Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Papal Nuncio to the United States, gave this address to the general assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Your Eminence Cardinal Dolan, Your Eminences, my Brother Archbishops and Bishops, Monsignor Jenkins and staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, let me begin by saying a word of gratitude in particular to all those bishops whose dioceses l have been pleased to visit for various occasions since our June meeting, whether it be for the installation or ordination of a bishop, or for meetings, conventions, assemblies, and anniversaries, involving such a wide range of the faithful who help to form and identify the Church here in America. I am grateful to you for your kindness and gracious hospitality. You know that the Holy Father offers you all his continual prayers and support for your invaluable mission to God’s People.
It has been two years already since my arrival in the United States. To say the least, the experience for me has been both enlightening and enriching. My duty and my work as Apostolic Nuncio, as you know, is to be with you at your side as the representative of the Holy Father. As the Successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis has made a great impression by drawing and captivating the hearts of men and women throughout the world, inviting them to meet Christ personally in their lives.
It is my intention this morning to share with you a few reflections and observations I have since my time here in this country. I ask you to take these thoughts into prayerful consideration. You know this comes from my admiration, respect, and loving concern for the Church in America.
Just after our meeting of the Bishops Conference in mid-June of this year, the Holy Father on June 22nd had a special audience with over 5,000 pilgrims from Brescia with their bishop to celebrate during this Year of Faith the 50th anniversary of the election of their beloved Brescian, Pope Paul VI, to the pontificate.
Pope Francis said that “Paul VI knew how to witness, in difficult years, to the faith in Jesus Christ… His was a profound love for Christ, not to possess, but to proclaim him.” The Pope especially mentioned how he often reflects on the words of Paul VI, especially his address in Manila and in Nazareth. Francis asked: “Do we have the same love for Christ? Is he the centre of our lives? Do our everyday actions witness to him?”
And then the Holy Father spoke of Paul love for the Church. It was “a passionate love, the love of a lifetime, joyful and painful, expressed from his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam… He loved the Church and offered himself for her without reservation…This is the heart of a true Shepherd, a true Christian, a man capable of loving!” Pope Francis stressed that, for him, Evangelii Nuntiandi is “the greatest pastoral document written to date.” “Paul VI,” he said, “had a very clear vision that the Church is a Mother who bears Christ and who leads to Christ.” Then His Holiness asked: “Do we love the great Church, the Mother Church, the Church that sends us on mission and makes us go out of ourselves?”
It is to this pastoral document, Evangelii Nuntiandi, that I wish to turn now. The following words of Paul Vi are most important for us at this particular time:
“It is appropriate, first of all, to emphasize the following point: for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, ‘Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers. and if it does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.’ … It is primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words’ by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus — the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity” (41).
And Pope Paul adds:
“The witness of life has become more than ever an essential condition for real effectiveness in preaching. Precisely because of this, we are, to a certain extent, responsible for the progress of the Gospel we proclaim…The world calls for, and expects from us, simplicity of life, the spirit of prayer, charity towards all, especially towards the lowly and the poor, obedience and humility, detachment and self-sacrifice. Without this mark of holiness, our word will have difficulty in touching the heart of modern man. It risks being vain and sterile” (76).
Certainly, my brothers, no one can dispute the clear fact that our present Holy Father himself, as the Supreme Teacher. is giving us by, his own witness, an example of how to live a life attuned to the values of the Gospel. While each of us must take into consideration our adaptability to the many different circumstances and cultures in which we live and the people whom we serve, there has to be a noticeable life style characterized by simplicity and holiness of life. This is a sure way to bring our people to an awareness of the truth of our message. The model for bishops, St. Charles Borromeo, my patron, when he addressed the members of the last synod he attended for his Church of Milan, said: “Be sure that you first preach by the way you live. If you do not, people will notice that you say one thing, but live otherwise…”
The Holy Father wants bishops in tune with their people. When this past June I met with him in his simple apartment at the Casa Santa Marta for a fruitful discussion, he made a special point of saying that he wants ‘pastoral’ bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology.
