Pope speaks with 15 U.S. bishops about abuse crisis, evangelization, parish life, pro-life issues


Pope Francis spent a significant amount of his Jan. 16 meeting with U.S. bishops from the Midwest bolstering parish life and outreach, along with other issues that are crucial to upholding and carrying-out the work of the Church.

Answering questions about “Evangelii Gaudium” (“Joy of the Gospel”), his apostolic exhortation on the New Evangelization, the Pope in an animated conversation stressed the importance of parish life, according to Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City.

“I explained that I found number 28 of ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ to be especially edifying in my ministry as a bishop,” Bishop McKnight said, “and told him how we were using it as the focus of a pastoral plan for our parishes and dioceses. He reiterated how important parishes are in the life of the Church, and encouraged us to seriously reflect on the purpose of a parish.” 

In “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Pope wrote that the parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, and it is responsible for reaching out to all.

Bishop McKnight was one of 15 bishops from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska making their “ad limina” visits to the Vatican in mid-January to report on the status of their dioceses.

“I am grateful for the Holy Father’s encouragement to be close to the people I serve,” he said.

In that meeting, the Pope also stated unequivocally that ending and honestly reckoning with the scourge of sexual abuse and the cover-up of criminal activity must remain a priority for the entire Church in the United States.

Bishop McKnight spoke to Catholic News Service and to diocesan staff Jan. 16 after he and the other bishops met with the Pope for more than two hours.

Bishop McKnight said that during the meeting, he thanked Pope Francis for expanding the section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that investigates clerical sexual abuse.

It was clear during the discussion how much the clerical sexual abuse crisis “pains the Holy Father,” he said. “He reiterated that this must be dealt with, it’s a crime, it can’t just be swept under the rug or dealt with only in the confessional — no, it’s a crime.”

Bishop McKnight said one of the bishops at the meeting brought up the question of the Vatican’s promised report on the case and career of Theodore E. McCarrick, the former cardinal and archbishop of Washington.

“I must respect the confidential nature of our conversation today,” Bishop McKnight said. “I can just say I am very confident the Pope is doing everything he can in order to rectify the problem and to help the entire Church learn from the mistake of McCarrick’s promotion in the Church.

“The Holy Father sees that, he recognizes that McCarrick’s promotion as archbishop of Washington should never have happened,” said Bishop Mc­Knight.

In the meeting, the Pope also affirmed that protecting human life must be seen as the preeminent foundational social and political issue for U.S. society.

Bishop McKnight said that on the issue of abortion, Pope Francis “simply reiterated what he’s already said in many different ways,” which is that “without life, what other rights are there? So, you have to begin with that. It’s not the only issue — I don’t think anybody has ever said that. But when you’re looking at the core beliefs and the more essential rights, the right to life of the unborn is very important.”

The Pope, Bishop McKnight recalled, “put it in a very beautiful way: Do we always want to simply eliminate those who are inconvenient? And, unfortunately, that’s part of our culture in the United States — the practice, the habit, if you will, of just eliminating the uncomfortable, the unwanted, as the solution. And we’re called to be better than that. We as a country are better than that.”

When the U.S. bishops say, “the right to life is the ‘preeminent issue’” in Catholics’ political concerns, “that word is carefully chosen,” Bishop Mc­Knight noted. “Because we want to avoid the perspective or the understanding that it’s the only issue — because it is not.”

Catholic voters, Bishop McKnight stated, need to be aware of a more general tendency or temptation “to get rid of unwanted people,” whether they are the unborn or the aged, immigrants or the poor. “There is a certain consistency that is required of us as Catholics.”