Posted September 23, 2015
Francis tells US bishops to be 'promoters of the culture of encounter'
Joshua J. McElwee
Francis in the United States
Francis has earnestly outlined exactly what he wants from the U.S. Catholic
bishops, telling them Wednesday that they should seek to be shepherds who never
shy away from dialogue, do not fight with one another, and always seek out
opportunities for encounter.
In a prayer service with hundreds of American
bishops at Washington's Cathedral of St Matthew, the pope described the way of
the shepherd to his episcopal brethren with compelling and moving language and
Most of all, the pontiff told the U.S. bishops that they should not
close in on themselves but seek to go out and be at service to dialogue and
"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," Francis said.
"Yet we are promoters of the culture of
encounter," he continued. "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," said the pope.
This was Francis' second public address Wednesday
during his six-day visit to the U.S., having met President Barack Obama at the
White House earlier in the morning.
Anticipation for each of the pontiff's
meetings in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia has been extraordinarily
high, with much focus placed on what the pope might say regarding a number of
With the bishops Wednesday, Francis did not refrain from
speaking at length and in an in-depth manner. In a 42-minute address, the pope
gave a wide overview of how he sees a bishop's role and spoke in poignant
language about his own connection as a native Latin American to the U.S.
The pope told the bishops he did not want to specifically direct
them in what they should be doing, but wanted to offer "some reflections" for
their work in different places around the country.
"It is not my intention to
offer a plan or to devise a strategy," said Francis. "I have not come to judge
you or to lecture you."
Instead, the pope said, he wanted "to speak to you as
a brother among brothers."
Beginning to outline his reflections for the
bishops, Francis said that as shepherds "our greatest joy is to be shepherds,
and only shepherds -- pastors with undivided hearts and selfless
"It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully
proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake," Francis said. "The 'style'
of our mission should make our hearers feel that the message we preach is meant
Bishops, said the pope, should be "shepherds who do not pasture
themselves but are able to step back, away from the center, to 'decrease,' in
order to feed God's family with Christ."
Such shepherds, he said, "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
While praising bishops who have the "shrewdness of an
administrator," the pontiff also warned against being managerial or seeking
"We fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of
strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed
us," said Francis.
"Bishops need to be lucidly aware of the battle between
light and darkness being fought in this world," he said. "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
Then, outlining what appeared to be his key request for the U.S.
bishops, Francis told them they must always seek dialogue.
"The path ahead
... is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyteries, dialogue with
lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society," said the
"I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly," Francis
Using a Greek word that roughly means to speak boldly and without fear,
he continued: "The richer the heritage which you are called to share with
parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer
"Do not be afraid to set out on that 'exodus' which is necessary for all
authentic dialogue," urged the pope.
"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,"
"Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a
pastor, it has no place in his heart," said Francis. "Although it may
momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love
remains truly convincing."
The pope also obliquely told the bishops not to
fight amongst themselves.
"The great mission which the Lord gives us is one
which we carry out in communion, collegially," said Francis. "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."
Amidst the difficulties of preaching to modern
society, the pontiff urged the bishops "to recognize the Lord's voice, as the
apostles did on the shore of the lake of Tiberius."
"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," said Francis. "Whenever
this certainty weakens, we end up being caretakers of ash, and not guardians and
dispensers of the true light and the warmth that causes our hearts to burn
The pontiff also offered two direct recommendations for the
bishops' work, saying he was making them "from my heart."
recommendation was for the bishops to be "pastors close people, pastors who are
neighbors and servants."
"Let this closeness be expressed in a special way
towards your priests," said Francis. "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," said the pope. "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,"
he continued. "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
The second recommendation, Francis said, "has to do with
"The Church in the United States knows like few others the hopes
present in the hearts of these 'pilgrims,'" said the pope. "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."
"Not only as the Bishop of Rome, but also as a pastor
from the South, I feel the need to thank and encourage you," said
"Perhaps it will not be easy for you to look into their soul;
perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity," he continued. "But know that
they also possess resources meant to be shared. So do not be afraid to welcome
"Offer them the warmth of the love of Christ and you will unlock the
mystery of their heart," he said. "I am certain that, as so often in the past,
these people will enrich America and its Church."
Francis also obliquely
referred to the sexual abuse crisis in his address, saying: "I realize how much
the pain of recent years has weighed upon you."
"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," said the pope.
In the opening of his speech to the U.S. bishops,
Francis gave them heartfelt encouragement for their ministry.
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 told the bishops.
"He puts his hand on your own, a hand
wrinkled with age, but by God's grace still able to support and encourage," said
The pope also said he felt like one of the bishops in the
"I speak to you as the Bishop of Rome, called by God in old age,
and from a land that is also American," said Francis.
"I must tell you that I
do not feel a stranger in your midst," he said. "I am a native of a land that is
also vast, with great open ranges, a land which, like your own, received the
faith from itinerant missionaries."
"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," he said.
[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR Vatican