By Greg Erlandson
For most Catholics (and non-Catholics) reliant on the secular news media for their coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's historic visit to the United States, they are likely to think that the sum total of his visit was to address the sex scandal, talk to the United Nations about human rights, and speak out on the political hot buttons of immigration and abortion.
Such casual observers of the papal visit would be surprised, therefore, to find that the sum total of these references would add up to less than two pages out of the many thousands of words spoken by the pope during his six-day visit.
His resolute confronting of the clergy sex abuse scandals set a tone of humility and honesty for the visit (Catholic author Peggy Noonan memorably called it the "charism of sincerity"). Indeed, in a few days, Pope Benedict managed to both address the controversy and move beyond it in a way that no U.S. church leader has been capable of doing.
That said, the headline stories did not begin to capture the richness of the papal texts or the audacious agenda the pope had set for his visit: the renewal of the U.S. Church and, through the renewed witness of Catholics, American society.
Pope Benedict laid out his agenda in his first talk, at the White House: "I trust that my visit will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation."
This idea of the renewal of Catholicism and the engagement with society wove its way through virtually every speech.
At Yankee Stadium, he spoke of the "impressive growth which God has given the Church in your country in the past 200 years."
To educators and the young, he cited St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and other key saintly figures of our past. He spoke of the great social and charitable networks such as schools and hospitals. He pointedly praised Catholics' historic openness to the immigrant, and their sacrifice.
This, he said in Yankee Stadium, was America's "first great chapter of growth."
The Church's future, he said near the end of that speech, must in part be built on this "impressive legacy":
"In our day, too, the Catholic community in this nation has been outstanding in its prophetic witness in the defense of life, in the education of the young, in care for the poor, the sick and the stranger in your midst. On these solid foundations, the future of the Church in America must even now begin to rise!"
At the same time, he tempered his optimistic recounting of our Catholic roots with a frank assessment of the "crossroads" we face today.
"Who can deny that the present moment is a crossroads, not only for the Church in America, but also for society as a whole?" he said at the Mass at Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C. While global interdependency draws people closer together, "at the same time we see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundations of society."
Likewise, in the Church there is great hope in young people, a growing interest in prayer and catechesis, but also, he warned, "the presence of division and polarization in her midst, as well as the troubling realization that many of the baptized, rather than acting as a spiritual leaven in the world, are inclined to embrace attitudes contrary to the truth of the Gospel."
Repeatedly, he rejected "any tendency to treat religion as a private matter. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel," he told the bishops.
Catholics must not conform to the spirit of the age, and he specifically rejected Catholics who give scandal by promoting "an alleged right to abortion," as well as those who promote unethical business practices or medical procedures, who ignore the poor or promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching.
In every major speech the pope warned of the threat posed to both society and religion by secularism, radical individualism, relativism and materialism. He was perhaps most explicit in his speech to the U.S. bishops his first full day in Washington, when he called these "isms" "barriers" to an encounter with Christ.
Relativism, he told the bishops, would "reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator" with "no practical relevance to everyday life."
In a short, yet profound speech at an ecumenical prayer service in New York, he went further, describing one of the impacts of a "relativistic approach to Christian doctrine," found even in religious communities, the tendency to "relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of the individual feeling," This would imply that what is "'knowable' is limited to the empirically verifiable," thus restricting religion "to the shifting realm of 'personal experience.'"
"The contemporary 'crisis of truth' is rooted in a 'crisis of faith,'" the pope told educators. And truth, ultimately, is found in the encounter with Jesus Christ.
Indeed, it almost comes as a surprise to realize that even Mary is mentioned almost nowhere in Pope Benedict's talks. His focus is squarely on Jesus.
Everywhere the pope challenged his listeners to point themselves toward Christ. The Church's mission is ultimately one of evangelization, introducing people to Christ's "transforming love and truth." This is where renewal begins, he told the educators: "Those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good and true; a life of Christian witness nurtured and strengthened within the community of Our Lord's disciples, the Church."
This focus is the true measure of the success of any Catholic institution. "Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content," he told educators. "It demands and inspires much more -- namely, that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberate within the ecclesial life of faith. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom."
Of clear concern to the pope were the divisions within the Church that distract us from Christ: "For all of us, I think, one of the great disappointments which followed the Second Vatican Council ... 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!"
Talking to priests in St. Patrick's Cathedral, his advice for healing the divisions was remarkably humble: "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." Only with such humility, he added, will we "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."
In his homily at the stadium Mass in Washington, Pope Benedict, speaking to bishops, priests and Religious, educators and parents, describes the goal he wants them to strive for: "The challenges confronting us require a comprehensive and sound instruction in the truths of the faith," he said. "But they also call for cultivating a mind-set, an intellectual 'culture,' which is genuinely Catholic, confident in the profound harmony of faith and reason, and prepared to bring the richness of faith's vision to bear on the urgent issues which affect the future of American society."
In other words, from the renewal of the Church will come the kind of public witness to the faith that is the Gospel mandate and that which society itself so badly needs.
Greg Erlandson is president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, and was at the White House with Pope Benedict.