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April 23, 2008

A Special Report on the Pope's Visit to America: Insights That Bear on Pastoral Ministry, Evangelization and the Work of Justice

1. What kind of church, what kind of freedom?
2. What kind of witness? Discipleship's vast scope.
3. Five quotes to ponder: Accessible Catholic schools; community in a technological, globalized world; the declining Catholic wedding statistics; church polarization; American secularism.
4. Faith that isn't private.
5. The encyclical on hope revisited: private faith, individualistic faith.
6. Prayer perspective 1: pastors and people.
7. Prayer perspective 2: discerning a vocation.
8. The purpose of dialogue among the world's religions.
9. Respecting human dignity and human rights: Why does this matter?


What Kind of Church, What Kind of Freedom?

"In a society where the church seems legalistic and 'institutional' to many people, our most urgent challenge is to communicate the joy born of faith and the experience of God's love," Pope Benedict XVI said in New York April 19 during a Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Speaking the same day with seminarians and young people at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., the pope said:

"Sometimes we are looked upon as people who speak only of prohibitions. Nothing could be further from the truth! Authentic Christian discipleship is marked by a sense of wonder. We stand before the God we know and love as a friend, the vastness of his creation and the beauty of our Christian faith."

Moreover, the pope said, just as freedom is greatly valued in America, it is valued in the church. But why and how freedom is valued within the church often isn't seen or grasped by others; the pope suggested that they might like to hear what the church's people are liberated "for."

Since American society "rightly values personal liberty," what the church needs to clarify - "in catechesis, preaching, seminary and university instruction" - is its belief that what freedom means is "liberation both 'from' the limitations of sin and 'for' an authentic and fulfilling life," the pope said in response to a bishop's question during his meeting with the U.S. bishops in Washington April 16. And in this social context, "the Gospel has to be preached and taught as an integral way of life, offering an attractive and true answer, intellectually and practically, to real human problems," the pope said.

What Kind of Witness? Discipleship's Vast Scope

The key events of Pope Benedict's April 15-20 visit to the U.S. have been widely reported, including his call for a new evangelization, his efforts to address the sexual-abuse crisis that has punctuated the first decade of the new millennium for the church in America and his visit to U.N. headquarters in New York. What remains to be said? My goal in this newsletter is to focus on aspects of the papal visit that perhaps were not so widely covered in news reports but which may be of special interest to those involved in pastoral ministries, evangelization, and the work of justice.

Not too surprisingly for a pope who issued an encyclical on hope last Nov. 30, the word "hope" frequently was heard in his speeches and homilies in America. During a Mass April 17 at Nationals Park in Washington, Pope Benedict urged Catholics "to reaffirm their unity" in order "to offer their contemporaries a convincing account of the hope which inspires them." He added immediately:

"The world needs this witness! Who can deny that the present moment is a crossroads, not only for the church in America but also for society as a whole? It is a time of great promise, as we see the human family in many ways drawing closer together and becoming ever more interdependent. Yet, at the same time we see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundations of society: signs of alienation, anger and polarization on the part of many of our contemporaries; increased violence; a weakening of the moral sense; a coarsening of social relations; and a growing forgetfulness of God."

A "magnificent vision of hope" beckons Christ's followers to serve as witnesses within society, to walk "Christ's way of forgiveness, reconciliation, humility, joy and peace," Pope Benedict told the young people gathered at St. Joseph's Seminary. But courage is needed, along with recognition of the true scope of the Christian message and the possibilities it offers to serve as disciples, he commented. The pope commented that at times "we are tempted to close in on ourselves, to doubt the strength of Christ's radiance, to limit the horizon of hope." However, he exhorted his listeners:

"Take courage! Fix your gaze on our saints. The diversity of their experience of God's presence prompts us to discover anew the breadth and depth of Christianity. Let your imaginations soar freely along the limitless expanse of the horizons of Christian discipleship."

Quotes to Ponder: The Pope in Washington and New York

Accessible Catholic Schools: "Everything possible must be done in cooperation with the wider community to ensure that [Catholic schools] are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation." (From the April 17 address by Pope Benedict XVI in Washington to Catholic educators)

Community in a Globalized, Technological World: "Globalization has humanity poised between two poles. On the one hand, there is a growing sense of interconnectedness and interdependency between peoples even when -- geographically and culturally speaking -- they are far apart. This new situation offers the potential for enhancing a sense of global solidarity and shared responsibility for the well-being of mankind. On the other hand, we cannot deny that the rapid changes occurring in our world also present some disturbing signs of fragmentation and a retreat into individualism. The expanding use of electronic communications has in some cases paradoxically resulted in greater isolation. Many people -- including the young -- are seeking therefore more authentic forms of community." (From remarks by Pope Benedict XVI during an ecumenical prayer service at St. Joseph's Church in New York April 18)

Declining Wedding Statistics: "Many young men and women are choosing to postpone marriage or to forego it altogether. To some young Catholics, the sacramental bond of marriage seems scarcely distinguishable from a civil bond, or even a purely informal and open-ended arrangement to live with another person. Hence we have an alarming decrease in the number of Catholic marriages in the United States together with an increase in cohabitation, in which the Christ-like mutual self-giving of spouses, sealed by a public promise to live out the demands of an indissoluble lifelong commitment, is simply absent. In such circumstances, children are denied the secure environment that they need in order truly to flourish as human beings, and society is denied the stable building blocks which it requires if the cohesion and moral focus of the community are to be maintained." (From the April 16th speech of Pope Benedict XVI to the U.S. bishops in Washington).

