What if the Pope delivered a brilliant program for the future of the Church — we'll call it The Plan — and practically no one followed it?
What if he convened an extraordinary consistory of cardinals with the sole purpose of reading The Plan and implementing it? What if he personally came up with creative initiatives to promote The Plan? What if he dedicated a year each to two planks of the plan? What if he mentioned The Plan in his ad limina addresses to every U.S. bishop? What if he escalated his requests and practically demanded implementation of the key planks of The Plan in formal documents and even an encyclical?
And what if most of us still ignored it?
This is precisely what has happened with the program Pope John Paul II laid out in his 2001 apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium).
The Holy Father has done everything humanly possible to draw attention to its major planks — up to devoting a year to the rosary and, on June 11, announcing a Year of the Eucharist.
The pastoral plan in Novo Millennio Ineunte is so vitally important to John Paul it can be said that he's been preparing the Church for it for more than a decade.
He explains it all right there in the document.
The document starts with long introductory remarks summing up the Jubilee Year 2000, which was like a retreat, with three years leading up to it and deep efforts at renewal in the year itself. It also includes a beautiful contemplation of the face of Christ. But then, in its third section, “Starting Afresh From Christ,” it spells out The Plan.
The Pope announces “our program for the third millennium,” which “must be translated into pastoral initiatives adapted to the circumstances of each community.”
He speaks solemnly: “I therefore earnestly exhort the pastors of the particular Churches, with the help of all sectors of God's people, confidently to plan the stages of the journey ahead.”
Then he becomes almost self-consciously businesslike. When he writes about the importance of holiness, he adds, “At first glance, it might seem almost impractical to recall this elementary truth as the foundation of the pastoral planning in which we are involved at the start of the new millennium. Can holiness ever be ‘planned’?”
He decides that it can be planned, or at least planned for, and then he spells out how: The Church should find creative ways to promote Sunday Mass, confession, prayer and community service (along with certain policy priorities).
In fairness, a lot has happened in America since The Plan was released — Sept. 11, 2001, came within months, and then came the 2002 crisis as the Church scandals erupted.
But if the crisis has preoccupied Catholics, it has also brought the Church's problems into sharper relief. With a clearer vision of our problems, perhaps we can better see the profundity of simple, principled solutions.
Positive, bold action is the best response to an atmosphere of malaise and mistrust.
Take the four main parts of The Plan, for example.
There is a crisis of fidelity in the Church. We could convene a plenary council to discuss the root causes of infidelity — but why not just promote the most basic fidelity: to Sunday Mass? A nationwide Sunday Mass promotion would help pastors who have grown gun-shy about mentioning religious obligations and would remind lay people that Sunday Mass is mandatory. A sea change in fidelity would follow if more people were faithful to Sunday Mass.
There is also a crisis of the sense of sin. The Church could spend valuable time at a council parsing theological statements about the fundamental obligation of conscience. Or the bishops could start a campaign to simply remind priests and lay people of the need for, and beauty of, confession. Nationwide events like Philadelphia's Reconciliation 2000 could be very successful.
There is intense secularism — so promote prayer. There is a dangerous new individualism and consumerism — so promote works of charity.
In the end, we can hardly blame the bishops for not implementing The Plan if we have done nothing ourselves to promote it. It was given not just to bishops but to “all sectors of God's people.” If we do our part, the Church's renewal will begin in our families, parishes and communities.