In his address Monday at the opening of the Italian bishops’ general assembly – the first time a Pope has delivered the inaugural lecture – Pope Francis reflected on the nature of episcopal ministry.
The Bishop of Rome and Primate of Italy began his May 19 talk at the Vatican’s Synod Hall by reflecting on Christ’s exhortation to St. Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, to “follow me,” saying, “this is important! It’s very important for us. I am always, always struck by this.”
The assembly, which will conclude May 23, is meeting to discuss amendments to their statutes, as Pope Francis has asked; guidelines for proclamation and catechesis in Italy; and Christian education.
The Pope did not refer to the discussion about amending the statutes of the conference, which is the only one in the world whose president is appointed by the Roman Pontiff rather than being elected by his peers.
“I would like to offer some reflections which review the ministry,” he told the bishops, “that it might conform always more to the will of he who has made us the leader of his Church.”
“The people look to us. They look to us for help in grasping the singularity of their daily lives in God's providential plan,” he said, exhorting the bishops to know both Christ and their flock.
He focused on being pastors of the Church in three respects: as the community of the Risen One; as the body of the Lord; and as the anticipation and promise of the Kingdom.
Pope Francis began, focusing on faith, asking the Italian bishops to reflect on Christ’s meaning in their life.
“Faith is the living memory of an encounter nurtured by the fire of the Word that shapes the ministry .. without faith, without constant prayer, the Pastor is exposed to the danger of being ashamed of the Gospel, and ends up defusing the scandal of the Cross in worldly wisdom.”
To counter the temptations in their ministry, he reminded them that “if we turn away from Jesus Christ … we can only feel the sterility of our words and initiatives.”
The spiritual life “cannot be reduced to some religious moments,” he said, but we must train ourselves to look “to the One who does not pass away: spirituality is a return to the essentials, to the good which no one can take away, the one thing that is necessary.”
“Do not grow tired of seeking for God – of being sought by him,” Pope Francis said, because “we are called to offer he who is most precious to our people, so as not to leave them at the mercy of a society of indifference, indeed desperation … following the path with him, we discover that we are a people, to the point of recognizing with wonder and gratitude that everything is grace, even the difficulties and contradictions of human life, if they are lived with a heart open to the Lord.”
Turning to the Church as the body of the Lord, he again mentioned the temptations against unity facing pastors, including a “tendency to seek the lost security of the past, and the claims of those who wish to defend unity by denying diversity, thus humiliating the gifts with which God continues to keep his Church young and beautiful.”
“The ecclesial experience is the best antidote in relation to these temptations,” said the Pope, noting its root in the unity of the Eucharist.
Pope Francis also exhorted the bishops to care for their priests, teaching them not to make a cost-benefit analysis in all they do, and for the religious.
Bishops should also love the faithful, he said, and “trust in their sense of faith and of the Church, which is manifest in many forms of popular piety. Have faith that the holy people of God has the pulse to find the right roads. Accompany with breadth the growth of lay coresponsibility; recognize areas of thought, planning and action for women and for youth.”
He quoted St. Therese of Lisieux, who said “love him and be loved.” This, he said, is the “core of the guidelines which proclamation and catechesis will face in these days.”
Addressing the bishops’ role as pastors of the Church as the anticipation and promise of the Kingdom, Pope Francis again mentioned the temptations facing them, including a spiritual sterility.
Counter to these temptations, “the Church is continually converted by the Kingdom it proclaims,” he said, and so “serving the Kingdom means living a life decentered from oneself, striving for the encounter that is the path for truly rediscovering what we are: proclaimers of the truth of Christ and his mercy.”
“Truth and mercy: do not divide them. Never!”
“Without truth, love is an empty box that anyone can fill according to his will,” he said, then quoting his predecessor Benedict XVI, who wrote in his 2009 encyclical “Caritas in veritate” that “a Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance.”
“With this clarity, brothers, may your proclamation be cadenced by the eloquence of gestures,” Pope Francis urged.
“As shepherds, live a simple life, poor and merciful, not putting anything between you and others.”
He said that “among the 'places' in which your presence seems to me to be most necessary and meaningful ... there is, first and foremost, the family. Nowadays, the domestic community is strongly penalized by a culture that privileges individual rights and transmits a logic of the temporary.”
“Promote the life of the unborn child as well as that of the elderly. ... And do not forget to tend, with the compassion of the Samaritan, to those who are injured in their affects and whose plans for life are compromised.”
Pope Francis then turned to the unemployed, calling it “a historic emergency, that appeals to the social responsibility of all: as a Church, let us not give in to catastrophism and resignation, instead supporting with every form of creative solidarity the efforts of those who, without work, feel deprived even of their dignity.”
“Finally, there is the welcoming embrace to migrants: they flee intolerance, persecution, a bleak future. May no one turn their gaze away.”
He also called attention to “the current model of development that exploits creation, sacrifices people at the altar of profit, and creates new forms of marginalization and exclusion,” calling on the bishops to be “attentive to and involved in” the situation.
Having said all that, he called on the bishops to a “communal discernment” throughout the coming year.
“Reach out toward whoever asks to reason for the hope that is in you: welcome their culture, offer them respectfully the memory of faith and the company of the Church, the signs of brotherhood, gratitude, and solidarity, that anticipate in man's days the reflections of the Sunday without end.”