Addresses, Speeches, Homilies 1984

Meeting with the Bishops of Canada

SEPTEMBER 20, 1984

Here we are, almost at the end of my pastoral visit. You desired this visit and have actively organized it; you have prepared your Christian people for it well. In the various stops of the journey I found not only the local bishop but many others who wished to join us since I could not go to their dioceses. For all of this I am deeply grateful.

And now we are gathered together to reflect, in the sight of God and with the light of the Holy Spirit whom we have invoked, on the grace and role which he has entrusted to us as successors of the apostles. These were magnificently re-expressed in the texts of the Second Vatican Council, above all in the constitution Lumen Gentium and the decree Christus Dominus. These are the texts which will guide our reflection, for they permit us to stir up within ourselves an awareness of our apostolic mission.

In Lumen Gentium we read: “In the person of the bishops, then, to whom the priests render assistance, the Lord Jesus Christ, supreme high priest, is present in the midst of the faithful… Indeed, it is through their unique service that he preaches the word of God to all peoples and constantly administers to the faithful the sacraments of faith…Through their wisdom and prudence he directs and guides the people of the New Testament on their journey toward eternal beatitude. Chosen to shepherd the Lord’s flock, these pastors are servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God…to whom is entrusted the duty of affirming the Gospel of the grace of God…and of gloriously promulgating the Spirit and proclaiming justification” (no. 21).

This is the meaning of our episcopal ministry, which includes especially the tasks of teaching, sanctifying and governing. These tasks are exercised in hierarchical communion with the head of the College of Bishops and its members. In other words, to take up again the words of the council: “The bishops, in a resplendent and visible manner, take the place of Christ himself, teacher, shepherd and priest, and act in his person (ibid.).

This mission is sublime and formidable. It supposes that, as Peter did, we repeat to Christ the fullness of our faith (cf. Mt. 16:16) and our love (cf. Jn. 21:15-17). To accomplish this mission as the apostles did, we have received by episcopal consecration a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit (cf. ibid., 21), who remains with us and at whose disposition we must constantly place ourselves in prayer to do his work and not our own.

In all cases, it is a question of service (cf. ibid., 27), of the service of the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep. This humble and generous service necessarily requires courage and authority: “The bishops, as vicars and legates of Christ, govern the particular churches assigned to them by their counsels, exhortations and example, but over and above that, also by the authority and sacred power which indeed they exercise exclusively for the spiritual development of their flock in truth and holiness” (ibid.). And you know well that, as the council said further, the power of each bishop — which remains integral in the midst of the episcopal conference — is “defended, upheld and strengthened” by the supreme and universal power of the successor of Peter (ibid.).

Placing the preaching of the Gospel as the first task of the bishops, the council specified that they are “heralds of the faith…they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people assigned to them, the faith which is destined to inform their thinking and direct their conduct; and under the light of the Holy Spirit they make the faith shine forth…With watchfulness they ward off whatever errors threaten their flock” (ibid., 25).

All the ethical reflections and the questions which we can and must raise as pastors before the human, social and cultural problems of our times — about which I shall now speak — are subordinated to the proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ.

In this sense, dear brothers, lead your Christian people to drink from the living water itself. It is necessary to speak to them from a theocentric and theological perspective. Only the word of God holds the key to our existence and enlightens our paths. This is why in my homilies I tried to place the faithful face to face with this revelation from on high, to lead them to contemplate the glory of God, who wishes for man the fullness of life, but in a way which transcends man’s experiences and desires. The redemption places us before the “justice” of God, before the sin of man and the love of God which ransomed him. Man has need of his Redeemer to be fully man.

Humanism — which we want to promote in collaboration with our brothers and sisters of other religions and with non-believers of good will — depends, for us Christians, on God the creator and redeemer. Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum…Secularization, taken in the sense of wanting to realize in practical life a humanism without reference to God, would be a negation of the Christian faith. That is why we must proclaim the good news of God in season and out of season, in all its power and originality; we must proclaim the whole faith which the church expresses, beginning from early kerygma. And as I said to one of your groups during the ad limina visit (Sept. 23, 1983), it is necessary to encourage and ‘call the faithful to conversion. If the world no longer dares to speak about God, it expects from the church, and especially from the bishop and from the priests, a word which witnesses to God with strength and conviction in a persuasive and adapted language, without ever reducing the greatness of the message to the expectation of the listeners. I have noted that this was one of the concerns of your theological commission. Here, in actual fact, come together all the problems of the initiation to the faith, or of its deepening, for adults, youth and children, about which we spoke at the time of the ad limina visits.

