The Holy Father speaks to his bishops

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On any normal Wednesday morning, the streets of Washington and the suburban roads leading into Washington would be packed with cars, cabs and buses all jostling for space on crowded streets. But Sept. 23 was no ordinary day. Pope Francis was visiting Washington, and people heeded the advice of local and many federal governments to work from home if, possible.

After being welcomed by President Barack Obama at the White House and a quick parade around the Ellipse in the popemobile, Pope Francis changed cars - trading popemobile for Fiat - and motorcaded to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the seat of the archdiocese of Washington.

The cathedral is named for the patron saint of civil servants, a fitting place for official Washington to worship.

The cathedral has played host to several historic events, including the funeral Mass of President John F. Kenned, and a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in 1979.

In the hours before the visit, the choir practiced, musical instruments were tuned, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops staff huddled in groups and ushers held meetings to plan for the pope and the bishops.

Usher Kevin Crouch is a parishioner of the Church of the Nativity in Burke, and he's been an usher at the cathedral for 20 years. He was honored to be selected for this special assignment.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "We're so blessed to have the pope come here."

The center of the sanctuary was reserved for about 300 U.S. bishops, archbishops and cardinals. Side areas were reserved for invited guests like USCCB staff, parishioners, seminarians, novices and media.

One parishioner, Sabrina Diego, sat in a side pew, waiting for the pontiff to arrive.

"It's wonderful," she said. "It fills you with joy that he comes to see us."

Before Pope Francis arrived, the bishops were brought to the cathedral in buses. A steady stream of red zucchettos (hats) and sashes filled the center of the sanctuary. With time to spare before the pope's arrival they took photos with their cell phones and chatted with each other.

Father Rafael Barbieri, cathedral parochial vicar, gave interviews in English and Spanish. "We are all really excited," he said. "We've been waiting for this for a few months. (Pope Francis) is a great inspiration for priests and all Catholics."

While he was not part of the official ceremony, he did have a seat in the sanctuary. If given the opportunity, he said he would welcome the Holy Father to Washington.

But all this stopped when Pope Francis' Fiat pulled up in front of the cathedral. Cameras clicked as the pontiff walked up the stairs to an eager congregation.

The pope was welcomed by Msgr. W. Ronald Jameson, rector. With the choir singing, the pope walked down the center aisle as cell phones flashed. He stopped briefly at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel for a private prayer, then went to the sacristy to vest for the ceremony.

The Holy Father processed to the altar with the other ministers as the choir sang "Tu Es Petrus."

There were hymns, psalms, Gospel readings and prayers. There was a widely anticipated homily.

"My first word to you is one of thanksgiving to God for the power of the Gospel which has brought about remarkable growth of Christ's Church in these lands and enabled its generous contribution, past and present, to American society and to the world," he told the bishops.

Pope Francis said he appreciated what they do to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He thanked them for their solidarity with the Apostolic See and their commitment to the cause of life and the family.

In addition, the pope thanked the bishops for their charitable works and the efforts made for Catholic education.

The pope touched on the sex abuse crisis, saying that we all must work "to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated."

He told them that he is not here to lecture or judge them.

"I trust completely in the voice of the One who 'teaches all things,'" he said.

He asked the bishops to promote a culture of encounter and dialogue.

"Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose His offer of love," he said.

The bishops were encouraged by Pope Francis to confront the challenging issues of our time.

"The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man's predatory relationship with nature - at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters," said the pope.

Before concluding he offered two recommendations. The first was to be part of a fatherhood of bishops. Bishops must be pastors close to the people, he said, telling them to be neighbors and servants. He told them to support their priests.

His second recommendation was one close to his heart - immigrants.

He called them pilgrims.

"So do not be afraid to welcome them. Offer them the warmth of the love of Christ and you will unlock the mystery of their heart. I am certain that, as so often in the past, these people will enrich America and its Church," he said.

After the ceremony, Pope Francis met with a few of the bishops, and then left the cathedral. He said he was sorry he couldn't meet each one individually.

"He was challenging, uplifting and beautiful," said Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Paul R. Sanchez.

Bishop John Michael Kudrick of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, said that the pope

touched on many points, but for him it was his comments on bishops being fathers and to support their priests that resonated.

The bishops gathered on the front steps of the cathedral and as Pope Francis drove by, they raised their arms and waved. From the back seat of a Fiat, a white-sleeved arm returned the gesture.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015