Pastoral visit encourages Church in Caribbean

2013-11-30 Vatican Radio

(Vatican Radio) Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, addressed the bishops of the Episcopal Conference of the Antilles on Saturday, while on his first pastoral visit to the region.

In his address to the bishops at the Seminary of St John Vianney and Ugandan Martyrs in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, the cardinal spoke of the three main challenges facing the Church in the Caribbean: the scarcity of priests and religious, the declining number of Catholics engaged in the life of the Church, and always decreasing financial resources.

He encouraged the bishops in facing these problems and urged them to take the necessary steps in fostering healthy clergy and lay communities, capable of living fully the faith and mission of the Church.

He also pointed to signs of hope: the re-opening of the seminary, the presence of new lay movements and religious communities, and the institution of the permanent diaconate. He later preached at San Fernando Cathedral in Port Hope.

Cardinal Filoni’s visit began on Friday and will continue until 4 December, with stops in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Martinique and Guadeloupe. On Sunday, he travels to Jamaica, where the local Church is to hold a closing mass for the Year of Faith.

Read Cardinal Filoni’s full text to the bishops below:

Greetings: I will begin by expressing my great joy in being invited to visit the Church in the Caribbean. It was the first area of the Americas to hear the Good News of Christ over 400 years ago, and it is the first time that the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples is visiting the region. In fact, it will be my very first opportunity to meet with all of you as one group, and my first occasion to meet with some of you in person. I would, therefore, like to express my gratitude to Archbishop Patrick Pinder, President of the Antilles Episcopal Conference, for inviting me and to Archbishop Joseph Harris, for his warm welcome here, in Port of Spain, the mother Diocese for many of the other local Churches in the Antilles.

Context: Let me first assure you all of the importance of the Antilles Episcopal Conference for the Holy See, which is well aware of the difficulties that you are facing, augmented in part by the great heterogeneity of the region. You are composed of many different nation states, language groups, and socio-economic realities. This region’s great cultural diversity is the result of a rich and sometimes painful history, which has shaped who you are today. Along with those peoples indigenous to the islands before the arrival of Europeans, one cannot overlook the millions of Africans that were forcibly brought over as slaves. To these one must add the many others who have immigrated to the region, from Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. The resulting ethnic and cultural diversity is of great significance for the life of the local Church and for the enculturation of the Gospel. It also poses many challenges in making common decisions and in developing common strategies for the formation of the clergy and for needed pastoral responses to different problems. I would therefore encourage you to make every effort to collaborate, on every level, so as to make the Church’s evangelizing presence even more effective in the Antilles.

Challenges: After the enthusiasm following the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed the importance of local cultures in the life of particular Churches, their liturgies and pastoral programs, there was a period of disenchantment, which resulted in a drop in vocations, a diminution in the numbers of priests and religious, a decline in the number of Catholics and a decrease in their zeal for the faith, and a significant reduction in financial resources available for the sustenance of the Dioceses. These difficulties are linked to the impact of secularization and hedonism, more prevalent in this part of the missionary world than in some others, partly because of the influence of the many North American and European tourists that have made the Caribbean a preferred destination for their holidays. These realities have given rise to three major challenges, which you now face as an Episcopal Conference: a scarcity of priests and religious, falling numbers of Catholics engaged in the life of the Church, and a constant diminution of financial resources. These challenges have been a source of discouragement for many of you, especially after many attempts to confront them with different programs for which economic resources were not spared. It would therefore be opportune to take to heart the words of Pope Francis to the Bishops gathered in Brazil this past July: “never yield to the fear once expressed by Blessed John Henry Newman, that “… the Christian world is gradually becoming barren and effete, as land which has been worked out and is become sand”. We must not yield to disillusionment, discouragement and complaint” (Address to the Bishops of Brazil 28/07/13 n.3). Let us remember that, as Blessed John Paul II noted, “the mission of Christ the Redeemer, which is entrusted to the Church, is still very far from completion… an overall view of the human race shows that this mission is still only beginning and that we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service” (Redemptoris Missio nr.1).

