Clergy who file into a room to hear an address by Pope Francis know they’re taking their chances. He can either be tough, railing against clericalism, judgment, hypocrisy and other perceived failures, or he can be understanding and supportive.
Central America’s bishops on Thursday largely got the latter, as the pope chose to focus on the serious challenges faced by pastors in the region.
“Sadly, many young people have been taken in by easy answers that end up costing them dearly,” he said, in a speech that turned mostly around St. Oscar Romero, the slain archbishop of El Salvador, killed by a bullet through the heart while saying Mass in 1980.
Speaking about Romero, the pope said that the late archbishop was considered “a bad word” at times, and that in private “whispers,” many bishops had “excommunicated him.” The pontiff declared Romero a saint last year, after declaring him a martyr earlier on in his pontificate.
Many times, the pope said, young people lack opportunities, becoming trapped in situations that have no quick solutions: “domestic violence, the killing of women - our continent is experiencing a plague in this regard - armed gangs and criminals, drug trafficking, the sexual exploitation of minors and young people, and so on,” he said.
Labeled “femicides,” the rate of women being murdered by their male partners is extremely high across Latin America. In the pope’s Argentina, for instance, one woman is killed every 30 hours.
At the root of many of these situations, the pope said, is the experience of being “orphaned” meaning “the fruit of a culture and a society run amok.” Families are often broken apart by an economic system that doesn’t put the human person at the center nor the common good, he said, making speculation its “paradise.”
“We see our young people without a home, without a family, without a community, without a sense of belonging, easy prey to the first charlatan who comes along,” the pope said.
In such a conflict-filled subcontinent, Francis affirmed that many people, both consecrated and lay, nevertheless “devote their lives and even shed their blood to keep the Church’s prophetic voice alive in the face of injustice, the spread of poverty, and the abuse of power.”
Speaking outside of his prepared remarks, the pope said that the last name of many of the bishops who were present in the room were a bad word, but “your perseverance showed us the way.”
“They remind us that those who really wish to give glory to God by their lives, who truly long to grow in holiness, are called to be single-minded and tenacious in their practice of the works of mercy” he said. “And this, not simply as almsgiving, but as a true vocation.”
Francis spoke at length about the kind of bishops he wants, quoting Romero and saying that “only great men can form other great men.”
Romero, Francis said, is one of the prophetic fruits of the Church in Central America. The archbishop was murdered in 1980, during El Salvador’s bloody civil war. Not long before his death he’d challenged the local army, saying they were waging war against their own brothers.
The saint was neither “an ideologue nor ideological,” Francis said, and his actions were rooted in the documents of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s.
Romero’s teachings, Francis said, “remain a constant source of inspiration for our churches and, in a special way, for us as bishops.” The late bishop’s episcopal motto, “to think with the Church,” was, according to the pontiff, “the compass for his life and fidelity, even in times of great turmoil.”
Romero exemplified “a love born of receiving an utterly free gift, one that does not belong to us but instead frees us from any pretension or temptation to think that we are its proprietors or its sole interpreters,” he said. “We did not invent the Church; she was not born with us and she will carry on without us. This attitude, far from encouraging sloth, awakens and sustains boundless and unimaginable gratitude.”
At a time when more Christians are being killed for their faith in record numbers, the pontiff said martyrdom has “nothing to do with faintheartedness or the attitude of those who do not love life and cannot recognize its value. On the contrary, the martyr is one who is capable of incarnating and living fully this act of thanksgiving.”
To think with the Church, Francis said going back to Romero’s motto, is to contemplate the institution as the People of God.
“We did not invent the Church; she was not born with us, and she will carry on without us,” the pope reminded his brother bishops. Keeping this in mind, he added, far from encouraging sloth, “awakens and sustains boundless and unimaginable gratitude.”
Francis also told the bishops that it’s important for them not to be afraid to touch the wounds of their people, “which are our wounds too, and to do this in the same way that the Lord himself does.”
A pastor, he said, cannot “stand aloof” from the suffering of those he’s called to minister to. On the contrary, the heart of a pastor is “measured by his ability to be moved by the many lives that are hurting or threatened.”
To care about suffering as God does, he explained, means to allow these sufferings to become a priority when it comes to allocating resources and time, even prayer.
Talking about young people, Francis said they’re “full of hope and desires, but also many hurts and scars,” and with young people the hierarchy of the Church will be able to envision “how to make the Gospel more visible and credible in the world in which we live. They are like a barometer for knowing where we stand as a community and as a society.”
The Church, he said, is by its nature “a mother,” and as such, protects life from all that threatens its growth. Hence, the institution is called to “snatch” young people from the streets “before the culture of death can entice their young minds and sell them its smoke and mirrors, or offer its chimerical ‘solutions’ to all their problems.”
Addressing the hot-button issue of immigration, Francis said many migrants have “young faces” and are looking for better opportunities for their families.
“The Church, by virtue of her universality, can provide the fraternal hospitality and acceptance that can enable the communities of origin and of destination to dialogue and to help overcome fears and suspicions, and thus to consolidate the very bonds that migrations - in the collective imagination - threaten to break,” Francis said.
Last but not least, as he usually does during the speeches to the local bishops, the pope spoke about the danger of clericalism and the importance of bishops having a “paternal” relationship with their priests.
Romero, he said, wasn’t a “human resources manager” but a “father, a friend and a brother,” and as such, he’s a good yardstick to measure the hearts of each bishop and ask: “How much does the life of my priests affect me? How much do I let myself be impacted by what they experience, grieving when they suffer and celebrating their joys?”
“The extent of ecclesial functionalism and clericalism- which represent a caricature and perversion of ministry- can start to be measured by these questions.”
Christ’s Church, Francis told the bishops, is one of compassion, and it must begin from home.
Quoting his predecessor, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, Francis said that “Christ did not promise us an easy life. Those looking for comfort have dialed the wrong number. Rather, he shows us the way to great things, to goodness, to an authentic human life.”
As he often does during his speeches to the local bishops, even more so when he talks to them in Spanish, Francis read from prepared remarks, but adding small comments here and there, and several jokes. For instance, he spoke about an “old, short, thin lady,” who he’s already seen twice from the popemobile, wearing a home-made miter and a sign saying: “Holy Father, we grandmothers also make a havoc,” a reference to what he told Argentinian pilgrims during his first Word Youth Day, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, back in 2013.
Speaking about the importance of bishops having a compassionate heart, particularly when dealing with priests, the pope said that at times, compassion is missing “even in Catholic media, compassion is not there. There is the schism, condemnation, appraisal of oneself, denunciation of the heresy … Compassion cannot be lost in our Church nor can the centrality of compassion be lost for the bishops.”