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David J. BonnarJanuary 11, 2024
Pope Francis greets visitors from the popemobile as he rides around St. Peter's Square at the Vatican before his weekly general audience Oct. 25, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

On Nov. 9, 2020, I received a life-changing phone call. I was informed that day by the apostolic nuncio that Pope Francis had appointed me to be the sixth bishop of Youngstown, Ohio. Mindful of my own weakness and unworthiness, I accepted this charge with humility and trust. When the announcement was made official a week later, I began the necessary preparations to leave my native diocese and prepare for this new chapter in my life.

One of the first orders of business was to arrange a five-day canonical retreat to prepare myself to embrace this new life and ministry. I reached out to the bishops I had come to know from my home diocese, some of whom were serving in other regions, and asked them to provide spiritual reading for the retreat. All the bishops offered great advice to help me to begin the transition from parish priest to diocesan bishop. One of the bishops wrote back to me and simply said, “Dave, just read and pray over ‘The Joy of the Gospel,’ and that will be all you need.”

His advice to read Pope Francis’ important apostolic exhortation from 2013 became not just a gift that I began to unwrap during the retreat but truly a roadmap for my episcopal ministry in the six counties of the diocese. I have tried in so many ways to share this gift with the clergy, religious and faithful of my diocese.

When the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released “Fiducia Supplicans,” a “Declaration on the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings,” on Dec.18, 2023, I—like many of my brother bishops—received a flurry of inquiries from media, members of the clergy and the faithful seeking understanding and direction on this news, which gives permission for priests to give a pastoral blessing to same-sex couples.

Pope Francis has brought to Rome a whole new vision, one rooted in Gospel joy.

Many media accounts immediately described this document as a “change” or “shift” in church teaching. In a statement released on the same day that the Declaration was published, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops noted that there is a difference between “a liturgical blessing,” like one given at a Wedding Mass or ceremony, and a “pastoral blessing,” which any person who seeks God’s grace can request. The statement clearly says that the new document in no way alters church teaching on marriage but encourages pastors to accompany others on their journeys.

In the presentation of the document, the dicastery notes this fact in saying, “As with the Holy Father’s above mentioned response to the Dubia of two Cardinals, this document remains firm on the traditional doctrine of the Church about Marriage, not allowing any type of liturgical rite or blessing similar to a liturgical rite that can create confusion.” “Fiducia Supplicans” offers a theological reflection through the lens of the Holy Father’s “pastoral vision.” This note about the pope’s pastoral vision is critical to our understanding of this new Declaration.

Pope Francis’ pastoral vision

A life without a clear vision can become problematic. Nor can successful leadership exist effectively without a vision. As the first pope from South America, Pope Francis has brought to Rome a whole new vision, one rooted in Gospel joy. This vision was first revealed during the papal conclave, when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio reportedly had a moment to address the electors and referenced Revelation 3:20, in which Jesus is knocking at the door: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.”

The cardinal from Argentina suggested that Jesus was not knocking for the purpose of entering but rather inviting the church to come out with him into the world—most especially to the peripheries, to embrace the poor, vulnerable and those who feel unloved. The Holy Father’s vision comes down to an invitation to embrace all God’s people, not just the poor and isolated, orphaned and widowed, imprisoned and sick, but also those who are gay and lesbian.

We must go out to the peripheries to proclaim the joy of the Gospel and always be open to growth.

This pastoral vision of moving beyond the doors of the church and the given territory of a parish is outlined in Pope Francis’ “The Joy of the Gospel,” his signature document, in which his vision becomes a mission. What is noteworthy here is that from the outset, the Holy Father states that “The Joy of the Gospel” is meant for everyone, without discrimination. Pope Francis invites “all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day” (No. 3).

Every encounter with Jesus also contains the expectation of growth, as we are all pilgrims on the way and works in progress. Pope Francis states: “We must keep in mind, however, that we are constantly being called to grow. Each culture and social group needs purification and growth” (No. 69). This idea of growth is captured for me in the words of a former colleague with whom I worked in a parish. She would often say at sacramental preparation meetings to parents and candidates, “One cannot live an adult life on an eighth-grade faith.” The Holy Father is saying that we cannot live a full Christian life by staying in our own little world of self-righteousness and prejudice. Nor can we fall prey to an unhealthy “ecclesial introversion.” We must go out to the peripheries to proclaim the joy of the Gospel and always be open to growth, which often manifests itself as conversion.

Not even the priest is exempt from the everyday pursuit of a personal change of heart. Pope Francis feels so strongly about this point that he reiterated the message of St. John Paul II in “The Joy of the Gospel.” “For this reason too, ‘the priest—like every member of the Church—ought to grow in awareness that he himself is continually in need of being evangelized’” (No. 164).

