Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the official preacher of the papal household, delivers the homily to U.S. bishops during Mass Jan. 3 in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at Mundelein Seminary during the bishops' Jan. 2-8 retreat at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, near Chicago. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the official preacher of the papal household, delivers the homily to U.S. bishops during Mass Jan. 3 in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at Mundelein Seminary during the bishops' Jan. 2-8 retreat at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, near Chicago. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger was among the U.S. bishops called by Pope Francis to spend time on retreat Jan. 2-8 at Mundelelin Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake near Chicago in order to pray and reflect on the sexual abuse crisis that has shaken the Church worldwide.

Bishop Scharfenberger answered questions posed by The Evangelist in hopes of giving local Catholics a sense of what happened at the retreat and how it might affect planning going forward.

Evangelist: Most people know that Pope Francis asked the U.S. bishops to spend time on retreat this month to reflect on the abuse crisis and how to rebuild trust in the Church. Can you tell us what that looked like in a practical way? How did you spend your days on retreat? 

Bishop: The retreat experience was, for me, and I think most bishops, a graced opportunity to listen and reflect together. Pope Francis wanted it to bring us together with him. He expressed a desire to be with us physically but, for logistical reasons, could not. He sent us Capuchin Father Rainero Cantalamessa, a re­nowned retreat master, who has for decades been preacher to the papal household. Father Cantalamessa encouraged an atmosphere of reflective silence, even at meals. Most of the conversations that may have taken place during the retreat were informal, among brother bishops either privately or in small groups between prayer and exercises. Father Cantalamessa stressed, as the Holy Father did in his letter to each bishop, the importance of maintaining and strengthening communion among the individual bishops in the USCCB and between the bishops and the Holy See.

Evangelist: What were the topics of some of the talks you heard, if you can share that?

Bishop: Almost every one-hour conference began with a reflection on one of the verses in the ancient hymn, “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” or “Come, Holy Spirit.” Father Cantalamessa reflected on the role of the Holy Spirit as Creator, the one who, from the beginning, hovered over the waters and brought order out of chaos. The Holy Spirit continues to be God’s creative action in the world by building up unity and community. Other key reflections focused on the Holy Eucharist in its many dimensions, especially with bringing us into relationship with the real Jesus, not just as a personality, but as a person. A penitential service was part of the curriculum. Most of Father Cantalamessa’s remarks specifically regarding the crisis were of a pastoral nature and he emphasized strongly the fathering role of bishops and priests, which must always be humble and holy. 

Evangelist: What was the mood of the bishops?

Bishop: The mood was very fraternal, prayerful and peaceful. Bishops showed support for one another in the decisions and challenges they were facing. I think we all felt a certain harmony and trust in opening our hearts up to where the Holy Spirit would be leading us in the important months ahead as the USCCB continues to work on practical measures that must be taken to address the crisis we face. 

Evangelist: Do you feel the retreat accomplished what the pope hoped it would?

Bishop: Recall that the Holy Father had initially suggested during his meeting with the heads of the USCCB in mid-September that we make this retreat in November instead holding the regular fall meeting. The purpose, as I understand it, was that we not take any concrete action until we had first come to together in prayer so that whatever we did would reflect what the Holy Father calls “the flavor of the Gospel.” Since cancelling the meeting in Baltimore did not seem to be logistically possible, the retreat was eventually scheduled for January, and Cardinal (Blase) Cupich graciously offered the campus of the seminary in Mundelein, Illinois, as the venue. Fortunately, the weather proved to be gracious, too. And I believe that the wishes of Pope Francis came to fruition. 

Evangelist: This wasn’t about policies and procedures, was it? Can you explain for those who might assume the bishops were there to hammer out details of policies?

Bishop: The USCCB continues to develop a number of initiatives and proposals that will eventually be offered to the Holy See when ready for our input and suggestions. There has been tremendous interest not only on the part of the people we serve and the general public, but also the bishops themselves to move forward at a much quicker pace than ecclesial matters tend to go. Keep in mind that we are facing a crisis that not only affects the Church in the United States but through­out the world. For this reason, I believe, the Holy Father has requested conferences of bishops worldwide not to take specific action until he has assembled all of the heads of the conferences to meet with him in Rome at the end of February. None of this, of course, precludes a bishop from instituting measures of reform, discipline and remediation in his own diocese.

Evangelist: During this time when the faithful are struggling with what they hear in the news regarding the abuse crisis, what can you offer them from your retreat to give them hope going forward?

Bishop: I always try to remember, and to follow, the wise advice I once heard from a mentor to distinguish between one’s circle of concern and one’s circle of influence. All of us have concerns about important international issues, including world peace, the environment, poverty and racism. The sexual abuse of minors, unfortunately, is more than a local or purely national problem. It is worldwide. All of these are part of our circle of concern.

However, much can be done within our circle of influence. If you see something, say something. Encourage anyone whom you encounter who has experienced or knows someone who has experienced sexual abuse in any form to report it to the appropriate authorities. Listen to them, accompany them with patience and compassionate support. What so many survivors really seek is the healing of the wounds that have left them isolated, often in their our families and from the larger community. We need to continue to help every brave survivor to take the next step.