Gretchen R. Crowe, OSV Newsweekly, 7/20/2016
His French accent is thick, his laugh is quick and his Pope Francis-esque message is full of encounter, dialogue and evangelization.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, newly appointed apostolic nuncio to the United States, spoke to Our Sunday Visitor on July 15 — a conversation that gave insights into the new nuncio’s mission, the characteristics he will be looking for in terms of potential U.S. bishop recommendations and his overall worldview.
The 70-year-old French native has been in diplomatic service since 1977, after graduating from the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, and his appointments have included Africa, South America and the United Nations. In 1995, Pope St. John Paul II named Archbishop Pierre an archbishop and appointed him as apostolic nuncio to Haiti. Four years later, he was appointed nuncio to Uganda. In 2007, Pope Benedict sent him to Mexico — the location Archbishop Pierre freely admitted he believed would be his last post.
“I was very happy there, so my appointment to the States came to me as a surprise,” he said. But for this surprise, he added, he thanked God — because “it will give me the possibility to discover a new world.”
Archbishop Pierre’s appointment was announced April 12, and he began his work in mid-June. In a little more than a month as nuncio, Archbishop Pierre has traveled three times, about on par with his rigorous travel schedule in Mexico where he boarded a plane once a week during each of his nine years. In addition to being present at the ordination of the new Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and participating in the annual convention of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts, Archbishop Pierre most significantly attended the spring assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, this year held in Orange County, California. This was an occasion that he called “an extraordinary opportunity” to get to know his American brother bishops.
“I already had a kind of feeling of who the bishops are, their simplicity, a kind of fraternity with them,” he said, but the meeting helped give the archbishop insight into “their concern for the people,” of the bishops as “people of prayer” and their “various sensibilities” and “pastoral concerns.”
“What I am interested in is to know how these pastors really exercise their ministry at the service of the people of the States,” he added. “And I discovered something, but I need to learn more.”
Still, Archbishop Pierre made it clear that he is not an “inspector” but rather a “brother bishop among other bishops … sent by the pope to be with the Church and to help the pope to understand the Church” — all with an eye toward effective evangelization, he said.
“We are living in a very rapidly changing society with forces of secularization and all the problems which are appearing in society… and the Church is there to be the light of the world, to indicate the direction, to educate people so that they may have a deeper faith, and encountering the person of Christ, to be able really to live a happy life, but also to show the way to themselves and their brothers and sisters, to live the values of the Gospel,” he said.
This challenge of evangelization is the main challenge facing the American episcopacy today, said Archbishop Pierre — “helping the people know Jesus.”
“The duty of the bishops as leaders in the Church is to help the Church to be a witnessing Church,” he said. “The Church has to be transparent, to help people really to live the values of the Gospel in their daily life, to live real family life, a community life. The parish has to be alive; the Catholic has to be a witness of the spirit of the Gospel, whether they live in the politics, in the professional life, in the schools, in the education, so people should say, ‘Look, these are Christians. They live a different kind of life … which comes from belonging to God.’”
Archbishop Pierre acknowledges that this witness takes effort.
“It is not easy to teach the values of the Gospel,” he said. “This is our mission, but in order to exercise this mission, we need to be profoundly convinced of our faith and to be able to witness in our daily life.”
A diplomat’s worldview
Archbishop Pierre brings to the United States nearly 40 years of diplomatic service in the following locations:
◗ New Zealand
◗ United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland
One of the biggest roles Archbishop Pierre will play is having a voice in the recommendation of bishops for the United States. He will work closely with the Congregation for Bishops, particularly the American members of the committee: Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington and the newly appointed (to the committee) Archbishop Blase J. Cupich of Chicago.
The recommendations will come by way of a “huge process of consultation,” Archbishop Pierre said — a process that traditionally has been played very close to the vest. But the pope has been clear about the kind of man he is looking to promote, the archbishop said.
“What he wants is pastors with Christ as the model,” Archbishop Pierre said. “Of course, the bishop must be intelligent, must be a man of prayer, he must have all the many qualities of leadership, you know, this is normal because he is the leader. But he must have the sensibility of the pastor, and the capacity to understand, the capacity to accompany.”
Archbishop Pierre said he greatly appreciates one image given by the Holy Father that illustrates the kind of man he is looking for as leaders in the Church, not just in the United States but around the world. In this image, the pastor lives in the front, middle and back of the flock all at once, so that he may simultaneously lead, share the life of the people, and walk with those who are suffering.
“This is a beautiful image,” Archbishop Pierre said. “In my opinion, it says everything.”