As heralds of the faith, we are necessarily guides of consciences, like Moses who led his people to encounter the God of the covenant and to receive the commandments connected with the covenant. The council says it well: Faith must direct one’s thought and one’s conduct.

I know the care which you have taken to help your contemporaries become sensitive to certain moral attitudes inspired by the Christian spirit. You have published a number of documents in this vein. The values of honesty, justice, the dignity of man and woman, work, aid, charity, social love and solidarity with the poor and the disinherited in the face of the new economic and cultural situations claim your attention in particular. At the same time, you seek to respond in faith to the new questions posed by the sciences, technology and the sometimes disturbing developments of human biology. I understand and I approve this preoccupation. You wish to avoid a break between Christian teaching and life, between the Gospel and culture, between faith and justice. Indeed what kind of faith is it which would not seek to incarnate itself in daily conduct? And would it have credibility in a world which at times doubts the existence of God? The letters of St. Paul, after explaining the Christian mystery, proceed to concrete exhortations which flow from it.

I am thinking here of two other gospel demands. First the dignity of family life. “Happy the pure in heart” (Mt. 5:8). You observe the breakdown of the family and the crisis in marriage. How many children and parents suffer from broken homes, separations, divorces! You yourselves moreover have sought to improve the legislation on this point. You also see the many “free unions” which refuse or delay a total and exclusive commitment of the two partners in the sacrament of marriage. You know that abortion is very widespread. And many have recourse to contraceptive means instead of respecting, in self-control and a mutually agreed effort, the double finality of the conjugal act: love and openness to life. Among the causes of these evils, there is a generalized tendency to hedonism; there is a forgetting of God; there is without a doubt an ignorance of the theology of the body, of the magnificent plan of God for conjugal union, of the necessity of an asceticism in order to deepen a love which is truly worthy of man and woman, and to correspond to the life of the Spirit present in the couple. Sex education, the preparation of young people for marriage and support for family life should be top priorities here. Despite frequently passionate opinions to the contrary, it is expected that the church would help to save human love and respect for life.

On the other hand, the consumer society, the seduction of artificial needs, the situation of overabundant riches and a general striving for profit render more difficult the important application of the Beatitude: “How happy are the poor in spirit” (Mt. 5:3). How is it possible to educate, despite everything, to poverty and simplicity of life in order to keep the heart free, open to the kingdom of God and to one’s neighbor? Is it not necessary, among other things, to open people’s eyes to the immense regions of the world where many live in complete destitution?

In this domain, as in many others, we must unceasingly remember the appeal of St. Paul: You who have been sanctified, who have become children of God, called to holiness and inhabited by the Spirit of God: “Do not model yourselves on the behavior of the world around you” (Rom. 12:2). Let us always remember the pastoral courage of St. John Chrysostom, whom we honored at Moncton.

Our people have to struggle to keep the faith and Christian morality partially because they have not discovered a sense of prayer or because they no longer attempt to pray. I wish to speak of that prayer which seeks, in dialogue with God or preferably in listening to God, the contemplation of his love and conformity with his will. The graces of renewal and conversion will only be given to a church that prays. Jesus begged his apostles to watch and pray (cf. Mt. 26:41). With our priests, with our religious and many of the laity who have rediscovered prayer, in the joy of the Holy Spirit, let us be teachers of prayers.

Prayer is inseparable from the sacraments. In this regard the council said the following about the role of bishops: “Through the sacraments, the regular and fruitful distribution of which they direct by their authority, they sanctify the faithful” (Lumen Gentium, 26). I will mention only two extremely important domains. First, the Sunday eucharistic assembly. How can a people which wishes to be Christian neglect it? The causes are many, but at any rate we pastors must do all we can to restore a sense of the Lord’s Day and of the eucharist, and to see that our liturgies are carefully prepared and characterized by the active participation of the faithful and the dignity of prayer.

You easily understand why I underline another main point of pastoral sacramental practice: that of the sacrament of penance or reconciliation. The frequent reception of this sacrament bears witness to the fact that we believe in the church as a communion of holiness and in Christ’s action to build up this communion. The entire renewal of the church depends on the personal conversion which is sealed in a personal encounter with Christ. To foster this is to contribute effectively to the whole renewal willed by the Second Vatican Council and promoted by the postconciliar reforms; otherwise, thewhole of our pastoral practice suffers a serious lack, and the effectiveness of all the activity of the church is affected. Our communion with the universal church requires that the discipline of the whole church be respected just as it has been defined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has stressed its link with a divine precept (June 16, 1972). The last synod, at which many of you participated, gave special emphasis to the absolute necessity of penance: the spirit of penance, a sense of sin and the request for pardon in the sacrament of penance with a personal confession of one’s sins to a priest.