Scarcity of Priests and Religious: The first of the three above mentioned challenges is the most significant, since it is only with well-formed, competent, zealous, and holy priests and religious that a local Church can be expected to grow in enthusiasm for the faith, and be effective in evangelizing those in its ambit. The scarcity of dedicated apostolic personnel, which you are now facing, is linked to a number of factors. These include: a) the aging of priests and religious and their withdrawal from active ministry, including the phenomenon of the departure of religious communities that were once an essential part of the ecclesiastical history of the Antilles, b) the departure of some other priests because of discouragement, and others because of moral problems, and c) the lack of young people answering God’s call to dedicate their lives exclusively for the proclamation of the Gospel as priests and religious. In some of the Dioceses active programs for the Permanent Diaconate have met with some success, providing some help with catechesis, preaching and other pastoral activities, especially in the service of the poor. The Church cannot live and grow without priests, who ensure that the Eucharist is celebrated and that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is provided to the faithful, not to mention the fact that they provide future candidates for episcopal office. Here I would like to acknowledge the work you have already done to confront this challenge by appointing vocation directors in every Diocese and by establishing a vocation commission on the Conference level. Even though these initiatives may not have yet produced the longed-for results, this does not mean that they will not bear fruit in the future. Obviously much more must be done in the area of ongoing formation of priests and their accompaniment by their Bishop, so that young people might encounter joyful, zealous and faithful priests. Because only such priests will attract the young to the service of Christ.

Falling numbers of active Catholics: The second challenge is that of (the) falling number of Catholics in different particular Churches in the region. It is a complex reality. In some areas, because of a downturn in the world economy, many people are emigrating in search of employment and for a better future. In other areas some Catholics stop practicing their faith because of a lack of priests or the poor quality of pastoral care: poorly prepared homilies, less than adequate liturgical preparation and animation, sub-standard catechesis, and a poor sense of community. Often what is really lacking is a caring shepherd that is (in) their midst, one that bears “the odor of his sheep”. As a result, some Catholics have been attracted by aggressive Pentecostal-type religious groups, who offer a very emotional and enthusiastic display of piety and worship. This phenomenon has also touched the great Catholic educational institutions, which have seen an erosion of Catholic identity because of the departure of priests and religious involved in Catholic education. Thankfully there are dedicated lay people, many of which give clear and bold witness to their faith. Others however become discouraged and still others are not in tune with the teaching of the Church.

New Lay Ecclesial Movements: One must add, however, that the Antilles does have a number of vibrant lay movements and new religious communities, who work for social development and the care of the poor, such as the Living Water Community, the Mustard Seed Communities, and the Missionaries of the Poor. Furthermore, I would like to applaud and support your efforts in reaching out to Catholics who have lost their way, by various programs and grand socio-ecclesial events. It is vital, therefore, that you do not lose heart, or become discouraged because of less-than-adequate results of your efforts. In this regard I would also suggest that you invite into your Dioceses some of the new ecclesial movements and realities that have provided much needed support for lay people in the practice of the faith through intense catechesis, joyful celebrations of the Sacraments, marriage enrichment, and a general enthusiasm for the Faith.

Scarcity of Financial Resources: These challenges have also resulted in decreasing financial resources in many of your Dioceses. Notwithstanding the obvious generosity of the Catholic faithful, who loyally and generously support their Church financially, the diminution of pastoral personnel and of practicing Catholics has resulted in financial difficulties for many of you. One of the consequences is not being able to adequately support the clergy, even in the more prosperous parts of the Antilles. This problem is also being felt on the universal level, with fewer resources flowing into the Pontifical Mission Societies. This challenge obviously calls us to be much more attentive to the way we administer the economic resources of the Church. We must find ways of cutting costs, by living more simply, taking our example from the Holy Father, and by finding new sources for financial assistance at home and abroad. Above all, it means that we must be absolutely transparent in the financial management of our Dioceses. I would, therefore, strongly recommend that you publish annual financial statements for the Diocese for public perusal. This will encourage your priests to be more transparent in the administration of their parishes. After all, how can we ask our priests to be transparent, if we ourselves do not provide the first example? I applaud the efforts of your Episcopal Conference, which has made laudable efforts in keeping costs down. Deacon Michael James, your Secretary General, and his wife, Maria, have been very generous in their work of the Conference. Thankfully, you also have the support of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, which provides much needed subsidies.

