The letter was sent ahead of the U.S. bishops’ weeklong retreat at Mundelein Seminary, in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The retreat was proposed by the pope in October as an opportunity for them to reflect and pray after a year of scandals which have rocked the Church in the U.S. and worldwide.
Following months of scandals, including the allegations against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, American bishops met in November for their annual general assembly in Baltimore, at which bishops vocally disagreed with one another on the root causes of the crisis facing the Church, and on the best means of addressing it.
Acknowledging that recent abuse scandals have undercut the credibility of the Church in the United States, Pope Francis said that a cover-up mentality “enabled them to fester and cause even greater harm to the network of relationships that today we are called to heal and restore.”
A unified body of bishops, he said, would be helpful in regaining this credibility.
“Credibility will be the fruit of a united body, that, while acknowledging its sinfulness and limitations, is at the same time capable of preaching the need for conversion,” he said.
Francis also condemned what he called a sense of “division and dispersion” among the communion of bishops that has erupted in the wake of abuse allegations. This discord, the pope said, goes beyond the typical disagreements bound to arise among any group of people and comes from “the enemy of human nature” taking advantage of current crises to further divide the Church.
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The bishops must take a “renewed and decisive approach to resolving conflicts,” said Francis, as he cautioned against a reliance on structural solutions that would reduce the role of a bishop to “a mere administrative or organizational function” in the “business of evangelization.”
The paramount task facing the American bishops, Francis said, is to create “a shared spirit of discernment” leading to true communion, without giving in to the “relative calm” of a sterile compromise or a vote with winners and losers.
The pope said that the bishops must abandon the “modus operandi of disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim or the scold in our relationships,” and instead should focus their attention on “the gentle breeze that the Gospel alone can offer.” Instead, he said, the bishops should work to avoid “gossip and slander” and promote dialogue, discussion and discernment among one another.