Here is my final presidential address at the fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, given yesterday, November 14, 2016.
“What you did for one of my least.” (Matthew 25:40)
Archbishop Pierre, brother bishops, friends all,
Jesus spoke and acted in very concrete ways. His ways of touching hearts were not just beautiful ideas but concrete actions. We’re told that Hebrew thought – unlike the abstract path we inherit from the Greeks – takes hold of the imagination and touches the whole person. It’s why Jesus’ parables and miracles are ever-new, and it’s why Pope Francis, who speaks to the concrete, gains such appeal.
Serving Christ is not simply a beautiful idea. It shows itself in concrete actions. The Jubilee Year of Mercy comes to a conclusion this Sunday. The 100th year of this plenary gathering of U.S. Bishops begins this month. No words of Jesus are more concrete in capturing God’s mercy at work in our Bishops’ Conference than His call in Matthew Chapter 25: “What you did for one of my least, you did for Me.” These words came alive in five encounters I had over these three years, each with a lesson learned:
1. The first scene: Tacloban, Philippines in January 2014 shortly after typhoon Yolanda hit the shores. Devastation was everywhere. No one would’ve blamed the people we met for turning completely selfish amid the destruction. That’s why one encounter stands out. I spoke with a woman who was a leader in a small district on the edges of the shore in Tacloban. I can still hear her voice explaining the needs for the school and church to be rebuilt and her neighbors to have decent running water and a roof over their heads. There was no hint in her voice of seeking her own good. She wanted to organize so that all might survive and thrive – she was seeking the common good.
The lesson: bishops are called always to seek the common good – an environment in which all might thrive with dignity. For 99 years we bishops have addressed vital issues on a national level – seeking that common good and mindful of those without a voice. Whether it is protecting the child in the womb and her mother or a family seeking a better life as they migrate from another country, it is our task to think not of our own interests but of the common good. We embrace that task with enthusiasm and enter respectful dialogue with President Trump and with both houses of Congress.
2. My second stop is Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, near all the fighting. In June of last year, I was part of a whirlwind five days in war torn and economically ravaged Ukraine. We met with church and civic leaders, the US ambassador, and so many others. But the event that sticks in my mind was a visit with a refugee family in their small two-room home. There was a mother with three children, one of whom was a young child of eight who was born with Down Syndrome. (We all know the plight today of families in which the mother conceives a child with Down Syndrome. Sadly too often she receives little encouragement from the medical community. There’s an astronomically high rate of Downs children in the womb who never are given a chance to live. The servant of God Dr. Jerome Lejeune, who not only discovered the genetic cause of Downs but spent his life standing up for these special individuals, looms as a model to be imitated.) Well – I entered that small home and to my surprise when I bent down to shake the hand of the little boy with Down Syndrome, he instinctively jumped into my arms, gave me a big smile, and said in a language that my heart understood: “I love you.” That encounter, though brief, kept coming back to me as I reflected on the pastoral visit to Ukraine. The lesson is obvious: we bishops and all who serve the Lord need also to open our hearts to the joy that others will give to us. Joy and love are not only to be given but also to be received. Jumping into my arms was a trusting child of God deserving a chance. So many youths in our nation need a chance – an opportunity. I think of the gathering on September 9th in Louisville for the National Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities. An overflowing church prayed for peace and harmony in our nation. I am grateful for the work of Archbishop Gregory’s task force to help us bring civility and dialogue based on the inherent dignity of every person in our nation. Each of us has the responsibility to do our part to build trust in our neighborhoods. I suspect we will find signs of hope from unexpected places – in the new Dr. Jerome Lejeune or the new Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being born today.
3. The third stop: El Paso. The scene is this February when Pope Francis visited Mexico. I joined 600 faithful on the United States side of the Rio Grande for the Papal Mass. Prior to the Mass, I met with about two dozen unaccompanied minors, young men and women who were in our nation under the protective custody of the government. I asked them what their dreams were. To a person, they spoke words that would have made me proud coming from a Catholic high school senior: they wanted only to work, study and join their family. Quickly I asked: “not also to pray” and without a pause, they said, “yes, to pray to God for help.”