Honest accompaniment

Pope Francis is stretching us out of complacency to be part of a dynamic church that grows by extending ourselves to others, especially those in most need. But this extension is not just a simple “one and done” outreach but an intentional and committed loving embrace called “accompaniment.”

Accompaniment can be described in terms of an intentional look or gaze at others. Pope Francis describes this look thus: “In a culture paradoxically suffering from anonymity and at the same time obsessed with the details of other people’s lives, shamelessly given over to morbid curiosity, the Church must look more closely and sympathetically at others whenever necessary” (No. 169). In this gaze, we need to overcome the temptation to be fixated on looking merely at ourselves and aspire every day to behold those among us in need. As my seminary rector once said, “The needs of the church are always greater than our own.”

True accompaniment acknowledges the mystery of the person without making flippant judgments.

On the other hand, the Holy Father states that accompaniment is also an intentional presence. “In our world, ordained ministers and other pastoral workers can make present the fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze. The Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious, and laity—into this ‘art of accompaniment,’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex. 3:5)” (No. 169). The practice of accompaniment necessarily involves intentional respect. The word “respect” comes from a Latin word that means “to look at again.” As disciples, we are called not only to look again but to do it with reverence.

True accompaniment acknowledges the mystery of the person without making flippant judgments. Pope Francis says this so well: “One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without” (No. 172).

Trusting in the Holy Spirit

The vision of “The Joy of the Gospel” is rooted in pastoral charity, which can be expressed in many ways, not the least of which is a pastoral blessing to same-sex couples that can bring Christ nearer and, at the same time, begin a journey that accompanies and invites without judging, approving, legitimizing or validating their lives—for God alone is the judge. Such charitable outreaches are the mark and duty of true disciples.

But charity can become lost through sin. “Fiducia Supplicans” acknowledges this reality. “Precisely, in this regard, Pope Francis urged us not to ‘lose pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes’ and to avoid being ‘judges who only deny, reject, and exclude,’” the document states (No. 13). What Pope Francis is asking of us is that we become missionary disciples who accompany, listen and invite always in a spirit of Christian charity.

When I was a parish priest, I used to tell the younger priests and seminarians assigned with me that we cannot be selective about our ministry. We certainly cannot be selective about with whom we share the joy of the Gospel, because no one is to be deprived of this joy. I think Pope Francis is saying something similar in “The Joy of the Gospel” when he articulates that we cannot box ourselves in or limit people from our reach:

If we are to share our lives with others and generously give of ourselves, we also must realize that every person is worthy of our giving. Not for their physical appearance, their abilities, their language, their way of thinking, or for any satisfaction that we might receive, but rather because they are God’s handiwork, his creation (No. 274).

This moment—the asking of a pastoral blessing by same-sex couples and the permission to bestow it—need not be an obstacle to our unity. It can be an opportunity. This is not a time to close doors but to open them, always knowing our particular role as disciples. We are not God, the just judge. We are simply pilgrims on the way, works in progress, earthen vessels, broken and blessed always at the mercy of the Holy Spirit. We can ill afford to lose sight of the humility of St. Paul, who said: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor 15:10).

The Declaration by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith represents for us a moment to bring Christ closer to those in need. “The request for a blessing, thus, expresses and nurtures openness to the transcendence, mercy, and closeness to God in a thousand concrete circumstances of life, which is no small thing in the world in which we live. It is a seed of the Holy Spirit that must be nurtured, not hindered,” the document reads (No. 33). As a church we need to continue to encourage closeness to God and to pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!”

Over 2,000 years ago, it was that same Holy Spirit that empowered the apostles to go out of the locked doors of the upper room and practice a life of faith proclaiming the joy of the Gospel. That same Spirit has passed that faith throughout the generations. And it was that same Holy Spirit 10 years ago that brought an Argentine Jesuit to the Vatican to be the vicar of Christ—with an intentional pastoral vision of encounter, joy, growth, accompaniment, mercy, charity and firm trust in the Holy Spirit that is now our mission.

One of my favorite parts of “The Joy of the Gospel” is the passage in which Pope Francis testifies to the power of the Holy Spirit, which I believe is the source of his pastoral vision for us: “Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide, and direct us, leading us wherever he wills. The Holy Spirit knows well what is needed in every time and place” (No. 280).

I thank God every day for the wisdom of that bishop whose suggestion three years ago for my episcopal retreat became a gift I continue to unwrap and share each day. I have no doubt that the gift is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. But it is more than a gift. It is a vision that now is our mission as disciples.

Do you hear that knocking? It is Jesus inviting us to go out into the peripheries and proclaim the joy of the Gospel without discrimination in a genuine spirit of accompaniment that listens, invites, and loves without judgment or approval always deferential to the wisdom and grace of the Holy Spirit.

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