by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
I have written the last three weeks about the lowlights and highlights of the written report submitted to the Holy Father in preparation for my visit with him earlier this month.
With the other bishops of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska, we met for an entire week with those who assist Pope Francis with the governance of the universal church.
In addition to our meetings, we celebrated Mass at the four major basilicas — St. Peter, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul. It was an intense but very gratifying week.
Of course, the highlight of the visit was the meeting with the Successor of St. Peter. In total, there were 15 bishops from our region. Each of us was allowed to bring priests or seminarians that are studying or working in Rome. I was able to present Father Anthony Saiki, who is completing his graduate studies in canon law.
Bishop James Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was accompanied by seminarian Paul Sappington. Bishop Johnston presented an autographed Patrick Mahomes jersey to the pope. The Holy Father received the jersey with delight.
Later, in our meeting during a discussion about the formation of seminarians, the Holy Father commented about the importance for seminarians to be well-balanced. For instance, the pope thought it was healthy for seminarians to be involved with sports.
After all the bishops and their guests had been presented to the Holy Father, the pope spent a few moments encouraging the seminarians and priests to persevere in their discernment and vocation.
The Holy Father blessed them and bade farewell, saying he had to speak now with their “bosses.”
Pope Francis began the meeting by encouraging us to ask any question, express any concern and even to criticize him. He asked us to be honest with him; otherwise, our meeting was a wasted opportunity.
The pope asked that the content of our conversation be confidential so that we could speak frankly.
I began my comments by recalling a talk he had given to a group of priests some years ago in which he shared he carried with him always a cross from the rosary of a deceased Argentinian priest. I asked him if he had the cross with him. The pope confirmed that indeed he did.
Pope Francis said this particular priest was a great confessor — in fact, many of the priests in Buenos Aires went to him for the sacrament of reconciliation.
When the priest died, Pope Francis, a bishop in Buenos Aires at the time, went to his wake. The future pope was surprised that there were no flowers adorning his coffin. The pope went outside the church and purchased some flowers to decorate the casket.
As he was positioning the flowers, he noticed the rosary entwined in the deceased priest’s hands. The future pope coveted the cross from the rosary. He wanted a memento of this priest who had been an instrument of God’s mercy for so many. With some difficulty, he detached the cross from the rosary.
The pope said he always carries the cross in a pouch that he wears under his cassock.
The Holy Father said if he was in a conversation with a difficult person, he would touch the cross asking for the gifts of patience and mercy. I was watching when I addressed the pope to see if he began grasping for the pouch containing this special cross.
I informed the Holy Father that I currently serve as the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities. I shared with the pope that the bishops of the United States this past November gave enthusiastic support for an initiative, scheduled to begin this coming March, entitled “Walking with Moms in Need.”
As part of this initiative, every diocese and every parish is asked to assess what assistance is currently available to help mothers experiencing an untimely or difficult pregnancy.
Bishops and pastors are challenged to identify where there are gaps in the services and/or how we need to communicate more effectively the availability of assistance.
The goal of the initiative is to increase the practical help and support for pregnant moms as well as to improve our communication of the availability of this assistance.
I told the Holy Father that currently in the United States there are more than 2,700 pregnancy resource centers that serve more than 500,000 pregnant mothers annually.
We hope this initiative will help our 17,000 Catholic parishes in the United States to be better prepared to connect women with untimely pregnancies to the assistance they need.
Borrowing a phrase from the Holy Father, we want our parishes to be “islands of mercy.” Pope Francis was delighted to learn of this initiative.
I also shared with the Holy Father that the U.S. bishops have a long-standing tradition the year before a presidential election to issue a document providing guidance to Catholics about their responsibility to be engaged citizens and well-informed voters.
This past November, the U.S. bishops repromulgated a document entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”
In reissuing this document, we wrote a concise new cover letter that quotes the pope and highlights the moral concerns that he has elevated in recent years, regarding issues such as immigration reform, care for refugees, assistance for the poor, availability of health care, care for creation, etc.
In the cover letter, we also stated our long-standing position that the protection of the lives of unborn children remains a pre-eminent priority, because: 1) abortion attacks life at its very beginning when it is most vulnerable; 2) abortion takes place within the context of the family, destroying the most important human bond — that of mother and child; and 3) because of the sheer enormity of the lives impacted — more than 61 million abortions since its legalization in 1973.
Of course, each child aborted has a mother and father who are profoundly scarred by the death of their child.
I related to the Holy Father that we had been criticized by some who asserted that our statement was an insult to Pope Francis. He appeared startled and asked: “Why?” I told him because we speak of our opposition to abortion as a pre-eminent priority.
The Holy Father responded immediately: “It is a pre-eminent priority. If we do not defend the right to life, then no other rights matter.”
The Holy Father asked that we not keep this part of our conversation confidential. He asked me to tell the participants at the March for Life and all those in the pro-life movement that the pope prays for them, that he supports them and encourages them to persevere in their advocacy for life.
I was delighted to share this message from the Holy Father at the vigil Mass for the March for Life and now through this column with all of you.
By the way, as far as I could see, the pope never attempted to touch the pouch with the crucifix during our conversation.