Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Address to the USCCB General Assembly on November 16, 2015
Archbishop Vigano, brother bishops, friends all,
In less than a month, Pope Francis will open the Door of Mercy at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and we bishops will be opening doors throughout America. As we walk through these doors of mercy ourselves, we will lead the faithful in a jubilee year of mercy.
Just as the merciful encounters in the pages of the Gospels began with Jesus being present, so our mission of mercy begins with a presence. Reflect with me on three facets of that presence of Jesus today:
• in our humble encounters as pastors of souls;
• In our faithful witness and service within our society;
• and in the faithful witness of Catholic families, whom we want to honor, call forth and support.
Two months ago Pope Francis at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., called us to “…be pastors close to the people, pastors who are neighbors and servants.” During his visit, he came with that kind of pastor’s presence – touching the hearts of the most influential, the forgotten, and all of us in between. His actions radiated the presence of Christ and people responded! National polls tell us his visit has spiked interest in the faith and there are signs of renewed fervor. We who were at the World Meeting of Families’ vigil service and final Mass saw this joyful response before our eyes.
I remember his words when he urged us to bear witness to the essential things in the manner of “…a humble home, a family fire which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love.” Our hearts respond to that call to be pastors who are present, welcoming, and eager to walk with our people. Yet, this call is not new. When I was ordained a priest in 1972, the priests I identified as those best to imitate knew instinctively the art of accompaniment. Where the greatest need was, there was that priest. Not waiting for people to come to him, he went out to them.
Some of my best early memories as a priest were those summer days visiting families in their homes, walking through the neighborhood, or the Sunday morning practice of standing in front of church before and after Mass often for encounters of one or two minutes. Even those humorous encounters when invariably a parishioner would say, “Father, it is about time you have such and such in the bulletin,” only to have me search for the right pastoral reply when it has been in the bulletin the last five weeks!
We also know that the desire of the laity for their pastor’s presence is not new. In the listening sessions leading up to the 2009 Pastoral Letter: Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, we heard from couples who felt like they were considered a “completed project” after their wedding. Those hurting often said that, while they knew we are not marriage counselors, they want us to be present in their lives – showing concern and love.
Presence means making time and never letting administration come between me and the person. It’s seeing the person first. At last month’s Synod closing Mass, Pope Francis forcefully hit this theme when he reflected on Jesus’ healing of the blind Bartimaeus. He spoke of avoiding “scheduled ministry,” whereby we walk with God’s people but follow our own agenda for the journey, expecting others to “respect our rhythm,” and being bothered by every problem.
There are so many who desire and need our presence. Whether as pastors in our dioceses or together in plenary meetings, we address vital issues of pastoral care. The list is long: protecting the human person at the very beginning and end of life, welcoming and safeguarding the newly arrived neighbor to our country, healing racial tensions and seeking a harmony based on the dignity of each person, reaching out to the poor. Our schedule must be their needs and our example must be the Lord Jesus Himself, whose presence daily guides us and strengthens us for this work.
The mercy of Jesus always begins with His presence. He is present every time we visit a parish, a family, or a priest at his work. In a similar way, we as a Conference in our public actions seek to be a presence in the public square – always seeking the common good and making room for faith to act – never imposing but always inviting, serving. We as a Church are at our best when we serve others in the name of Jesus. Just think of our extensive presence in virtually every corner of society – in our Catholic Charities, St. Vincent De Paul network, Project Rachel, the work of many religious orders, our ministry to refugees and migrants, Catholic schools, the individual service of local parishes, our Catholic health care ministries, and many others.
Make no mistake. The challenges are real! Our works of mercy are responding to the heartbreaking crises and challenges in our world. The draft introductory note to Faithful Citizenship, which we will consider tomorrow, sums up these challenges: we face the ongoing destruction of over one million innocent human lives each year by abortion; the redefinition of marriage; the excessive consumption of material goods and destruction of natural resources; the deadly attacks on fellow Christians and religious minorities throughout the world; the narrowing of religious freedom, which threatens both individual conscience and the freedom of the Church to serve; economic policies that fail to prioritize the poor; a broken immigration system and a worldwide refugee crisis; wars, terror, and violence that threaten every aspect of human life and dignity.
