Excerpt from the Concluding Address by Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
Congress of the Angelicum Foundation of Santiago, Chile
& the University of St. Thomas (Houston)
Houston, Texas - March 21, 2015
As the last speaker of the conference, it is my duty to address the topic, Reconciliation and Community: A Call for Transforming Leadership. I will do so by considering the lives and styles of leadership of two Latin American pastors. The first is a Jesuit, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires – Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
As Archbishop of Argentina’s capital – a diocese with more than three million inhabitants – Cardinal Bergoglio developed and implemented a pastoral missionary plan based on communion and evangelization. He had four main goals: open and brotherly communities, an informed laity playing a lead role, evangelization efforts addressed to every inhabitant of the city, and assistance to the poor and the sick. He asked priests and lay people to work closely together in the work of evangelization and education of the people. During many years of fruitful pastoral ministry, Cardinal Bergoglio insisted, “Teachers of the faith need to get out of their cave,” and the clergy “out of the sacristy.” He required parish priests to live with their people, and in the same conditions as their people, even in radical simplicity and poverty. Authentic pastors should have the “odor of the sheep” if they are to be effective and credible.
When Cardinal Bergoglio spoke of social justice, he called people first of all to pick up the Catechism and to rediscover the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. His project was and remains very simple: if you follow Christ, you understand that “trampling upon a person’s dignity is a serious sin.”
“My people are poor and I am one of them," Cardinal Bergoglio said so often, explaining his decision to live in an apartment above a school and cook his own meals. He frequented the Villas Miserias, advised his priests to show mercy and apostolic courage and to keep their doors open to everyone. One year before his election to the See of Peter, the Cardinal wrote a pastoral letter in which he reprimanded his own priests for refusing the Sacrament of Baptism to the children of single mothers.
His life was radically changed two years ago March 13 when “Padre Jorge,” as he was known by so many in Argentina, became Pope Francis. We have all witnessed and been recipients of his Petrine Ministry for the past two years. Since his election as Bishop of Rome, he has captured the mind and heart not only of the Church but also of the world. He has not changed a single doctrine of the Church but has ushered in a way of speaking, a new style of leadership that has shaken the Church and impacted the world.
Some call him a revolutionary. At the heart of his message is a transformative call to reconciliation and mercy. As leader of the Catholic Church, he asks us to let go of different forms of thinking and the desire to impose certain ideas at all costs. He proposes a humble way of committed people who base their lives on Gospel living. For Francis, compassion and mercy can truly change the world. This is the Christian revolution: namely a conversion to the origin of the Gospel message as a way to the future, a true revolution of tenderness and mercy.
Listen to three sections of his “Mission Statement” or Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium:
88…For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.
100…It always pains me greatly to discover how some Christian communities, and even consecrated persons, can tolerate different forms of enmity, division, calumny, defamation, vendetta, jealousy and the desire to impose certain ideas at all costs, even to persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts. Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?
229…The sign of this unity and reconciliation of all things in him is peace. Christ “is our peace” (Eph 2:14). The Gospel message always begins with a greeting of peace, and peace at all times crowns and confirms the relations between the disciples. Peace is possible because the Lord has overcome the world and its constant conflict “by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). But if we look more closely at these biblical texts, we find that the locus of this reconciliation of differences is within ourselves, in our own lives, ever threatened as they are by fragmentation and breakdown. If hearts are shattered in thousands of pieces, it is not easy to create authentic peace in society.
An attitude that seeks dialogue, builds bridges and opens doors
Two months after his election as Bishop of Rome, in his daily homily of May 13, 2013 in the chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis stressed the courageous attitude of St. Paul in the Areopagus, when, in speaking to the Athenian crowd, the Apostle to the Gentiles sought to build bridges to proclaim the Gospel. Francis called Paul’s attitude one that “seeks dialogue” and is “closer to the heart” of the listener. The Pope said that this is the reason why St Paul was a real pontifex: a “builder of bridges” and not of walls. The Pope said that this is the attitude that a Christian ought always to have.
“A Christian,” Francis said, “must proclaim Jesus Christ in such a way that He be accepted: received, not refused – and Paul knows that he has to sow the Gospel message. …Paul does not say to the Athenians: ‘This is the encyclopedia of truth. Study this and you have the truth, the truth.’ No! The truth does not enter into an encyclopedia. The truth is an encounter - it is a meeting with Supreme Truth: Jesus, the great truth. No one owns the truth. The we receive the truth when we meet it.”
…Pope Francis’ electrifying homily to the new Cardinals in St. Peter’s Basilica on February 15 of this year is one of the most significant addresses that he has given in his two-year pontificate. Centered on “the Gospel of the marginalized,” it provides a road map for Catholic Church leaders and educators. Commenting on Jesus’ cure of the leper in Mark’s Gospel, he said, “Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized!” Jesus responds “immediately” to the leper’s plea “without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences” because “for Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family!”
