Pope to US bishops: It’s about love as much as doctrine

US bishops applauded as Pope Francis entered St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, DC for a midday prayer and speech Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (AP Photo)
US bishops applauded as Pope Francis entered St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC for a midday prayer and speech Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015.

By Michael O’Loughlin

In a speech to 300 US bishops in an historic Washington cathedral, Pope Francis encouraged the prelates to soften their approach to the faithful while continuing their mission of spreading the loving message of Jesus Christ.

“Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor; it has no place in his heart,” he said. “Although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”

In a lengthy speech delivered in Italian at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Francis said he did “not come to judge you or to lecture,” but “in the freedom of love, to speak to you as a brother among brothers.”

Pope Francis addresses US bishops

Francis is perceived as a progressive in the Church, not because he has altered Catholic teaching, but because of his style of leadership, and he spoke about that style here.

The job of a bishop, he said, “is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake. The style of our mission should make our hearers feel that the message we preach is meant for us.”

“Bishops need to be lucidly aware of the battle between light and darkness being fought in this world,” he said. “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.”

The pope, who has encouraged an open debate in the Church about a range of hot-button issues related to family life — such as Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and the Church’s attitude to gays and lesbians — said that dialogue is an essential component of a bishop’s ministry.

“The path ahead, then,” he said in relation to societal challenges, “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.”

After refraining from mentioning the issue explicitly at a White House ceremony earlier that morning, Francis placed abortion alongside a litany of issues that he said bishops must confront.

“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,” he said. “It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent.”

About 300 prelates, sporting scarlet (cardinals) and violet (bishops) zucchettos, filled the pews at the cathedral to hear the pope’s message.

After remarks from Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, the assembly rose to its feet and applauded Francis. He was then interrupted several times during his speech by applause.

Although most of the service was conducted in English, Francis prayed in Latin and gave his address in Italian.

The Vatican has yet to confirm if Francis will meet with victims of clergy sexual abuse, a precedent started by the pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Francis touched on the issue with bishops by praising them for their efforts to make the Church safe for children.

“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,” he said.

The pope cited the “vast material and spiritual, cultural and political, historical and human, scientific and technological resources” of the United States, and called on the Church here to be a “humble home, a family fire which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love.”

Francis praised the bishops’ commitment “to the cause of life and that of the family” as well as the Church’s network of Catholic schools and hospitals.

He concluded his address with a reflection on immigration, noting that the United States is “facing this stream of Latin immigration which affects many of your dioceses.”

“Not only as the Bishop of Rome, but also as a pastor from the South, I feel the need to thank and encourage you,” he said. “Perhaps it will not be easy for you to look into their soul; perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity. But know that they also possess resources meant to be shared. So do not be afraid to welcome them.”

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