Poverty and Power
An American cardinal's words to the Pope
BY Cardinal Francis George, OMI
March 18-24, 2001 Issue | Posted 3/18/01 at 1:00 PM
How did you find out that you had been selected to preach this retreat?
I received a letter from the Apostolic Nuncio in the United States, saying that I was being asked to preach the retreat. I spoke to him about it, and he encouraged me to accept. Once you have accepted, the Holy Father then sends an official letter inviting you to preach the Lenten retreat for the papal household and the bishops of the Roman Curia.
Did the Holy Father himself make the selection?
I have no idea. He obviously has to approve it.
How long did you have to prepare?
I was informed last October or November, so there were several months to prepare, but by that time my program was already filled, so I had to scramble to find time.
What was your reaction to the invitation?
At first, there was anxiety about finding the time necessary to prepare. Secondly, anxiety over the fact of having to give 22 conferences in Italian to the bishops of the Roman Curia — who wouldn't be somewhat nervous about that!
Is it intimidating to be expected, in a manner of speaking, to provide nourishment for the Holy Father's soul?
I suppose it could be if you let yourself dwell on that. I didn't think too much about that, and once you get into it, it's fine. The Pope is a very humble man, despite his many talents and the fact that he is the Pope. The Pope is not an intimidating man at all. I have spoken with him a number of times before, so perhaps I was less worried about the Pope than about some of the others who I didn't know as well.
But finally, the Holy Spirit is the retreat master — that's true anywhere, for anybody. A retreat master only hopes that something that he says might trigger a response that will be an occasion of grace in someone's soul.
There should be no illusions. You are not instructing the Pope. You are just offering conferences that he will use, and others will use, as best as they can to pray. The time for the retreat is time set aside primarily to pray.
The Holy Father, in thanking you this morning, referred to your style as “personal and sober.” Was it challenging to avoid being too formal?
Yes. But then every conference is a challenge because of the Italian — I had to make sure that I was putting the accents in the right place. Knowing Spanish makes it a little more difficult too, as in Italian the accents are put in different places.
As for “sober”, I think that he meant that I tend to make points, to offer a discourse, to set out ideas, and I try to develop them. It is not very rhetorical and not given to a lot of exhortation.
You chose as a theme, “A Faith for All Peoples: Conversion, Freedom and Communion.” The theme of the 1997 Synod for America was “Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: Conversion, Communion and Solidarity in America.” Was the similarity of themes deliberate?
My choice was touched by, though not inspired solely by, my experience at the Synod for America. It was inspired more proximately by my speaking in several places — including Argentina and Australia —on the missionary challenge of globalization.
This is a new moment. It is a new millennium. The Pope is calling for a new evangelization. It is a new moment in the history of the human race — more globalized society, culture, economy, even political structures.
What does that mean for a Church that was born in an empire which considered itself to include the whole world? What does it mean for the Church to find herself still the same, still herself, but now truly a universal Church in a global society?
That's a theme that is going to stay with us for many, many years to come. That's what I was trying to talk about when I said “A Faith for All Peoples” —a universal faith, and a universal Church, now for the first time in a global society.
The experience of the Synod for America led me to think that, perhaps, the missionary challenges for the new evangelization would be found, first of all, in the post-synodal exhortations of the continental synods. They are not usually read as a source for spiritual reflection. I thought it would be interesting to use them to see whether the dynamics of faith in the world are analogous to the actions of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Conversion in each soul involves a distancing from what is sinful toward true liberty in Christ, and then finding yourself related, through him, to all peoples in the world. That movement of grace in the individual soul is similar to the movement of the Gospel in the world. So I used the post-synodal documents as a source.
The theological source was St. Luke's Gospel which, together with the Acts of the Apostles, is the most universal of the Gospels. I found it a good complement. I could use the Gospel, the synodal documents, and then some of my own experiences, both as someone who was in charge of a missionary congregation and now as a residential bishop of a diocese in the United States. That helped to concretize it. Those were the three sources that talked to one another in a way that people found helpful.
You used the story of Peter's catch of fish (Luke 5) as an example of the need for “detachment” in the Christian life, and especially for the pastors of the Church. How have you experienced that detachment?
Any disciple of the Lord has to detach himself or herself from ego, so as to make Christ the center of one's life, not oneself.
That is already a huge distancing, a detachment from the “false ego” that Thomas Merton wrote about, which I spoke about in one of the conferences. We give up that ego and find ourselves returned to ourselves by Christ.
Pastors who are bishops of residential churches find their salvation in loving their people. It is harder — there is more detachment — for some in the Roman Curia, because they are here in the service of Peter's ministry. They work for the people, but through him. That's a greater detachment.
Many of the bishops here were bishops of residential churches, and to give that up is a serious, serious sacrifice. They come here and work through another, and do office work for the most part. It's very important work, and it makes the ministry of others possible, but it is not direct ministry in itself. It's a huge detachment and a sign of one's own poverty.
I spoke of the ministry here as being both poverty and power. Part of the poverty is having given up so much to come here — the foreigners have given up their own people, their own local pastorates, their own culture — into a situation where the work is important but not as humanly satisfying as it is to be a pastor among your own people.
You had both experiences, here in Rome as vicar general of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and then in the United States in three dioceses.
A residential bishop goes back and forth between the administrative and the practical ministry, between the paperwork and the “peoplework.” In Rome there is mostly paperwork.
And that's more difficult?
Spiritually, it can be dangerous. The people keep you sane, and therefore keep you holy. People are a reality check. There is a danger in being detached from those whom you are serving. A lot of people can get into ego trips and lose focus. That can happen, unless you stay with the Lord all the time. In the case of religious, your rule saves you; in the case of anyone, the Lord saves you finally.
You dwelt at some length on freedom, especially as it relates to communion.
Freedom does lead to communion.
Communion is born of the sharing of gifts which we have received. You receive a gift, and you give it away immediately. In giving the gift away, it becomes the foundation for a relationship, a relationship we call “communion” if we are speaking about relations in the Church — communion with God and communion with one another.
The sharing of gifts is what creates communion. We both share the same gift, and so we are related to one another.
So in being free to give, and, first of all, being free to receive — which is often harder — a relationship is established.
This relationship can be with someone who is unknown to me, but it is a relationship in faith, which is a gift that is received and shared.
I wanted to spend a lot of time on freedom, because it is very important to the interior life, the spiritual life, but also because it is an American value. I wanted, as an American, to speak about freedom in this retreat. I tried to draw on some of the sources that have shaped the spiritual life in our country. Certainly freedom is our primary cultural value, but it is a religious value too.
Freedom, as we understand it, is often autonomy, so it is a false freedom and so we are in trouble with freedom in the United States. Freedom trumps everything else. Freedom trumps life — for the sake of freedom one can kill a child. All the more reason why we have to insist in America on what freedom really is. And as someone who does that in the United States, I thought I could do so here too. The Pope has said an awful lot on freedom, so it was easy to talk about it. But it is there in the Gospel.
One moves from autonomy to communion through freedom?
Yes, and the way into this is to train yourself to receive. Freedom as autonomy may or may not teach you how to give, but it will not teach you how to receive — autonomy resists influences from the outside.
Autonomy emphasizes that “I am who I am” and “I will do what I want to do” — that's freedom. But that is only freedom to give — and maybe it is not even that. It certainly is not freedom to receive. For a disciple of Jesus Christ — and a disciple is by definition someone who follows someone else — you have to be free to receive. That's the fundamental freedom.
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