Our calling is to be present in this world, in the very places where people are hurting the most. Our ministries are designed to give people hope, to walk alongside them, to provide practical help, but also to show them the way to Jesus and the transformative power of His love and grace. This is accompaniment at its best. What a great tragedy it will be if our ministries are slowly secularized or driven out of the public square because of short-sighted laws or regulations that limit our ability to witness and serve consistent with our faith. Pope Francis testified eloquently while in Philadelphia this fall. “Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Because religion itself, the religious dimension, is not a subculture; it is part of the culture of every people and every nation.”
Our greatest witness as representatives of Jesus will always be humble, clear and courageous – offered with words that match lives well lived – coming from a freedom that flows from our dignity and responsibility. This is not a freedom of special privilege but a freedom that makes room for witness and service in a manner consistent with our faith and mission. At the end of the Holy Eucharist each Sunday, all are bid to “go forth, the Mass is ended.” Perhaps a better way to think of it is: “Go forth. You are sent.” Let us pray we don’t lose our presence in the public square to a misguided secularization that reduces faith to the least common denominator and erodes the very richness of belief that impels people of faith to serve unselfishly those most in need.
A special arena where our presence is desperately needed is in the homes and hearts of families. The Synods this year and last brought into the forefront the need for us to accompany in gentle mercy those who are struggling as well as the need to inspire all to joy and strength in the vocation to which Christ has called them.
One of the greatest insights I brought home from the Synod last month is the recognition of families as ministers of the Gospel. Families are not simply objects, receiving from us who serve. Families are subjects, those who give and share, inspiring others through their heroic lives often lived in very ordinary circumstances but lived in extraordinarily faithful ways. At the Synod, I was asked several times about my own family – I’d be the first to say we were not perfect, but we loved and we tried! One special part of our family was my brother Georgie who had Down Syndrome. Georgie was a glue in our family, drawing out love and service, forcing us to slow down, ask for help, and focus on time together. In fact, when he lived with me, he brought those same gifts to my rectory life and drew the other priests and me together into a make-shift family. He gave each of them nicknames, and brought us together with times of joy – and frustration – but helped bond us together through the ordinary moments of any family. These experiences, plus the families whose lives I have come to know and love as a bishop continue to enrich me. They testify to Christ’s work and love by simply being faithful to each other, loving their children, welcoming others into their homes, teaching the faith, praying together. Simple things, but a profound witness to their vocation.
Media coverage of the Synod dutifully reported the debates surrounding true and lasting pastoral care for those families distant from the Church. What was under-reported was the wide agreement on the priority of calling forth, properly forming, and supporting families who faithfully and often heroically witness to their family life, inspiring others in the Church and society. Families who accompany other families – who serve as mentors – may be the greatest fruit of the Synod process. Important in calling forth such witness is our efforts to promote the beautiful vision of self-giving love in marriage. As we as a body take up the formal statement on the destructive effects of pornography in our age, we have the great opportunity to lift up the beauty of God’s plan for human sexuality.
Brothers in the episcopacy, we join together in this assembly united to each other in Christ with a humble confidence that Jesus’ presence will show us the way forward in each of these callings – to be present as pastors, to renew public life in our nation, and to call forth families to witness. Our strength and direction lies in our closeness to Him. In Christ Jesus, we draw strength from our unity with each other and with the Holy Father and the entire church.
I want to close with the touching words of our Holy Father when he was with us at St. Matthew’s in Washington, D.C. He said, “Whenever a hand reaches out to do good or to show the love of Christ, to dry a tear or bring comfort to the lonely, to show the way to one who is lost or to console a broken heart, to help the fallen or to teach those thirsting for truth, to forgive or to offer a new start in God… know that the Pope is at your side, the Pope supports you. He puts his hand on your own, a hand wrinkled with age, but by God’s grace still able to support and encourage.”
United with Pope Francis and with each other, we begin this week and take confidence in the presence and power of Jesus, who gives us the strength to take heart and to rise up. As we open Doors of Mercy in our dioceses next month, let us walk through them together and so lead the faithful in a joyful jubilee year of mercy.