The Pope's Visit: What It Means for the Church

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I looked back at what, for me, were some of the key quotes from Pope Francis’ visit and why I thought they were significant. Today, I look forward: What does the visit mean for the Church in the U.S., for the wider culture and, lastly, for the global discussion about the environment, development and war.

What did his visit mean for the Church? The answer to that question depends on how the leadership of the Church, and the people in the pews, respond. Many people were interviewed, on TV and in newspapers, who said that they had considered themselves lapsed Catholics but had begun going to Mass again on account of Pope Francis. Certainly, Latino Catholics, and those engaged in Hispanic ministry, got a huge shot in the arm. But, how to keep that going? Pope Francis was like a giant, but gentle, wind that swept across the social and cultural landscape. He has put that wind into our sails but do we have leaders capable of sailing the ship now that he has gone back to Rome?

At the conclusion of last year’s November meeting of the United States Conference of Catholics Bishops, I concluded that there were about one-quarter of the bishops who were enthusiastic about the pope, another quarter that decidedly were not enthusiastic, and the middle half were simply not sure how to respond. We saw this at this past June’s spring meeting of the USCCB when it was pointed out that the priorities and plans the USCCB was planning to adopt did not meaningfully reflect Pope Francis’ magisterium or priorities. Devised by a staff that has been described as living in a “Francis-free zone,” those priorities did not highlight poverty or the environment, but focused on same-sex marriage, religious liberty, etc. Some bishops bravely spoke out about this, but in the end, the conference as a whole voted to proceed as planned, with some adjustments by the committee. In the wake of Pope Francis’ trip, the USCCB staff should scrap their previous priorities and devise new ones that are consistent with the pope’s emphases in this trip. And, if they do not, the bishops should insist that they be changed.

The issue of priorities and plans is only one instance where the entire culture of the USCCB needs a Francis fix. The bishops will be voting on their quadrennial document “Faithful Citizenship” this November. Will that text continue down the “intrinsic evil” rabbit hole or will it recognize that the life issues and the poverty issues both have claims on the conscience of Catholics? Will the text continue to lean heavily to the right or will it seek the kind of common ground that pope spoke about when he addressed Congress? The bishops will be electing new committee chairs and a new General Secretary. The status quo cannot be allowed to stand. There must be changes. Will those changes be forthcoming? I suspect that the pope’s visit may have strongly tilted that middle half of the conference, which has been unclear about how to respond to this transformative pope, towards an embrace of the pope’s approach and agenda.

They have no further to look than down I-95. Compare the statement issued in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on same sex marriage by the USCCB with the letter issued by Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Which approach sounds more like Pope Francis? Compare the repeated efforts of Cardinal Sean O’Malley to call the attention of the pro-life activists gathered at the annual Right-to-Life March to the need to support women facing crisis pregnancies with the efforts of some vocal pro-life groups to defund the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, or at least to keep it from ever working with a group that may have been aligned with a third party that supported same sex marriage. Which approach seems more like Pope Francis? Compare the endless warnings against illicit material cooperation with evil which have dogged the discussion of the HHS contraception mandate with Archbishop Blase Cupich’s call for a “consistent ethic of solidarity.” Which approach better reflects the Holy Father’s approach and agenda? These questions answer themselves.

Whatever happens at the USCCB, and it is important what happens there, bishops and clergy have been challenged by this pope in how they live their lives and conduct their ministries. Some have not liked being challenged. First, diocesan clergy never like it when a religious brings up the question of lifestyle. “Talk to me after he has paid bills for a year,” is a comment one frequently hears after a religious is appointed as a diocesan bishop and he calls for more simple lifestyles. Was it only me, or did anyone else have trouble finding the clergy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral last Thursday night? On the other hand, in conversations with clergy this weekend, many said to me, and to others, that the pope was challenging them and, the truth be told, they needed to be challenged. New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond spoke powerfully about this on a PBS show in advance of the visit. Like the pope standing before the prisoners in Philadelphia and saying “all of us” need to be cleaned by the Lord, the bishops need to take the lead in showing their priests that they need not fear being challenged by the pope. And, every bishop in the land should look at his growing Latino population and see great opportunities that require attention and resources, pronto!

The challenges must extend beyond the clergy. I know that any full court press on Catholic Social Teaching as it regards economic decision making may be too heavy of a lift for the U.S. Church. That effort must begin, but we need baby steps if it is not to be rejected out of hand, baby steps and a fierce determination to challenge those voices who are trying to dismiss the pope’s questions, both this pope’s questions about capitalism and Pope Leo XIII’s questions about capitalism! I mention Leo for a reason. I came across this article last night in a Chicago style magazine that spends a fair amount of time discussing Rerum Novarum! There is hope, but there is a lot of groundwork to be done first. What the bishops and clergy can do now is encourage all of us Catholics to a conversion of lifestyles. There is nothing partisan about living extravagantly or wastefully. I can scarcely think of a greater counter-cultural witness than to help 70 million Catholics in the U.S, exercise a certain disdain for consumer culture. As Pope Francis pointed out, that consumer culture is not only unsustainable economically and environmentally, it powerfully damages the family. Here is a place to start, not rejecting markets, but preferring small, local ones over heavy financialized, Wall Street-led markets. Not insisting that we all wear hair shirts, but questioning how many suits a person really needs? Not simply paying the electric bills, but leading by example and converting the large plant of local churches to sustainable energy resources. There are ways to lower one’s electric bill, get the solar panels on your buildings, and all with no upfront costs. Every bishop and pastor should be leading by example in this regard. Instead of criticizing CCHD, we should be expanding it, making it an integral part of parish life, like the St. Vincent de Paul societies and the right-to-life ministries.

I had hoped to wrap this up today, and take tomorrow off, but I see that I have gone on long enough. Tomorrow, we will look at the broader political, cultural and international consequences and opportunities the Holy Father’s visit made possible.   

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