Pope Francis the pastor

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

by Thomas Reese

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Much attention was given to what Pope Francis had to say about public policy issues while he was in the United States (see “Pope Francis the prophet”), but the pope also had words to say about the life of the church. He spoke forcefully about the need to trust the Spirit and to be creative in being an evangelizing presence in the world. He called on pastors to be loving servants who empower their people.

Pope Francis began his talk to the American bishops on Sept. 23 by describing his mission (and theirs by extension) as testifying “to the immensity of God’s love,” a message from which no one is excluded.

The pope, he said, is at their side supporting them “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.”

He thanked God for the growth of the church in America and the generous contribution of the church to American society and the world. He appreciated the bishops “unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family,” specifically mentioning the immense efforts to welcome and integrate immigrants, and the church’s mission in education and charitable services.

The pope told the bishops he did not come to judge or lecture them, perhaps responding to progressive Catholics who wanted him to do exactly that. He did, however, exhort them to recognize that their greatest joy as shepherds comes from being “pastors with undivided hearts and selfless devotion.”

“The heart of our identity is to be sought in constant prayer, in preaching and in shepherding the flock entrusted to our care,” he told the bishops.

Prayer, which he described as “trusting union with Christ,” is what “nourishes the life of a pastor.” It helps him recognize his flock as “the ones whom you entrusted to me.”

Francis has a very practical notion of preaching. “It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake.” This preaching “should make our hearers feel that the message we preach is meant ‘for us.’”

“May the word of God grant meaning and fullness to every aspect of their lives,” he prays; “may the sacraments nourish them with that food which they cannot procure for themselves; may the closeness of the shepherd make them long once again for the Father’s embrace.”

Preaching has a social justice component when touching on “efforts to confirm in liberty and justice the prosperity in which this land abounds.” At the same time, it reminds listeners “we must work not for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures for eternal life (John 6:27).”

But Francis spent most of his talk to the bishops on their role as shepherds. He calls on them to raise their eyes “constantly toward the horizons which God opens before us and which surpass all that we ourselves can foresee or plan.” He warned them against “the temptation of narcissism, which blinds the eyes of the shepherd, makes his voice unrecognizable and his actions fruitless.”

While it is helpful in Francis’ mind for a bishop to be a shrewd administrator, “we fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us.” Rather lasting victory comes from “allowing ourselves to be wounded and consumed.”

Francis exhorts the bishops to courage. “We cannot let ourselves be paralyzed by fear,” he told them. “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.”

Rather than supporting the culture wars, Francis proposes a “culture of encounter” in which “dialogue is our method.”

“The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society,” explained the pope. “I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.”

This dialogue must be done with boldness (parrhesia) and humility, qualities that are necessary for authentic dialogue.

“Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others,” explained the pope, “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,” argues Francis, “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.”

Rather, they “need to learn from Jesus, or better to learn Jesus, meek and humble” so that they can 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.’”

This pastoral style fosters unity, and Francis hopes that the Holy Year of Mercy will be a “privileged moment for strengthening communion, perfecting unity, reconciling differences, forgiving one another and healing every rift, that your light may shine forth like ‘a city built on a hill’ (Mt 5:14).”

At the same time, the pope encourages the bishops “to confront the challenges of our time.” Specifically, he mentions: “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.”

“It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent” on these issues, he said, even when the times become “resistant and even hostile to that message.”

But to be successful, “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.”

Francis concludes with two recommendations to the bishops.

First, he recommends that they be “pastors close to people, pastors who are neighbors and servants.” It has been a recurring theme of Francis that bishops should not act like princes.

He especially urges bishops to be close to their priests and to encourage their spiritual growth “lest they yield to the temptation to become notaries and bureaucrats.” They should not “tire of getting up to answer those who knock on their door by night, just when they feel entitled to rest (Lk 11:5-8),” he said. “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 had (Lk 10:29-37).”

The pope’s second recommendation is that the bishops “not be afraid to welcome” the Latin immigrants as they welcomed immigrants in the past by learning their languages, promoting their cause, defending their rights, helping them to prosper and keep alive the flame of their faith.

In his homily of Sept. 23 for the canonization of Junipero Serra, the pope spoke eloquently to all Catholics of the joy of sharing the gospel. “Our daily routine can often lead us to a kind of glum apathy,” he said. The answer from Jesus, he said, is to go forth and proclaim the gospel. “The joy of the Gospel is something to be experienced, something to be known and lived only through giving it away, through giving ourselves away.”

“A Christian finds joy in mission,” he asserts, and this mission is to everyone.

“Go out to the highways and byways, go out to tell the good news fearlessly, without prejudice, without superiority, without condescension, to all those who have lost the joy of living,” he continued.

“Go out to proclaim the merciful embrace of the Father. Go out to those who are burdened by pain and failure, who feel that their lives are empty, and proclaim the folly of a loving Father who wants to anoint them with the oil of hope, the oil of salvation. Go out to proclaim the good news that error, deceitful illusions and falsehoods do not have the last word in a person’s life. Go out with the ointment which soothes wounds and heals hearts.”

