The following is a summary of the question and answer session that Pope Benedict XVI held with the bishops of the United States at the National Shrine. The responses of the Pope have been edited for the sake of brevity but can be viewed in their entirety by clicking here.
Combating Secularism and Effective Evangelization
1. The Holy Father is asked to give his assessment of the challenge of increasing secularism in public life and relativism in intellectual life, and his advice on how to confront these challenges pastorally and evangelize more effectively.
The Pope began by noting that there are different forms of secularism around the world, and that the American version has its own problem, namely, that “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.”
This type of secularism leads to a society where, “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". This is aggravated by an individualistic and eclectic approach to faith and religion: far from a Catholic approach to "thinking with the Church", each person believes he or she has a right to pick and choose, maintaining external social bonds but without an integral, interior conversion to the law of Christ. Consequently, rather than being transformed and renewed in mind, Christians are easily tempted to conform themselves to the spirit of this age (cf. Rom 12:3). We have seen this emerge in an acute way in the scandal given by Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion.”
The Pope’s solution to this mentality is to preach and teach the Gospel “as an integral way of life, offering an attractive and true answer, intellectually and practically, to real human problems. The ‘dictatorship of relativism’, in the end, is nothing less than a threat to genuine human freedom, which only matures in generosity and fidelity to the truth.”
He also offered his opinion of the Church in America, saying, “at this point in her history, [she] is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality and presenting it, in an engaging and imaginative way, to a society which markets any number of recipes for human fulfillment.”
Of particular concern to the Holy Father were the youth, whose hearts he said the Church must speak to. He pointed out that “despite their constant exposure to messages contrary to the Gospel, [the youth] continue to thirst for authenticity, goodness and truth.
Catholics Who Quietly Drift Away
2. The Holy Father is asked about "a certain quiet attrition" by which Catholics are abandoning the practice of the faith, sometimes by an explicit decision, but often by distancing themselves quietly and gradually from attendance at Mass and identification with the Church.
In response, Pope Benedict insisted that Catholics and others need to learn the faith as a way of life not just as a set of external behaviors.
He went on to say that, “The issue clearly involves factors such as religious individualism and scandal. Let us go to the heart of the matter: faith cannot survive unless it is nourished, unless it is "formed by charity" (cf. Gal 5:6). Do people today find it difficult to encounter God in our Churches? Has our preaching lost its salt? Might it be that many people have forgotten, or never really learned, how to pray in and with the Church?”
The Holy Father then offered two observations on “attrition”, which he said he hoped would spark more discussion.
“First,” he said, “it is becoming more and more difficult, in our Western societies, to speak in a meaningful way of ‘salvation’. Yet salvation - deliverance from the reality of evil, and the gift of new life and freedom in Christ - is at the heart of the Gospel. We need to discover, as I have suggested, new and engaging ways of proclaiming this message and awakening a thirst for the fulfillment which only Christ can bring.” This deliverance, the Pope explained, is primarily found in the sacraments and above all the Eucharist.
The second observation the Pontiff provided was that modern society, and even many traditionally Christian societies, no longer live as if there is a life to come.
“Suffice it to say that faith and hope are not limited to this world: as theological virtues, they unite us with the Lord and draw us toward the fulfillment not only of our personal destiny but also that of all creation. Faith and hope are the inspiration and basis of our efforts to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God. In Christianity, there can be no room for purely private religion: Christ is the Savior of the world, and, as members of his Body and sharers in his prophetic, priestly and royal munera, we cannot separate our love for him from our commitment to the building up of the Church and the extension of his Kingdom. To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul.”
“Let me conclude by stating the obvious. The fields are still ripe for harvesting (cf. Jn 4:35); God continues to give the growth (cf. 1 Cor 3:6). We can and must believe, with the late Pope John Paul II, that God is preparing a new springtime for Christianity (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 86). What is needed above all, at this time in the history of the Church in America, is a renewal of that apostolic zeal which inspires her shepherds actively to seek out the lost, to bind up those who have been wounded, and to bring strength to those who are languishing (cf. Ez 34:16),” the Pope said.
3. The Holy Father is asked to comment on the decline in vocations despite the growing numbers of the Catholic population, and on the reasons for hope offered by the personal qualities and the thirst for holiness which characterize the candidates who do come forward.
The Holy Father took an unflinching look at the situation of vocations to the priesthood in his answer. “Let us be quite frank: the ability to cultivate vocations to the priesthood and the religious life is a sure sign of the health of a local Church. There is no room for complacency in this regard,” he said.
While one might have expected the Pope to say that the Church needs better recruitment or something similar, he pointed to prayer instead. “Strange to say, I often think that prayer - the unum necessarium - is the one aspect of vocations work which we tend to forget or to undervalue!”
In his remarks the Pontiff noted that there is not just a need for praying for vocations but also a need to teach young people how to pray. “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,” he instructed.
“Finally, I think you know from experience that most of your brother priests are happy in their vocation. I would close by encouraging you to foster opportunities for ever greater dialogue and fraternal encounter among your priests, and especially the younger priests. I am convinced that this will bear great fruit for their own enrichment, for the increase of their love for the priesthood and the Church, and for the effectiveness of their apostolate,” the Holy Father said.