 realise that the price of lasting victory is allowing ourselves to be wounded and consumed. … I know that you face many challenges, and 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. 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. … I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. ... 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 realise 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 … remember that Jesus’ Church is kept whole not by 'consuming fire from heaven', but by the secret warmth of the Spirit, Who 'heals what is wounded, bends what is rigid, straightens what is crooked'”.
“The great mission which the Lord gives us is one which we carry out in communion, collegially. The world is already so torn and divided, brokenness is now everywhere. Consequently, the Church, 'the seamless garment of the Lord' cannot allow herself to be rent, broken or fought over. … It is imperative, therefore, 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. … 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. ... I encourage you, then, my brothers, to confront the challenging issues of our time. Ever present within each of them is life as gift and responsibility. The future freedom and dignity of our societies depends on how we face these challenges”.
“The innocent victims 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”.
“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. To this end, 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. … Only a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others. And not any fire, but the one which blazed forth on Easter morn”.
“Before concluding, allow me to offer two recommendations which are close to my heart. The first refers to your fatherhood as bishops. Be pastors close to people, pastors who are neighbours and servants. Let this closeness be expressed in a special way towards your priests. … 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”.
“My second recommendation has to do with immigrants. I ask you to excuse me if in some way I am pleading my own case. 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. 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. Perhaps it will not be easy for you to look into their soul; perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity. 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”.