“This is scandalous to some people but Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness that does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp.”
Francis finds the contemporary Church at a crossroads: “There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost.” There is “the thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person,” and “the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.”
“These two ways of thinking are present throughout the church’s history: casting off and reinstating,” Francis said. He recalled that Sts. Peter and Paul caused scandal, faced criticism, resistance and even hostility for following the path of reinstatement. Francis, and many of those who have embraced his message and strive to follow his example are also being criticized today for the same things: for not casting off but striving to reinstate those who are on the peripheries for a variety of reasons.
…In healing the leper, “Jesus does not harm the healthy. Rather, he frees them from fear. He does not endanger them, but gives them a brother. He does not devalue the law but instead values those for whom God gave the law. Indeed, Jesus frees the healthy from the temptation of the ‘older brother.’”
In an address on March 14 of this year to the Union of Italian Catholic Educators, the Pope addressed them as colleagues, saying: “Indeed, the duty of a good teacher - all the more for a Christian teacher - is to love his or her more difficult, weaker, more disadvantaged students with greater intensity. Jesus would say, if you love only those who study, who are well educated, what merit have you? Any teacher can do well with such students. I ask you to love "difficult" students more … and there are some who really try our patience, but we have to love them more… those who do not want to study, those who find themselves in difficult conditions, the disabled and foreigners, who today pose a great challenge for schools.”
Pope Francis told his audience: “If a professional association of Christian teachers wants to bear witness to their inspiration today, then it is called to engage in the peripheries of the school, which cannot be abandoned to marginalization, exclusion, ignorance, crime.”
The Church of Francis is the Church of Jesus Christ
Where is Pope Francis leading the Church? What does he want the bishops to do? What does he expect of us, ordained ministers? And what is he modeling for laymen and women? For Francis the Church is first of all reconciler. In his address to the Brazilian bishops during World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Francis said that “from the beginning, God's message was one of restoring what was broken, reuniting what had been divided," Francis explained. "Walls, chasms, differences which still exist today are destined to disappear. The church cannot neglect this lesson: She is called to be a means of reconciliation."
Francis wants the church to be an instrument of reconciliation and welcome, a church capable of warming hearts, a church that is not bent over on herself but always seeking those on the periphery and those who are lost, a church capable of leading people home. Pope Francis takes every opportunity he can to ask his brother bishops, priests, pastoral ministers and lay leaders: Are we still a church capable of warming hearts? A church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home? Jerusalem is where our roots are: Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles. … Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty?
Pope Francis is neither conservative nor liberal but a radical who wants to bring about a revolution of mercy. In Evangelii Gaudium, he invites and challenges all of us to move beyond our “comfort zones.” He wants us to be warm, welcoming and forgiving. He wants us to eat with tax collectors and sinners; he wants us to forgive the woman caught in adultery (while admonishing her to sin no more); he wants us to welcome and respect foreigners (even our enemies), and, above all, not to judge others.
For Pope Francis, authentic power is service: Power in the Church is not about who kisses one’s hand but how many feet one can wash in the service of Christ. Pope Francis made this clear when he visited a youth detention center on his first Holy Thursday in Rome in 2013 and chose to wash the feet of young offenders, including two young women and two Muslims. He continued that tradition last year by washing the feet of elderly women and men and those with severe handicaps. Next week he will wash the feet of 12 prisoners at Rome’s Rebibbia prison – incarcerated women and men. If we do not learn this Christian rule, we will never be able to understand Jesus’ true message on power and be effective teachers, educators and pastoral workers.
The Christian realism of the “Joy of the Gospel” is beyond reactionary ideology and pie-in-the sky spirituality. A little compassion can move the world, Francis says. That is the Christian revolution at the core of Francis’ Petrine ministry, a conversion to the origin of the Gospel message as a way to the future, a revolution of mercy. There is nothing new here. It is only the Gospel message. It’s been our mission, our mandate and our story for over 2,000 years.
The second Latin American pastor was also an Archbishop – the chief Shepherd of San Salvador - Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Goldamez, born in 1917 in the town of Ciudad Barrios, in the mountains of El Salvador near the border with Honduras. After serving as a country pastor and rector of two seminaries, he became bishop then archbishop at time of great social unrest in his country. His pulpit became a source of truth when the government censored news. Romero walked among the people and listened. "I am a shepherd," he said, "who, with his people, has begun to learn a beautiful and difficult truth: our Christian faith requires that we submerge ourselves in this world."
Through his life and ministry, Archbishop Romero taught us that thinking with the Church meant to be rooted in God, loving and defending the poor, and out of fidelity, paying the price for doing so. He risked his own life as he defended the poor and oppressed. He laid down his life for his friends.
The spirituality and faith behind his struggle for life flowed from his belief in the God of the living who enters into human history to destroy the forces of death and allow the forces of life to heal, reconcile, and lift up those who walk in the valley of death. Romero taught us that poverty and death go together.
