The takeaway from Pope Francis’ meeting with President Obama at the White House this morning:
-- The pope offered a generic endorsement of the U.S. bishops’ campaign for “religious liberty.” Without getting into specifics, the pope seemed to indicate that he had the bishops’ backs on issues of disagreement with the Obama administration, including alleged discrimination over some health care provisions and gender policies.
-- The pope weighed in on the challenge of climate change, and in the process endorsed Obama’s recently proposed “Clean Power Plan,” which has drawn criticism from political opponents.
--The pope applauded, indirectly, the recent U.S.-Cuban diplomatic agreement, saying we need more international efforts to mend “broken relationships.”
The pope introduced himself as a “son of an immigrant family,” and in general lauded the founding principles of the United States and gently challenged Americans to live up to them.
Next stop was with U.S. bishops at the Washington cathedral, and here the pope had much more to say, and with a certain eloquence. Again, he framed his remarks with a long list of positives, including the “remarkable growth” of the church in the United States, the commitment to pro-life causes (he specifically mentioned victims of abortion), the church-run school system and its outreach to immigrants.
His words on sexual abuse by clerics – he avoided the term “sexual abuse,” referring instead to “dark moments in recent history” – praised the bishops, saying they had shown courage and made sacrifices in attempting to regain authority and trust, bring healing to the victims and make sure “such crimes will never be repeated.” His words were met with applause; there was not a hint of papal criticism on this score.
When it came to the bishops’ overall mission, Pope Francis made several important points:
-- First, he said he was speaking not “with my voice alone, but in continuity with the words of my predecessors.” It might seem unnecessary to say, but evidently the pope wanted to make it explicit.
-- While stating he did not come to “lecture” or judge the bishops, the pope outlined key principles that he considered “helpful for our mission.” The first was that bishops are above all shepherds, and their main task is to reach out to people.
“It 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,’” he said.
He said bishops also need to “flee the temptation of narcissism, which blinds the eyes of the shepherd, makes his voice unrecognizable and his actions fruitless.”
-- It helps if bishops are farsighted and shrewd, the pope said. But they also must not invest too heavily in worldly battles, he added.
“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,” he said.
The bishops should avoid the temptations of licking one’s wounds, thinking back on bygone times and devising “harsh responses to fierce opposition,” he said.
-- The church’s mission, he said, is to promote a culture of encounter. Its method is dialogue, and authentic dialogue reaches out beyond the church’s boundaries, toward those who disagree with the church on some issues.
The bishops should recognize that the power 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.”
-- The bishops’ service to unity is also essential, especially in a world broken by divisions, the pope said. He said the United States' vast material, spiritual, cultural and technological resources "impose specific moral responsibilities" in today's world.
“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.”
The pope closed by asking bishops to be pastors who are close to their people, and to train their priests to do the same. He also encouraged them to continue their ministry to immigrants, especially during an influx of Latin Americans, saying that “no American institution does more for immigrants than your Christian communities.”