On May 20, 2019, Pope Francis opened the 73rd General Assembly of the Italian Episcopal Conference (C.E.I.), taking place in the Synod Hall in the Vatican through May 23, on the theme: “Ways and Instruments for a New Missionary Presence.” After the opening prayer and the greeting of Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, Archbishop of Perugia-Citta della Pieve, President of the Italian Episcopal Conference, the Pope gave the CEI’s Assembly the address we translate below.
In his address, the Holy Father stressed the importance of collegiality in the episcopal conference, urged the bishops to move forward on the reform of the marriage review process, and stressed the importance of the relationship between bishops and their priests.
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The Holy Father’s Address
I thank you for this meeting, which I would like to be a moment of help for pastoral discernment on the life and mission of the Italian Church. I thank you also for the effort you make every day in taking forward the mission that the Lord has entrusted to you and in serving the People of God with, and according to, the Heart of the Good Shepherd.
I would like to speak to you again today about some questions we treated in our previous meetings, to reflect further on them and integrate them with new questions to see together at what point we are. I will give you the floor later to address to me the questions, the perplexities, and the inspirations, the criticisms, all that you bear in your heart. There are three points I would like to talk about.
1 Synodality and Collegiality
On the occasion of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, observed on October 17, 2015, I wished to clarify that “the way of synodality is the way that God expects from the Church in the third millennium [. . . ] it is a constitutive dimension of the Church,” so that “what the Lord asks us is, in a certain sense, already all contained in the word Synod.”
The new document of the International Theological Commission on synodality in the life and mission of the Church, affirmed also in the course of the Plenary Assembly of 2017, that, “in the ecclesiological context, synodality indicates the specific modus vivendi et operandi of the Church People of God, which manifests and realizes concretely its being communion in walking together, in coming together in assembly and in all its members taking part actively in its evangelizing mission.” And it continues thus: “Whereas the concept of synodality calls for the involvement and participation of all the People of God in the life and mission of the Church, the concept collegiality specifies the theological meaning and the way of the exercise of the Bishops’ ministry at the service of the particular Church, entrusted to the pastoral care of each one and in the communion between the particular Churches within the one and universal Church of Christ, through the hierarchical communion of the Episcopal College with the Bishop of Rome. Collegiality, therefore, is the specific way in which ecclesial synodality is manifested and realized, through the ministry of the Bishops, on the level of communion between the particular Churches in a region and on the level of communion between all the Churches in the universal Church. Every genuine manifestation of synodality calls, by its nature, to exercise the collegial ministry of the Bishops.”
Therefore, I rejoice that this assembly has desired to reflect further on this argument, which in reality describes the “medical record” of the Italian Church’s state of health and of your pastoral and ecclesiastical work.
In this context, it might be helpful to address the eventual lack of collegiality and participation in the conduction of the CEI Conference, be it in determining the pastoral plans, be it in the economic-financial programmatic commitments.
On synodality also, in the context of a probable Synod for the Italian Church — I heard a “rumor” lately about this, it reached Saint Martha’s! –, there are two directions: synodality from the bottom up, namely of having to take care of the existence and good functioning of the Diocese: the councils, the parishes, the involvement of the laity . . . (Cf. CCC 469-494 – start with the dioceses: a great Synod cannot be done without going to the base. This is the movement from the bottom up – and the assessment of the role of the laity; and then the synodality of the top down, in conformity with the address I gave to the Italian Church in the 5th National Congress at Florence, November 10, 2015, which is still in force and must accompany us in this path.. If someone thinks of doing a Synod on the Italian Church, it must begin from the bottom up, and from the top down with the Florence document. And this will take off, but one will walk on what is certain, not on ideas.
2 The Reform of the Marriage processes
As you well know, with the two Motu Proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Jesus and Mitis et Misericors Iesus, published in 2015, the marriage processes were reordered ex integro, establishing three types of processes: ordinary, shorter and documentary.
The need to streamline the procedures has led to simplifying the ordinary process, with the abolition of the double mandatory compliant decision. Henceforth, if there isn’t an appeal in the times foreseen, the first sentence that declares the nullity of the marriage becomes executive. There is, then, the other type of process: the shorter. This form of process is to be applied in cases in which the said nullity of the marriage is upheld by the joint question of the spouses, evident arguments, the proofs of the marriage nullity being of rapid demonstration. With the question made to the Bishop, and the process instructed by the Judicial Vicar or by an instructor, the final decision, of declaration of nullity or of resending of the cause to the ordinary process, belongs to the Bishop himself, who — in virtue of his pastoral office — is with Peter the major guarantor of the Catholic unity in faith and in discipline. Whether it is the ordinary process or the shorter they are in any case processes of a purely judicial nature, which means that the nullity of the marriage can be pronounced only when the judge obtains the moral certainty on the basis of the acts and proofs collected.”
Thus the shorter process has introduced a new typology, namely, the possibility to go to the Bishop, as head of the Diocese, asking him to pronounced himself personally on some cases, in the most manifested cases of nullity. And this because the Bishop’s pastoral dimension includes and also exacts his personal function as judge, which not only manifests the closeness of the diocesan Pastor to his faithful, but also the Bishop’s presence as a sign of Christ sacrament of salvation. Therefore, the Bishop and the Metropolitan must proceed with an administrative act to the erection of the diocesan tribunal, if it has not yet been constituted, and in the case of difficulty, they can also access a diocesan or inter-diocesan neighboring Tribunal. This is important.
