WASHINGTON – Here is the text of the remarks by Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to Pope Benedict XVI on behalf of the bishops at their meeting at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception April 16.
Welcome, Holy Father, to this Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Mary Immaculate is the patroness of our country, and with all our hearts we thank you for visiting us and for addressing us in her house.
Our conference includes 193 ordinaries, two coadjutor bishops, 71 auxiliary bishops and 168 bishops retired from pastoral governance but not from ministry. There are in the United States 195 dioceses and eparchies.
Because of the bonds of ecclesial communion, you are not a foreign visitor but a father and friend in Christ. You know us from our “ad limina” visits and from meetings, from letters and exchanges such as this. You therefore not only know who we are but are aware of the context of our service as bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States today.
We find great encouragement in meeting you here, finding in you the vicar of Christ, successor of Peter and the visible head of our college and the visible focus of Catholic communion. We are sure that the priests and deacons, consecrated men and women and the Christian faithful of this country will also take courage from your visit.
It takes courage at any time and in any place to profess one’s faith in Christ from within his body, the church. Before the constitutional order that permitted freedom of religion was established here, it was forbidden in the British Empire to celebrate the Mass publicly. The founding of our nation was therefore welcomed by our first bishop, John Carroll, even as he recognized that popular acceptance of Catholicism did not automatically follow from legal recognition.
Bishops have served the church in the United States for over 200 years, and the context of their ministry and of Catholic life here was often one of suspicion. Our faith was not pure, our church was unbiblical, our allegiances uncertain.
In our own day the consequences of the dreadful sin of sexual abuse of minors by some priests and of its being sometimes very badly handled by bishops make both the personal faith of some Catholics and the public life of the church herself more problematic.
Your recent encyclical letter on hope clarified the object of our hope in God and spoke as well of the smaller hopes that mark our lives as individuals and as a people. You pointed out that people’s hope is betrayed if its object is a purely secular utopian scheme. We have our own utopian schemes here, Holy Father, different from the history of fascism and communism you traced in your letter. We hope that you will speak to us about constructing here a hope-filled people and show us how to give our people and especially our beloved priests hope in the present moment.
Holy Father, it is not only Catholics who need to hear of hope. Our country is in the midst of a great debate not only about whom we will elect as political leaders but also about our place in the world. The 2001 terrorist attack on our country, done in the name of God, has led many to conclude that organized and doctrinal religion is inevitably a source of social violence.
American attempts to contain and prevent any further attacks have brought limitations on personal liberty that are new to our history. We speak as much or more now about security as we do about liberty. Many Americans do not understand why we are regarded with such suspicion by so many others around the world, and the anger of the moment makes public discussion of central problems frequently intemperate.
The church here rejoices in her cultural diversity but is troubled by ideological differences that weaken not only our witness to the world, Holy Father, but the life of faith itself. How to include and love all the faithful while being clear about the demands of discipleship, especially when those demands seem restrictive of sexual freedom, is a constant pastoral challenge to the bishops and other pastors.
The episcopal conference has recently identified the strengthening of marriage and of family life as one of five priorities for our common attention in the next several years. The other four are protecting the life and dignity of the human person at every stage of life’s journey; handing on the faith in the context of sacramental practice and the observance of Sunday worship; fostering vocations to ordained priesthood and consecrated life; and profiting from the cultural diversity of the church here, especially from the gifts of Hispanic Catholics.
The Catholics of this country join us in welcoming you, Holy Father. They are men and women, boys and girls, who love the Lord and find him in the church. They know that true religion is rooted not in fear, as secularists assert, but in love. They are, with their fellow Americans, people who take joy in being generous and, in that characteristic, imitate the Lord himself and make God’s image strong in our society. They too will be grateful for your words of encouragement and hope. Holy Father, we invite you to address us now.