In an interview with the new Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, Archbishop Robert Prevost, says, “We are often worried about teaching doctrine, but we risk forgetting that our first duty is to communicate the beauty and joy of knowing Jesus.”
At the age of 67, Archbishop Robert Prevost is beginning his “novitiate” as Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops.
An Augustinian friar, Robert Francis Prevost was born in the U.S. city of Chicago, and served first as a missionary and later as bishop in Chiclayo, Peru, before being chosen by Pope Francis to succeed Cardinal Marc Ouellet.
In this interview, he sketches a portrait of the type of bishop needed today.
What has it meant for you to go from being a missionary bishop in Latin America to leading the dicastery that helps the Pope choose bishops?
I still consider myself a missionary. My vocation, like that of every Christian, is to be a missionary, to proclaim the Gospel wherever one is.
Certainly, my life has changed a lot: I have the opportunity to serve the Holy Father, to serve the Church today, here, from the Roman Curia. [It is] a very different mission from before, but also a new opportunity to live a dimension of my life, which simply was always answering ‘Yes’ when asked to do a service. With this spirit, I ended my mission in Peru, after eight and a half years as a bishop and almost twenty years as a missionary, to begin a new one in Rome.
Could you offer an “identikit” of a bishop for the Church of our time?
First and foremost, he must be ‘Catholic’: sometimes the bishop risks focusing only on the local dimension. But a bishop should have a much broader vision of the Church and reality, and experience the universality of the Church.
He also needs the ability to listen to his neighbour and seek advice, as well as psychological and spiritual maturity.
A fundamental element of the portrait of a bishop is being a pastor, capable of being close to the members of the community, starting with the priests for whom the bishop is father and brother. To live this closeness to all, without excluding anyone.
Pope Francis has spoken of four types of closeness: closeness to God, to brother bishops, to priests, and to all God’s people. One must not give in to the temptation to live isolated, separated in a palace, satisfied with a certain social level or a certain level within the Church.
And we must not hide behind an idea of authority that no longer makes sense today. The authority we have is to serve, to accompany priests, to be pastors and teachers.
We are often preoccupied with teaching doctrine, the way of living our faith, but we risk forgetting that our first task is to teach what it means to know Jesus Christ and to bear witness to our closeness to the Lord. This comes first: to communicate the beauty of the faith, the beauty and joy of knowing Jesus. It means that we ourselves are living it and sharing this experience.
How important is the bishop’s service of unity around the Successor of Peter in a time when polarisation is also growing in the ecclesial community?
The three words we are using in the work of the Synod — participation, communion, and mission — provide the answer.
The bishop is called to this charism, to live the spirit of communion, to promote unity in the Church, unity with the Pope. This also means being Catholic, because without Peter, where is the Church? Jesus prayed for this at the Last Supper, ‘That all may be one,’ and it is this unity that we wish to see in the Church.
Today, society and culture take us away from that vision of Jesus, and this does so much harm. The lack of unity is a wound that the Church suffers, a very painful one.
Divisions and polemics in the Church do not help anything. We bishops especially must accelerate this movement towards unity, towards communion in the Church.
Can the process for the appointment of new bishops be improved? Praedicate Evangelium states that ‘members of the people of God’ must be involved. Is this happening?
We had an interesting reflection among the members of the Dicastery on this issue. For some time now, not only some bishops or some priests, but also other members of the people of God are being heard. This is very important, because the bishop is called to serve a particular Church. Therefore, listening to the people of God is also important.
If a candidate is not known by anyone among his people, it is difficult — not impossible, but difficult — for him to truly become pastor of a community, of a local Church. So, it is important that the process is a little more open to listening to different members of the community.
This does not mean that it is the local Church that has to choose its pastor, as if being called to be a bishop was the result of a democratic vote, of an almost ‘political’ process. A much broader view is needed, and the apostolic nunciatures help a lot in this. I believe that, little by little, we need to open up more, to listen a little more to the religious, the laity.
One of the novelties the Pope has introduced was to appoint three women among the members of the Dicastery for Bishops. What can you say about their contribution?
On several occasions we have seen that their point of view is an enrichment. Two are religious and one is a laywoman, and often their perspective coincides perfectly with what the other members of the dicastery say; while at other times, their opinion introduces another perspective and becomes an important contribution to the process.
I think their appointment is more than just a gesture on the part of the Pope to say that there are now women here, too. There is a real, genuine, and meaningful participation that they offer at our meetings when we discuss the dossiers of candidates.
