Pope Benedict’s lengthy address to the U.S. bishops, delivered in the catacomb-like grotto of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, was relevant, clear and direct: one of the best papal speeches I’ve encountered in my many years of reading such texts.
Speaking to the assembled shepherds of the Church in the United States, Pope Benedict effectively diagnosed both the strengths and weaknesses of the Church they are responsible for.
Americans have been generous (to immigrants, to the poor, to those suffering from natural disasters), faithful, respectful of religious freedom, and not hesitant “to bring moral arguments rooted in biblical faith” into public discourse.
At he same time there are impediments to a contemporary “encounter with the living God” that must be cleared away if modern men and women are to respond to the Gospel. These impediments include a secularism, materialism and individualism, all of which are threats to the Catholic community.
Having made his diagnosis, the Pope then delivers what may be best described as a job description for any bishop. It is a powerful, clear and direct listing of the tasks that should be the priorities of any pastor today.
- Educate: “The importance of providing sound formation in the faith cannot be overstated.” Religious education for both schools and adult faith formation programs should be “maintained and expanded.” Those working in charitable activities and health care particularly need formation and catechesis.
- Speak Up: “You are also called to participate in the exchange of ideas in the public square, helping to shape cultural attitudes.” “Yours is a respected voice that has much to offer to the discussion of the pressing social and moral questions of the day.” This is for the sake of both the Catholic community and the wider nation. It is the responsibility of the bishops to ensure proper moral formation for Catholic citizens so that they “think in harmony with the Church’s teaching on today’s key ethical questions.”
- Build up the family: “The strengthening of marriage and family life [is] among the priorities for your attention over the next few years.” Quoting John Paul II, he said that “the person principally responsible in the Diocese for the pastoral care of the family is the Bishop.”
- Respond the crisis of sexual abuse, both within the Church and without: Programs to protect children must also help them to “grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships.” The problem of pornography is a grave threat to the family. The bishops must confront the problem within the Church, and lead others to confront it “in every sector of society.”
- Be Close to Your Priests: This is a time of pain and purification for priests. Bishops must “strengthen relationships” with their clergy.
- Lead by Example: Supporting priests also means the bishops must “lead by example.” “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.”
- Pray: “Time spent in prayer is never wasted, however urgent the duties that press upon us from every side.” He specifically mentioned Eucharistic Adoration, the Rosary, and the Liturgy of the Hours.
Pastors, religious educators, publishers and authors all need to prayerfully consider the Pope’s powerful message to the U.S. bishops. This is not just a job description for the bishops. It is also our marching orders for the 21st century. -- Greg Erlandson