Recently, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron delivered a keynote address at this year’s Napa Institute Conference. For many Catholics, especially those who love and support Pope Francis, this annual meeting has come to be seen as a gathering of ideologically-minded Catholics who place the culture wars and American politics over their Catholic Faith. For example, last year’s opening speakers were Cardinal Raymond Burke and George Weigel, both of whom are ardent critics of Pope Francis, his decisions, and his magisterial teachings.

This year’s conference (which was held virtually) featured many of the same speakers. But thankfully, Bishop Barron had a different message for the audience, one that likely challenged many in the audience.

About 19 minutes into his address, he shifts from a discussion of the late Cardinal Francis George and his teaching about the Second Vatican Council to addressing the rampant criticism of Pope Francis. He reminds his audience of the continuity of Pope Francis, both with the Council and his predecessors.

Here’s an excerpt (please forgive any transcription errors):

Obviously, Pope Francis was not himself a man at the Council, like Paul VI or Karol Wojtyla, but in his bones he’s a man of the Council. You know, he personally canonized—think about this—the three major players at Vatican II: Saint Pope John XXIII, Saint Pope Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, he personally canonized.

I had the privilege of being present for all three of those canonizations. Two, I was doing some news coverage. The third was for Paul VI. I was there for the youth synod. But the three major players of Vatican II, Pope Francis canonizes. I think it’s fair to say the one he identifies with the most is Saint Paul VI. I’ve heard Pope Francis say this a number times: he thinks the greatest teaching document after the council was Evangelii nuntiandi, the greatest, most influential of the teaching documents.

So, let’s look at him now in light of these Vatican II themes.

I might begin with the speech that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio gave at the general congregation of cardinals prior to the conclave of 2013.

Remember, the cardinals all gather prior to the conclave and they give speeches laying out their vision of the Church, and what they think the next pope should be like. Most commentators agree that the talk Bergoglio gave got him elected pope. He spoke in that presentation of a Church that “must go out from itself to the periferias,” as he famously said. To the peripheries. One thing I love is he specified not just the economic and political peripheries, but to what he called the “existential peripheries.”

That means those who are alienated from God. Those who’ve lost a sense of purpose and meaning. I think, especially in our country—God knows we have people on the economic and political peripheries. But we also have armies of people—I deal with them every day—especially young people, on the existential peripheries.

What’s the Church’s task? Go right back to Balthasar: raising the bastions; break out from your own walls; go out into the world; and indeed—Francis is saying—all the way to the peripheries to bring the Lumen Christi.

I know many of our readers tend to be a bit to the “left” of Bishop Barron, or are perhaps suspicious of his motives in addressing these toxic voices. They might point out that this is a little “late in the game” to start defending Pope Francis, and may believe he’s doing this because he is now himself being attacked by many of the most prominent papal critics.

Personally, I’m grateful that Bishop Barron is speaking out. Many of our bishops are older and don’t spend time on social media. Few are aware of the level of vitriol directed at the Holy Father, nor do they realize the effect these papal critics have had on ordinary Catholics (let alone seminarians, priests, and even their brother bishops). Last year while attending a conference, I had lunch with two of the more well-known “moderate” US bishops, and neither seemed particularly aware (let alone concerned) about the widespread dissent against Pope Francis. They’d simply decided to tune it out and focus on other matters.

As I tried to illustrate in my recent essay in America, we need leaders to stand up and address it. It doesn’t matter if people categorize them as “conservative,” “liberal,” or anywhere in between. We all have different approaches and areas of interest. What’s important is fidelity to Christ, the Church, and to the Catholic faith.

By going to the “periphery” of the attendees of the Napa Conference and defending Vatican II and Pope Francis, Bishop Barron is responding to that call.

May he be the first of many.

Image: YouTube Screenshot

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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