(Archbishop Gomez delivered this keynote address at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Convocation of Catholic Leaders on “The Joy of the Gospel in America” held in Orlando, Florida.)
Thank you for your warm welcome. It is so good that we are here!
This really is a historic occasion. Here we are! The bishops of the United States gathering with the Church’s pastoral leaders to reflect on our shared mission to evangelize. And we do this at this moment in American history when our society and culture are changing in many ways, and changing fast.
We gather in the presence of the saints of the Americas, the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us! It is no coincidence that this convocation began on the feast day of St. Junípero Serra — the great Franciscan, the spiritual father of America’s first evangelization.
St. Junípero was an immigrant and a missionary, a Hispanic who came to this land from Spain by way of Mexico. His witness reminds us — and we should never forget it — that the mission to America was a continental mission from the beginning. It was a mission to make all the peoples of the Americas, North and South, into a one family — a new world of faith.
I know many of you were in our nation’s capitol in 2015, when Pope Francis canonized St. Junípero Serra.
That was a historic moment, too. The first pope from the New World giving the U.S. Church our first Hispanic saint — and the first saint to be canonized on the soil of this country.
I had the privilege to concelebrate that canonization Mass with Pope Francis. It is one of the most beautiful moments of my priesthood. And I will never forget what the Holy Father said in his homily that day.
He said: “Father Junípero Serra … was the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth,’ a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God.”
I am recalling this canonization because St. Junípero is the living example of Pope Francis’ vision for the Church.
He is a model for the Church that adores and worships Jesus Christ — the Church that answers his call to follow him. To leave security and comfort behind and to go forth to the “peripheries” of human experience.
And that is what we are here to talk about today: Going to the peripheries. The mission of the Church.
We could say that Pope Francis is the “Pope of the Peripheries.”
“Peripheries.” It is a curious word. We do not find this word in the Scriptures or in the Catechism or even in the Compendium of the Church’s social doctrine. It turns up only in a few random places in the writings of recent Popes.
As I have been reflecting on it, it strikes me that this word — “peripheries” — gives us a window into the Holy Father’s vision for the modern world and his vision for the Church’s mission of evangelization.
The Pope’s vision comes from the “Church of the peripheries” — from Latin America, where four every ten Catholics in the world live today. Which makes Latin America the “Continent of Hope.”
So in our time together today, I want to reflect on some of the “lessons of the peripheries.”
I want to begin by seeing what Pope Francis means by the peripheries — where they are; who lives there; what that means.
Then I want to talk about how this “perspective of the peripheries” can help us to judge the signs of the times and our pastoral realities here in the United States and throughout the Americas.
Finally, I want to talk about what this perspective of the peripheries means for our pastoral action, our mission of proclaiming the joy of the Gospel.
Ok. So let us begin.
Where are the peripheries and what goes on there?
The peripheries were the theme of the short speech that then-Cardinal Bergoglio gave in the meetings before the conclave in 2013.
In fact, some people say these are the words that convinced his fellow cardinals to select him as Pope. So it is good for us to reflect on what he said:
“The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”
These are beautiful, powerful words from our future Holy Father.
And we can see that for Pope Francis, the peripheries are “sociological” and they are “geographical.” They are places on a map, places where people live.
The peripheries are the parts of our cities and the rural areas that we never visit. The other side of the tracks. They are where the poor live. They are the prisons and the “tent cities” in our public spaces.
The peripheries are the bitter fruits of neglect, exploitation and injustice. They are all the places our society is ashamed of and would rather forget about.
But for Pope Francis, the peripheries are more than a physical location or a social category. They are places where poverty is not only material, but also spiritual.
There are “existential peripheries” — places where people are wounded and feel their life has no meaning and makes no difference. In the existential peripheries, men and women are caught in the webs of sin and addiction, in many kinds of slavery and self-deception.
And the Pope is saying that these peripheries are growing in the modern world. And these peripheries are the new mission territory.
And, to be honest: sometimes these are the places where the Church does not like to go. Where we do not like to go. The Church has always been present in the peripheries — through our schools and our parishes and our ministries. Sometimes we are the only ones serving in these communities. But we can do better, we are called to do more. That is our challenge.
With this category of the peripheries, Pope Francis is helping all of us in the Church to “see” the world with new eyes and to judge the signs of the times with new insight.
So let us turn to our current moment in the United States.
“Not an age of change, but a change of age.”
The Pope has said: “Ours is not an age of change, but a change of age.”
And I think all of us can sense this “change of age” — that we are moving from one way of living to a way of living that is totally different.
We are living in a global and commercialized society and the rhythms of life seem to get faster with each passing year. Advances in technology — in automation, in communication, in transportation — are driving deep changes in how we work and in our economies, our politics, our families. Even in our interior lives.
But process of globalization is not bringing us closer together. It is driving us farther and farther apart. Our lives seem to be more fragmented and more isolated from others.
The Pope has highlighted the worldwide crisis of migrants and refugees — people being forced to leave their homelands to find safety from violence or to find food for their families.