It’s an image, Archbishop Pierre said, that he saw come to life when he accompanied Pope Francis for five days during the Holy Father’s pastoral visit to Mexico in February — an occasion that some observers say put Archbishop Pierre on Francis’ radar for the U.S. position.
“I saw [Pope Francis] precisely acting in the way he speaks,” Archbishop Pierre said. “What the pope tells us, he’s actually doing it. You know he’s not a young man, he’s nearly 80, but I was admiring the energy — the energy of a pastor. He is not tired. We cannot be tired when we are working for Christ because there is a kind of urgency to be there. And I felt in him a great desire to be with the people, to respond to what the people wanted.”
“He’s not a showman,” he added. “He’s somebody to give the words from the Gospel to the people who are hungry and … [who] have lost track, lost direction. And I saw it in action. When he was tired at the end of the day, he still had the courage to stop the [popemobile] and greet especially sick people, people in wheelchairs and so forth. That was a wonderful experience. I was humbled to see my pope, our pope, being such a witness.”
A worldview shaped by suffering
In his role as apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pierre succeeds Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó, who served as in that role from 2011-16, and Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who served from 2005-2011 (see sidebar).
Living in so many different countries — Archbishop Pierre spent 20 years of his life in Africa, including when he was a young boy — has had a profound effect on his worldview.
“I visited so many camps of refugees … I’ve seen so many suffering … and you cannot remain the same when you have seen people suffering in such a way,” he said. “Imagine people who have lost everything and who have no perspective. … There are places and moments where the level of violence is such that you are led to despair. I think it’s the responsibility of all of us to find solutions, at all levels of society. I think it is the duty of us, Christians — it is the parable of the good Samaritan — not to pass on the other way, but, on the contrary, to address the problem.”
In Mexico, he has seen the Church try to address the problem of migration, including with places that house those who have been deported. While such efforts need to be backed by policy, he said, it doesn’t change the fact that “we as a Church need to open our eyes and our hearts and to do something.”
A Church of disciples
Though Archbishop Pierre did not address the culture wars in the United States directly, he did say that it is important for Catholics to remember that “we are not just defending values, we are disciples.”
“Certainly we have to witness to our values — for example, when it comes to the respect of life. This is a value that as Catholics, as disciples of Jesus, we have to defend,” he said. “But we are not just defending an idea or a value. We are disciples. As disciples, we should be missionary, and to be missionary is to be profoundly committed in all areas of the society to the values of the Gospel and to defend them.
“If you are a doctor in the hospital, you should defend life. If you are parents, you should have the courage to respect life,” he added. “But also all the values of the Gospel have to be defended: justice, the respect of people, the defense of refugees. When we speak about the Gospel, we must always address the poorest, the people who are the most without protection. This is also the duty of the Church and ourselves as Christians. So I would not separate issues because I don’t think it’s an occasion of perspective.”
Echoing Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Archbishop Pierre said that the Church is called to bring people to a “pastoral conversion,” a conversion that gets outside of ourselves and focuses on offering Christ to the world.
“We are not just defending our Church, our position in the society; we are members of the Church announcing the words of Jesus and this liberation from sin,” he said. “We know that will help the people first of all to be better human persons but also to take the right direction, which is [turning] their life toward God, toward heaven, to give true meaning to it. This is how the Church should work. And certainly as a representative of the pope, my purpose, my idea, is to work in that direction, but I know that I cannot do it alone; I will have to share the load — to be part of the wonderful work the Church is doing.”
Listening and learning
As he begins his time as apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pierre stressed that he has much to learn and that he is looking forward to discovering the American Church and to dialoguing with its leaders and its people.
“What I have tried to do this month is to discover the beauty of this Church,” he said. “I think it is important. I’m quite impressed to see the vitality of the Church and the seriousness of the commitment of many, many Catholics. I’m proud of my fellow Catholics, to see so many of the Catholics committed to, for example, the works of charity, the attention of the people, the social sensibility which exists all over the place, the commitment of some people for life, for family life. I have already met politicians who are seriously wanting to work in the political life according to the Gospel. To be honest with you, I am full of admiration.”
This opportunity, he said, is a “grace.”
“This is precisely to what I am looking forward: to discover and to be able to offer a contribution. But I know that my contribution will be a very humble one, and it depends very much on my capacity to dialogue, to receive the gift which people will give me, and hopefully to give something,” he said. “The true Church is being experienced when we share with each other, when we listen to each other, when we dialogue, and certainly that is what I am looking forward to.”
Gretchen R. Crowe is editor-in-chief of OSV Newsweekly. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.