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VATICAN LETTER Dec-10-2004 (1,000 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

In consultations with U.S. bishops, pope emphasizes healing, holiness

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In a series of "ad limina" talks this year, Pope John Paul II has encouraged U.S. bishops to regroup pastorally after the sex abuse scandal and recover their prophetic voice on moral and social issues.

The pope acknowledged that the clergy sex abuse cases have brought a "crisis of confidence" in church leadership in the United States. But rather than dwell on the past failings, he praised the bishops for their response to the crisis and suggested it was time to turn the page.

The pope said rebuilding the church's credibility -- among Catholics and in society -- would ultimately be achieved through the holiness and witness of its pastors and faithful.

The "ad limina" visits, which began in March and ended in mid-December, brought the entire U.S. episcopate to Rome in 14 regional groups. Each group spent a week in meetings and special liturgies designed to underline their apostolic ties with Rome. "Ad limina" visits are required of heads of dioceses every five years.

The pope, struggling with a neurological disorder, met individually with nearly 200 heads of U.S. dioceses. The bishops said they found the pope alert and interested, but much less verbal than in previous years.

The pope also dropped his practice of hosting informal lunches with the bishops and celebrating Mass with them. When he met them as a group, he usually pronounced only a small part of his talk and let an aide read the rest.

The pope's speeches were strong on church matters such as vocations, church unity, Catholic identity of schools and hospitals, the bishop's teaching role, the responsibility of the laity, Sunday Mass, prayer and the sacraments.

He said relatively little about current social and political questions like immigration, poverty, terrorism, the death penalty, technological advances or economic practices. The war in Iraq -- a topic the pope spoke about many times in other forums -- wasn't mentioned once in his speeches to the bishops.

Perhaps in part because he was speaking during an election year, the pope stuck to principles and generally stayed away from specific issues. There were a few notable exceptions, including abortion and gay marriage legislation.

Addressing bishops in June, the pope said that in the U.S. culture "rights are at times reduced to self-centered demands: the growth of prostitution and pornography in the name of adult choice, the acceptance of abortion in the name of women's rights, the approval of same-sex unions in the name of homosexual rights."

"In the face of such erroneous yet pervasive thinking you must do everything possible to encourage the laity in their special responsibility for evangelizing culture ... and promoting Christian values in society and public life," he said.

He waited until the U.S. presidential election was over to make another important and sensitive point: that Catholic laity cannot leave their faith at home when they enter into politics.

From the outset of the talks, the pope framed the sex abuse issue in terms of healing. He said the scandal had "cast a shadow" on the church, but that the bishops had rightly devoted time and effort to confronting the problem and making corrective changes.

While calling for careful discernment of seminary candidates, he repeatedly emphasized that the great majority of U.S. priests were good and generous servants of the church. He urged bishops to be spiritual fathers to their priests -- to listen to them, support them and correct them when necessary.

Again and again throughout the year, he returned to the theme of personal holiness as the key to renewing the church, evangelizing effectively and regaining influence in society. In his 14 speeches, he mentioned the words "holiness" and "witness" nearly 100 times; in comparison, he pronounced the words "sexual abuse" only three times.

The pope identified a number of specific internal church challenges:

-- Reversing the decline in priestly vocations.

-- Encouraging better Sunday Mass attendance and use of the sacrament of penance.

-- Improving unity among the bishops, and reducing factionalism among the faithful.

-- Promoting co-responsibility with lay people in diocesan governance -- without, however, giving the idea that the church operates like a political democracy.

-- Making lay Catholics more aware of their "duty" to follow authoritative church teachings.

-- Encouraging Catholic schools and health care facilities to put a new and creative emphasis on Catholic identity.

Speaking of the wider U.S. culture, perhaps the pope's sharpest remark came in a talk to Midwestern bishops in May. He said the bishops need to evangelize a society that is "increasingly in danger of forgetting its spiritual roots" and of giving in to "a purely materialistic and soulless vision of the world."

To the last group of bishops Dec. 10, he said that pro-life activities must be an evangelization priority.

All told, the pope did more listening this year than talking. In addition to the individual papal meetings that lasted anywhere from five to 20 minutes, one bishop from each group gave a speech to the pontiff. Most were simply expressions of appreciation; a few went further.

The most provocative analysis came from Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago. He told the pope that the church's public influence in the United States had been reduced by cultural biases and by the church's own internal divisions, which had made it an "an arena of ideological warfare rather than a way of discipleship shepherded by bishops."

While much of the attention during these visits went to the problem areas, the pope sprinkled his speeches with words of appreciation for the bishops, priests, lay people and church-run institutions.

He let the bishops know he understood their jobs were not always easy. Citing the Gospel parable of the workers in the vineyard, he sent them home with special encouragement as they bear the burden of the heat of the day "in the service of the Gospel."


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