Oscar Romero’s life also speaks to us today by virtue of his untiring call for dialogue and negotiation. In a society that was terribly polarized, a society in which the usual way to relate to persons with whom one disagreed was to assassinate them, Romero always tried to open a space for communication, conversation, and understanding. In 1980, Romero brought the opposing sides of the government of El Salvador together for hours of talks, urging that the junta be given another chance. His example of bridge-building can be of particular importance to any nation today where change is often seen as a process of the oppressed taking on the pinstripes of the oppressors.
Oscar Romero’s untiring efforts on behalf of the poor give flesh and blood to the words of Mary’s Magnificat in the New Testament. In making her own the words of Hannah of the Old Testament’s prayer of praise to God, Mary reminds us that “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” But God has not put the lowly up on the thrones of their oppressors! The problem is the thrones themselves that serve as a constant temptation to power, distortion, violence, abuse and manipulation. Romero’s life offers a completely different model of societal transformation. His plea for forgiveness, reconciliation and mercy is of paramount significance. Oscar Romero modeled for us the opposite of what the world models. The world thrives on manipulative, exploitative, competitive power. Romero embodied nutritive and integrative power: power on behalf of the other and a power shared with others.
Murdered in cold blood by an assassin’s bullet as he celebrated Mass in a hospital on March 24, 1980, his last words in the sermon just minutes before his death reminded his congregation of the parable of the wheat. "Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grain of wheat that dies. It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies…”
…Oscar Romero testified that the church must be the voice of the voiceless and the incessant defender of life. The church must passionately pursue justice, but without identifying itself with any one particular party or any one particular ideology. This can be a very difficult and challenging struggle, a veritable mine field or high wire balancing act. To walk this tightrope was especially challenging in the El Salvador of the ‘70s, which was so highly politicized that people were often not seen as persons, but instead, were identified only on the basis of their belonging to political parties or organizations.
…Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande, Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Maryknoll Missionaries and the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador were pastors
, university professors, teachers and lay missionaries who were brutally murdered because of the questions which they asked about justice and peace; because they sought the truth of very difficult situations of suffering and massive injustice; because they believed dearly in the value of a Catholic, critical education, which put into practice what the best elements of our Church stand for. Each person was disciple, missionary, educator and evangelist and each was killed because the education and evangelization which they shared with their students and flocks touched the enormity of human suffering and pain all around them in El Salvador.
Here in our peaceful and at times surreal environment of higher learning, we may ask ourselves if this is what Catholic Education, adult catechesis and evangelization programs are suppose to do: to kill people and make martyrs? And the ultimate answer may be yes. What happened in El Salvador to these men and women and what continues to happen to similar people around the world who are authentic teachers, disciples and witnesses is not so much a barbarous and bizarre anomaly… because authentic Catholic education, true evangelization and missionary discipleship must educate and evangelize men and women into the disciplined sensitivity toward the suffering in the world whoever and wherever they may be. This is part of the education and evangelization called for by the Gospel. For without a specific Gospel-rooted effort to bring about such a religious and humane education and evangelization in our educational and pastoral milieus today, we will simply graduate and form people unaware of pain, suffering and the real cost of being Christian and being disciples.
Pope Francis is doing exactly the same thing for us as he leads and guides the Church. He has a passion for the poor, the immigrant, the forgotten, and the “throw-aways.” He is the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first from Latin America; these are the areas of the world where poverty is so great. Francis is inviting us to become witnesses, missionaries and disciples. That is our mission today. It is not new. Francis has brought new urgency, new passion, and I would suggest, new authenticity to this mission.
If we fail to understand the modus operandi of Francis of Buenos Aires and Oscar of El Salvador, we risk transforming the living realities of both Archbishops into framed diplomas, coveted degrees, documents in files, books on shelves, academic seminars, monuments, statues and holy cards to admire, and not people to imitate to emulate. We must ask ourselves at a university conference like this one, “How do faith and a Christian understanding of education transform the lives of Catholic laity in the world? How are the tenets of Catholic education and evangelization making a difference in lives of Catholics and many who are peering in from the peripheries.
Teaching and preaching is the art of leaving vestiges in students and those who listen to us, and all good teachers and preachers must ask what vestiges they wish to leave in their hearers. Good and effective teachers and preachers have usually had excellent teachers and preachers themselves. The highest compliment we can pay to our own teachers and pastors is to try to imitate them or incorporate their methods into our own lives. People may listen to us because we are good teachers and preachers, but they will truly learn from us, be inspired by us, be changed by us, and even imitate or emulate us because we are first and foremost disciples and witnesses.
Both Francis and soon-to-be-Blessed Oscar are disciples and missionaries, role models and Gospel witnesses, agents of reconciliation and builders of communities of faith. Francis leads the Church on earth, and Oscar watches over us from the heavenly Jerusalem. Let us learn from the examples of these two great pastors, teachers and missionary disciples from Latin America.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada and English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office.