The Way Forward
There is a “grace of office” and there is also a “grace of the place.” As we all gather here in Baltimore, the senior metropolitan See in the United States, we can feel this “grace of the place.”
In this city, some 200 years ago, the first Bishop of the United States, Bishop John Carroll – surrounded by enormous difficulties from both within the Church and beyond, laid the cornerstone of this Cathedral of the Assumption on July 7th, 1806, with great solemnity. At 71, an age considered particularly “old” at that time, the Bishop must have certainly considered that his eyes would never look upon the completed Cathedral and, in fact, that was the case. The first American Bishop would not be conditioned by age or difficulties: the Glory of God, fidelity to the mission entrusted to him by Jesus Christ, his service to the present and future of the Church, were all at the core of his great faith, tremendous courage and creative apostolic passion. These remarkable virtues have remained solid and firm, like the stones of this Cathedral which now has been restored by His Eminence Cardinal Keeler, and they continue to speak to the American Catholics of this day.
Cardinal James Gibbons wrote: "What the Temple of Jerusalem is to the Israelites, what Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome is to the Faithful of the Church Universal, this Cathedral is to the American Catholic."
The name – “Baltimore” brings to mind the four General Chapters of the Clergy, the first Synod of Baltimore (1791), the meeting of the American Bishops in 1810, the seven Provincial Councils and the three Plenary Councils. These dates and events pass before your eyes with images of your predecessors, who were instruments of God for the rooting, expansion and consolidation of the Catholic Church in the United States.
We cannot forget the Baltimore Catechism – which for dcades, formed the religious, moral and civil conscience of American Catholics.
Like the Bishops of the past, you face difficulties which, although different, are equally serious and challenging: particularly the loss of credibility in the Church, which comes from a lack of orthopraxy and orthodoxy in a small, but very damaging number of its ministers and its faithful. Like those early Bishops, we must have the great humility, to put Jesus Christ at the center of our prayer, at the center of our lives and at the center of our pastoral actions.
Pope Benedict XVI has decided to dedicate the next Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (5-26 October 2008) to the theme The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. Commenting on this decision, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said: “The Church is born from the Word of God whose fullest meaning is the Word of God Himself, the Incarnate Word – Jesus Christ. It is the word of the prophets, the word of the apostles and finally, the written word of the Bible. Being born from this Word, the Church is renewed, regenerated every time she returns to this Word. The Word of Sacred Scripture is in the hands of the Church, so that she will drink from it abundantly and be renewed by that contact. It is the Word of God that leads us to the will of God himself; to His desire to communicate with us. This Word tells us what God’s plan is, what he wants from us, what he wants from the Church, what our duty is and what our future is. Therefore, the Church is constantly renewed by drinking from the source of the Word of God, as she is renewed by being nourished in the Eucharist.”
All of us are familiar with the words of Saint Jerome – “the one who ignores the Scripture, ignores Christ. And he who ignores Christ, ignores the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24).”
It is my impression that the Bishops and the Faithful of the Church in the United states are thirsting to muster again the courage and to experience this Wisdom of God and this Power of God.
Toward achieving this goal, don’t the Bishops believe that it would be invaluable for all the dioceses to have a wave of proclamation of the Word of God, of evangelization with faith and courage? It is the Word of God – proclaimed and witnessed in fidelity that will restore the trust in the Church of God.
On this past October 28th, Pope Benedict XVI told the Bishops of Ireland: “Superficial presentation of Catholic teaching must be avoided, because only the fullness of the faith can communicate the liberating power of the Gospel. By exercising vigilance over the quality of the syllabuses and the course books used and by proclaiming the Church’s doctrine in its entirety, you are carrying out your responsibility to ‘preach the Word… in season and out of season… unfailing in patience and in teaching (2 Tim 4:2).”
I am not suggesting that the Bishops should be “watch-dogs” of the faith; I am speaking of something much more difficult: the “munus docendi” of the Bishop must lead the Faithful to live in gratitude to Almighty God for the gift of life, the gift of faith, the gift of the Church, the gift of service, the gift of joy and the gift of fidelity.
In the same talk to the Irish Bishops, the Pope said – “Even though it is necessary to speak out strongly against the evils that threaten us, we must correct the idea that Catholicism is merely a ‘collection of prohibitions.’”