Polarization: "For all of us, I think, one of the great disappointments which followed the Second Vatican Council, with its call for a greater engagement in the church's mission to the world, has been the experience of division between different groups, different generations, different members of the same religious family. We can only move forward if we turn our gaze together to Christ! In the light of faith we will then discover the wisdom and strength needed to open ourselves to points of view which may not necessarily conform to our own ideas or assumptions. Thus we can value the perspectives of others, be they younger or older than ourselves, and ultimately hear 'what the Spirit is saying' to us and to the church (cf. Rv 2:7). In this way we will move together toward that true spiritual renewal desired by the council, a renewal which can only strengthen the church in that holiness and unity indispensable for the effective proclamation of the Gospel in today's world." (From remarks by the pope April 19 at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York)

American Secularism: "Perhaps America's brand of secularism poses a particular problem: It allows for professing belief in God and respects the public role of religion and the churches, but at the same time it can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator. Faith becomes a passive acceptance that certain things 'out there' are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life. The result is a growing separation of faith from life: living 'as if God did not exist.'" (From remarks by Pope Benedict XVI April 16 in Washington to the U.S. bishops)

Faith That Is Not Private

Some commentators apparently were surprised to hear Pope Benedict insist strongly during his U.S. visit that the faith Catholics profess is not a private, individualistic faith. That is, however, a frequent theme for this pope.

The interaction with others that is basic to faith is multifaceted in the pope's presentations. It encompasses participation in the community of the church and its life. It also leads the church's people to an encounter with God and to enter into dialogue with others and/or to serve others beyond the church's walls.

"In a society which values personal freedom and autonomy, it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear toward them," Pope Benedict said in his speech to the U.S. bishops in Washington. An "emphasis on individualism has even affected the church, giving rise to a form of piety which sometimes emphasizes our private relationship with God at the expense of our calling to be members of a redeemed community," he observed.

However, the pope continued, "from the beginning God saw that 'it is not good for man to be alone' (Gn. 2:18). We were created as social beings who find fulfillment only in love -- for God and for our neighbor. If we are truly to gaze upon him who is the source of our joy, we need to do so as members of the people of God. If this seems countercultural, that is simply further evidence of the urgent need for a renewed evangelization of culture."

Not even when Christians pray does their faith close them off from others, Pope Benedict told the young people and seminarians he addressed at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. He explained: "Far from turning in on ourselves or withdrawing from the ups and downs of life, by praying we turn toward God and through him to each other, including the marginalized and those following ways other than God's path. As the saints teach us so vividly, prayer becomes hope in action."

Participation in the liturgy, times of silent contemplation and personal prayer - all these "bring you closer to God and also prepare you to serve others," the pope said.

The pope cautioned that when religion is treated as a private matter, people often will separate faith from their everyday actions and decisions. "Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel," he said in his address to the U.S. bishops.

The pope asked: "Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?"

There is "no room for purely private religion" in Christianity, said the pope. Addressing the U.S. bishops, he said, "To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul."

The Encyclical Revisited: Private Faith, Individualistic Faith

The views Pope Benedict expressed about private or individualistic faith during his visit to America are views he also discussed in some detail in the encyclical on hope ("Spe Salvi") that he issued Nov. 30, 2007. In the encyclical he asked:

"How could the idea have developed that Jesus' message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the 'salvation of the soul' as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?"

True hope does not forget or overlook others, nor does it neglect the need to build up this world, the pope insisted in the encyclical. Theologically, this is because "being in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into his 'being for all'; it makes it our own way of being."

The pope offered the following observation in his encyclical: "Modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task."

(A special report on the encyclical can be found in the archives of this jknirp.com newsletter. The report appeared in our Dec. 10, 2007, edition. To locate that edition, simply enter the archive by clicking on the link at the bottom of the "Dave's Corner" section of the jknirp.com homepage.)

Prayer Perspective 1: Pastors and People

When people "know that their pastor is a man who prays and who dedicates his life to serving them, they respond with warmth and affection, which nourishes and sustains the life of the whole community," Pope Benedict said in his April 16 speech to the U.S. bishops in Washington. That observation came in the context of remarks by the pope about the relationship of bishops and priests, particularly in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.

