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Your Eminence Cardinal Dolan, Your Eminences, my Brother Archbishops and Bishops, Monsignor Jenkins and staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops once again I extend to all of you my heartfelt greetings and prayerful best wishes that these significant days that are before us now will be especially meaningful and productive for the life of the Church in America.
Since our meeting last year at this time when I first came as Apostolic Nuncio to this country I have had the opportunity to get to know you better through meetings, conversations, and various events, but most especially by my visits to your local Churches where I have felt particularly welcomed by your kindness and gracious hospitality. I have been traveling through this vast country for a number of installations, since our meeting this past Spring: Denver, Colorado for Archbishop Aquila; Buffalo, New York for Bishop Malone; Steubenville, Ohio, for Bishop Monforton; Erie, Pennsulvania for Bishop Persico; and San Francisco, California for Archbishop Cordileone. I also was warmly welcomed to Brooklyn, New York for the episcopal ordinations of Bishop Chappetto and Bishop Sanchez, and to Rockville Centre, New York for Bishop Perez and Bishop Brennan. In a few short weeks I will be going to the installations in Lincoln, Nebraska for Bishop Conley; Tyler, Texas for Bishop-elect Strickland; Indianapolis, Indiana for Archbishop Tobin; and Orange, California for Bishop Vann. Permit me to welcome the Archbishops and Bishops, and the Bishop-elect in their new capacities. We offer them our continual prayers and support for their ministries.
I convey my special greetings with affection and my whole-hearted gratitude to all those Bishops who have retired and have given so much of themselves for the life of the Church. I know they will continue to offer their valuable and much-appreciated service to their respective local Churches.
A word of encouragement must also be given to those Ordinaries whose Archdioceses and Dioceses have been affected by the recent hurricane Sandy, causing loss of life and extensive devastation. May the great concern and comfort you have shown to those afflicted by this tragic situation be a sign of the Church reaching out in love to all people.
Within the past year you have made your ‘Ad Limina’ visits in Rome. In the very first session of those visits in 2011, to which I made reference this past Spring at our Conference, the Holy Father spoke with particular attention to “the concern about the grave challenges to a consistent Christian witness presented by an increasingly secularized society” (November 26, 2011).
In response to these ‘grave challenges’, this past October 7, His Holiness, inaugurating the Synod of Bishops on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” said: “The Church exists to evangelize…At various times in history, divine providence has given birth to a renewed dynamism in the Church’s evangelizing activity” (October 7, 2012). The Holy Father spoke of the need “to help people encounter the Lord, Who alone fills existence with deep meaning and peace; and to favor the rediscovery of the faith, that source of grace which brings joy and hope to personal, family and social life.”
On October 11, the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the universal Church joined with the Holy Father in beginning the ‘Year of Faith’. He said: “I believe that the most important thing…is to revive in the whole Church that positive tension, that yearning to announce Christ again to contemporary man.”
As you are aware, the wisdom of Pope Benedict XVI and his unique capability and personal charisma to delve into the workings of the Holy Spirit have prompted him to announce this ‘Year of Faith’ that will hopefully have lasting consequences for the Church as a whole, and especially for the Church of the United States. The leadership of the Bishops is of pre-eminent importance if the ‘Year of Faith’ is to have a long-term effect and if the New Evangelization is to be not merely a temporary enthusiasm, but rather a permanent dynamic in the life of the local Church.
The Church in the United States, as recipients of the first evangelization, has reaped untold benefits from those saintly people like the North American martyrs, Junipero Serra, Mother Cabrini, and countless others, who came from Europe and distant lands to our shores, without regard for themselves, to plant seeds and act upon the Gospel message.
Europe has in turn in recent times copied in many different forms, especially those American ways and styles of life marked by materialism and consumerism, which have contributed to leading her astray from the values of the Gospel. Yet, these Gospel values, by the grace of God, although strongly confronted by secular society, are still very much alive in the Church in America, so that we have to consider now the ways by which we should take major responsibility in this New Evangelization, not only for the members of our local Church for the Church worldwide. Therefore, missionary zeal must be reborn. The vibrant spirit, still so much alive in the Catholic Church, should inspire those who have lost their way, those who have become absorbed in materialism, imprisoned by secularism, and those disillusioned young people looking for meaning for their existence. The Holy Father, speaking at the inauguration of the Year of Faith, has said: “Today, more than ever, evangelizing witnessing to the new life, transformed by God, and thus showing the path” (October 11, 2012). We bishops are the very leaders in that Church that must show that path to others. And because of this we have a solemn obligation to be faithful to our call.
