With these words at a Vespers ceremony for the feast of Saints Peter & Paul at the close of last month, Pope Benedict XVI announced the creation of the Pontifical Council for Evangelization. The new dicastery’s mission? To reverse the rapid secularization of Christian or once-Christian nations.
In the Pope’s words, the new Council will focus on countries with strong Christian traditions which are experiencing an “eclipse of the sense of God.”
You could call it a crusade, I suppose, but this would be to miss the nature and tone of the Pope’s project. He is not asking the world to relinquish the distinction between Church & state, but to rediscover the fullness of the human person, in every dimension – a fullness that is ultimately to be found in Christ.
As the Holy Father put it to reporters on his way to Fatima last Spring, “the presence of secularism is something normal, but the separation and the opposition between secularism and a culture of faith is something anomalous and must be transcended. The great challenge of the present moment is for the two to come together, and in this way to discover their true identity.”
If we want to know how Benedict plans to engage the secularists, we can gather clues from his meeting with a group of scientists and artists during that same trip to Fatima.
Intellectually fearless, the Pope did not scruple to admit that the Church herself has things to learn.
“Much still needs to be learned about the form in which the Church takes her place in the world, helping society to understand that the proclamation of truth is a service which she offers to society,” he said.
Later he added, “The Church, in her adherence to the eternal character of truth, is in the process of learning how to live with respect for other “truths” and for the truth of others. Through this respect, open to dialogue, new doors can be opened to the transmission of truth.”
In other words, while the Church can never compromise the truths of faith, which are God-given, she has to seek afresh in each generation and for each culture how best to articulate those truths. Moreover, the Church seeks to be enriched by everything noble in the culture or cultures in which she operates.
The Pope challenged his audience to adopt that same attitude of openness. “Given the reality of cultural diversity, people need not only to accept the existence of the culture of others, but also to aspire to be enriched by it and to offer to it whatever they possess that is good, true and beautiful.”
In other words, the Church is eager to embrace whatever Science and the Arts have to offer that is true, good and beautiful, but secularists ought to be equally unafraid of what the Church has to offer. The instinct to horde one’s discoveries and create closed little intellectual enclaves is anti-intellectual and unworthy of those seeking truth in freedom.
Making the challenge a little more explicit he says, “Do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who, like yourselves, consider that they are pilgrims in this world and in history towards infinite Beauty!”
I love our pontiff for being able politely to tell a room full of artists and scientists that they might not be the most open-minded people of our time.
The sense of God may be eclipsed in our culture, but the creation of this new Pontifical Council for Evangelization is a sign of the Holy Father’s confidence that an eclipse is merely a shadow that passes. The light is there all along.
Rebecca Teti is a wife and mother who writes for Catholic Digest and other publications.