[Editor’s note: This is part one of a Crux interview with Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore.]

ROME — Having met with the pontiff for three hours Tuesday, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore came away convinced the perception that Pope Francis doesn’t really like Americans very much is not only untrue, but that it’s being used both by the extreme right and left to sow division.

Lori is currently in Rome taking part in his ad limina visit, an every-five-year pilgrimage by bishops from around the world to the Eternal City where they encounter the pontiff and visit different Vatican departments.

Speaking with Crux, the prelate denied the idea that the U.S. bishops are “anti-Francis” or on the brink of a schism.

On other topics, the man tapped to investigate disgraced Bishop Michael Bransfield who was removed from the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, said he believes the Vatican needs to release its long-awaited report compiling the investigation against former priest and cardinal Theodore McCarrick who was removed from the clerical state after being found guilty of sexually abusing minors.

“I think that the only thing worse than releasing it is not releasing it, because a great majority of Catholics expect us to own up to this and I think we have to own up to it,” he said.

Lori also spoke about the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, including the famous “Pachamama” figures that were a cause of controversy, basically dismissing the brouhaha.

“I think most of us said this is not an issue to waste a lot of time on,” he said. “You know, the Pachamama is come and the Pachamama is gone. I went through most Vatican departments [on this trip], and I looked in vain for the Pachamama.”

The Baltimore prelate also discussed the fear he felt before giving the pontiff a jersey of the NFL’s Ravens, given that Francis’s idea of “football” runs in a somewhat different direction.

“We wondered if the pope would say, ‘Well that’s the wrong football, I’m sorry’,” Lori said.

The archbishop spoke with Crux at the North American College, the Roman residence for American seminarians, on Dec. 4. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

You and 36 other U.S. bishops met the pope yesterday. How was it?

It was a wonderful meeting. First of all, he greeted us and our entourages very, very warmly. So, the Baltimore the crew came in — our seminarians, my priest secretary, two auxiliary bishops — and we presented him with a Ravens jersey – of course we’re doing awfully well these days…

We wondered too if the pope would say, ‘Well that’s the wrong football, I’m sorry.’

The jersey had the word ‘Francis’ and number eight, the number of our great quarterback, Lamar Jackson, [and was] signed by the coach [John Harbaugh] who’s a great Catholic. The seminarians presented that to the pope, who gave us the thumbs up.

We also presented him with a ‘spiritual bouquet’ for his 50th anniversary of ordination, and it was basically testimonials and prayers by people all over the archdiocese organized around the themes of his pontificate.

The pope always says ‘pray for me,’ and means it.

The perception is that Americans don’t like the pope.                         

Yeah, it just isn’t true. One of the things that I think I’ve drawn from this visit is that the narrative that the pope doesn’t like us, and we don’t like the pope, not only is it not true, it’s being used by people on the extreme right and the extreme left for their own ideological purposes.

What I sensed in the room with 36 of my colleagues was a moment of intense communion with the pope. It was really beautiful. I’ve been on four ad liminas in my life and they’ve all been good, but he has us in, we’re sitting around, and he shows us where we can get water if we want it, where the bathrooms are – I had the pope tell me where the bathroom is!

He said, ‘No speeches. Just tell me what’s in your mind and heart. What have you brought with you, from your people, from your priests? What burdens do you carry? What questions do you have? What criticisms, suggestions do you have? How could the Roman Curia help you better?’

It really was a space of freedom. You don’t have communion without freedom. All of us felt free, and spoke freely, and we raised a wide variety of things.

What concerns did you raise?

Since we’re the nation’s oldest archdiocese, I felt like I could give the pope a little description of it. Part of it is for us to know his heart, and part of it is for him to know us at our heart better, and that’s the beauty of this. I described the great diversity of the archdiocese, and it is a study in diversity, and I described what it’s like in mountainous Appalachian territory as you go to the West. The wealthy suburbs — some of which belong to Baltimore, and some of which belonged to Washington — are all part of us as an archdiocese.

I described parts of the city of Baltimore that are vibrant with young people, and there’s cranes in the air. Then I described the most violent and the poorest of neighborhoods in the United States. And when I told him there were 300 murders last year, he didn’t need an interpreter. “300?” and I said, “Yes, Holy Father, 300.”

I was able to describe how the Church has responded to that, including the building of a new Catholic school in the inner city. That and the jersey got the thumbs up.

 The other bishops described their dioceses. You could imagine we would talk about the sexual abuse crisis, you can imagine we would talk about the departure of young people from the life of the Church, the state of families. You could imagine any and every pastoral situation that a bishop is struggling with, we would have brought to him.

He received them with great love and great affection, and sometimes his advice- he never preached to us, and the advice, as I’ve said a few times, it wasn’t like going to see your boss, who would give you marching orders or a detailed prescription of what to do next. It was more like a conversation with an older brother.

No sense of ambivalence about Americans?

