Cardinal Pierre on why the U.S. bishops are struggling to connect with Pope Francis
Cardinal Christophe Pierre has been apostolic nuncio to the United States since 2016 and, at Pope Francis’ request, he will continue in this role for the foreseeable future, he told America’s Vatican correspondent in an exclusive interview in Rome in early October.
The newly-created cardinal described Francis as “a man of vision” and “a man of prayer” and as the one “chosen by the Holy Spirit” to lead the church at this moment in history.
He also spoke about his experience as nuncio in the United States. Cardinal Pierre said he was “shocked” to learn that many U.S. Catholic bishops did not know that synodality had developed in South America in the last few decades and are still struggling to understand what it is. “We cannot say there are bishops who are on the left and ones that are on the right. This is a false analysis,” he said. They are “good men,” he said, but “they are all struggling” to find ways to evangelize in this new moment in history and to cope with the economic fallout from the abuse scandal.
A complicated life
I began the one-hour interview, at the church of St. Louis of the French in Rome on Oct. 2, by asking the cardinal about his life and his 46 years’ service in the Holy See’s diplomatic missions worldwide.
“My life is a bit complicated,” he said, referring to the fact that he spent 20 years in Africa and 20 in South America. “I grew up in Madagascar because my father decided when I was three years old to take the family there. He was a lawyer, and he worked in Madagascar. We remained there about 10 years and then came back to France.”
Cardinal Pierre said he was “shocked” to learn that many U.S. Catholic bishops did not know that synodality had developed in South America and are still struggling to understand what it is.
After graduating from the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, which trains Vatican diplomats, in 1977, he began his service in the Holy See’s diplomatic mission in New Zealand, with subsequent postings in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Brazil—where, he said, he learned a lot about liberation theology—and in Geneva, Switzerland, as the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations. Pope John Paul II then appointed him as apostolic nuncio to Haiti in 1995 and subsequently to Uganda in 1999.
On March 22, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI appointed then-Archbishop Pierre as nuncio to Mexico. He arrived in Mexico as the milestone Fifth Conference of CELAM (the Episcopal Conference of Latin America and the Caribbean) in Aparecida, Brazil, ended. Archbishop Pierre was welcomed by Bishop Carlos Aguiar Retes, now cardinal-archbishop of Mexico City and one of the president-delegates of the Synod on Synodality.
“I still remember when I arrived at the airport, we talked about Aparecida because he had just arrived back from there the day before. I was interested because I had good knowledge of South America. I was there at the time of liberation theology, and many things had happened from the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, to my arrival in Mexico.”
The Aparecida conference, he said, was “a kind of synodal process of the South American bishops.”
“This is the only continent that has made such a synodal process,” Cardinal Pierre said. “The bishops developed a kind of dynamic of working together and looking for solutions together, to evangelize better, which is what the synod [on synodality] is all about. Nothing else: Better evangelization. And they accompanied the people in their suffering, in their difficulties, and in their challenges.”
At Aparecida, the bishops decided to write a document to address “the difficulty to transmit the faith from one generation to the next” in a new cultural context. Then-Cardinal Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, was elected president of the writing commission by a vote of 112 out of 130.
“When I arrived in Mexico in 2007, I read the document of Aparecida,” Cardinal Pierre recalled. “It was six years before the election of Pope Francis. I read it, and I said, ‘My God, this is new! The bishops finally have developed a pastoral plan which is the result of their synodal approach.’”
“The fruit of Aparecida is a new pastoral approach,” he said. “I saw it working in Mexico. It changes the church.”
The U.S. bishops and Aparecida
When he arrived in the United States, nine years later, in 2016, Cardinal Pierre said, “I was astounded that many of the bishops didn’t know what had happened in Aparecida. They did not know that ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’ the first document of Pope Francis, was rooted in Aparecida.”
“They had not seen what had happened in their own continent, in South America,” he remarked. “This is very serious, because what has happened was not banal. It was the beginning of what we live today. They didn’t know that the pope was one of the bishops at Aparecida, or that the whole South American church had made a tremendous effort of synodality.”
At Aparecida, the cardinal said, “the bishops said the church and society have changed, and the transmission of the faith is not done through the culture as in the past, so we have to provide new opportunities and ways for people to have a personal encounter with Christ through a church that is fitting to the new society, a new way of being Catholic. This demands a readjustment of the pastoral approach, which is very difficult to do because people are, we all are, set in our views, in our ways of preaching and organizing.”
‘I was astounded that many of the bishops didn’t know what had happened in Aparecida.’
“This is especially true in the United States, where we have a very organized church, which has worked beautifully for many years,” Cardinal Pierre said. “Over 200 years, we have built fantastic church schools, hospitals, parishes, and churches. But almost nobody comes [to church] anymore… so Pope Francis said, ‘Go out of the church.’ But we still remain in the church. Why?”
“Pope Francis said, ‘I want a missionary church. I want a church of the poor that goes out to the poor.’” But, the cardinal recalled, when he arrived in the United States as nuncio in 2016 he was “shocked” to hear some in the church laugh at that and dismiss it as “Bergoglio’s idea.” He insisted: “The reality is that behind the vision of the pope there is Aparecida. Bergoglio is not the inventor of that approach. The Holy Spirit inspired this synodal approach at Aparecida.”
“Six years later, Bergoglio was elected pope by the grace of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “That’s my faith. And the new pope followed in the footsteps of Aparecida.”
Has he seen change in the U.S. church?
I asked the cardinal if he has seen significant change in the U.S. church since he arrived in 2016.