Our nation is on thin ice when refugee families are spoke of in the abstract. After I met the unaccompanied youth seeking reunion with their families, the issue became very clear. Surely the situations are complex, but the voiceless remain anonymous unless there is a face to the voice. Whether the young child with Down syndrome from Kharkiv in my arms or the dozens of youth with dreams in their hearts, we bishops need those flashes of inspiration and encouragement from God.
4. The fourth stop: Louisville, St. Joseph Home for aging persons in need of care. This lesson comes from watching the courageous acts of those who seek only to serve – to serve with integrity of faith. The Little Sisters of the Poor have been embroiled in lawsuits and publicity that they never did seek out. They simply want to serve people who as they grow old become frail and often poor. The prominence of the Little Sisters of the Poor on a national level has reminded me of the precious gift of religious freedom. This freedom is at the very core of the practice of our faith and at the very foundation of the greatness of our nation. The lesson learned: don’t allow government to define what integrity of faith means. It is our duty to protect those who wish simply to live their faith and to serve God and one another with integrity of faith. The lesson learned about religious freedom is one that we as a conference must carry forward.
5. The fifth encounter was a phone message: Three years ago after you elected me as president, I returned home to a voice message from my good friend and mentor, Bishop David B. Thompson. + Dave had turned 90 that June but never lost his capacity to reach out in support. At our June meeting in St. Louis on the feast of St. Barnabas, I mentioned the example of Bishop Thompson whose call of support showed me what he had consistently been for 90 years: a son of encouragement, a “Barnabas.” We bishops need a “Barnabas” in our lives, and we need to be “Barnabas” to one another. How deeply we will fail in our mission to live Amoris Laetitia if we do not begin with our attention to one another.
Sometimes at these plenary meetings, I look across the room filled with bishops and think of the thousands of ways in which individuals are helped through you. The quality of your service will be free of “burn out” and full of enthusiasm to the degree that we live as church, as communio, with one another. In my meeting with Pope Francis on October 6th, he praised this unity that is ours as bishops. He called it a gift – a gift that Jesus gives to each of us, brother bishop to brother bishop – a gift essential to maintaining service to others. On November 24, 2013, about a week after + Dave made the congratulatory call to me, he was called to his eternal reward. Thank you, +David B Thompson, for reminding me of that priority to support brother bishops – to be “Barnabas” to another.
Five images – five lessons about who we bishops are. The plenary meeting is not simply a gathering – we are a family, a communio of pastors. Just as a family seeks to serve each other as a prerequisite for authentic service beyond, so we do too. If not, our pastoral hearts will be shallow and short lived with others. In the midst of the busy schedules that you bishops find as your daily routine, thank God for those moments of lifting up one another.
For sure there are many challenges on our doorstep:
- Challenges that threaten our global community, especially as we stand up for those persecuted for their religion,
- Challenges within our nation as we tirelessly promote the dignity of every person;
- Challenges to unity in truth and charity within our church as we tirelessly announce the good news of Jesus Christ, to draw all to Christ, and to walk with all toward conversion.
There’s been unprecedented lack of civility and even rancor in the national elections just completed. Now we are required to move forward with a respect for those in public office as we seek the common good based on truth and charity, without imposing but strongly proposing as we have done now for 99 years. We enter dialogue with the Trump administration and leadership in both houses of congress – seeking as in the past concrete actions.
Jesus spoke and acted in very concrete ways. Empowered by His grace, so do we, reaching out to:
- The mother carrying a child in her womb.
- The man at the last breath of his life.
- The family fleeing for a better life for their children.
- The young family living in the inner city, seeking opportunities and not racial profiling.
- The legions of people throughout the United States who serve in Catholic facilities and wish only to serve faithfully with integrity of faith.
- The bishop who receives support from his brother sitting next to him right now.
My episcopal motto, “Hope in the Lord,” comes from the final verse of Psalm 31: “be strong and take courage, all you who hope in the Lord.” This is not a pie-in-the-sky hope but a hope grounded in the reality of God’s grace in the midst of challenges. I leave office grateful for you, my brother bishops, staff, and all the others – too many to name – who have worked alongside me these past three years.
United with Pope Francis, we are confident and hopeful, as we hear once again the echo of the words of Jesus: “What we did for one of my least…you did for Me.”