Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

The bishops’ retreat and a new ecclesial season

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

I am writing this as the retreat held for the Catholic bishops of the United States at our seminary in Mundelein concludes. The weeklong retreat was the idea of Pope Francis.

He recognized that the crisis of clerical sexual abuse had created a great deal of anger and confusion in our church and among the bishops. It is in such moments, he observed in his letter to us before the retreat, that “we need to be attentive and discerning, to free our hearts of compromises and false certainties, in order to hear what the Lord asks of us in the mission he has given us.”

The Holy Father sent us his personal preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa. The 84-year-old priest told us that he had received lots of letters telling him what he should say to the bishops. While respecting the wisdom of the voice of the people, he agreed with the pope that in moments like this we need to discern what God is saying to us.

Cantalamessa’s talks were both inspiring and encyclopedic. His grasp of Scripture and the rich tradition of the church allowed the bishops to hear truths we have long held but in a fresh way. I am pleased we have the texts to review in the days and months ahead, but I also carry with me a number of images he offered, which I want to reflect on.

One was the difference between moving over water in a rowboat and a sailboat. The rowboat requires our effort, as we pull against the inertia of the water, relying on our own power and devices to steer the direction ahead. But believers are called to trust in the Holy Spirit to move us forward, much like the wind is needed for moving the sailboat forward.

With that image our retreat director asked us to reflect on our approach to challenges, not only this one, but in all cases. Do we see ourselves in a rowboat that makes everything depend on us, or are we attentive to the prompting of the Spirit to chart a pathway ahead? I can honestly say I am not satisfied by how I answer that question some days.

I will keep in mind what Cantalamessa said: “The wind is caught by the sail of prayer.”

He then shared another image to further develop this point. A professor lecturing on time management conducted a small experiment for his students. Taking a large glass jar, he placed tennis-ball-sized rocks in it until there was no room in the jar. “Is it full?” he asked. “Yes,” the students replied.

But, then he began pouring in small pebbles, rattling the jar until they settled in vacant spaces between the rocks. “Now is it full?” he asked again. “No,” they replied. Agreeing with them he then poured sand into the jar, filling up the spaces between the stones and the pebbles. Yet again, the professor asked, “Is the jar full?” Without hesitation, the students replied in unison, “NO!” “Correct,” replied the professor.

So he poured water into the jar until it was absolutely full. Then the professor explained. “What we learn from this experiment is that if we don’t put the larger stones in the jar first, we will never be able to fit all of them later.”

Cantalamessa’s point was simple. Our prayer life, our turning to God to discern where he is leading us, has to be the priority. For if we do not prioritize the discernment of God’s will, other concerns and voices will absorb our attention and render our decision-making impoverished and partial, especially in a moment of crisis.

His reflections also underscore our commitment to the protection of children and the healing of victims, which grounds all our responses to the crisis. We must make sure nothing ever crowds out that priority.

It is clear, however, that the Holy Father’s intentions in calling us to make this retreat expand well beyond this particular moment or challenge facing us bishops. Pope Francis wants us to see that we are in “a new ecclesial season,” as he calls it, that will require a new approach to our ministry.

We cannot be “mere administrators,” but must take up the task of teaching those we serve “how to discern God’s presence in the history of his people.” As he remarked in his letter to us: “Amid the upset and confusion experienced by our communities, our primary duty is to foster a shared spirit of discernment, rather than to seek the relative calm resulting from compromise or from a democratic vote where some emerge as ‘winners’ and others not.”

The task before us is to work together to find a way to embrace “the present situation, one that, most important, can protect those in our care from losing hope and feeling spiritually abandoned. This will enable us to be fully immersed in reality, seeking to appreciate and hear it from within, without being held hostage to it.”

We are not leaving this retreat with all the answers to the important questions facing the church in these days, but we are leaving with a renewed sense that it is time to turn in our rowboats for sailboats, and take our cue from the guidance of Christ’s spirit rather than our own efforts.

We also come away reminded that we will need to keep our priorities straight. One other blessing from our days together is that it drew us closer to each other and to the Holy Father. One bishop told me, “Pope Francis was right to call us to take a retreat and it shows that he cares deeply about our ministry and the church in this country.”

I have no doubt that just as the early church relied on Peter’s unique ministry to meet the challenges of the day, so we will draw strength and insight from our unity with his successor.

Topics:

  • clergy sexual abuse

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