It was thrilling to see the Pope at the White House, the Capitol, Independence Hall, Ground Zero, and the United Nations. I was moved to witness the affection and enthusiasm of the throngs lining the streets in Philadelphia, the joy of the children at Our Lady Queen of the Angels School in Harlem, and the devotion of the million participants at the closing Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Why does even the secular world pay attention to Pope Francis? Quite frankly, it is because you and 1 billion other Catholics consider the Pope their spiritual Father. The world paid little attention to Jorge Bergoglio until he was chosen by the College of Cardinals to serve as the Successor of Peter.
The Pope’s world-wide influence is because of the unity of the Church which has been preserved with much difficulty and sacrifice for 2,000 years. There is no other political, intellectual, economic or religious leader in the world for whom so many people feel a bond of filial love.
For me personally, the most significant of his speeches were the two addresses given to bishops – the first to the Bishops of the United States in Washington, D.C. and the second to the Bishops from all over the world assembled in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families
At St. Mathew’s Cathedral in Washington, Pope Francis provided a meditation and at points an examination of conscience for those of us who serve as bishops. The Pope reminded us: “We are bishops of the Church, shepherds appointed by God to feed his flock. Our greatest joy is to be shepherds, and only shepherds, pastors with undivided hearts and selfless devotion. We need to preserve this joy and never be robbed of it.”
The Holy Father defined our primary responsibilities to be praying, preaching and shepherding. Pope Francis challenged us that our prayer must be a daily personal encounter with the gaze of Jesus. The Holy Father cautioned also against “preaching complicated doctrines” but instead “joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake.” The Pope pleaded with us that our flocks “… may always encounter in the heart of their pastor that taste of eternity which they seek in vain in the things of this world.”
Pope Francis, however, spent most of his time reflecting with us on what it means to be a shepherd. He cautioned us from becoming pastors who care for ourselves more than for our flock.
The Holy Father challenged us “…to flee the temptations of narcissism, which blinds the eye of the shepherd, makes his voice unrecognizable and his actions fruitless.” The Pope exhorted us to be “lucidly aware of the battle between light and darkness being fought in the world” and reminded us “that the price of lasting victory is allowing ourselves to be wounded and consumed.”
The Holy Father urged us not to be “paralyzed by fear” but to know “that we have been given a spirit of courage not timidity.” His challenge to us was not retreat from the culture, but counseled that the path forward is one of encounter and dialogue – dialogue with every segment of the Church family as well as with the secular society.
In particular, Pope Francis encouraged us to be fearless by entering into dialogue with those holding positions very different from the ones we know to be certain and true. Without such dialogue we fail to understand the thinking of those we desire to reach and redeem. The Holy Father reminded us that the Pastor is about winning souls, not arguments. Hearts are changed by respect and love, not by clever logic or harsh rhetoric.
He concluded his talk urging us to be true Fathers by being close to our people – being “pastors who are neighbors and servants.” He made a special appeal to be particularly close to our priests, teaching them by our own example not to become “bureaucrats, but instead reflect the motherhood of the Church, which gives birth to and raises her sons and daughters.”
The Pope’s visit for me was a mini-retreat. It was a sober reminder of how short I fall from the model of the Good Shepherd. I take consolation from the example of the Apostles. They reveal in the Gospel their own frailties and weaknesses. Yet, Our Lord was able to use them to spread His Gospel from India to Spain and every point in between.
Please pray for me that I can become more and more a pastor who strives to be your servant and neighbor. Pray that I can become more and more a shepherd with an undivided heart and selfless devotion. Pray for a greater willingness on my part to be wounded and consumed that the Gospel can be effectively proclaimed and the lasting victory of life and light gained.