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The Kind of Church Pope Francis Wants in the US

Toni L. Sandys/Pool via AP

Pope Francis greets U.S. Catholic Bishops as they approach the alter during a midday prayer service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (Toni L. Sandys/Pool via AP)

John Burger - published on 09/24/15

In Washington meeting, Bishop of Rome advises his brother bishops on shepherding

What kind of Catholic Church will we have in the United States in the wake of Pope Francis?

If the Pope’s words on Wednesday mean anything to the nearly 450 bishops in the US, it will be one in which all voices can be heard and all who are suffering from the cold of loneliness, loss and despair will be welcomed in to sit by “the family fire.”

In a tender and reflective speech on his first full day in the US, the Bishop of Rome called on his brother bishops to foster a “culture of encounter.”

Their ministry, he said, is “not about preaching complicated doctrine,” but in “proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake.”

Just hours after being welcomed to the White House by President Obama, the Pope was greeted ecstatically by well-wishers lining the streets of Washington and warmly by cardinals, archbishops, bishops and lay persons gathered in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The Pontiff’s address to the bishops came in the midst of a morning prayer service.

Much of the success of evangelization in a local Church, or diocese, he told bishops, depends on their relationship to Christ.

“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,” the Pope said.

The Pope counseled the bishops to be men of dialogue, not only among themselves as Church leaders, but with their priests and laity, and with society as well.

In entering into dialogue, however, they need to fully respect the person on the other side as a person.

“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,” he said. “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, 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.”

He cautioned strongly against the use of any “harsh and divisive language,” which “does not befit the tongue of a pastor.”

“Only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing,” he said.

He reminded the shepherds that they are called to feed their flocks. As such, it is important to preserve in themselves a sense of joy because the constant cares of life can be a way for the Devil to wear them down.

Christ’s command to His disciples, “Take my yoke upon you, … and you will find refreshment for your souls,” is a yoke of love “and thus a pledge of refreshment,” he reminded the bishops.

At times in our work we can be burdened by a sense of loneliness, and so feel the heaviness of the yoke that we forget that we have received it from the Lord. It seems to be ours alone, and so we drag it like weary oxen working a dry field, troubled by the thought that we are laboring in vain. We can forget the profound refreshment which is indissolubly linked to the One who has made us the promise.

The Pope counseled against internal division in the Church, as She must reach out to a world that is “already so torn and divided.” Rather, it is up to bishops to “solidify unity” by following the Gospel and receiving the Eucharist.

To this end, it is important that the Church in the United States also be a humble home, a family hearth which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love. As pastors, we know well how much darkness and cold there is in this world; we know the loneliness and the neglect experienced by many people, even amid great resources of communication and material wealth. We see their fear in the face of life, their despair and the many forms of escapism to which it gives rise.

Consequently, 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. The risen Lord continues to challenge the Church’s pastors through the quiet plea of so many of our brothers and sisters: “Have you something to eat?” We need to recognize the Lord’s voice, as the apostles did on the shore of the lake of Tiberias (Jn 21:4-12). It becomes even more urgent to grow in the certainty that the embers of his presence, kindled in the fire of his passion, precede us and will never die out. Whenever this certainty weakens, we end up being caretakers of ash, and not guardians and dispensers of the true light and the warmth which causes our hearts to burn within us (Lk 24:32).

The Pope advised his listeners to be close to people, to be neighbors and servants.

“Let this closeness be expressed in a special way towards your priests,” he said. “Support them, so that they can continue to serve Christ with an undivided heart, for this alone can bring fulfillment to ministers of Christ. I urge you, then, not to 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, but instead reflect the motherhood of the Church, which gives birth to and raises her sons and daughters.

Be vigilant lest they tire of getting up to answer those who knock on their door by night, just when they feel entitled to rest (Lk 11:5-8). Train them to be ready to stop, care for, soothe, lift up and assist those who, “by chance” find themselves stripped of all they thought they had (Lk 10:29-37).

In a reference to the clergy sexual abuse scandal of the past 20 years, the Pope said he is “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.”

“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,” he said.

The Pope concluded with an appeal to the pastors of the Church to welcome new immigrants, particularly those from Latin American countries.

“Now you are facing this stream of Latin immigration which affects many of your dioceses,” said the Argentinean-born Pontiff. “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.”

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Pope Francis USA
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