For this mission to be accomplished now and in the days to come, a necessary step to which the bishop must give his devoted attention is the spiritual renewal of his presbyterate, as well as the life of the seminary. With good, solid, dedicated priests and seminarians the Church will have the future leadership it needs to face the challenges of the twenty-first century and to make the Gospel message come alive.
We need to give hope and encouragement to our people by exercising great care and solicitude toward those who will lead the People of God after us. We must have a discerning eye to see and to take leadership of what is the best course to follow for those who are preparing for the ordained ministry. Vocation directors must be priests who, working together with their bishop, have a keen and prayerful sense of those who will faithfully communicate to others the mind of the Church. We must choose for our seminaries the finest priests possible, not necessarily the most renowned, or most highly recognized, or even the most intelligent, as true teachers, models and examples for our seminarians. We need priests first and foremost who draw others to the message of Christ crucified through holiness of life, who have patterned their own lives on those saintly men and women who have gone before them. Hopefully our seminarians today will find their inspiration through us as well.
As you may recall, attention to the careful selection of those aspiring to priesthood is found in your highly-respected document, The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, in which it clearly states that bishops “are to employ adequate screening and evaluative techniques in deciding the fitness of candidates for ordination’ (article 13).
My brother bishops, the question that rings out in our cathedrals from our lips at the beginning of the rite of ordination must also be a question the bishop asks of himself. Indeed, it can be said that this is a question the Lord puts to each bishop not only on the day he ordains, but also when he visits his seminarians: “Do you know them to be worthy?”
We must continually undergo conversion ourselves, so that our people, especially through this Year of Faith, will have a renewed trust and confidence in us who are the messengers of the Gospel. We must continually beg God to forgive those who out of human weakness have caused great pain to others, as Pope Benedict has done at the conclusion of the Year for Priests in 2010 on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. Together with 15,000 concelebrating priests present, the Holy Father, in looking to the future made a promise, a promise that binds you and me, when he said that:
…in admitting men to priestly ministry, and in their formation, we will do everything we can to weigh the authenticity of their vocation and make every effort to accompany priests along their journey, so the Lord will protect them and watch over them in troubled situation and amid life’s danger. (June 11, 2010)
Essentially, we must not distance ourselves from our priests and seminarians, nor must they in any way at all be given the impression that they should act the same way toward us.
There are many optimistic signs that this renewal of the presbyterate is already taking place through the bishops’ participation with their priests in liturgical events, retreats and days of prayer, convocations, group meetings, listening sessions, and many other situations and opportunities. I urge you to continue I that positive direction. Keep encouraging your priests. Make them feel that they can freely come to you as you present yourself to them in both a fraternal and fatherly way.
Also, from another standpoint, it seems that a revitalization of seminary life is already occurring as well. So far, from my own limited personal experience, I have been favorably impressed by what I have seen at the North American College in Rome, and subsequently in my visits both to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio, and more recently to Mount Saint Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg. I was also pleased with a meeting of some religious seminarians in D.C. whom I had invited to the Nunciature for a gratifying discussion. Yes, there are hopeful signs to us for the future of our Church. These endeavors must continue.
Allow me to conclude with another promise made by the Holy Father in his responses during a press conference on the airplane when he was coming to visit both Washington, DC and New York in 2008:
We will do everything possible in the education of seminarians for a deep, spiritual, human and intellectual formation for the students. Only sound persons can be admitted to the priesthood and only persons with a deep personal life in Christ and who have a deep sacramental life.
So, I know that the bishops and directors of seminarians will do all possible to have a strong, strong discernment because it is more important to have good priests than to have many priests. (Origins, May 1, 2008)
I entrust these reflections to you in this Year of Faith. Let us listen to the successor of Peter and stand in courage and fortitude with him. Let us together in mutual support and sincerity of heart keep on growing as fervent and loving shepherds. May the Lord continue to bless us in our ministry.
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