"If you yourselves live in a manner closely configured to Christ, the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep, you will inspire your brother priests to rededicate themselves to the service of their flocks with Christ-like generosity," the pope said to the bishops. He added: "Indeed a clearer focus upon the imitation of Christ in holiness of life is exactly what is needed in order for us to move forward. We need to rediscover the joy of living a Christ-centered life, cultivating the virtues and immersing ourselves in prayer."

... Prayer Perspective 2: Discerning a Vocation

Prayer is a dimension of priestly and religious vocations work that often either is undervalued or forgotten, Pope Benedict said when he addressed the U.S. bishops April 16. However, he wasn't "speaking only of prayer 'for vocations.'" Rather, he explained, it is "prayer itself" on the part of those discerning a vocation that he had in mind - prayer that is "born in Catholic families, nurtured by programs of Christian formation, strengthened by the grace of the sacraments." This, the pope said, "is the first means by which we come to know the Lord's will for our lives."

Pope Benedict said: "To the extent that we teach young people to pray, and to pray well, we will be cooperating with God's call. Programs, plans and projects have their place; but the discernment of a vocation is above all the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and his disciples. Young people, if they know how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God's call."

The Purpose of Dialogue Among the World's Religions

When Pope Benedict XVI speaks of the role of interreligious dialogue, he often points to its value as a means of promoting peace in a violent world. Dialogue also paves the way for interreligious cooperation in the promotion of justice. And dialogue fosters respect for the God-given human dignity found in the members of each religion. However, during his April 2008 visit to America, the pope also accented what he termed "the broader purpose of dialogue."

Speaking in Washington April 17 to representatives of five world religions, he did indeed invite "all religious people to view dialogue not only as a means of enhancing mutual understanding but also as a way of serving society at large." For, he said, "by bearing witness to those moral truths which they hold in common with all men and women of good will, religious groups will exert a positive influence on the wider culture and inspire neighbors, co-workers and fellow citizens to join in the task of strengthening the ties of solidarity."

However, the pope said, "the broader purpose of dialogue is to discover the truth." That means inquiring about our "origin and destiny." It means asking: "What are good and evil? What awaits us at the end of our earthly existence?" The pope said that "only by addressing these deeper questions can we build a solid basis for the peace and security of the human family, for 'wherever and whenever men and women are enlightened by the splendor of truth, they naturally set out on the path of peace.'"

Spiritual leaders have a special duty - and competence - "to place the deeper questions at the forefront of human consciousness, to reawaken mankind to the mystery of human existence and to make space in a frenetic world for reflection and prayer," the pope told the interreligious leaders.

The world's religious leaders have an "enormous responsibility," Pope Benedict said - a responsibility "to imbue society with a profound awe and respect for human life and freedom; to ensure that human dignity is recognized and cherished; to facilitate peace and justice; to teach children what is right, good and reasonable!"

Respecting Human Dignity and Human Rights: Why Does This Matter?

When human dignity is not recognized and respected, human beings are degraded to mere objects, Pope Benedict XVI proposed during his April 2007 visit to America. He spoke of human dignity and human rights a number of times, particularly at U.N. headquarters in New York. However, a personal recollection of life in Germany at the time of his youth also deserves mention in this context - a recollection shared April 19 in New York with seminarians and young people at St. Joseph's Seminary.

Pope Benedict was discussing "mind-sets which stifle hope" and situations in which respect for human rights is lacking, when he said at St. Joseph's:

"My own years as a teenager were marred by a sinister regime that thought it had all the answers; its influence grew -- infiltrating schools and civic bodies, as well as politics and even religion -- before it was fully recognized for the monster it was. It banished God and thus became impervious to anything true and good. Many of your grandparents and great-grandparents will have recounted the horror of the destruction that ensued. Indeed, some of them came to America precisely to escape such terror."

The pope went on to ask what happens in the world today "when people, especially the most vulnerable, encounter a clenched fist of repression or manipulation." Often, he suggested, "the dreams and longings" of young people will be "shattered or destroyed." What people really need is - and was -- the hand of hope.

The causes of problems such as homelessness and poverty, racism, violence, degradation - especially of girls and women -- and even drug and substance abuse are complex, the pope said at St. Joseph's. But all these problems "have in common a poisoned attitude of mind which results in people being treated as mere objects -- a callousness of heart takes hold which first ignores, then ridicules the God-given dignity of every human being."

Respect for the God-given dignity of every human being is basic to the church's social teaching. It is no wonder, then, that at the United Nations Pope Benedict was at pains to promote authentic recognition for human rights and human dignity. He cautioned strongly against views in which human rights shift according to various prevailing viewpoints.

The rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high point of God's creative design for the world and for history. They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations," the pope said in his U.N. speech April 18. He said that "removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks."

Said the pope, "This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights." Human rights must not be deprived "of their true function in the name of a narrowly utilitarian perspective."

Texts of the Pope's Visit

Origins, CNS Documentary Service, announced April 22 that it is publishing the texts given in America by Pope Benedict XVI in a 36-page edition dated May 1, 2008. That special edition of Origins may be ordered at www.originsonline.com or by calling 202-541-3290.