The beginning of this new year, 2019, was a very special time for the bishops of the United States. We gathered together at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois, outside of Chicago, for a rather focused retreat. While the bishops of the country gather for a retreat in the springtime every three years, this retreat was suggested by Pope Francis in view of the many issues regarding sexual abuse which are facing the Church. The Pope thought that a period of intense prayer and reflection would be a support to the bishops in regard to their role as successors of the apostles at this present time. The Pope was correct in his judgment as the retreat turned out to be a very inspiring and insightful number of days for all the bishops. The retreat included the daily concelebration of Mass, spiritual conferences, daily Holy Hours, a Penance Service, the opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, silent meals and adequate time for prayerful reflection. The weather for the week was unusually mild and beautiful for Chicago at this time of year. That gave the opportunity for enjoying the beautiful grounds of Mundelein Seminary and sensing the hand of God in creation. It was a rather intense week which seemed to go by very quickly.
In a letter from Pope Francis written to each Bishop on January 1, the Pope expressed that he wanted to be present with us for the days of retreat but that, despite his best efforts, logistical reasons made it impossible for him to be present. He made available to the bishops his own personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a Franciscan Capuchin, who conducted the retreat. Father Cantalamessa is 84 years old and holds doctoral degrees in theology and classical literature. He taught ancient Christian history until 1980, when he was appointed by Pope John Paul II as the preacher to the Papal Household. He has remained in this position for Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. It was obvious from his very presence, humility, love for the Church and his deep spiritual insights, that he is in the position he is for very good reason. Father Cantalamessa’s preaching was effective because it was obvious it came from his heart and spirit. He shared with us many personal stories from his life and experiences.
At the very beginning of the retreat in his opening conference, Father Cantalamessa jokingly remarked that another Capuchin once said to him, "I don't think you are as great a preacher as people say. You have been preaching for so many years to the Roman Curia and I don't see any conversion taking place there." Father Cantalamessa responded, "Brother, I'm too busy trying to convert myself than to think I can convert others." He expressed to us the same sentiment, "I did not come from Rome to convert you, but to encourage you. Right now, that's what you need the most." The papal preacher explained that he was not tasked with giving advice about solutions to problems within the Church, but to assist the bishops in listening to the Lord. It is only by listening to the Lord and cultivating a deep relationship with the Lord that present issues can be faced. The theme for the retreat was "He appointed Twelve that they might be with Him and He might send them forth to preach" (Mk 3:14). Father Cantalamessa emphasized that the two essential aspects of apostolic ministry are “to be with Jesus" and “to preach the Gospel." These would be the basis for the reflections for the retreat.
Father Cantalamessa emphasized to us that having an intimate relationship with Christ needs to be the priority of the ministry of every bishop. We must come to know that Jesus is with us during everything that we do and in every problem. Jesus has come to make a home in us and for us to make a home to Him. Prayer is the indispensable means for cultivating a relationship with Jesus. Without prayer, all ministry is without foundation. The papal preacher explained how in the Gospels we see Jesus involved in a great deal of public ministry. However, we also see him deeply involved in prayer. The picture that emerges of Jesus in the Gospels is "a contemplative who every so often moves into action, rather than of a man of action who every once in a while, allows himself periods of contemplation. Prayer was a kind of unbroken infrastructure, the continuous fabric of Jesus’ life in which everything else is bathed."
In regard to the intimate union that a bishop must cultivate with the Lord, Father Cantalamessa exemplified how personal and deep this union must be in another one of his conferences on "With Jesus in Gethsemane." Here he powerfully stated that, due to the scandals within the Church today, "many bishops in the Catholic Church, starting with the Bishop of Rome, are experiencing right now exactly what Jesus experienced in Gethsemane. As we have seen, the ultimate cause of the suffering in the Garden of Olives consisted in taking upon Himself sins that he had not committed Himself and in bearing responsibility for them in front of the Father. There is a redemptive and expiatory power in doing this." The union of the bishop with Jesus must be so deep that he is willing to take this expiation upon himself. These truly were inspiring but challenging words.
Father Cantalamessa also emphasized that Jesus has come to offer every person a deep personal relationship with Him. It is only this relationship which offers meaning and joy in life. This relationship is not limited to a bishop, priest, or religious. It is a relationship for all of us in whatever vocation God has called us. While we may live it in different ways, it is the same relationship and it is what frees us and ultimately brings us into the joy of eternity.
Father Cantalamessa spoke insightfully on the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit and many other aspects of our faith which should be central to the life of a bishop but also to each of us. I hope to be able to give some additional reflections upon his insights in future columns.
The bishops were blessed to have the opportunity to be with the Successor of St. Peter during this retreat in a very special way and to reaffirm our commitment to the call of the Lord to be with Him and to proclaim His Gospel. In the Holy Father's letter to the bishops he stressed, "combating the culture of abuse, the loss of credibility, the resulting bewilderment and confusion, and the discrediting of our mission urgently demands of us a renewed and decisive approach to resolving conflicts. ... Loss of credibility calls for a specific approach, since it cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flowcharts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources. That kind of vision ends up reducing the mission of the bishop and that of the Church to a mere administrative or organizational function in the ‘evangelization business.’ Let us be clear: many of those things are necessary yet insufficient, since they cannot grasp and deal with reality in its complexity; ultimately, they risk reducing everything to an organizational problem. ... In a word, a new ecclesial season needs bishops who can teach others how to discern God's presence in the history of His people, and not mere administrators.” I believe the bishops left the retreat renewed in those words. I know I did.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
January 25, 2019