Apostolic nuncios are the ambassadors of the Vatican’s diplomatic service. Like all ambassadors, their No. 1 rule is not to make waves or headlines when giving speeches. This is usually accomplished through bland diplomatic-speak that must be studied and parsed rather than quoted.
All of which makes the speech that Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò gave to the U.S. bishops at their fall meeting that much more interesting.
It came on the wave of recent news reports about divisions among U.S. Catholic conservatives over Pope Francis, and it suggests that there is at least some high-level concern that such divisions could weaken the Church and its leadership in this country.
In his talk, the nuncio spoke with a minimum of obfuscation about Pope Francis, about the type of bishops the pope wants, and about the need for unity in the U.S. Church. By diplomatic standards, his words were blunt.
Archbishop Viganò summed up the phenomenon of Francis: “As the successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis has made a great impression by drawing and captivating the hearts of men and women throughout the world, inviting them to meet Christ personally in their lives.”
As if to underscore Francis’ papal pedigree, the archbishop cites Paul VI, John XXIII and John Paul II in his talk, establishing the continuity of Francis with his predecessors. He mentions the great admiration Francis has for Paul VI and his suffering and profound love for the Church.
Archbishop Viganò cites Paul’s famous quote in Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if it does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses…. It is primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world.”
Pope Francis, the nuncio said, “is giving us by his own witness an example of how to live a life attuned to the values of the Gospel.”
What does this mean for bishops: “The Holy Father wants bishops in tune with their people.” He “wants ‘pastoral’ bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology.”
What does a pastoral bishop look like? The nuncio quotes Blessed John Paul II on the importance of bishops understanding the ministry, the problems and the sacrifices of their priests. He quoted Pope John that “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be more effectively guarded and taught.”
But then Archbishop Viganò implied that there may be “difficult years” ahead. There is a “historical confrontation” coming, he quoted then-Cardinal Wojtyla in a 1976 speech, between “the Church and the anti-church, between the gospel and the anti-gospel, between Christ and the Antichrist.”
Pastoral is not code for inoffensive niceness. Instead, the nuncio urged his audience to be attentive, watchful and prepared “to give radical witness to their faith in Jesus Christ.”
If the Church is to be strong in the face of trial, it must be unified, and Archbishop Viganò ended his talk with an appeal to “a spirit of real unity among yourselves and, of course, with the successor of Peter, trusting in the way he sees best to live out his mission to mankind.”
He acknowledged that U.S. political society is polarized and weakened, but “the Catholic Church will preserve her unity and strength as long as its people have trust in their bishops.”
His speech ended by again exhorting the bishops to “give genuine witness to the faithful.”
Not just bishops, however. His eloquent exhortation to witness, humility and sacrificial service necessarily applies to all of us who love and work on behalf of our Church in all our ministries and professions.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.