By Greg Erlandson
Americans solely reliant on the secular news media for their knowledge of the Pope Benedict XVI's historic visit to the United States last spring would be forgiven for concluding that the purpose of his historic visit last April 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 Benedict during his six-day visit.
Indeed, he did address the clergy sex abuse scandals directly, starting with comments made during his flight to the United States and then most eloquently while speaking to the U.S. bishops. Picking up on words that Cardinal Francis George used, the Pope admitted that the issue was ''sometimes very badly handled,'' and he moved beyond his expression of ''deep shame'' for the abuse that had occurred in the Church to discuss the wider context of sexual abuse that is epidemic in U.S. society.
He also called the bishops' attention back to the vast majority of priests who feel themselves shamed by the actions of a few. He told the American bishops that ''a vital part of your task is to strengthen relationships with your clergy, especially in those cases where tension has arisen between priests and their bishops in the wake of the crisis.''
By being so sincere and open in his comments and actions (such as meeting with the victims of abuse), in only 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.
Benedict laid out his agenda in his first talk at the White House on April 16: ''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....''
The Pope's entire visit had a dual purpose -- naming clearly the challenges faced by the Church, and then pointing the way toward how best to affect its renewal.
The challenges are significant. Not just society, but also the Church is threatened 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, the speeches are profoundly Christological in orientation, so much so that it almost comes as a surprise to realize that even Mary is mentioned almost nowhere in these talks. The focus is squarely on Jesus.
But the Holy Father did not stop at simply diagnosing our current ills. As you sift through his speeches, you see that he also prescribes certain priorities that can spur a renewal of the Catholic Church in this country and, by extension, begin the renewal of American society.
To a society that seems to be in danger of losing its way, Pope Benedict reminded it of its impressive legacy. At the White House, he displayed a keen appreciation of the ideals upon which our nation was founded, even quoting George Washington's farewell address to remind Americans that ''religion and morality represent 'indispensable supports' of political prosperity.''
Pope Benedict knows the history of our country well, and he reminded us in nearly every talk of our Catholic roots as well. At Yankee Stadium, he spoke of the ''impressive growth which God has given the Church in your country in the past 200 years.''
He mentioned the ''towering figures'' of our past, such as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. He noted the generosity of our Catholic ancestors who worked together to build up a great network of churches, hospitals and schools in every corner of our country. He praised our historic openness to the immigrant, the needy and the sick, and the sacrifices made by that young Church for the sake of God's Kingdom.
''On these solid foundations, the future of the Church in America must even now begin to rise!'' he told us.
Pope Benedict particularly stressed the importance of knowing our faith. As he told the bishops, ''The importance of providing sound formation in the faith cannot be overstated.'' He praised the high value that Catholics have placed on religious education, and he said religious education for children, youth and adults must be ''maintained and expanded.''
These are tough words to hear in a time of financial belt-tightening, staff reductions and the fallout of the huge financial settlements many dioceses have been forced to pay as the result of the sex abuse scandals.
Yet the Pope urges us to make education in the faith a priority. ''The fidelity and courage with which the Church in this country will respond to the challenges raised... will depend in large part upon your own fidelity in handing on the treasure of your Catholic faith,'' he said at Nationals Stadium.
Much progress has been made in developing solid programs of religious education, he added. ''Yet so much more remains to be done in forming the hearts and minds of the young in knowledge and love of the Lord. The challenges confronting us require a comprehensive and sound instruction in the truths of the faith.''
Education in the faith is only part of the challenge. Pope Benedict said he wants us to form a ''mindset...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.''
Being a good Catholic, an active Catholic, is about much more than being a lector or a parish volunteer, in other words. Ours is not just a Sunday faith, but is meant to be practiced in the world every day.
''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?'' he asked the bishops.
The Pope noted ''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.''
''Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted,'' he told them. ''Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.''
In the Our Father, we pray that ''Thy Kingdom come.'' It is our task to work for the growth of the Lord's Kingdom, a task that we must face with confidence, he said at Yankee Stadium. ''It means overcoming every separation between faith and life, and countering false gospels of freedom and happiness.'' This is no contradiction between our faith and our political life, he said, for our goal is ''to enrich American society and culture with the beauty and truth of the Gospel.''
Pope Benedict reminded us of our duty to ''care for the poor, the sick and the stranger in [our] midst.'' Our care for those who cannot defend themselves are based on our belief in the ''inalienable dignity and rights of each man, woman and child in our world -- including the most defenseless of all human beings, the unborn child in the mother's womb.''
This was not the only political hot button that the Pontiff pushed during his visit. To the bishops, he said: ''I want to encourage you and your communities to continue to welcome the immigrants who join your ranks today... This, indeed, is what your fellow countrymen have done for generations.''
And lest the point be missed, Pope Benedict explicitly urged the bishops to speak up:
Theirs is ''a respected voice that has much to offer to the discussion of the pressing social and moral questions of the day.'' There are many issues of moral concern, he added, and the Catholic community ''needs to offer a clear and united witness on such matters.''
The theme of unity came up in other contexts as well. Pope Benedict made several statements expressing sorrow for the divisions within our Church and calling on Catholics to ''reaffirm their unity in the apostolic faith.''
''Was not this unity of vision and purpose -- rooted in faith and a spirit of constant conversion and self-sacrifice -- the secret of the impressive growth of the Church in this country?'' he asked.
One of the ''great disappointments'' of recent history ''has been the experience of division between different groups, different generations, different members of the same religious family,'' he told priests and seminarians. ''We can only move forward if we turn our gaze together to Christ!''
''In the light of faith,'' he added, ''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.''
To the bishops he said: ''There is a need for all of us to move beyond sterile divisions, disagreements and preconceptions, and to listen together to the voice of the Spirit who is guiding the Church into a future of hope.''
Turning our gaze together to Christ was the core of the Holy Father's message to us. He reminded us that 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.''
The faith is not simply a matter of rules and prohibitions, but is about the liberating encounter that we have with the Lord in prayer, in the Sacraments and the liturgy, and in our world. ''Our most urgent challenge,'' the Pope told priests and seminarians, ''is to communicate the joy born of faith and the experience of God's love.''
When the Holy Father left the United States on April 20, the news media immediately moved on to other crises and controversies. But his words must not be forgotten if the renewal that he preached is to occur.
To renew our Church and our country today, we must grow in knowledge of the faith and live out that faith in our daily lives. We must not think only of ourselves, but live for the sake of others -- as our ancestors did, as Christ did for us -- in our parishes and our community.
This is not just a task for overburdened pastors and parish staff. It is a task that all Catholics must share in if it is to be successful. TP
MR. ERLANDSON is the president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. Pope Benedict XVI's message of renewal and hope for U.S. Catholics has been summarized in Witness to Christ, OSV's latest pamphlet by Erlandson.
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