Certainly, it is helpful for a bishop to have the farsightedness of a leader and the shrewdness of an administrator, but we fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us. 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 (Philippians 2:1-11).
We all know the anguish felt by the first Eleven, huddled together, assailed and overwhelmed by the fear of sheep scattered because the shepherd had been struck. But we also know that we have been given a spirit of courage and not of timidity. So we cannot let ourselves be paralyzed by fear.
I know that you face many challenges, that the field in which you sow is unyielding and that 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.
And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty. We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response.
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 (Matthew 20:1-16).
The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with laypersons, 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. Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power andthe 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; 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.
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” (Matthew 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.
We need to learn from Jesus, or better to learn Jesus, meek and humble; to enter into his meekness and his humility by contemplating his way of acting; to lead our Churches and our people, not infrequently burdened by the stress of everyday life, to the ease of the Lord’s yoke. And to remember that Jesus’ Church is kept whole not by “consuming fire from heaven” (Luke 9:5-4), but by the secret warmth of the Spirit, who “heals what is wounded, bends what is rigid, straightens what is crooked.”
The great mission which the Lord gives us is one which we carry out in communion, collegially. The world is already so torn and divided; brokenness is now everywhere. Consequently, the Church, “the seamless garment of the Lord,” cannot allow herself to be rent, broken or fought over.
Our mission as bishops is first and foremost to solidify unity, a unity whose content is defined by the Word of God and the one Bread of Heaven. With these two realities, each of the Churches entrusted to us remains Catholic, because [they are] open to, and in communion with, all the particular Churches and with the Church of Rome, which “presides in charity.”
It is imperative, therefore, to watch over that unity, to safeguard it, to promote it and to bear witness to it as a sign and instrument which, beyond every barrier, unites nations, races, classes and generations.
May the forthcoming holy Year of Mercy, by drawing us into the fathomless depths of God’s heart, in which no division dwells, be for all of you 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” (Matthew 5:14).
This service to unity is particularly important for this nation, whose vast material and spiritual, cultural and political, historical and human, scientific and technological resources impose significant moral responsibilities in a world which is seeking, confusedly and laboriously, new balances of peace, prosperity and integration. It is an essential part of your mission to offer to the United States of America the humble yet powerful leaven of communion. May all mankind know that the presence in its midst of the “sacrament of unity” (Lumen Gentium, 1) is a guarantee that its fate is not decay and dispersion.
This kind of witness is a beacon whose light can reassure men and women sailing through the dark clouds of life that a sure haven awaits them, that they will not crash on the reefs or be overwhelmed by the waves. I encourage you, then, to confront the challenging issues of our time.
Ever present within each of them is life as gift and responsibility. The future freedom and dignity of our societies depends on how we face these challenges.
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.
It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent.
No less important is the gospel of the family, which in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia I will emphatically proclaim together with you and the entire Church.
These essential aspects of the Church’s mission belong to the core of what we have received from the Lord. It is our duty to preserve and communicate them, even when the tenor of the times becomes resistent and even hostile to that message (Evangelii Gaudium, 34-39).
I urge you to offer this witness, with the means and creativity born of love, and with the humility of truth. It needs to be preached and proclaimed to those without, but also to find room in people’s hearts and in the conscience of society.
To this end, 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. As pastors, we know well how much darkness and cold there is in this world; we know the loneliness and the neglect experienced by many people, even amid great resources of communication and material wealth. We see their fear in the face of life, their despair and the many forms of escapism to which it gives rise.
Consequently, only a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others; and not any fire, but the one which blazed forth on Easter morn. The risen Lord continues to challenge the Church’s pastors through the quiet plea of so many of our brothers and sisters:
“Have you something to eat?”
We need to recognize the Lord’s voice, as the apostles did on the shore of the lake of Tiberius (John 21:4-12).
It becomes even more urgent to grow in the certainty that the embers of his presence, kindled in the fire of his passion, precede us and will never die out. Whenever this certainty weakens, we end up being caretakers of ash, and not guardians and dispensers of the true light and the warmth which causes our hearts to burn within us (Luke 24:32).
Before concluding these reflections, allow me to offer two recommendations which are close to my heart. The first refers to your fatherhood as bishops.
Be pastors close to people, pastors who are neighbors and servants. Let this closeness be expressed in a special way towards your priests. Support them, so that they can continue to serve Christ with an undivided heart, for this alone can bring fulfillment to ministers of Christ. I urge you, then, not to let them be content with half-measures.
Find ways to encourage their spiritual growth, lest they yield to the temptation to become notaries and bureaucrats; but, instead, reflect the motherhood of the Church, which gives birth to and raises her sons and daughters. Be vigilant, lest they tire of getting up to answer those who knock on their door by night, just when they feel entitled to rest (Luke 11:5-8). 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 (Luke 10:29-37).