The Bishops and their Ministry: Dear Brothers, it is up to us to confront the challenges with courage. We are the ones ultimately responsible for the spiritual well-being of the local Church. We have been chosen by the Lord to serve His flock and to tend His sheep, not our own. It is up to us to begin the process of revitalizing the Faith in our particular Churches. It is up to us to find new and creative ways to proclaim God’s Word, in all its integrity, in a way that will draw people to Christ and to His Church. This will require great efforts in providing the necessary leadership for our clergy, the religious collaborating with us, and for our faithful.

Pope Francis, speaking to the Bishops of CELAM in Rio de Janeiro (July 28, 2013), advised them with these words: “Please take seriously our vocation as the servants of the Holy People of God… Bishops must be Pastors, close to the people, fathers and brothers, with much gentleness; patient and merciful: Men who love poverty, as interior poverty as freedom before the Lord, as exteriorp overty as simplicity and austerity of life, men who…are husbands of a Church without waiting for another. Men able to keep watch over the flock entrusted to them and to their care…who have brightness and light in their hearts.” He further commented: “The place of the Bishop in standing with his people is tri-fold: in front of them to indicate the path; in their midst to maintain unity among them; and behind them to be sure that no one is left behind” (L’Osservatore Romano, July 29-30, 2013).

Our priests and our lay faithful must never feel abandoned by their Pastor. I would therefore invite you not to absent yourselves from your Dioceses, but rather, to go out and visit the parishes, not only for extraordinary sacramental celebrations, but on a regular Sunday, meeting your priest and the People of God, offering to them words of encouragement and challenging them to be more zealous in the practice of their faith. Such visits also provide wonderful opportunities for you to speak to young people directly; inviting and inspiring them to practice their faith and also to consider follow a vocation to the Priesthood or consecrated life.

Relationship with the Clergy: Let us also remember the important place that the clergy for our local Churches. Paragraph 28 of Lumen tells us that priests are “prudent (providi) cooperators with the Episcopal Order… [and that they] constitute one Priesthood with their Bishop”. As “collaborators”, they enjoy the right to fully participate in the pastoral ministry of the Bishop, not only as pastors of parishes and holders of Diocesan offices, but also through their participation in various Diocesan Bodies that are mandated by canon law. It is vital, therefore, that each Diocese have an active college of consultors (c. 502), a functioning presbyteral council (c. 495), and an effective financial council (c. 492). Above all it is necessary to maintain positive, paternal and fraternal relationships with your clergy, being firm, when necessary, but always having at heart the priest’s ongoing spiritual, cultural, and pastoral formation. The Holy Father’s words addressed to newly appointed Bishops this past September are very illuminating. “I would like to remember affection for your priests. Your priests are your first neighbor…— love your neighbor …your priests are indispensable collaborators of whom to seek counsel and help and for whom you should care as fathers, brothers and friends. One of your priority tasks is the spiritual care of the presbyterate, but do not forget the human needs of each individual priest, especially in the most delicate and important events in their ministry and their life. The time you spend with your priests is never wasted!” (19/09/2013).

I therefore ask you to exhort and inspire your priests to a more authentic and sincere obedience to their Bishops and legitimate Superiors, and to lead the faithful with a humble attitude. Encourage them to ever greater detachment from money and material goods. Challenge them also to be careful and faithful to established norms in their celebration of the Liturgy.