The new norms for combating abuse have increased the responsibility of bishops, who are called upon to act promptly and to answer for any delays and omissions. How is this task experienced by the bishop?
We are on a journey with regard to this as well.
There are places where good work has already been done for years and the rules are being put into practice. At the same time, I believe that there is still much to learn.
I am talking about the urgency and responsibility of accompanying victims. One of the difficulties that many times arise is that the bishop must be close to his priests, as I have already said, and he must be close to the victims. Some recommend that it not be the bishop directly who receives the victims; but we cannot close our hearts, the door of the Church, to people who have suffered from abuse.
The responsibility of the bishop is great, and I think we still have to make great efforts to respond to this situation that is causing so much pain in the Church. It will take time. We are trying to work together with the other dicasteries.
I believe it is part of the mission of our dicastery to accompany bishops who have not received the necessary preparation to deal with this issue. It is urgent and necessary that we be more responsible and more sensitive to this.
The laws are there now. It is more difficult to change a mentality...
Certainly, there are many differences between one culture and another on how one reacts in these situations. In some countries, the taboo of talking about the subject has already been broken somewhat, while there are other places where victims, or victims’ families, would never want to talk about the abuse they have suffered.
In any case, silence is not an answer. Silence is not the solution. We must be transparent and honest, we must accompany and assist the victims, because otherwise their wounds will never heal. There is a great responsibility in this, for all of us.
The Church is engaged in the path that will lead to the Synod on Synodality. What is the role of the bishop?
There is a great opportunity in this continuous renewal of the Church that Pope Francis is inviting us to promote. On the one hand, there are bishops who openly express their fear, because they do not understand where the Church is going. Perhaps they prefer the security of answers already experienced in the past.
I truly believe that the Holy Spirit is very present in the Church at this time and is pushing us towards a renewal and therefore we are called to the great responsibility of living what I call a new attitude. It is not just a process, it is not just changing some ways of doing things, maybe holding more meetings before making a decision. It is much more.
But it is also what perhaps causes certain difficulties, because at the end of the day we must be able to listen first of all to the Holy Spirit, to what He is asking of the Church.
How do we achieve this?
We must be able to listen to one another, to recognise that it is not a question of discussing a political agenda or simply trying to promote the issues that interest me or others.
Sometimes it seems that we want to reduce everything to wanting to vote and then doing what was voted for. Instead, it is something much deeper and very different: we need to learn to really listen to the Holy Spirit and the spirit of truth-seeking that lives in the Church. Move from an experience where authority speaks and it’s all over, to a Church experience that values the charisms, gifts, and ministries that there are in the Church.
The episcopal ministry performs an important service, but then we must put all this at the service of the Church in this synodal spirit that simply means walking together, all of us, and seeking together what the Lord is asking of us, in this our time.
How much do economic problems affect the lives of bishops?
The bishop is also asked to be a good administrator, or at least [to have] the ability to find a good administrator to help him.
The Pope has told us that he wants a Church that is poor and for the poor. There are cases where the structures and infrastructure of the past are no longer needed and it is difficult to maintain them. At the same time, even in the places where I have worked, the Church is responsible for educational and health institutions that provide basic services to the people, because many times the State fails to provide them.
Personally, I am not of the opinion that the Church should sell everything and ‘only’ preach the Gospel in the streets. However, this is a very big responsibility, there are no one-size-fits-all answers. There is a need to promote more fraternal help between the local Churches.
Faced with the need to maintain service structures with incomes that are no longer what they used to be; the bishop must be very practical. Cloistered nuns always say: ‘You have confidence and entrust everything to Divine Providence, because a way will be found to respond.’ The important thing also is never to forget the spiritual dimension of our vocation. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming managers and reasoning like managers. Sometimes this happens.
How do you see the relationship between the bishop and social media?
Social media can be an important tool to communicate the Gospel message reaching millions of people. We must prepare ourselves to use social media well.
I am afraid that sometimes this preparation has been lacking.
At the same time, the world today, which is constantly changing, presents situations where we really have to think several times before speaking or before writing a message on Twitter, in order to answer or even just to ask questions in a public form, in full view of everyone. Sometimes there is a risk of fuelling divisions and controversy.
There is a great responsibility to use social networks, communication, correctly, because it is an opportunity, but it is also a risk. And it can do damage to the communion of the Church. That is why one must be very prudent in the use of these means.
By Andrea Tornielli