No, I didn’t feel that at all. When we all went in, he was very friendly, very kind,  and very patient. We were a pretty big group, 37. He’d just come back from Thailand and Japan, and he gave us all time. I didn’t feel rushed. When we sat down, none of us felt he was wary.

I think we felt like he made a sincere offer to really have an open dialogue with us, and if he was weary of us, and didn’t want to be with us, he showed that in an odd way, because he spent almost three hours with us.

I think this is a very damaging narrative.

Is there a division within the U.S. bishops?

There’s the narrative that we bishops are just on the verge of schism with one another but, surprise, surprise, we are not. I have sat through meetings for 25 years, and I have been in meetings during which we really were at each other’s throats, especially during the time of the liturgical translations.

However, today there’s more of a coming together. There are different emphases, some are more to the left, some are more to the right … There have been cases recently of bishops challenging one another- like Archbishop Charles Chaput challenging Bishop Robert McElroy – but, by heavens, in the culture we live in, it was a model of civility for how to have an intelligent exchange of views.

This has always been the case among the American bishops. Back in the 19th century, there were real divisions. But today, I think there is a sense of communion and I think this is good. I think it’s not perfect. But I think it’s pretty good.

My sense is that, as a conference, we are very loyal to the Holy Father.

What about the Amazon synod and the Pachamama?

I think most of us said this is not an issue to waste a lot of time on. You know, the Pachamama is come and the Pachamama is gone. I went through most Vatican departments, and I looked in vain for the Pachamama.

[Laughter] In fact, I was going to give little Pachamama Christmas ornaments to my staff, but they weren’t ready… [Laughter]

I think there were questions among the United States bishops about the viri probati. There were certainly questions about women deacons and things of that nature. But in fact, I think that in the course of our conference a lot of that was put into perspective.

Can you help put it into perspective for Crux readers?

I could try. I think that, first of all, in order to understand anything about the Amazon you have to understand what life is like there. What the environmental degradation is like. What the depths of poverty is like. What the isolation is like. Most of us have zero idea of what the heck life is like there. If the Amazon synod did anything, it was to nudge people who live pretty comfortably to say, wait a minute, you got some brothers and sisters over here who are living a vastly different life than you are.

Secondly, while we’re talking about I prefer this parish or that parish and this music over that music, they have a bunch of people who maybe, maybe, see a priest once a year. Then you ask yourself: What is the appropriate pastoral response to this? Is it, you know, a wholesale abandonment of the Church’s teaching and discipline? Of course not.

Is it, is it that the larger Church needs to respond to this in some way? Absolutely. Distribution of clergy was far more important than the question of the ordination of the viri probati. There are many priests for whom it would be natural to serve there who have come north, who are in the United States and in Canada.

So, there’s an issue. And then the question is of the environmental stuff that goes on. We act like this is a liberal political cause. But it is a living reality for people there, and we in the United States benefit from this. We have to ask ourselves about the cost.

By the time you finish thinking about those kinds of really big issues that impact us all, then you have to say, how big are these other issues? Did the final document call for female deacons? Is the viri probati a possible solution to a group of people who never see a priest?

We will see what the pope says. In the meantime, what the synod did is turn our gaze towards a place that we have ignored all these years.

Has there been any conversation regarding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick?

Not yet. I know that it’s been talked about elsewhere, probably in the Secretary of State, but we haven’t been there. I know we’re all awaiting it with anxiety, great anxiety because we know it’s going to knock us back on our heels again, and we know it’s going to be pretty awful.

You think a report needs to come out?

I think that the only thing worse than releasing it is not releasing it. The great majority of Catholics expect us to own up to this and I think we have to own up to it.

We can look at it as a terrible public relations moment, which it will certainly be, as further proof positive to the world that the Church is irremediably corrupt. But I think it should also be a purifying moment for us and in which we refuse to say that McCarrick was just an anomaly.

For example, while we have not talked about McCarrick as such, in several of the dicasteries we have talked about formation of priests and the need for integral formation and the need to ensure that we don’t just equate intellectual formation with being well prepared to be a priest.

The Vatican just announced that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone, accused of cover-up. What do you make of it?

It’s hard for me to speak about the Buffalo situation, but it is possible for me to speak about the West Virginia situation, which is similar. There are points of comparison.

When it was time to announce Bishop Bransfield’s resignation, it was clear to me that it could not be announced as if it were a retirement. I knew that we had to announce why it was accepted so quickly, why there had been an investigation. Because it would have come out.

When the investigation was finished, I thought it was necessary to release some information, even if not the whole report, and even if we couldn’t tie the Holy Father’s hands when it came to a decision regarding Bransfield’s resignation. But we had to give the people at least some idea.

The Vatican knew that you were going to disclose why the resignation had been accepted?

We understood that they were going to have a part in the announcement, and we would have another one. And they understood what I was going to do, and that was fine by me.  In the United States, I think, we tend to be more transparent. The press demands that we be.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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