Pope to US Bishops: Be Pastors, Not Culture Warriors

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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I have said all along that, for me, the most important speech the Holy Father will give is the one at St. Matthew’s Cathedral when he speaks to the U.S. bishops. The speech did not disappoint. Indeed, it is a masterpiece, not only touching on the themes of his pontificate but doing so in a way that his words evidence what he is talking about.

For example, the Holy Father did not say: “Stop being nasty culture warriors!” Instead, he said: “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.” You could literally hear someone on the EWTN panel let out one of those half-snorts, half-exhales, when the pope said those words. I was wondering if the pope had read the article in yesterday’s Washington Post which quoted Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, saying that going to Catholic school “no more makes them a Catholic than being in a garage makes them a car.” As a priest said to me after reading that yesterday, “Someone should point out to Archbishop Chaput that people are lining up to see the pope not to see him.” Nobody warms to the kind of judgmentalism we have seen from too many U.S. prelates, and the Holy Father, ever so gently, pointed them to a better path.

The pope confronted the issue of clergy sex abuse squarely. “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,” he said. And, then, pulling a theme from the canticle of the saint whose name he chose when he was elected pope, Francis continued, “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.” I would note, too, the unambiguity of the word “crime.”   

The theme of inclusion, encounter and dialogue was again dominant. “The heart of the Pope expands to include everyone,” Francis said in his prepared remarks. “To testify to the immensity of God’s love is the heart of the mission entrusted to the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of the One who on the cross embraced the whole of mankind.  May no member of Christ’s Body and the American people feel excluded from the Pope’s embrace.” Later in his talk, he states, “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 (Mt 20:1-16).  The path ahead, then, is 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.  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.”

I would also call attention to this passage which sure sounds like the “consistent ethic of solidarity” to me: “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.” I am sure some will be disappointed the pope did not explain why abortion is different from the others, explain what an intrinsic evil is, etc.

Another example of how the pope’s approach differs from the U.S. culture warriors was on display in this paragraph from the prepared text:

We need to let the Lord’s words echo constantly in our hearts: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, who am meek and humble of heart, and you will find refreshment for your souls” (Mt 11:28-30).  Jesus’ yoke is a yoke of love and thus a pledge of refreshment.  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 man just radiates the joy that comes from trust in the Lord. I am re-reading the prepared text, and took copious notes of his delivery, and I did not hear him blame secularism or anything else for what ails the Church. Quite the contrary. The Holy Father said, “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 realize that the price of lasting victory is allowing ourselves to be wounded and consumed (Phil 2:1-11).” He sees nothing but souls hungry for the Lord and he shares the quiet confidence that the Lord will provide. He does not share the analysis nor the anxieties found among the nervous nellies at First Things and at the USCCB headquarters. People will – people are – lining the streets nine and ten deep to see this prophet of hope and love. It is always easy to spot a leader. He is the guy who has people following him. How many culture warriors in the U.S. can say the same? The pope challenged the culture warrior model today, and it did it with extraordinary gentleness, reminding me of the biblical injunction that we shall reap what we have sown.  

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