Apostolic Nuncio's Address to US Bishops' General Assembly

«Perhaps, and I know this might be hard to accept, in time the youth of our age may well behold the ultimate radical witness in faith that some may be called to give»

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Here is the text of the address given Monday to the US bishops’ general assembly by the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

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Your Eminences, Your Excellency, Archbishop Kurtz, my Brother Archbishops and Bishops, Monsignor Jenkins and staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

Everywhere in my visits throughout this vast country I have been very impressed with many things. I found dioceses, in particular, very alive and warmly welcoming their new pastor/bishops, and I experienced dioceses that are rich in incredible beauty in their cathedrals, institutions, universities, schools and hospitals. I visited dioceses that are enjoying up to the present day the treasured legacies left to them by their first missionaries and bishops who established their local churches. In Marquette, for example, a chapel was built, attached to the beautiful cathedral, where there is buried its first bishop, Frederic Baraga, who endured so much in his travels throughout the diocese to proclaim the Gospel message. You should give your attention to all those pioneer missionaries and bishops in your own dioceses who planted the seeds for the growth of such extensive evangelization in this country.

Indeed, this is the year of the three popes, marked by the recent beatification of Blessed Paul VI and previously the dual canonizations of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II. We who had the privilege of knowing them recognize how inspiring their lives were for our vocation and for our ministry.In my memories of St. John Paul II, I want to recall here especially the fact that he very often told the Nuncios to invite the bishops to discover the saints who lived and worked in their particular churches, because from their example the people of God would find their edification.

As Pope Francis has repeated many times, it is not just by preaching or by words, but by example, that people will grow in faith. As you may recall, Blessed Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi wrote, modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses (#41, #76). So, we bishops look to the example of the Apostles for their fidelity to Jesus, having given credibility to their words by their actions and ultimately by the shedding of their blood.

We remember that throughout history so many saints were first brought to conversion to Christ by their readings of the lives of the saints who came before them. A perfect example, as we know, is in St. Ignatius of Loyola, who, during his recovery from the severe wounds he suffered as a soldier, began his formation by reading the lives of the saints. His question still echoes down through the centuries: «If Francis and Dominic could do this, why can’t I?» Yes, «Why can’t I?»  This reference to the saints has been a major instrument in evangelization .Even spiritual growth takes place in the monastery through readings of the lives of the saints during meals. Look, for example, at the present age, to the experience of Edith Stein, a philosopher who became the Carmelite nun, sister Benedicta of the Cross, having been inspired by reading the great St Teresa of Avila. What courage she eventually found in the face of the horrors of World War II!

From my own experience, I can say that the life of a saint is an incredible way to comfort the elderly in approaching the final struggle and trial of death. I remember when I was reading the life of St. Frances Cabrini to my mother as I assisted her in her last days. What a contrast for someone who takes their own life into their hands, for example, through suicide and euthanasia, which leaves no hope and future for those who accept and submit themselves to the dark culture of our times.

The life and knowledge of the saints in this country may be of great help to our young people searching for meaning and inspiration in their lives. I think we should make a great effort to bring into full light and evidence the greatness, uniqueness, and courage of the first evangelizers of this country, those who were the extraordinary pioneers of faith. We should ask ourselves why young people, submerged into the culture of these times, so often called the «culture of death,» are searching among the most excessive and challenging experiences which some of them imagine themselves to find, even as far as the aberrations of ISIS. Obviously, young America is searching for something, or perhaps someone, to lead them beyond the frustrations they experience every day. They are looking well beyond just so-called «happiness.» They are searching for meaning and purpose to their existence. What meaning and purpose young people can find in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit! How much fruit can be borne through a complete and total self-donation for the Gospel and the poor. The magnificent words in the hymn of St. Bernard are always before us: «O Lord, how good you are to those who search for you.But what must you be for those who have found you!» (Jesu, Dulcis Mermoria). Our young people must be brought to a complete conviction of this reality in every aspect of life, but only because we ourselves are witnesses to this. 

Recently, I had the sad duty to celebrate the funeral Mass in a diocese outside Washington for an adolescent, the son of a well-established professional family, who died of an overdose of drugs while «fooling around» with his friends. As I looked out upon the large crowded church filled with hundreds of young people who knew him, I could not help but notice the look of disillusionment as they stared into an empty vacuum of thought. How confused these young people seemed to be…they were lost, like «sheep without a shepherd» (Mark 6:34). Truly the lord had compassion on the people in that Church as he had upon the crowds who followed him two thousand years ago. Recently, as well, in another state, ten teenagers died together of an overdose. So much is covered over; so much is unknown; so many agonized and broken hearts are living through the results of catastrophes such as these.

