BALTIMORE — During a brief, but pointed address before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gathered for their annual fall meeting Nov. 11-13, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, delivered a striking message from Rome.

“The Holy Father wants bishops in tune with their people. When, this past June, I met with him in his simple apartment at the Casa Santa Marta for a fruitful discussion, he made a special point of saying that he wants ‘pastoral’ bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology.”

Archbishop Viganò, the Pope’s personal representative in the U.S., told the assembly Nov. 11 that Francis was calling on them to deepen their love for the Church, embrace a life of simplicity and Christian witness in conformity with the Gospel and adopt a pastoral program purified of partisan agendas and united to the Vicar of Christ.

Archbishop Viganò based his remarks on insights culled from statements and documents by Pope Francis, Blessed John Paul II, Pope Paul VI and Blessed John XXIII.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, described Archbishop Viganò’s remarks as an “examination of conscience” taken from insights of recent popes that should broaden the priorities that now drive the work of evangelization and pastoral outreach in the U.S.

Archbishop Viganò’s address began with an endorsement of Pope Francis’ distinctive efforts to bring the Church back to its Gospel roots and Jesus’ desire to share the life of the poor.

The nuncio cited Pope Francis’ June 22 special audience, which marked the 50th anniversary of the election of Pope Paul VI. The nuncio said that Pope Francis applauded Paul VI’s encyclical, Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World), as “the greatest pastoral document written to date.”

In his address before the U.S. bishops, the nuncio made it clear that preaching the hard truths of the faith must be matched by a life in conformity with the Gospel, and he bolstered his message with several passages from Evangelii Nuntiandi. 

“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if it does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses," Pope Paul stated.

“It is primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world; in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus — the witness of poverty and detachment of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity.”


Witnessing Holiness

During interviews with the Register, several bishops said the nuncio sought to place Francis’ approach within the continuity of tradition.

“Pope Francis’ emphasis on Evangelii Nuntiandi resonates deeply with all the bishops,” said Bishop John Barres of Allentown, Pa. “Pope Paul VI [observed that] when people live lives of holiness they raise ‘irresistible questions.’ When the Gospel is lived out transparently, the witness can’t be separated from the teaching.”

Archbishop Viganò then turned to the direction of Pope Francis’ pontificate. The Church’s first Latin-American pope has captured global attention and earned applause with his striking decision not to live in the papal apartment and to shift the tone of papal addresses to emphasize the needs of the poor and of alienated Catholics.

Pope Francis, “as the Supreme Teacher, is giving us, by his own witness, an example of how to live a life attuned to the values of the Gospel.”

While allowing for difference of culture, he noted, “there has to be a noticeable lifestyle characterized by simplicity and holiness of life. This is a sure way to bring our people to an awareness of the truth of our message.”

The nuncio drove that point home when he cited the equally pointed remarks of St. Charles Borromeo: “Be sure that you first preach by the way you live. If you do not, people will notice that you say one thing but live otherwise.”

After noting Pope Francis’ unconditional call for a renewed simplicity of life among Church leaders and a preference for the poor, the nuncio drew attention to another priority: the need to strengthen the transmission of faith.

He remarked that many of the assembly of bishops had been ordained by Blessed John Paul II, whose canonization will be celebrated in April 2014, and then he singled out a striking passage from the late pope’s address to the U.S. bishops during a 1978 ad limina meeting.


Guarding the Faith

At that time, John Paul drew the U.S. bishops’ attention to the fact that the Second Vatican Council arose from one primary concern: “The sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be more effectively guarded and taught,” and it is “the only pastoral solution to the many problems of our day.”

Following up Francis’ exhortation that Church leaders be “‘pastoral’ bishops,” the nuncio clarified that “pastoral” work includes the transmission of faith and morals. And he injected a powerful sense of urgency in this work when he suggested that Church leaders were navigating a new era fraught with peril and hostility for Church teachings.

He cited 1976 remarks by then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, “We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has every experienced. … We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-church, between the Gospel and the anti-gospel, between Christ and the Antichrist.”

With his brief references to statements by Francis’ predecessors, the nuncio sought to offer broad strokes that called for further discernment, prudential judgment and decisive action from the U.S. bishops.

Archbishop Viganò presented his remarks as a “call to attentiveness, watchfulness and preparedness for whatever proclaiming the Gospel may mean for us as successors of the apostles, who were called to give radical witness to their faith in Jesus Christ.”

His final message to the assembly was an exhortation that the members of the conference be united through common witness and defense of the faith, in harmony with “the Successor of Peter, trusting the way he sees best to live out his mission to mankind.”


Importance of Unity

This unity, he suggested, will be increasingly tested in the years to come. He did not provide specifics. However, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will shortly issue final guidelines for how Catholic nonprofits should respond to the Health and Human Services' contraception mandate, and those directives may well foment divisions.

The formal deadline for compliance with the HHS mandate is January 2014, though each diocese faces its own deadline, based on when its health plan is updated.

“There will be hard choices, and there is a concern that we could get fragmented,” Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., told the Register.

“Cardinal Dolan has done a masterful job in keeping the bishops united, and Archbishop Viganò is reinforcing what we have been striving for.”

Tests to the unity of the U.S. bishops and the faithful they serve also could arise from the rich and challenging diversity of the Church in this country. Yet Archbishop Viganò expressed his belief that the men whom he addressed in Baltimore could overcome such hurdles if they followed a distinctive path of Christian witness laid out by Pope Francis.

Polarization will deepen, he suggested, if and when the faithful lose confidence in their bishops: The Catholic Church “will prove her unity and strength as long as its people have trust in their bishops.”