You are aware that in the last few years this centuries-old practice of the church has been neglected. There have truly been commendable efforts to point out the communal aspect of penance, to make all of the faithful conscious of the need for conversion and to lead them to celebrate together the mercy of God and the grace of reconciliation. But this communal renewal must never lead to abandoning the personal act of the penitent and personal absolution. It is the right of each penitent; and one can even say that it is the right of Christ, with regard to each person whom he has redeemed, to be able to say through his minister: “Your sins are forgiven” (cf. Redemptor Hominis, 20).

Dear brothers in the episcopate: Help your priests to give priority to this ministry, after the eucharist, but before many other activities which are less important. Let us help them to be convinced that in this way they cooperate marvelously in the work of the Redeemer, as dispensers of his grace. If this conviction is ensured the practical problem will be able to find solutions, even with fewer priests. If our faithful would ever lose a sense of sin and of this personal pardon, if they would no longer find a sufficient number of priests available for this essential ministry, a principal dimension would be lacking in the authenticity of their Christian lives. And even the approach to the eucharist, which seems to have remained frequent, would leave the conscience perplexed about the demands that communion involves for the members of the body of Christ, communion with him who is the head: the “Christ who invites to the eucharistic banquet is the same Christ who calls to penance, who repeats: ‘Repent’ (cf. ibid.).

I have insisted at length on this point, but I know that many of you, while keeping the benefit of a communal preparation, have already sought in the course of this year how to react to this crisis of the personal request for pardon.

I have mentioned the ministry of priests. I know how close you are to them, like fathers, and I know that you offer them encouragement in these difficult times when some of them feel distressed because fewer of their faithful are practicing the faith and their own place in society seems less clearly defined, and because a new style of needed collaboration between them and the laity is not always easy to find. During this period of cultural change and postconciliar adaptation, your priests, as is the case in many countries, are particularly in need of being strengthened by means of a well-balanced theology and very clear pastoral directives in conformity with the new Code of Canon Law.

Quite naturally, we all think about replacements. This is a concern I fully share with you. On Sept. 21, 1983, I spoke at length with many of you about vocations. Signs of hope are appearing in the seminaries of many of your dioceses. But we need to continue resolutely to call and to provide a solid spiritual and theological formation. It is especially vocations to the religious life that have become scarce. The pastoral care of vocations requires us to work closely with Christian families and with youth. It always presupposes explicit prayer for this intention. Yes, let us have many prayers offered for vocations to the priesthood and to the religious life.

Through us the people of God are gathered together in unity. This is the mission of bishops and, with them, of the priests. The council specifies: “In any community existing around an altar, under the sacred ministry of the bishop, there is manifested a symbol of that charity and unity of the mystical body, without which there can be no salvation” (Lumen Gentium, 26). Through us, the various groups of believers and of Christian apostles at work in their own environment and according to their own charism gather around the same Lord. And like the Good Shepherd, we must assure as far as possible that all the members of the flock walk together, without allowing some to feel abandoned or misunderstood because they have greater difficulty in accepting the pace of reforms. We are guardians of unity, promoters of fraternity, educators in tolerance between contrasting sensitivities, always giving example of mercy in regard to our brothers and sisters who may be more sensitive to scandal, sometimes not without reason (cf. 1 Cor. 8:12).

The church in Canada has made a marvelous effort to help the laity to assume their full responsibility as baptized and confirmed members of the community. Yes, as bishops and priests, let us not be afraid to give them our trust. It is their task, with the proper preparation, to bear witness in the midst of the world, a witness that, without them, would be lacking in the church. They are even capable of helping priests to renew their priestly zeal. During this visit I have spoken often of the ministries that the laity, men and women, can increasingly fulfill in their communities, with respect naturally for what belongs exclusively to the ordained ministry. And I have spoken too of the apostolate that is their very own, within the family, in the world of work, in social involvement, in education, in public affairs. The laity and their associations are charged with carrying into the fabric of society the principles of social doctrine which your documents emphasize.

I am well aware of other areas in which you are pastorally committed; for example, in the important field of ecumenism, about which we have spoken in the course of this visit.