Our young people today clearly are looking for a challenge, a goal, a purpose. They need to find meaning to their lives. They need to be attracted to Christ in positive ways by the example of so many declared and undiscovered saints living in the Church today in the United States. We have to let our young people know that their lives are worth living and that they were born for eternal glory, nor for glamour, or guns, or sensationalism. They are crying out to us. They desperately need to be inspired, to have the life of Christ breathed back into them. It is up to us to set the example, not just by doctrinal teaching alone, but by the teaching of our whole lives. Perhaps, and I know this might be hard to accept, in time the youth of our age may well behold the ultimate radical witness in faith that some may be called to give.

The difference between true martyrdom and the perverse message which is NOT martyrdom must be clear in the minds of our young people. The appeal to intended fanaticism, hurting and destroying others in the name of religion, is fixed in their minds by the violence they witness in the culture of death. The fanatics make martyrs of good people. The culture of death lures young minds away from understanding and distinguishing between true good and evil. Their hearts become hardened by evil. We must strive to bring clarity in their thinking between good and evil, and teach them compassion in the midst of suffering.

Turning to a brighter perspective, I recently, toward the beginning of the month, visited Bishop Vann in the Diocese of Orange. He asked me to bless the Tower of Hope, one of the beautiful buildings of the magnificent Christ Cathedral complex that the diocese recently acquired from the great evangelical preacher, Dr. Robert Schuler. You are aware how, by compete dedication to his ministry, he moved countless numbers of people to a real conversion o
f heart — so many types of people who were willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of Jesus and his Gospel. Bishop Vann had also brought me to the mission of St. John of Capistrano, a man who was first governor in Perugia and a doctor of law, but then became a Franciscan and dedicated himself to preaching the Gospel beyond the borders of Italy to Austria and Hungary, giving over the final days of his life in defense of the faith and inspiring people by his complete dedication. He saw a Church that needed to be reborn at that time in history, even if by the shedding of blood…his missionary example is still inspiring us, as it did for the Franciscans and other religious orders who were the first evangelizers in many parts of this country.

We know that the Church, particularly in the United States, has been deeply wounded by the behavior of some priests and bishops by whose deplorable actions the Church’s reputation has been strongly shaken. But, we can rebuild the credibility of the Church, through the shining example of so many saints in our very midst, while also being very much aware that within the Church herself, among the people of God, there are both saints and sinners, as St. Ambrose said «Ecclesia casta meretrix» (Commentary on St. Luke, 3:17-23).

Let us bring once again to light the sanctity of the Church which exists in this country. This sanctity through time has become particularly evident through the same great pillar of the freedom of religion. This pillar has been respected up until now in our country and has been fixed in the first amendment of the United States Constitution. The Spirit of God must be allowed to grow and flourish among us through freedom of religion. To suppress that freedom is an attempt to suppress the spirit of God that cries out in our midst. But let us remember that eventually God will have his way. We must work tirelessly with God to allow his Spirit to continue to come forth through His Church. Veni, Sancte, Spiritus!

The morning after his election as pope, our Holy Father Francis, in speaking to the Cardinals, said: «Build up the Church, the Bride of Christ, the cornerstone of which is the same Lord. With every movement in our lives, let us build!»  His vision is obviously one of renewal. Perhaps in ways to which we are not accustomed…not just holding on to conventional modes of evangelization, but primarily by evangelizing through a ministry of personal conversion, forgiveness, compassion and healing.

From the first moment that St. John Paul II began his pontificate; his words began to resonate throughout his reign, «Do not fear.» These are the comforting words of Jesus. We must not be afraid to walk with our Holy Father and to trust in the infinite value of following the Holy Spirit as our First Teacher in guiding the Church. 

If we expect people, especially our young people, to find direction and meaning to their lives, we ourselves must in total confidence each them through the Holy Spirit, who is trying to break through the confines and narrowness of our culture and human experiences, to discern that same Spirit of God in their minds and hearts. At the same time, we ourselves as bishops must continuously learn how to listen with attentiveness and to respond to the promptings of the Spirit, that Spirit who alone is the ultimate Guide, the Consoler, the Comforter, «the giver of Life,» and who alone can renew the face of the earth.

May we all have the courage and fortitude, the discernment and determination, that we need to help bring this about. May the Lord continue to make us strong in our resolve. And may His Mother, the Immaculate Conception, the patroness of our country, stand at our side now and in the days ahead.

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