Pope Francis today told the bishops of the United States that whenever someone is reaching out to do good or to show the love of Christ, “the Pope is at your side and supports you. He puts his hand on your own, a hand wrinkled with age, but by God’s grace still able to support and encourage.”
The Holy Father said this from St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., after being welcomed by local ordinary, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and the president of the US bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz.
The Pontiff gave his lengthy address in Italian, following his prepared text nearly word-for-word, with the exception of an initial greeting to the Jewish people for Yom Kippur.
Perhaps in response to the tendency in the United States to overly politicize the Pope, his message emphasized that the heart of Peter’s Successor “expands to include everyone.”
“May no member of Christ’s Body and the American people feel excluded from the Pope’s embrace,” he said. “Wherever the name of Jesus is spoken, may the Pope’s voice also be heard to affirm that: ‘He is the Savior!'”
He expressed his wish that when anyone does an act of service and when the faithful gather for Mass, the Pope’s presence and support might be felt.
“Whenever a 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 puts his hand on your own, a hand wrinkled with age, but by God’s grace still able to support and encourage,” he said.
The Bishop of Rome then offered praise to the Church in the US, thanking God for the growth of the Church here. He noted the “generous solidarity” of the Church in the US for those suffering. And he underlined 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.”
He praised the Church’s aid to immigrants and its work in education and charity, “works,” he said, that “are often carried out without appreciation or support, often with heroic sacrifice, out of obedience to a divine mandate which we may not disobey.”
And in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal, the Pope noted that the bishops had responded “without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice,” willing 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 do not speak to you with my voice alone, but in continuity with the words of my predecessors,” the Holy Father said, adding that the visits of three popes in recent decades “have helped to inspire the long-term goals which you have set for the Church in this country.”
He then offered “some reflections which I consider helpful for our mission.”
The first was regarding the joy of the mission.
“Our greatest joy is to be shepherds, and only shepherds, pastors with undivided hearts and selfless devotion. We need to preserve this joy and never let ourselves be robbed of it,” he said.
The Pope also emphasized the importance of prayer and witness, saying, “Ours must not be just any kind of prayer, but familiar union with Christ, in which we daily encounter his gaze […].”
And he asked the bishops to “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.”
“May they always hear from you a word of appreciation for their efforts to confirm in liberty and justice the prosperity in which this land abounds,” he added.
Pope Francis said he recognized that the bishops “face many challenges” in their work: “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.”
But he said that dialogue, the “culture of encounter,” must be the answer: “dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.”
“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,” Francis said.
“We need to learn from Jesus, or better to learn Jesus, meek and humble; to enter into his meekness and his humility by contemplating his way of acting; to lead our Churches and our people – not infrequently burdened by the stress of everyday life – to the ease of the Lord’s yoke. And to remember that Jesus’ Church is kept whole not by ‘consuming fire from heaven’ (Lk 9:54), but by the secret warmth of the Spirit, who ‘heals what is wounded, bends what is rigid, straightens what is crooked.'”
The world is already so divided, the Holy Father said, that “the Church, ‘the seamless garment of the Lord’ cannot allow herself to be rent, broken or fought over.”
The Bishop of Rome said that for the bishops of the US, this service to unity is particularly important because of the vast resources of the nation and its consequent “moral responsibilities.”
Stewards, not masters
Pope Francis spoke of various violations of the gift of God, 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,” he said, “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.”
The Pontiff referred to these as “essential aspects of the Church’s mission,” belonging 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 resistent and even hostile to that message,” he said.
But in offering this witness, he urged both the “means and creativity born of love” and 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,” Francis said. “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.”
In a world plagued by “darkness and cold,” the Pope said, “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 Tiberius.”
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