Pope Francis: A Pastor to the Pastors

Papal trip recap: The Holy Father’s pastoral energies included his brother bishops and fellow priests.

Pope Francis thanks Cardinal Timothy Dolan for the warm welcome at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Sept. 24.
Pope Francis thanks Cardinal Timothy Dolan for the warm welcome at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Sept. 24. (photo: Jeffrey Bruno)

PHILADELPHIA — Outreach to the poor and marginalized has been the hallmark of Pope Francis’ pontificate, and this was again on display in his visit to the United States.

But the Holy Father’s pastoral energies during this trip were also focused on another group: his brother bishops and fellow priests.

Pope Francis offered the clergy encouragement, guidance and a compelling example of the work of a pastor throughout his three-city journey and brilliantly applied his own vision of pastoral ministry to his encounters with bishops and priests.

It was an emphasis that underscored the fact that though Francis engages with secular authorities, as he did when he spoke to Congress and the United Nations, he believes his greatest impact can be realized in strengthening the shepherds of his Church, who themselves minister directly to the people of their parishes and communities.

Despite Pope Francis’ enormous popularity and the authority of his position, he went to great lengths to emphasize that he stood before the U.S. bishops as a first among equals, instead of a top-down authoritarian.

He spoke to his brother bishops twice on his trip, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington on Sept. 23 and at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia on Sept. 27.

“I have not come to judge you or lecture you,” he said at St. Matthew’s. “Allow me only, in the freedom of love, to speak to you as a brother among brothers.”

Pope Francis greeted many bishops warmly and even apologized to those with whom he couldn’t personally speak. Many bishops said the Holy Father’s fraternal approach allowed his message to sink in.

“He didn’t come in any way, shape or form to chide us; he came to encourage us, be among us, tell us not to be afraid,” said Bishop Paul Etienne of Cheyenne, Wyo.

Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of pastors showing empathy to their flocks, and he put it into practice when he spoke with the bishops, celebrating their accomplishments, but also sharing in their difficulties.

In Washington, he praised them for their commitment to “the cause of life and that of family” and their fight for religious liberty, while acknowledging the difficulties presented by an increasingly secular culture. At a vespers service with priests and religious in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Holy Father celebrated Catholic clergy’s accomplishments in education and service, but also said he shared the pain caused by the sex-abuse scandal in America.

“I accompany you at this moment of pain and difficulty, and I thank God for your faithful service to his people,” Francis said at the Sept. 24 event.

In all these instances, the Pope connected with the daily realities of his pastors, very much in the same way he has encouraged priests and bishops to connect with the triumphs and trials of their own local flocks. “He is walking with us and supporting us,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register. “I felt encouraged.”

Pope Francis also spoke multiple times about the qualities of a good pastor. In both of his encounters with America’s bishops, the Holy Father emphasized that priests and bishops must find their identity first and foremost in “constant prayer.”

“Such trusting union with Christ is what nourishes the life of a pastor,” he said at St. Matthew’s.

He also repeatedly emphasized the importance of preaching “passionately” and “serenely,” not in a complicated manner, but in a way that is genuinely infused with the joy of Christ. At St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, the Pope linked the role of bishops and priests to the family, the central reason for his visit to the U.S., which concluded at the World Meeting of Families. He said a good pastor “renounces the love of a family” in order to devote himself to the well-being of all families.

“A pastor must show that the ‘gospel of the family’ is truly ‘good news’ in a world where self-concern seems to reign supreme,” said the Holy Father. Pope Francis also called upon the clergy to “be courageous” in their vocation, sacrificing themselves for the good of the flock and never tiring of proclaiming God’s word.

Those who heard his message said it was especially credible because Pope Francis himself has practiced these very qualities in his ministry as a pastor. “Certainly he’s lived it himself, as a priest and then as a bishop, and now as pope. He lives humbly,” said Chad Van Hoose, a seminarian from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who came to see the Pope in Philadelphia.

In addition to his words, Francis demonstrated the qualities of a good pastor throughout his time in America, with his prayers and preaching translating directly into his actions.

He ate lunch with the homeless in Washington; he met with immigrant students in New York; and he embraced prisoners in Philadelphia.

He followed up his call for the bishops to “confront challenging issues of our time” with addresses to Congress and the United Nations, where he spoke out for the victims of war, poverty and abortion.

“Francis models what a pastor needs to be,” said Legionary Father Daniel Hennessy, who is based in the suburbs of Philadelphia. “He reaches out to everyone, even those who don’t agree with him.”

And the Holy Father, who said at St. Patrick’s that gratitude and hard work are the pillars of the spiritual life, lived this out by maintaining a smile on his face throughout his grueling schedule.

This made an impression on Patrick Gilbreath, a first-year seminarian for the Archdiocese of Mobile, Ala., who said he wants to be a pastor who embodies the joy of the Gospel.

“Pope Francis gives me hope that it can be done.”

Jonathan Liedl filed this report

from Philadelphia.