But the peripheries are growing also in the Americas.
We live in the richest nation on earth, but the distance is getter wider — between those who have what they need for a dignified life and those who do not.
Our families are breaking down, our communities are losing stability and meaning. There are more and more people that our society considers to be “nobodies” with “no place.”
In Los Angeles, where I am from, we have almost 60,000 people who are homeless — living under bridges, in their cars, in tents on the sidewalks. This should not be happening!
The peripheries in the Americas are the consequence of social structures of sin — of a culture that throws away everything that it does not find useful anymore.
But the “existential peripheries” are growing too.
This was one of the lessons from the last election, wasn’t it? America is pulling apart. We are a people divided along lines of money and race, education and family backgrounds. People are afraid for the future. They feel powerless and excluded.
When we talk about the random violence that goes on every day in our communities. When we talk about the epidemic of opioid addiction or the alarming number of suicides — especially among our young people — we are talking about “the existential peripheries.”
And this is where we must go — as a Church. To these people who are hurting. This is where the Church is called to be.
Again, the Church in this country has always been generous. Christians have shaped our nation’s conscience and our service to the poor. But our times today call for something greater.
Because along with globalization, we have witnessed the aggressive “de-Christianization” of our society. The elites who run our society are deliberately trying to “un-remember” our Christian roots and de-construct everything that was built on these roots.
And with the loss of God, we are witnessing the loss of the human person.
We no longer know the beautiful mystery of life — the sanctity and dignity of the human person who is made in the image of God. Our transcendent destiny as children of God.
All the sadness and sorrow, all the suffering that we see in our society — is rooted in this loss of God, this loss of the transcendent sense of life.
This is what Pope Francis is helping us to see about our society.
The peripheries are the place of the poor. And poverty is both spiritual and material — existential and social. And as the saints always remind us, the greatest poverty is not to know God, not to experience his tender mercy, his beautiful plan of love for our lives.
And that brings us to the “Joy of the Gospel.”
!Siempre Adelante! Always Forward!
My brothers and sisters, it is time for us to get to the heart of the matter.
We have examined the “peripheries” as Pope Francis understands this category. We have seen how this helps us to discern our current moment in the Church and our “mission territory.”
The question for us now — is how do we respond to these realities? How do respond as the Church? As Christians? As Catholics?
In the Church, my brothers and sisters, every question has just a one-word answer.
The answer is Jesus. The answer is conversion. We need to go deeper in our love for Jesus Christ and our commitment to his mission.
The final words that Jesus spoke to his disciples — he is still speaking to us today: “Go forth! Go out into all the world. Follow me and walk with me in the power of my Spirit. Bring all men and women to discover the love that you have found!”
To be a Christian means more than just accepting Jesus. Jesus calls us to follow him. That is an action. A decision that implies a way of life.
We know that! That is why we are here for this convocation.
We know the Church’s mission is not just a “job” for bishops and clergy and “Church professionals.”
You are here today because you have heard the call of Jesus: “Follow me!” You are here because you know that Jesus has a part he wants you to play in his mission — this beautiful plan of God to redeem the world.
And if we want to serve God, we need to keep growing in holiness, and in our relationship with Jesus, in our desire to be more like him.
The ancient devotions are still the best — prayer and the practice of the presence of God; lectio divina and Eucharistic adoration; confession and a daily exam of conscience.
These practical habits will help you grow as missionary disciples. And the more you grow in prayer, the more you will be drawn to the peripheries, into the serving others.
Jesus emptied himself to come among us — as one who serves. He made himself poor in order to give the poor the great treasure, the pearl of great price. He reached down to lift us up — out of our brokenness and our sinfulness.
To follow him means we have to imitate him. So we have to go — as Jesus did — to the places of pain and injustice, to the places where people feel forgotten and alone.
Our love for Christ leads us to follow him — out beyond ourselves; out beyond the zones of comfort. The love of Christ leads us into the peripheries.
Jesus told us that he would be present in the poor — just as he is present in the Eucharist.
And Jesus told us that if we love him, then we will go out and serve him — in the homeless and the immigrant; in the sick and the suffering; in the child in the womb waiting to be born; in the prisoner hoping for a second chance.
So, my brothers and sisters, Our Lord sends us out today — just as he sent out the saints and missionaries before us.
Like St. Junípero and the great saints of the Americas, we are called to play our part in the great story of salvation, the great story of Jesus Christ sending forth his Church into the world — to make disciples of all nations.
So let us go forth my brothers and sisters, !Siempre Adelante! That was St. Junípero’s motto. Always Forward!
Pope Francis said recently that this expression is a “synonym for the Christian vocation.” So let us ask this great saint to help us keep moving always forward! May help us to be very excited about this great adventure of following Jesus to the peripheries.
And may Our Lady of Guadalupe go with us and inspire us — Our Mother who appeared to St. Juan Diego in the peripheries of the New World. And brought to the Americas — the joy of the Gospel.