VATICAN CITY — Inspiring “missionary disciples” rather than church-maintenance workers and building up the unity of the church in a polarized world were some of the topics on the table when 26 U.S. bishops met Pope Francis Dec. 12.
Even though the pope was running 40 minutes late — and apologized profusely for it — the bishops of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin spent “two hours and 18 minutes” conversing with him, said Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee.
“Here’s one of the most important figures in the world and he gives us two hours and 18 minutes,” the archbishop said. “That says a lot about his pastor’s heart, about his generosity, about the fact that he likes being with bishops and talking about the things that matter to the church.”
“The meeting with the Holy Father was a very warm, informal experience,” said Bishop David Ricken. “Everyone could ask their own question and bring up whatever topic we wished.
“It wound up being the Holy Father’s sharing deeply from his heart and from his experience as a bishop and now as the pope,” added Bishop Ricken. “The time went very quickly and all of us feel that we know him more as a person and as a pastor.”
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., said that thinking about the meeting, “I could imagine Peter sitting down with the apostles and sharing some of their concerns and challenges, some of their strategies for evangelization, whatever — I kind of felt that.”
Every bishop was free to ask questions or talk about his diocese, the bishop said. The pope “would respond with his observations or his counsel, his experiences — that was very neat because he would share his experiences as bishop or other experiences back home in Argentina.”
“I feel a strengthened bond with the Holy Father,” Bishop Rhoades said, especially after “feeling that care that he has for us. It’s genuine. There was a real sense of solidarity or communion.”
Some Twitter accounts and media reports continue to feed a narrative that the U.S. bishops are divided among themselves and that Pope Francis and many U.S. bishops aren’t exactly on the same page, but Archbishop Listecki said, “You couldn’t tell that from the meeting.”
While the pope and some bishops may disagree on some issues, he said, the media takes that, amplifies it and labels it “polarization” or “division” when it is really “a frank and open discussion about the church.”
“The media need to grow up a little bit,” the archbishop said.
Open discussion and, “occasionally, a properly placed criticism,” he said, “are healthy for the church.”
Archbishop Listecki said the “ad limina” visit gives bishops an opportunity to dialogue with the pope, “understand and affirm him in so many things he has done” and to ask for clarification of things that may be unclear.
Bishop Rhoades said the topic of divisions between the bishops and pope didn’t come up “because it’s not true.”
“The issue of unity did come up; the importance of unity within the church at large,” he said. “Being instruments of unity is really important,” but that does not mean all bishops have to think alike, but they always must speak with love for one another.
“There is a polarization in our culture and, in my opinion, that seeps into the church and it is not healthy,” Bishop Rhoades said. “The Lord himself prayed for his disciples that they may be one and we need to continue to pray that prayer and to work for unity.”
Bishop Rhoades said that in the meeting, Pope Francis emphasized the need to accompany young people, who are always on the move, and “the importance of authenticity.”
Archbishop Listecki said Pope Francis urged the bishops to draw hope from “seeing the light” that shines forth from Catholics who are living and practicing and sharing the faith.