By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
JEFFERSON CITY — Three themes are emerging from the first months after the election of Pope Francis, Des Moines Bishop Richard E. Pates told some 500 Missouri Catholics Sept. 28.
“Mercy, peace, preferential option for the poor,” said Bishop Pates who delivered the keynote at the annual Missouri Catholic Conference Assembly at the state capitol, with the theme: “Francis, Rebuild My Church.”
“Pope Francis states often that the church is not a religious non-governmental organization busy only about secular good,” Bishop Pates said.
“Rather it is the purposeful living Body of Christ that seeks to introduce all to ultimate meaning in life and to enable all to experience God’s profound love and irrepressible care for each person,” he said.
“A unique gift is conferred on each believer enabling him or her to be an instrumental part of that body,” he said. “Merging together with respect for one another, the community of believers are witnesses to that unifying presence of God. From their earliest days, Christians were powerfully identified, ‘See how they love one another; they are of one mind and one heart.’”
Bishop Pates said that a key to understanding the first months of Pope Francis can be found in the 2007 document of the conference held at Aparecida, Brazil, of Latin American bishops known as CELAM.
At that conference, under the leadership of then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, the Latin American bishops called for a “New Pentecost” with all Christians as “missionary-disciples” to go out in joy and preach the good news of salvation to all.
“We cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings, but we must move out in all directions to proclaim that evil and death do not have the last word, that love is stronger, that we have been liberated and saved by the Lord’s paschal victory in history,” the Latin American bishops wrote.
“Billions of our brothers and sisters live under the burden of oppression whether that be of sin, of physical suffering and pain, of injustice, of humiliating poverty, of psychological and emotional alienation, of isolation and rejection,” Bishop Pates said.
“The message of Jesus most appealing to them obviously is mercy,” he said.
Bishop Pates recalled how, soon after his election, Pope Francis celebrated his first Holy Thursday as pope by going to a Roman jail and washing the feet of incarcerated young people.
“In the name of Jesus, we are called to exercise this mercy with tenderness expressed with eyes that communicate acceptance, compassion and love,” the bishop said.
“We are disciples of the Lord to make real the Father’s mercy in our time,” he said.
The theme of peace was clearly expressed by Pope Francis in his response to the crisis in Syria, with the United States threatening military action in retaliation of the Syrian regime using chemical weapons on its own citizens.
“We Americans are truly weary of war, but we are equally hungry for peace,” Bishop Pates said. “As the consideration for war was presented, our national thoughts returned to an earlier war in Iraq when Pope John Paul II beseeched President George Bush not to go down that treacherous path. I experienced first hand testimony to that failed and enormously costly expedition.”
Bishop Pates said he attended this spring the installation of Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako in Baghdad.
“Almost to a person, the Iraqis while civil and polite confronted me: ‘You Americans ruined our country.’ Fellow bishops said the same, ‘You Americans ruined the church,’” he said.
Chaos still reigns in Iraq, and the Christian community has been decimated both through death and through emigration.
Pope Francis sought to avert the escalation of the war in Syria.
“Pope Francis quoted the words of Pope Paul VI at the United Nations in 1965: ‘War, nevermore. Nevermore, war,’” Bishop Pates said.
“In further advocacy of peace, Pope Francis gathered 100,000 people on five days’ notice in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 7, begging God for peace utilizing the two classic practices — prayer and fasting,” he said.
“The eventual outcome of dismantling the chemical weapons of mass destruction by Syria is hopeful for the region and the world,” Bishop Pates said. “There may be bumps in the road, but it is far better than American bombs reigning terror in the region. Moreover, there is a renewed glimmer of hope that the existing powers, namely Russia and the United States, might be influential in bring competing parties in Syria to the peace table.”
That is Pope Francis’s “recipe” for peace, not only in Syria, but between Israel and Palestine and other conflicts.
“Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” Bishop Pates said.
“If nothing else, perhaps dialoguing partners would become so weary of discussion that at the end of the day they would relent to peace,” he said.
The third theme that is emerging is renewed emphasis on the “preferential option for the poor” that was first articulated by the Latin American bishops in 1968.
“His South American friend, Cardinal (Claudio) Hummes was reported to have tapped Cardinal Bergoglio on the shoulder as election to the papacy seemed certain: ‘Jorge, do not forget the poor,’” Bishop Pates said.
“The pope has stated that he would like to see a poor church for the poor,” Bishop Pates said.
“He visited the favelas (shanty towns) in Rio de Janeiro and paid them respect and demonstrated to his hosts in these blighted neighborhoods his deep concern, interest and support,” Bishop Pates said.
Quoting the Aparecida document, Bishop Pates said, “This outreach is founded in the ‘Christological faith in God who became poor for us so as to enrich us with his poverty.’”
“More importantly in all of this, however, is you,” Bishop Pates told the Missouri Catholics.
“Along with Pope Francis, we enter the ‘Building the Church’ at its explicit action phase which has evolved over the last 50 years,” he said.
“Aparecida rallies our commitment to the protection of life in every aspect,” Bishop Pates said.
“In the spirit of Matthew 25, we are also called to welcome the stranger. This person can be encountered in various settings — the immigrant, the refugee, the victim of human trafficking and the person captured in the modern day slavery of sexual exploitation or forced labor,” he said.
“Universal health care is likewise a human right that calls for our promotion, as does the comparable right to a quality education,” he said.
“The market economy is to be tempered by an assurance of work for every one, and the provision of wages and benefits that can support a family in a style that befits their dignity,” Bishop Pates said.
“Commitment to social justice requires religious liberty both in worship and in the public square where our voices are heard promoting the civilization of love,” he said.
“In the spirit of Francis of Assisi, we are expected to be custodians of creation in all its marvelous beauty, reflecting the incomparable goodness of its Creator,” he said.
“We live in an imperfect world,” Bishop Pates said.
“Neither the Republican or the Democratic party speaks the totality of the Christian truth. Our first allegiance must be to that truth,” he said.
“We cannot afford divisions that have separated pro-life and social justice proponents,” Bishop Pates said. “In the interest of practicality, we may concentrate our personal work in one area. But in the end, may we come together as a grand coalition committed to God’s family and the life and dignity of each of his children.”