This procedural reform is based on closeness and on gratuitousness. Closeness to wounded families means that the judgment, in as much as possible, is held in the diocesan Church, without procrastination and without useless prolongations. The term gratuitousness refers to the evangelical mandate according to which one has freely received and one must freely give (Cf. Matthew 10:8), so it requires that the ecclesiastical pronouncement of nullity is not equivalent to a high cost that disadvantaged persons are unable to sustain. This is very important.
I’m well aware that, in the 71st General Assembly of the Italian Episcopal Conference and through various communications, you foresaw an updating regarding the reform of the administrative regime of the Ecclesiastical Tribunals in marriage matters. However, I regret seeing that, after more than four years, the reform remains very far from being applied in a great part of Italian Dioceses. I confirm with clarity that the Rescript given by me in December 2015 has abolished the Motu Proprio of Pius XI Qua Cura (1938), which instituted Regional Ecclesiastical Tribunals in Italy and, therefore, I earnestly hope that the application of the above mentioned Motu Proprio will find its full and immediate implementation in all the Dioceses where it has not yet been provided.
In this connection, dear brethren, we must never forget that the reforming thrust of the canonical marriage process, characterized — as I already said above — by closeness, speed and gratuitousness of the procedures, is geared to show that the Church is Mother and has at heart the good of her children, which in this case are those marked by the wound of a broken love; and, therefore, all the operators of the Tribunal, each one on his part and his competence, must act so this is realized and, consequently, not put before anything thing else that can impede or slow down the application of the reform, of whatever nature or interest it may be.
The success of the reform passes necessarily through a conversion of the structures and of the persons. Therefore, let us not allow the economic interests of some lawyers, or the fear of some Judiciary Vicars of losing power, to halt or retard the reform.
3 The Relationship between Priests and Bishops
The relationship between us Bishops and our priests represents, indisputably, one of the most vital questions in the life of the Church; it is the spine on which the diocesan community is ruled. I quote the wise words of His Eminence Cardinal Bassetti when he wrote: “if this relationship were to deteriorate the whole body would be weakened. And the message itself would end up weakened.”
The Bishop is the Pastor, the sign of unity for the entire diocesan Church, the father and guide of his priests and of all the community of believers; he has the binding task to take care in primis and attentively to his relationship with his priests. Unfortunately, some Bishops struggle to establish acceptable relations with their priests, thus risking ruining their mission and in fact weakening the mission itself of the Church.
Vatican Council II teaches us that the presbyters constitute with their Bishop one Presbytery, although destined to different offices (Cf. Constitution Lumen Gentium, 28). This means that a Bishop doesn’t exist without his presbytery and, in turn, a Presbytery doesn’t exist without a healthy relationship cum episcopo. The conciliar Decree Christus Dominus also affirms: “All the priests, be they Diocesan or Religious, take part in union with the Bishop in the one priesthood of Christ and, therefore, are providentially constituted co-operators of the Episcopal order. [ . . .] Therefore, they constitute one sole Presbytery and one sole family, of which the Bishop is the father” (n. 28).
The solid relationship between the Bishop and his priests is based on the unconditional love witnessed by Jesus on the cross, which represents the only true rule of conduct for Bishops and priests. In reality, the priests are our closest collaborators and brothers. They are the closest neighbor! It’s based also on mutual respect, which manifests fidelity to Christ, love of the Church, adherence to the Good News. In truth, hierarchic communion collapses when it is infected with any form of power or of personal self-gratification; but, on the contrary, it is strengthened and grows when it is embraced by the spirit of total abandonment and of service to the People of God. We Bishops have the duty of presence and closeness to the Christian people, but in particular to our priests, without discrimination and without preferences. A true Pastor lives in the midst of his flock and his presbyters, and he knows how to listen to and receive all without prejudices.
We must not fall into the temptation to get close only to likable or adulating priests and avoid those that, according to the Bishop, are unlikeable and frank; to give all responsibilities to willing priests or “climbers” and discourage introverted or meek or timid priests, or problematic ones. Be father to all one’s priests; to be interested in and to seek all; to visit all; to always be able to have time to listen, every time that someone asks for it or needs it; to be such that each one feels esteemed and encouraged by his Bishop. To be practical: if the Bishop receives a priest’s call, he must respond that day, or at most the next day, so that priest will know he has a father.
Dear brethren, our priests feel themselves continually under the media’s attack and often ridiculed or condemned because of some errors or crimes of some of their colleagues and they have a real need to find in their Bishop the figure of the elder brother or of the father who encourages them in difficult periods; who stimulates them to spiritual and human growth; who heartens them in moments of failure; who corrects them with love when they are mistaken; who consoles them when they feel alone; who lifts them when they fall. This requires, first of all, closeness to our priests, who have need to find the Bishop’s door and his heart always open. It requires being Bishop-father, Bishop-brother!
Dear brothers, I wished to share with you these three arguments as points of reflection. Now I give you the floor and I thank you in advance for your sincerity and frankness. Thank you so much!
 AAS 107 (2015), 1139.
 Application aid of the Motu Proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus: http://www.rotaromana.va/content/dam/rotaromana/dpcmenti/Sussidio/Sussido%20Mitis%20Iudex%20Dominus%20ITA.pdf
 “The Relationship between the Bishop and his Priests to Serve the People of God,” L’Osservatore Romano, March 7, 2015.
© Libreria Editrice Vatican
Translation by Virginia M. Forrester