It is also important to remember that because among your clergy there is much diversity, it is very important that the Bishop promote and cultivate real communion and mutual respect among the clergy, encouraging them to work zealously together as an effective evangelizing force. The fact that your Dioceses have both diocesan and religious priests, some born locally, others coming as missionaries to the Antilles, can sometimes (be) a pretext for tension and division. But in reality, this diversity is really a great blessing, because it provides a wider perspective and an opportunity to appreciate the universality of the Church. Since I will not be able to meet all of your priest collaborators, please convey to them my cordial greetings and assure them of my prayers.

Formation: Adequate formation of the clergy, both initial and ongoing, is another important area of concern. The Holy Father emphasized this point in his address in Rio de Janeiro this past July, when he said: “unless we train ministers capable of warming people’s hearts, of walking with them in the night, of dialoguing with their hopes and disappointments, of mending their brokenness, what hope can we have for our present and future journey?...That is why it is important to devise and ensure a suitable formation, on which will provide persons able to step into the night without being overcome by the darkness and losing their bearing: able to listen to people’s dreams without being seduced and to share their disappointments without losing hope and becoming bitter: able to sympathize with the brokenness of others without losing their own strength and identity ” (loc. cit. n. 4). In this context, the desire to reopen St. John Vianney Major Seminary in this Archdiocese is very laudable, providing that it will have an adequate number of good priest formators, who will mentor the candidates by their own personal example of priestly integrity and transparency. Furthermore, the seminary must provide a clear and unambiguous presentation of the Church’s doctrine and moral teaching, especially in the area of human sexuality and celibacy. Finally, it should inspire the candidate to mission, to be zealous in the proclamation of the Gospel, and selfless in the service of the faithful.

Clerical Discipline: Let us now turn to the delicate area of clerical discipline. You may have in your Diocese clerics who have sadly fallen into immoral and scandalous behavior. As a father, you must always begin by assuring the Priest of your paternal concern and compassion for him. Then, you must kindly, but firmly, call him back, providing adequate time and spiritual/psychological resources that could be needed to heal the spiritual/moral illness that the priest may be embroiled in. However, after a prudent amount of time, if the behavior continues, and it is clear that the priest is incorrigible, it is absolutely essential to take the necessary canonical steps, either inviting the priest to ask for a dispensation from his clerical obligations, or to begin the process of dismissal in poenam from the clerical state. In this matter, the Ordinary must follow all of the canonical requirements, gathering clear evidence, not based on hearsay, but on actual witnesses, remembering that a priest accused of serious breaches in his promise of obedience and/or chaste celibacy, has the right to a regular and serious investigation, which includes the opportunity for self-defense. If there are any victims involved as a result of a priest’s behavior, they must be taken care of with compassion. The priest himself should provide help from his own resources, if at all possible, to such victims. Difficulties with our clergy must be faced with courage and perseverance, for the good of the faithful, so that a climate of trust and confidence is provided for in the Diocese.

Relationship with the Religious: With regard to your relationship with the men and women religious in your Dioceses, I would strongly encourage an attitude of respect, dialogue, and collaboration at every level. Local Churches need their unique charisms. Let us, therefore, remember the principle of subsidiarity, which allows everyone to find their proper place as they contribute to the common good. Let us not be discouraged by the aging and departure of some religious communities from our Dioceses, rather, let us notice many new Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which are attracting young vocations and offering wonderful service to the Church. I would invite you to seek them out and invite them into your Dioceses.

Conclusion: Dear Brothers, before I conclude, I would like to renew my appreciation for your generous pastoral care, for your unwavering communion with the Holy Father, and for all of the good that you do at the universal level to support the missions throughout the world. Thank you for your positive attitude with which you have met the faithful in the Antilles, who are, at this very moment, in my thoughts and prayers.

May Christ, our Master and Lord, bless you, and, as He asked the Father to safeguard the faith of Peter, may the Father grant that the Episcopal Ministry entrusted to you be both fruitful and generous. May Mary, Queen of the Apostles, accompany you with her maternal care and Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus, Patroness of the Missions, inspire you and the Churches that you shepherd to every greater holiness and zeal for the task of evangelization.