Evangelization needs the support of three agents:
1) The Family: Which shows future generations how the gift of faith becomes love, life, fidelity, mutual dedication and joy;
2) The School: During the synods of Baltimore, the Fathers of the Church in America intuited the great and important role that schools would have in the growth of the Catholic community, here in the States. Keeping in mind the words of the Holy Father – “only the fullness of the Faith can communicate the liberating power of the Gospel” – the Catholic school should give the students a top quality in teaching, a discipline for life, moral and human values which help them to choose what is better, more honest, more just and more beautiful;
3) The Mass Media: The first Catholic newspapers were born in Baltimore, where the necessity for them was truly seen. Today, Mass media has developed enormously. Media can cause damage, but can be used also for great good. With competent and well trained personnel, the Catholic Church should find ways to utilize the media more effectively for the service of the Gospel and in the service of humanity. We can only imagine how Saint Paul would have used the Mass Media of today.
A contribution that each Bishop should make to the future of his diocese concerns the quality and the quantity of priests. We not only suffer a great reduction of priestly and religious vocations; also a pastoral plan for vocations seems to be lacking intensity, clarity and determination. Today, Jesus Christ, with difficulty, will find in the family, in the school and in the Church someone who will lend Him his or her voice to call others to follow Him. Ten to twenty years from now, how many priests will there be to serve the Church in the United States? This is a pressing problem that we cannot ignore.
What type of priest or religious Brother or Sister is needed in the Church in these United States, today and tomorrow? This is a question with which every Bishop must be personally concerned. Speaking to the Bishops of Switzerland, this past November 7th, the Holy Father said: “one thing which causes us all concern, in the positive sense of the word, is the fact that the theological formation of future priests and of other teachers and announcers of the faith should be outstanding. We need, then, good theological faculties, good major seminaries and well-trained teachers of theology who can communicate not merely knowledge, but who can lead those seminarians toward an intelligent faith; in this way faith becomes intelligence and intelligence becomes faith.” [My translation.]
On the 21st of last September, the Holy Father told the newly ordained bishops that they should give special attention to their priests. He said: “May this be your first concern with regard to the priests. Always act towards them as fathers and elder brothers who know how to listen, accept, comfort and when necessary, also to correct; endeavor to collaborate with them and be close to them, especially at important moments of their ministry and their lives.”
Addressing himself to the Bishops of Ireland, who are living in a situation similar to ours, Pope Benedict said: “In the exercise of your pastoral ministry, you have had to respond in recent years to many heart-rending cases of sexual abuse of minors. These are all the more tragic when the abuser is a cleric. The wounds caused by such acts run deep, and it is an urgent task to rebuild confidence and trust where these have been damaged. In your continuing efforts to deal effectively with this problem, it is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes. In this way, the Church in Ireland will grow stronger and be ever more capable of giving witness to the redemptive power of the Cross of Christ. I pray that by the grace of the Holy Spirit, this time of purification will enable all God’s people in Ireland to "maintain and perfect in their lives that holiness which they have received from God" (Lumen Gentium, 40).
“The fine work and selfless dedication of the great majority of priests and religious in Ireland should not be obscured by the transgressions of some of their brethren. I am certain that the people understand this, and continue to regard their clergy with affection and esteem. Encourage your priests always to seek spiritual renewal and to discover afresh the joy of ministering to their flocks within the great family of the Church.”
The Word of God – rediscovered, loved and proclaimed, will give the Church in America a spirit of renewal and fidelity, new credibility among Her members and respect on the part of all. These same results will be attained by a clear and visible attitude of communion between the Bishops and the Holy Father, communion among the bishops and communion between the Bishops and the Faithful who have been entrusted to each of them.
This is expressed in the words of our Holy Father – Pope Benedict XVI, as he spoke to the Swiss Episcopate, this past November 7th:
“I consider it important that the Bishops, as Successors to the Apostles, on the one hand, bear true responsibility for the local Churches entrusted to their care by the Lord, so that there the Church of Jesus Christ may live and grow. On the other hand, they must open the local Churches to the Universal Church. Given the difficulties of the Orthodox with their autocephalous Churches and the problems that face our Protestant friends with regard to the disintegration of the regional churches, we must recognize the enormous significance of universality, how important it is that the Church opens herself to totality, truly becoming, in her universality, one Church. This is possible only if the local Church is alive. This communion must be fed by the Bishops together with the Successor of Peter in the awareness of the Apostolic Succession. All of us must continually make great effort to find in this mutual rapport the proper balance, so that the local Church might live with her own authenticity and, at the same time, the Universal Church may be enriched by the local Church, inasmuch as both participate in a give and take and in this way the Lord’s Church grows.” [My translation.]
"It is by your love for one another, that everyone will recognize you as my disciples” (Jn 13:35).
I pray that the “grace of the place,” the grace of Baltimore will bring you the faith, the courage and the vision of your predecessors.