In Brazil, Pope Francis questioned whether bishops there were capable of keeping Catholics in the Church.
In Korea, he lectured the prelates to shed worldliness, success, and power. In Paraguay, he warned bishops not to put themselves on a pedestal.
With extraordinarily high profile addresses planned for his US visit next week – to Congress and the United Nations – a third, more intimate address has so far escaped intense scrutiny, but nonetheless holds potential to be among the most consequential: The pope’s prayer service with US bishops.
Next Wednesday, Francis will gather with about 300 American bishops at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington for a 45-minute gathering, during which he’ll deliver an address in Spanish.
If the pope’s tough speeches to bishops during past apostolic visits are any indication, US bishops should prepare for more than just a papal pep rally.
And for some bishops, that’s a good thing.
“I think we’ve got to grapple with the problem of inequality, particularly with the global power the United States has that affects the lives of so many millions,” said Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego. “I would like to see him challenge us on taking a stronger stand on that question.”
McElroy said when it comes to internal matters, he hopes Francis reminds bishops that the Church should be “a place of mercy.”
“It’s more important to reach out beyond the barriers and bring people in than it is to preserve the barriers and keep them lined up properly,” he said.
The head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops says he expects the pope to talk to them about family issues.
“We’re on the threshold on the year of mercy, and Pope Francis is coming primarily for the World Meeting of Families, so he’ll certainly want us to extend ourselves in support of family life, both in inspiring couples as they prepare for marriage and walking with people as they experience difficulties,” said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville.
Then there’s the issue of bishops being close to their people, or “smelling of sheep” as Francis memorably put it.
Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago said that as the leader of a large archdiocese, it’s easy “to begin to live in a bubble.” So he hopes Francis encourages bishops to “walk with nearness to people” by being “attentive to what is happening in their lives, and that we are good shepherds who are willing to have people inform us about how they’re living the Gospel in their lives, about the various circumstances and demands that are there.”
Francis will almost certainly praise American bishops for their work, but he probably won’t shy away from nudging them on certain issues, either. After all, it’s what he’s done on other international visits.
Consider his message to Brazilian bishops a couple of years ago.
As part of his visit to World Youth Day in 2013, Francis reiterated his call for a poor Church, and asked bishops if they were still capable of attracting people to institutional Catholicism.
While reflecting on the growing numbers of Catholics who leave the Church, he offered some self-critical suggestions as to why this happens.
“Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age,” he said.
The solution, he said, is “a Church unafraid of going forth into their night.”
“We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning,” he continued.
Then there was the pope’s visit to Korea last summer.
During a talk to bishops in Seoul, Francis praised the Church there, but also offered some warnings and gentle criticism, particularly about that society’s growing wealth, what he dubbed an “a prosperous, yet increasingly secularized and materialistic society.”
“In such circumstances, it is tempting for pastoral ministers to adopt not only effective models of management, planning, and organization drawn from the business world,” he continued, “but also a lifestyle and mentality guided more by worldly criteria of success, and indeed power, than by the criteria which Jesus sets out in the Gospel.”
He urged the bishops “to reject this temptation in all its forms,” and to eschew “worldliness which stifles the Spirit, replaces conversion by complacency, and, in the process, dissipates all missionary fervor.”
More recently, the pope spent time in South America in July, and challenged clerics there, too.
During a prayer service in Paraguay, Francis reflected on different roles in the Church and reminded his audience that “a person called by God does not show off; he or she does not seek recognition or applause; he or she does claim to be better than others, standing apart as if on a pedestal.” And in Ecuador, he urged clerics to avoid falling into a sort of “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”
So what can American bishops expect to hear from their leader next week?
He’ll undoubtedly hold up their continued push for immigration reform and praise the US Church’s vast health care and education network.
And it’s unlikely he’ll be as cutting as he was with the Vatican bureaucracy last Christmas, when he warned bishops against “spiritual diseases” such as narcissism and the “pathology of power.”
Still, Francis will encounter a hierarchy whose public battles in recent years some view as at odds with the pope’s priorities, and one that appears at times to be divided about its own public role.
John Carr, director of The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University and a former staffer at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he expects Francis to challenge some American bishops about their leadership style.
“If you think we’ve lost, if you think the culture is overwhelming us, the natural inclination is to hunker down and preserve and protect what we have,” Carr said.
But, he said, “If you think we have what the world needs, if we can make our case on life, on family, on justice, on peace, then the task is to engage and persuade. Pope Francis is an engage-and-persuade type of leader.”
Helen Alvaré, a professor of law at George Mason University and a commentator on Catholic issues, hopes the pope will urge bishops to forgo a defensive posture, even on hot-button issues.
“It would be great to see American bishops get ahead on women’s issues, and not be regularly responding to criticism,” she said. “They’ve got a policy agenda that is really terrific at the national and international levels for women. But it’s rarely spoken of as a women’s rights agenda.”
She said those issues include advocating for paid leave for mothers, pushing for better health care, and providing support for single mothers.
Catholic bishops in the United States deserves lots of praise on some issues, such as immigration, and it’s likely Francis will highlight that, said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.
“He’s not going to be scolding the bishops at all, but he’s going to be challenging them, as he is going to be challenging all Americans, to live up to our ideals,” she said.
Alvaré said Francis might find some room for improvement in US parishes.
“The pope is repeatedly insistent on the need for the Church to assist people, to encounter Jesus Christ, and he has asked parishes to be this place, to facilitate this encounter,” she said. “I would like to see bishops challenged to get their parishes involved, to get their parishioners’ hands dirty, to feel your Catholic community, not just when you get together for liturgy. So many people are longing to be useful, to be of service.”
The pope’s address to bishops could be his most consequential of the visit, as he relies on local prelates to get on board and then carry out his vision for the Church. It will be an opportunity for Francis to present his broad agenda, which includes controversial topics such as environmental protection, annulment reform, and a gravitational shift toward mercy away from rigidity, to a largely unknown audience.
This is, after all, Francis’ first visit to the United States, and could be the only time he gets to address in person a vast majority of US bishops at once.
McElroy won’t be there — he’s staying in San Diego for the diocese’s priests’ convocation.
But Cupich will be, just days after being officially named as a handpicked papal delegate to the Synod on the Family. As will Kurtz, who said that Francis is often at his best when he’s giving homilies, when he so often goes off-the-cuff, “and I suspect he won’t disappoint us.”