He appears to have little confidence in detailed pastoral plans. “Mission is never the fruit of a perfectly planned program or a well-organized manual,” he said. “Mission is always the fruit of a life which knows what it is to be found and healed, encountered and forgiven.”

In speaking to religious in New York on Sept. 24, Pope Francis spoke again of joy. “Our vocation is to be lived in joy,” he told them.

He complemented the religious for their work in education, and prayed with them “that our vocations will continue to build up the great edifice of God’s kingdom in this country.”

To help them persevere on the path of fidelity to Jesus Christ, he offered two brief reflections on gratitude and hard work, what he called the two pillars of the spiritual life.

First, he encouraged in them the spirit of joy and gratitude. “The joy of men and women who love God attracts others to him,” he explained. “Joy springs from a grateful heart. Truly, we have received much, so many graces, so many blessings, and we rejoice in this. It will do us good to think back on our lives with the grace of remembrance. ... Remembrance of the amazement which our encounter with Jesus Christ awakens in our hearts.”

Second, he encouraged in the religious the spirit of hard work. “A grateful heart is spontaneously impelled to serve the Lord and to find expression in a life of commitment to our work,” he said. But “we know how easily this spirit of generous self-sacrifice can be dampened.”

He warns against getting caught up “measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management and outward success which govern the business world.” He does not deny that these are important, but “The cross shows us a different way of measuring success. Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors. And if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus … and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, the failure of the cross.”

Sounding like the director of novices he once was, he warns religious of the danger of becoming “jealous of our free time, when we think that surrounding ourselves with worldly comforts will help us serve better.” Rest is needed, but “Closeness to the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, the sick, the exploited, the elderly living alone, prisoners and all God’s other poor, will teach us a different way of resting, one which is more Christian and generous.”

He concluded by thanking the religious for their prayers and work, with special “esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States.”

He continued, “What would the Church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say ‘thank you’, a big thank you … and to tell you that I love you very much.”

In Philadelphia on Sept. 26, the pope again encouraged religious and clerics to think outside the box. After admiring the beauty of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul where he was preaching, he said that the history of the church in the city was “not about building walls, but about breaking them down.”

He commended the efforts of those who over two centuries “ministered to the spiritual needs of the poor, the immigrant, the sick and those in prison.” He pointed to “the hundreds of schools where religious brothers and sisters trained children to read and write, to love God and neighbor, and to contribute as good citizens to the life of American society.” He told those in the cathedral, “You have been called to enrich and pass on” this great legacy.

He asked them to challenge young people to share “their enthusiasm and gifts with our communities, above all in works of mercy and concern for others.” He called on the religious and clerics to “make space for them and help them do their part.”

“One of the great challenges facing the Church in this generation is to foster in all the faithful a sense of personal responsibility for the Church’s mission, and to enable them to fulfill that responsibility as missionary disciples, as a leaven of the Gospel in our world,” he told them.

“This will require creativity in adapting to changed situations, carrying forward the legacy of the past not primarily by maintaining our structures and institutions, which have served us well, but above all by being open to the possibilities which the Spirit opens up to us and communicating the joy of the Gospel, daily and in every season of our life.”

In other words, the challenge today is “to foster a sense of collaboration and shared responsibility in planning for the future of our parishes and institutions.”

The pope does not believe that this involves the clergy relinquishing spiritual authority, “rather, it means discerning and employing wisely the manifold gifts which the Spirit pours out upon the church. In a particular way, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities.”

On his last day in the United States, in his homily to the World Meeting of Families, he again warned against “the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Mt 5:45), bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles, threatens the authenticity of faith.”

He reiterated this point by saying, “For Jesus, the truly ‘intolerable’ scandal consists in everything that breaks down and destroys our trust in the working of the Spirit!”

From the words of Pope Francis, it is clear that he wants the church in the United States to be more creative, more evangelical, more inclusive, and more joyful. He sees it tempted to glum apathy, narcissism, fear, and harshness.

He encourages trusting the spirit and the path of dialogue, which requires both boldness and humility. He urges bishops, priests, and religious to empower the laity, especially young people, in the work of evangelization and service. Finally, he exhorts us to that gratitude to God that instills a joy that impels us to share God’s good news with world and to serve those in need. 

Will all of these words have an impact on the American church?

It is clear that many non-Catholics and ex-Catholics were moved by Pope Francis to take another look at the Catholic church. The problem is that although the pope is important to the Catholic church, he is not the Catholic church.

Catholics live their faith at the local level in parishes. If former Catholics come back to a parish, they want to meet someone like Pope Francis. If they only find judgmental bureaucrats who preach condemnations, they will turn around and never return.

In order for there to be a Francis effect, the parish clergy and people have to embrace the priorities of Francis and embody his welcoming and compassionate pastoral style. Otherwise, there will be no Francis effect. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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