On another level, the church of which you are the pastors can make a valued contribution to building up a sense of fraternal solidarity in your country. Canada — I have become more aware of this — is extraordinarily rich, not only in material goods, but in cultural and linguistic traditions. The Francophone and Anglophone elements are foremost, without mentioning the Amerindians and the Inuit. As well as this, every part of Canada has welcomed numerous groups of immigrants who have adopted this country as their home. In such conditions I am convinced that the church has the task of promoting mutual acceptance, esteem and recognition, of promoting the fuller participation of everyone in the life of society, in helping all to overcome all forms of chauvinism or exaggerated nationalistic sentiment. These must not be confused with legitimate pride in one’s origin and cultural heritage, or with the beneficial complementarity of variety.

But your responsibility as bishops extends beyond your own country. The council has insisted on this point when it traces the consequences of the doctrine of collegiality:

“Each bishop, as a member of the episcopal college and a legitimate successor of the apostles, is obliged by Christ’s decree and command to be solicitous for the whole church. This solicitude, though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes immensely to the welfare of the universal church” (Lumen Gentium, 23).

Naturally, the concern and assistance of one particular church for another must always be provided with this collegial and fraternal spirit, fully respecting the responsibilities of the bishops of other countries and their episcopal conference, trusting the perception that they have of the spiritual needs of their people and the directions to be taken in their concrete situation. In every case it is a question of strengthening the bonds of peace, love and solidarity, with an always greater openness to the universal church.

It is already an exercise of this solidarity to “promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole church” (ibid.). A particular church will not be in a position to resolve its problems, except in this perspective.

But it is also necessary “to instruct the faithful in love for the whole mystical body of Christ, especially for its poor and sorrowing members and for those who are suffering for the sake of justice” (ibid.).

This meets one of your concerns: constantly to contribute to the opening of the eyes, hearts and hands of your Christian people, who are on the whole so very favored by nature and technical progress, to a concern for less favored countries, let us say rather to a concern for peoples who lack the minimum necessities of bread, health care and liberty. Many forms of aid are possible which are respectful of these partners of the Third World or of the “South,” who for their part help us in return to re-establish a hierarchy of values. You also prepare your fellow citizens to participate at the international level in the search for solutions to the problems of peace, security, ecology, development.

The spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters of the other churches must hold a primary place in our universal charity. “The task of proclaiming the Gospel everywhere on earth devolves on the body of pastors…With all their energy, therefore, they must supply to the missions both workers for the harvest and also spiritual and material aid.” And in a particular way, “in a universal fellowship of charity, bishops should gladly extend their fraternal aid to other churches, especially to neighboring and more needy ones” (ibid., 23). Everyone knows that the missionary commitment of many Canadians, priests, brothers, sisters and laity, in Latin America, Africa, Asia, as well as in the great Canadian North, has been admirable. Let us not allow the source of missionary vocations to dry up! Let us not let the conviction about the urgency of the universal mission wither, even if this mission requires other forms of solidarity.

Finally, there is an area in which solidarity and common witness of bishops and their churches should be much more evident. We are sensitive to injustice, to the unequal distribution of material goods. Are we sufficiently sensitive to the damages done to the human spirit, to conscience, to religious convictions? This fundamental freedom of the practice of one’s faith is abused every day in vast regions; it is a most grave violation which dishonors humanity and which affects us believers very deeply. At Lourdes last year I expressed the anguish of our persecuted brothers and sisters because there is on this point a kind of conspiracy of silence which must be  broken.  I ask you, my brother pastors, to do this with me. I ask you to sensitize your faithful, to see that prayers are offered for these brothers and sisters. Their courage in the faith helps in a mysterious way the whole church. It awakens Christians who are half asleep in an easy life, enjoying all the freedoms and at times too worried about problems which are, all things considered, quite relative in comparison with this essential one.

In a more general vein, dear brothers in the episcopate, I thank you for all you have done and will do to participate, by affective and effective collegiality, in the mission of the universal church in communion with the successor of Peter — cum Petro et sub Petro (cf. Ad Gentes, 38) — and in collaboration with the departments of the Holy See.

Yes, before the Lord, you bear the charge of your particular churches, but in each one the universal church is present, for “Christ is present, and by virtue of him the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church gathers together” (Lumen Gentium, 26).

May Christ, the Good Shepherd, grant to each of you the pastoral courage necessary for your sublime mission! May the Holy Spirit give you light and strength to lead the Canadian people on the paths of the living God, so that they might be sanctified for the sanctification of the world! May God the Father keep you in hope and peace!

I shall continue to keep all your pastoral intentions in my prayers, even as you pray for me. Let us entrust them to the maternal heart of Mary. And may almighty God bless you, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
Conférence des évêques catholiques du Canada