Before Pope Benedict XVI came to America, the centerpiece of his visit was going to be his address to the United Nations. But on the airplane from Rome, that changed.
The Holy Father told reporters that he came to celebrate the jubilee of the Church in America.
“200 years ago the Archdiocese of Baltimore was elevated as a metropolitan archdiocese, and at the same moment two or three other dioceses were created … Philadelphia, Boston, Louisville. It’s a great jubilee for the Church in the United States.”
So, from the beginning, the Holy Father changed the meaning of the visit such that its principal aim was much like Pope John Paul II’s aim at the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.
That Jubilee was the centerpiece to Pope John Paul II’s strategy to renew the Church. Everything before it was crescendo; everything after was denouement.
The Jubilee Year 2000 was structured like a massive Churchwide retreat.
It had all the components. Beginning three years prior, we meditated on the Trinity in years dedicated to each Person. Then came the opening of the Holy Door and our time of special grace and mercy. At the center of the Jubilee Year was the Lenten mea culpa address, which was like the Church making a general examination of conscience.
Various celebrations were held to give Catholics an opportunity to look at their own vocations: The jubilee of priests, of bishops, of laity — even the jubilee of police officers, of entertainers, of bakers and on and on.
Pope Benedict XVI gave the same kind of meaning to the “jubilee” of America.
He described this jubilee encounter in language reminiscent of a retreat. It’s “a moment of reflection on the past, but also on the future,” he said, “on how to respond to the great challenges of our time that will present themselves in the future.”
Seeing the Stakes
The first thing the Holy Father did in our “retreat” was tell us the stakes: Why do we need to renew ourselves? What is our goal?
That, he said, is nothing less than the freedom of America itself.
Pope Benedict defined what America is, and Catholics’ role in it. America, he said, is not just a place where a free market can bring prosperity. It isn’t just a place where you get to go where you want and buy what you will.
It’s an experiment in self-government, which of course is only possible among people who can govern themselves.
‘“In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul,’” said Benedict, quoting Pope John Paul II. “Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent ‘indispensable supports’ of political prosperity.”
So, follow the logic: If only those who are morally responsible can govern themselves, and if a healthy religious commitment is necessary for widespread moral responsibility, then democracy needs religion.
“The Church, for her part, wishes to contribute to building a world ever more worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God,” he said. “Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.”
Even when church and state are separated, you can’t have a healthy state without a healthy church. And so in America, you can’t have a thriving democracy without Catholics who are committed to their faith.
Confronting Our Faults
The next movement in the retreat might roughly correspond with the mea culpa address of the Jubilee Year 2000. It happened at the vespers meeting Benedict had with bishops at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
He led the bishops in an examination of conscience for American Catholics.
“Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary those beliefs?” he asked. “Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?”
He spelled out the consequences of our failures, up to and including the sexual-abuse crisis.
In so doing, Pope Benedict acknowledged not just the priests’ horrific sins, but also the bishops’ tragic missteps. (The scandals were “‘sometimes very badly handled,’” he said, quoting the bishops’ conference head.) He also pointed to families’ faults: “What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?” he asked.
Then, he gave the remedies. He prescribed prayer — “Time spent in prayer is never wasted,” he said — and pointed specifically to Eucharistic adoration and the Rosary.
To confront the growing number of people leaving the Church, he asked not for a defensive posture but a strong offensive push:
“Much remains to be done, particularly on the level of preaching and catechesis in parishes and schools if the new evangelization,” he said, “is to bear fruit for the renewal of ecclesial life in America.”
His message was frank and honest, but it wasn’t dark.
“We can and must believe, with the late Pope John Paul II, that God is preparing a new springtime for Christianity,” he said. “What is needed above all, at this time in the history of the Church in America, is a renewal of that apostolic zeal that 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.”
Call to Conversion
The next step Benedict took is the moment that is at the heart of any good retreat. Having seen what we are made for, and how far we are from the goal, we are called to conversion.
He took the occasion of the Mass at Nationals Park — a Mass that began with hours of confessions offered in the stadium by visiting priests — to direct Catholics to the sacrament of reconciliation.
“How much we need [God’s] gifts!” he said. “And how close at hand they are, particularly in the sacrament of penance! The liberating power of this sacrament, in which our honest confession of sin is met by God’s merciful word of pardon and peace, needs to be rediscovered and reappropriated by every Catholic.”
He made the connection between confession and our jubilee renewal explicit:
“To a great extent, the renewal of the Church in America and throughout the world depends on the renewal of the practice of penance and the growth in holiness which that sacrament both inspires and accomplishes.”
If we don’t return to confession, he was saying, we will have no renewal. If we have no renewal, we heard the day before, we will have no healthy Catholic influence in America. And if we have no healthy Catholic influence on America, we imperil the future of our country.
But then he upped the stakes even more the next day.
The Church’s Mission
His address at the United Nations came during the 60th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That’s a document which spells out much of what Pope Benedict is promoting.
In its articulation of human rights that are given to all by God, the U.N. declaration is to the world what the Declaration of Independence is to Americans.
Pope Benedict underscored this connection in his remarks.
“It is evident, though, that the rights recognized and expounded in the Declaration apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high point of God’s creative design for the world and for history,” he said. “They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilization.”
It is a document heavily influenced by Catholic social thought, and it borrows both spiritually and literally from the Declaration of Independence.
So, one could easily piece together a storyline for the future history of America and the world that goes something like this:
1. American founders allow people their God-given freedom, stressing rights and the need for religion.
2. The American experiment brings new hope to the world, gains imitators, but starts to sour as religion starts to fade.
3. Before it fades, the United Nations adopts a “globalist” version that borrows the best from the American experiment in a document heavily influenced by Catholics.
4. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI strongly reaffirm both the central rights claim of that original American experiment and the U.N. expansion on it. They invite Catholics to vigorously apply both.
The only part that remains to be written:
5. These words are ignored by a Church preoccupied with its own inner conflicts, and the principles the popes are trying to salvage die on the vine.
5. The younger generation of Americans embrace the Holy Father’s directives with enthusiasm and rescue the principles that are a high-water mark of human aspirations.
The whole “retreat” culminated in the homily at Yankee Stadium. There, the Holy Father gave us our marching orders: He called us to the apostolate.
“When we put on ‘the mind of Christ,’ new horizons open before us!” he said. “ We become the light of the world, the salt of the earth entrusted with the ‘apostolate’ of making our own lives, and the world in which we live, conform ever more fully to God’s saving plan.”
That apostolate, he said, is not our own action in the world. It’s at the service of building God’s Kingdom.
“Each day, throughout this land, you and so many of your neighbors pray to the Father in the Lord’s own words: ‘Thy Kingdom come,’” he said. “This prayer needs to shape the mind and heart of every Christian in this nation. It needs to bear fruit in the way you lead your lives and in the way you build up your families and your communities. It needs to create new ‘settings of hope’ where God’s Kingdom becomes present in all its saving power.”
That, in the end, is the purpose of this Jubilee for America. Not to renew ourselves merely to make a stronger Church — but to renew ourselves to be better instruments for God to reach far more than just us.
Tom Hoopes is the
Register’s executive editor.