Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Greetings from Philadelphia! As I write this, the Holy Father is in New York, and the World Meeting of Families here in Philadelphia is still in full swing. It has been a joyful adventure for me to share with my brother bishops in Pope Francis’s journey to Washington, D.C., especially in the canonization Mass for St. Junipero Serra.
Now, I am so happy to be here with the pilgrims from our own diocese, and I’m looking forward to sharing with them the remainder of this meeting, and especially the closing Mass with Pope Francis on Sunday. I am praying for all of you, that the preaching of the Holy Father will be for you also a special occasion of grace and faith.
The witness and preaching of Pope Francis so far on his apostolic journey have been very powerful. I hope you are not only relying on the mainstream media for your coverage, but digging also in Catholic sources and reviewing the Pope’s own words for yourself. He is not offering us an ideology or agenda, especially not any secular one. Like every good priest, he is offering us an encounter with Jesus Christ.
We must not think that his gentleness is any kind of complacency about the world’s evils. It’s certainly part of his style not to harp on the negative points, and not to be confrontational, but we should be listening with the ears of our hearts, to discern how he is preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere he goes. The gospel is always new and radical. If we but open our minds and hearts to its light, it will lead us to deeper faith and holiness and to confront and reject all the sins and evils that keep us from God.
For example, when he met with us bishops to pray on Wednesday, the Holy Father reminded us, “My first word to you is one of thanksgiving to God for the power of the gospel which has brought about remarkable growth of Christ’s church in these lands and enabled its generous contribution, past and present, to American society and to the world. I thank you most heartily for your generous solidarity with the Apostolic See and the support you give to the spread of the gospel in many suffering areas of our world. I appreciate the unfailing commitment of the church in America to the cause of life and that of the family, which is the primary reason for my present visit. I am well aware of the immense efforts you have made to welcome and integrate those immigrants who continue to look to America, like so many others before them, in the hope of enjoying its blessings of freedom and prosperity. I also appreciate the efforts which you are making to fulfill the Church’s mission of education in schools at every level and in the charitable services offered by your numerous institutions. These works are often carried out without appreciation or support, often with heroic sacrifice, out of obedience to a divine mandate which we may not disobey.”
And again, in his homily for the canonization of St. Junipero Serra, he preached, “‘Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again, rejoice!’ These are striking words, words which impact our lives. Paul tells us to rejoice; he practically orders us to rejoice. This command resonates with the desire we all have for a fulfilling life, a meaningful life, a joyful life…. At the same time, though, we all know the struggles of everyday life. So much seems to stand in the way of this invitation to rejoice. Our daily routine can often lead us to a kind of glum apathy which gradually becomes a habit, with a fatal consequence: our hearts grow numb. We don’t want apathy to guide our lives… or do we? We don’t want the force of habit to rule our life… or do we? So we ought to ask ourselves: What can we do to keep our heart from growing numb, becoming anesthetized? How do we make the joy of the gospel increase and take deeper root in our lives? Jesus gives the answer. He said to his disciples then and he says it to us now: Go forth! Proclaim! The joy of the gospel is something to be experienced, something to be known and lived only through giving it away, through giving ourselves away.”
Pope Francis constantly preaches this encounter with Jesus Christ. He means not just an initial encounter, but an ongoing one. Christ is with us every day! Can we let Him into our hearts and lives? Can we follow Him unreservedly? Everything else flows from this. Our embrace of justice and the common good; our defense of life and the right to life and of the dignity of every human person from natural conception to natural death; our commitment that marriage works according to God’s plan; our every desire to love, to serve, to help, to protect all the gifts God puts in our way; all this flows from our love for God and neighbor. And our love itself comes only from recognizing deeply that God loves each of us, first, unchangeably, from the very first moment of our existence in the womb.
So let us pray for our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and for each other, that a deeper encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ will lead us to love in a more perfect way. And may our love for God and neighbor bring to everyone an increase in worldly justice and peace, and bring many souls to the gates of heaven. May God bless all of you most abundantly!
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City