In his opening address to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Tuesday, the apostolic nuncio urged that the bishops accompany the laity in the pursuit of holiness.
“The Holy Father challenges us not only to accompany others in their spiritual journey, but also in their human journey,” Archbishop Christophe Pierre said Nov. 15 in Baltimore.
Noting “the brokenness of the human family” and “the demands of Catholic teaching, particularly in the domain of morality, including human sexuality, marriage, family life,” he said that “the recent synodality report indicates that many of our own people, for varied reasons, have difficulties accepting Church teaching.”
Affirming that as teachers the bishops “can articulate right doctrine in a more attractive and comprehensive way, so that the faithful may receive it,” Pierre stated: “we also need to accompany them along the path so that they live their faith in a way that offers them peace of heart, experiencing the true, the good, and the beautiful.”
He immediately noted that in Amoris laetitia, the 2016 apostolic exhortation on love in the family, Pope Francis referenced the “law of gradualness.”
Pierre quoted from Pope John Paul II’s discussion of the law of gradualness in his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, Familiaris consortio: “And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations. In God's plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God's command with serene confidence in God's grace and in his or her own will.”
The nuncio paraphrased St. John Paul II, saying, “we show respect for persons, not by abolishing objective standards of morality, but by helping everyone to recognize the call to holiness and creating the conditions by which they can live the call” and “in their concrete situations to pursue holiness and accept responsibility.”
The resulting “growth in personal maturity and holiness can help the whole Church in the United States,” he said, to help it in evangelization and its missionary impulse.
The aim of Pope Francis’ vision, after nearly 10 years as the successor of Peter, is that the Church have a missionary character “that encourages everyone to be an evangelist,” he said.
This was already called for by Benedict XVI in a 2009 address, he noted. In his May 26, 2009 address to the clerics of Rome, Benedict urged “a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy but truly recognized as ‘co-responsible’, for the Church's being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.”
Pierre underscored this emphasis on “mature” and “committed” laity, noting that three of Pope Francis’ prominent documents end with chapters dedicated to the spiritual life, and Gaudete et exsultate focuses on the universal call to holiness.
Pope Francis’ emphasis on discernment cannot bear fruit, he said, “if we neglect or have neglected proper formation of laity.”
If the bishops have properly formed the laity, “then we can more easily trust them, and encourage their spiritual growth,” Pierre stated.
“Just as seminary formators accompany seminarians, helping them reach affective maturity, so too is it your task to accompany the lay faithful so that they may accept co-responsibility for the Church and for the world.”
He called the task of accompaniment “one of the great pastoral challenges of our time.”
Pierre’s discussion of accompaniment and the universal call to holiness came in the context of considering where the Church is, and where it is going. He did this by reflecting on the themes of Francis’ nearly 10-year pontificate.
The ongoing synodal process and Francis’ thought “should be understood in a missionary key,” the nuncio said.
“Does the Church in the U.S. understand herself in this way?” he asked.
Pierre identified the barriers to this as adhesion to internal structures, which are “always in need of pastoral change for sake of evangelizing”; and the wounds of sin.
While mercy comes to us through the sacrament of penance, it also does so through performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, he said. He commended the Church in the U.S. for its “prophetic openness” to the border crisis, and said it has been steadfast in its fight against legal abortion. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, he said, highlights the need for the USCCB’s Walking with Moms in Need initiative, and for “mercy rather than cold judgment.”
The bishops, he advised, are called to foster encounters with Christ, and “the path forward” is to have hearts “open to all, from the unborn, to the disabled, to the elderly, to those of different faiths.”