All of us who have been called to the ministry of bishop by Pope John Paul II, and many who have been ordained by him, are looking forward to his canonization, as well as the canonization of Pope John XXIII this coming April. During this time of spiritual preparation for this much anticipated event, my attention was called to the first November 9′”, 1978, exactly thirty five years ago this past Saturday. He said:
“As Servant and Pastor and Father of the universal Church, I wish at this moment to express my love for all those who are specially called to work for the Gospel, all those who actively collaborate with you in your Dioceses, to build up the Kingdom of God. Like yourselves, I learned as a Bishop to understand firsthand the ministry of priests, the problems affecting their lives, the splendid efforts they are making, the sacrifices that are an integral part of their service to God’s people… And, like yourselves, l have worked with the Religious, endeavoring to give witness to the esteem that the Church has for them in their vocation of consecrated love, and urging them always to full generous collaboration in the corporate life of the ecclesial community.”
Pope John Paul II goes on to say, with reference to the Second Vatican Council:
“… nothing is more enlightening than to recall the exact words which, on the opening day, John XXIII wished to spell out the orientation of this great ecclesial event: ‘The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be more effectively guarded and taught’.”
Pope John Paul II continues:
“This farseeing vision of Pope John is alive today. It was the only sound basis for an Ecumenical Council aimed at pastoral renewal; it is the only sound basis for all our pastoral endeavors as Bishops of the Church of God. This then is my own deepest hope today for the pastors of the Church in America, as well as for all the pastors of the Church: ‘that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be more effectively guarded and taught’.”
And Pope John Paul II further commented:
“The sacred deposit of God’s word, handed on by the Church, is the joy and strength of our people’s lives. It is the only pastoral solution to the many problems of our day.”
At this point, I would like to call your attention to the words the then-Cardinal Wojtyla is reported to have given in an address during the Eucharistic Congress in 1976 for the Bicentennial celebration of the signing of the Declaration of independence. it seems to be so profoundly prophetic:
“We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has ever experienced. I do not think that the wide circle of the American Society, or the whole wide circle of the Christian Community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-church, between the gospel and the anti-gospel, between Christ and the antichrist. The confrontation lies within the plans of Divine Providence. It is, therefore, in God’s Plan, and it must be a trial which the Church must take up, and face courageously…”
These words that the then-Cardinal Wojtyla made his own appear to be inspired from the Diary of Saint Faustina Kowalska, who greatly influenced his spirituality. As Pope John Paul ll, he proclaimed this Religious Sister a saint during the Jubilee Year of 2000. He died during Vespers of the feast of Divine Mercy, the feast which was inspired by Saint Faustina.
I view the above-quoted words of the Popes, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II, impressed clearly upon the history of the Church, as a call to attentiveness, watchfulness and preparedness for whatever proclaiming the Gospel may mean for g as successors of the Apostles, who were called to give radical witness to their faith in Jesus Christ.
In concluding, I urge you, my brothers, to preserve a spirit of real unity among yourselves and, of course, with the successor of Peter, trusting in the way he sees best to live out his mission to mankind. Unity expressed in a real, prayer-filled communion of mind and heart is the only way we will remain strong and be able to face whatever the future may hold for us.
While, from various perspectives, American culture is characterized by diversity, this is true also of the Church. As Pope Francis, in his visit to Brazil a few months ago, said to the Bishops: “The Church is never uniformity, but diversities harmonized in unity, and this is true for every ecclesial reality” (July 27. 2013). But, we must take care that, for us as a Church, this diversity does not grow into division through misinterpretation or misunderstanding, and that division does not deteriorate into fragmentation.
I recently came upon an article on the political situation in America over the past fifty years, and I caught sight of the subtitle which read: “The era of polarization began as Americans lost confidence in their leaders.” Well said, since the Catholic Church will preserve her unity and strength as long as its people have trust in their bishops. The sheep will gather together as one; they recognize and listen to the voice of their shepherd who calls out to them, walks with them, and is ready to give his life for them.
My brothers, let us go forward, filled with the zeal and fervor of divine love. Let us be confident that the Lord will give us the wisdom and strength we need for the tremendous task before us to give genuine witness to the faithful. Let us embrace our people with a fatherly embrace, let us make them feel that they belong, that they are not orphans or strangers. And we should also ask ourselves today a question posed by Pope Francis to the Bishops of Brazil: “…are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?” Let our response be a firm and wholehearted: “Yes, we are!”
(Photo: CNS/Bob Roller)