“I’m not sure,” he responded. “I see significant change in society. The phenomenon which was analyzed by Aparecida is real for the church [in the States also] in the sense of the difficulty to transmit the faith. While people are aware of that, I am not sure that the consciousness of it is very strong.” He recalled that Pope Francis has called this a major challenge for the church today and said: “We have to respond to it. We cannot just go to sleep and keep saying that we have structures, because the question is: Do they work?”
He contrasted the earlier phase of evangelization in the United States with the challenge the church faces in the 21st century:
Evangelization was the beginning of the story of the church in America. Catholics were marginalized, but they made their way fighting to achieve the American dream and proposing their faith. The Irish immigrants, for example, arrived with teachers, sisters, priests, and produced vocations. You had a phenomenal investment in education, in health care and so on, with battalions of sisters like nowhere else in the world. The transmission of the faith in the United States worked through a kind of coherence between the organization of the church and the society…. But the sisters have disappeared. You once had vocations and seminaries in 200 places, but the seminaries are now empty. So the church faces new questions and challenges today, and one of them comes from the Hispanic migration.
Hispanic migration, a challenge for evangelization
Many of the Hispanic immigrants arriving to the United States today are Catholic, the cardinal pointed out. But, “unlike the Irish immigrants of earlier times, Hispanic Catholics don’t come with their priests. They arrive like the poor. They knock on the door and they are rejected because America today is not an America that receives people, because there a crisis here.” He thinks this is “also a crisis of identity: Who are we? Are we still the country of immigrants that can give immigrants a hope to achieve the American dream?”
The church in the United States is faced with the question of evangelizing Hispanic migrants, he said. “A lot is being done,” he admitted. “The church provides Mass for them, but then what? Do we as church help them to make a transition, say, from being Catholic in Mexico to being Catholic in the United States?”
“I spent 20 years in South America, and I saw that the way of being Catholic for a Mexican is quite different from the way of being Catholic for an Irish person in New York,” he said. “The feel is different.” He views the question of evangelization as a much deeper one than just providing Mass, and said he applauds the effort being made by the Encuentro, a multiyear process of consultation and community building spearheaded by the Hispanic church in the United States.
The U.S. bishops and the pope
When I asked how he read the apparent disconnect between many U.S. bishops and Pope Francis, the cardinal remarked, “This is something we have to dig a little deeper [to understand].” But, he said, “I would not concentrate on Francis so much because Francis is now seen as the big sinner by some. There are some priests and religious and bishops who are terribly against Francis as if he was the scapegoat [for] all the failures of the church or of society.”
“We are in the church at a change of epoch,” Cardinal Pierre said. “People don’t understand it. And this may be the reason why most of the young priests today dream about wearing the cassock and celebrating Mass in the traditional [pre-Vatican II] way.”
“In some ways, they are lost in a society which has no security, and all of us when we feel lost look for some security,” he said. “But which kind of security?” The cardinal recalled that Pope Francis declared, “my security is Jesus.” He added, “It’s not the church that will protect me. It’s not the habit.”
‘We are in the church at a change of epoch. People don’t understand it. And this may be the reason why most of the young priests today dream about wearing the cassock.’
As for the Catholics who are concentrated on the old liturgy, he said: “They say people like it, young people like it. So why not?” But, he asked: “Is the liturgy [only] something you like? Is it a refuge? Is the church a refuge? If you look at it as a refuge, you isolate yourselves.” He emphasized: “The church is missionary. It’s not a reserve of people who feel well together.”
In this context of a missionary church, the cardinal underlined the importance of synodality for the renewal of the church in the United States at this moment in history. “Synodality is not to change the doctrine. It’s a method,” he explained. But, he said, “The problem is that journalists, even in the States, continue to speak about divergent doctrine, they speak just about homosexuality and the marriage of priests, and so maintain the ambiguity. But this is not what we are talking about. I’ve said that for seven years to the bishops.” He found it hard to believe that even today “somebody could say the synod is a Pandora’s box.”
“Of course, some people have a false idea of synodality, but not the pope,” he said.
Asked where he sees signs of hope in the church in the United States today, the cardinal said:
I think we cannot separate the good things and the bad. I think the church is like that. We cannot say there are bishops who are on the left and ones that are on the right. This is a false analysis. I say that because I know the bishops. They are all struggling. They are all struggling in their own corner. They are all good people. Their desire is to evangelize. Some feel one way, some another way. They are overwhelmed by big problems. They have the problem of the abuse, and now the lawyers are emptying the money from their dioceses. Many bishops are in bankruptcy. So they are struggling. It’s not easy for them.
“On the other hand,” he said, “I think all of them, in some way, feel they have to evangelize, but they don’t always find the ways to do so. And often they are surrounded by people who are just saying, ‘Do this, do that.’” He believes “they need to pause, to stop and to reflect together. Don’t have only meetings about administration. Listen to one another. Look at the reality. Pray together, discern and decide.”
Continuing as nuncio
When I asked the cardinal, now 77, if he would remain nuncio for as long as he did in Mexico, that is nine years, he replied: “I don't know. The pope asked me to continue. I am not a young man, I’m very old, but he asked me to continue. He didn’t put a time limit. So I obey. I’m very obedient to the pope. All my life I have been obedient.”
Since Cardinal Pierre has met Pope Francis many times over these years, I asked what is the deepest impression he has taken away from these encounters? His reply: “He’s a man of vision. I admire his vision. And he’s a man of prayer. He has a deep serenity. He’s the man the Holy Spirit wanted for this time. He’s the pope the Spirit wanted for this time. I’m convinced of that. I’ve served four popes, so I’m not just a fan of one pope. All the popes I have served, I’ve served them with the same enthusiasm as I do Francis.”