“The consequence of the love of the Lord is to give everything—exactly everything, even one’s own life—for Him: This is that which ought to distinguish our pastoral ministry. It is the ‘acid test’ that bespeaks the profundity that we have embraced, the gift we have received. By responding to the call of Jesus, we show how much we are bound to the persons and the communities that have been entrusted to us.”
— Pope Francis, Profession of Faith at the Italian Bishops’ Conference, May 23, 2013
At one point in his homily during the Episcopal Ordination of Michael Barber, S. J. to the See of Oakland, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, himself Barber’s predecessor in Oakland, told him that, at times, he would seem to be alone with huge problems on his shoulders. But he must remember that he is part of an episcopal college, men bound together in the same faith and love. He will not be alone. These words reminded me of those that I came across in Pope Francis’ reflections with the Italian bishops, his “Cari Fratelli nell’Episcopato.”
Pope Francis likes to reflect out-loud, as it were, with fellow bishops. He prefers to call himself “the bishop of Rome.” The bishops had evidently just heard the famous passage of the Lord’s asking Peter thrice whether he loved Him, words that upset Peter at the time. “Such words,” the pope said, “have caused me to reflect very much.” He wanted to share his “meditation” with the these bishops.
The pope said that it was particularly appropriate that his first meeting with the Italian bishops should be at the tomb of Peter. Here we can also remember Peter’s “testimony of faith, his service to truth, and his giving himself even to martyrdom for the Gospel and the Church.” Essential to the reality of the Church is its memory of what it is, of what happened to its members, where and why.
This Altar of Confession, where they all were gathered, could be taken for the image of the Lake of Tiberius, the Pope said. It was here that Peter received his commission to “feed my sheep.” On the banks of this lake, the amazing dialogue of Peter and Christ took place. Christ directed His questions to Peter, but they should resound in the heart of every bishop.
Pope Brogoglio then slowly repeated the question three times: “Peter, do you love Me?” In fact, this love is the one essential question whereby alone a bishop can take care of his flock. “Every ministry is founded on this intimacy with the Lord.” This love is the “measure” of ecclesial service which is expressed by our “disponibility” to obedience, to our total giving of our selves. We are to be bound to the “persons and the communities entrusted to us.” This is the “acid test” of our service.
The pope then tells us what bishops are not, or ought not to be. “We are not the expression of a structure or an organizational necessity.” Even in the service of our authority, we are called to be signs of the “presence and action of the risen Lord.” Hence we are to erect the community in “fraternal charity.” We assume here, of course, that bishops are not to run shoddy or inefficient organizations in the necessary administration that they have to do.
We have to be “careful.” “Even the greatest of loves when they are not constantly nourished become enfeebled and “go out.” Here Francis cites the famous passage from Paul (Acts 20:28): It is not for nothing that Paul warns us: “Watch over yourselves and your flock; in the midst of which the Holy Spirit has made you to be guardians of the flock of the Church of God that he has established with His own blood.”
We know very well that this lack of vigilance to small things makes the shepherd “tepid.” He is “distracted, forgetful, and even insufferable.” The prospect of a “career, the desire for money, and compromises with the spirit of the world weigh on him.” They transform him into a “functionary, a cleric who is mainly preoccupied with himself, with organizations and structures, rather than the true good of the People of God.” He runs the risk, then, as did the Apostle Peter, of denying the Lord, even if formally he “speaks” in His name. He obscures the “holiness” of the hierarchical Mother Church. He renders her less fecund.”
Needless to say, this is quite a list! Obviously, such aberrations seem to arise out of the pope’s ecclesiastical experience. He is not speaking of abstractions, though he does not give names and numbers. Benedict XVI, in Deus Caritas Est, had confronted the same problem of why a bureaucracy as such could not really do what charity was intended to do, reach the actual persons in need. Francis reduces the causes of these aberrations to the central one asked of Peter by Christ: “Do you love Me?”
Yet, as I say, something ought to be said in favor of those bishops who run tight ships and in caution to those who do not, even if both love Christ equally. The Church and state impose enormous bureaucratic obligations on bishops and dioceses. The laity do not deserve “functionaries,” but they do not deserve inefficiency either. Delays and difficulties in dealing with Church offices is often a major complaint often heard.
The pope speaks familiarly with his bishops. “My brothers, who are we before God? What are our trials? We have so many; every one of us knows his own. What things do we say to God about them? Do we know what things support us in overcoming them?” The pope here speaks as a wise fellow pastor, a bit mindful of what Archbishop Cordileone told Bishop Barber–others are there to help us.
As with Peter, the persistent questions of Jesus alert us to the fact that we are weak in our freedom. We are besieged with millions of internal and external conditions that often incite “errors, frustrations, and even unbelief.” Certainly, the Lord does not intend to arouse these attitudes in us, but they “profit our enemy, the Devil, who wants to isolate us in our bitterness, laments, and discouragements.” This pope specks much of the “spiritual warfare” that, more often than we admit, tempts and unsettles us, makes us aware that the cause of Christ is being actively combatted by what the Apostle John called “this world” and its agents.
Jesus, the good Shepherd, does not abandon us in our remorse. In Him appears the “tenderness” of the Father who consoles and sends us off again. We pass from the separateness of shame. We gain the courage to take up “responsibility for our mission.”
Peter, purified by the “fire of pardon,” can humbly say: “Lord you know everything. You know that I love you.” The pope adds: “I am certain that all of us can say this from our hearts.” Peter, once purified, can go on in his first Letter to say that we should feed the flock of God. We should watch over it not because we are constrained, but voluntarily, not from shameful interest, but from “a generous soul.” We are not masters over persons. We should be “models” for the flock.
To be pastors means to believe every day in the grace and power that comes from the Lord in spite of our own weakness. We even assume the responsibility of going before the flock. We want them to recognize our voice whether they be of our flock or those from another sheepfold. God’s law does not make any distinction of persons. …
To be pastors, we must also dispose ourselves to walk in the midst of or behind the flock. We must be capable of listening to the flock, to the silence of those who suffer. We must sustain the steps of those who fear to take them. We must be able to give hope to others. The bishops should have particular love for their priests.
The pope tells them in Italian: “Ámiaamoli! Amiamoli di cuore! Sono i nostril figli e nostril fratelli!”´–Love them! Love them in your hearts! They are our sons and brothers.
The bishops then made a profession of faith together with Pope Francis. The pope tells them: “Let it not be merely a formal act but a renewal of our responsibility to ‘Follow Me’ with which the Gospel of John concludes. They must dispose their present lives to follow God’s project, bearing it all for the Lord. From this short exchange of Francis with the Italian bishops, we can discern the “burden of thoughts, concerns, and necessities of the men of our time.” We can also, I think, see something of the way this pope has chosen to deal with his Office as Bishop of Rome.