Signs of the Times

Pope Emphasizes Healing, Holiness to Visiting U.S. Bishops

In a series of ad limina talks during 2004, Pope John Paul II has encouraged U.S. bishops to regroup pastorally after the sexual abuse scandal and recover their prophetic voice on moral and social issues. The pope acknowledged that the abuse cases have brought a crisis of confidence in church leadership in the United States. But instead of dwelling on 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, both 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 2004 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. Pope John Paul once said that if someone wants to know what he thinks about the church in the United States, read my ad limina talks.


The pope 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 such church matters as vocations, church unity, the 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 was not 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 sexual 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.

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 spoke 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 governancewithout, 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. Speaking to the last group of bishops on Dec. 10, he said that pro-life activities must be an evangelization priority.

In addition to the individual papal meetings that lasted from five to 20 minutes, one bishop from each group addressed the pontiff. The most provocative analysis came from Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I., 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 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.

Israelis Again Cancel Meeting With Vatican

A meeting scheduled for Dec. 15, 2004, between a Vatican delegation and the Israeli Foreign Ministry for the purpose of finalizing taxation issues was canceled hours before the meeting was to take place. The reaction in the church to the last-minute cancellation is astonishment at what appears to be a pattern of last-minute, unilateral cancellations by Israel of crucially important meetings, a source close to the delegation reported. No reason was given for the cancellation. The church’s tax status was one of the issues to be resolved according to the Fundamental Agreement signed by the Holy See and Israel in December 1993.

This was a meeting for which [the Israelis] were preparing for 12 years, he said. Every time we are getting close to an issue they withdraw. It is very perplexing. How can the issue be resolved if they won’t even talk about it? The tax issues are important for the church but trivial for Israel, he said.

Municipal laws in Israel require a religious institution to pay one-third of its property taxes to the local municipality. Monasteries are largely built on areas with relatively few residents, with no income but donations, and thus are not in a position to pay property taxes, said David Jaeger, O.F.M., an expert on church-state relations in Israel. If the institutions are forced to pay the taxes, he said, a number of churches and monasteries would have to close, and that would diminish the presence of the church in the Holy Land. Jewish institutions are largely funded by the state and do not have the same financial considerations as the Catholic Church, he said. Other Christian churches are closely following the Vatican-Israeli negotiations, he said.

News Briefs

Catholic News Service reported in August that a magazine devoted to people with celiac disease has endorsed a low-gluten Communion host made by nuns in Missouri as perfectly safe for celiac sufferers. The editor and publisher of Gluten-Free Living told CNS on Dec. 13 that the magazine merely ran two articles on the hosts that quoted experts who said the hosts were safe. She said the articles did not constitute an endorsement.

Vatican officials expect a visitation of U.S. seminaries to begin in the fall of 2005, sources in Rome said in December. The Vatican is expected to publish soon an instrumentum laboris, or working questionnaire, of about three pages. Sometime before the process begins next fall, the Vatican expects to publish a long-awaited and potentially controversial document on whether candidates with homosexual inclinations should be admitted to the priesthood.

Adam Ocytko, a Chicago-based editor and former president of the U.S. Alliance of Polish Clubs, said he will continue building a $50-million statue of Christ the King in Poland, despite opposition from Polish organizations and the Catholic Church. The statue will be taller than the Statue of Liberty when completed in 2005.

Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Islamic theologian whose visa was revoked days before he was to start a teaching position at the University of Notre Dame, has resigned his faculty position. The visa he had been granted was revoked at the request of the Department of Homeland Security, which gave no explanation beyond a reference to security concerns.

The Diocese of Dallas will establish next year a Redemptoris Mater diocesan missionary seminary. It will be the fourth seminary in the United States associated with the Neocatechumenal Way, an international Catholic ecclesial community.

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11 years 6 months ago
Without condoning the apparent “pattern of last-minute, unilateral cancellations by Israel of crucially important meetings,” I find it both interesting and curious that a source close to the Vatican delegation would ask, “How can the issue be resolved if they won’t even talk about it?” (Signs of the Times, 1/3). But isn’t that the Vatican practice in regard to public dialogue about some issues that very large numbers of Catholics find to be of great importance to the sacramental life of the church and would like to discuss?


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