Formation Needed to Combat 'Widespread De-Christianization,' Pope Says

VATICAN CITY—“A widely diffused de-Christianization” in today's world makes it “essential for the faithful to … live their baptism, their vocation, and their Christian responsibility,” Pope John Paul II told members and consultants of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in an Oct. 30 audience. The curial office, instituted 30 years ago by Pope Paul VI, was gathered in plenary assembly Oct. 27-31 in Rome.

Opening the week-long meeting, the laity office's head, Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, said the dicastery is “a sign of and a service to the historical movement of the promotion of the laity, fruit of the Church's renewed self-awareness as mystery of communion and fruit of the pressing missionary responsibility of our time.”

The American archbishop explained that the Council assists the Pope's pastoral work of spreading “consciousness of the baptismal dignity of the lay faithful, for their co-responsibility in the edification of the Church, and for their participation in its mission, rendering Christian testimony in every situation, environment, and culture, towards the construction of a more human society.”

For this plenary assembly, the Council's 30 members—including 26 lay people—and another dozen consultants and experts came from all around the world to reflect on the theme “Being Christians on the Threshold of the Third Millennium.” The meeting falls in the year of preparation for the Jubilee consecrated to Jesus Christ by the Pope in the 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws Near), and to a “rediscovery of baptism as foundation of Christian existence.”

“We are responding to the Holy Father's call to focus upon Christ in this year,” Archbishop Stafford told the Register, “but to focus upon Christ as that mystery of Christ is revealed to us in the foundational sacrament which the Second Vatican Council called the ‘door’ to all the other life of the Church—that is, the mystery of baptism.”

“It is no exaggeration,” says the Pope in his 1988 apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici (The Lay Members of Christ's Faithful People), “to say that the entire existence of the lay faithful has as its purpose to lead a person to a knowledge of the radical newness of the Christian life that comes from baptism, the sacrament of faith, so that this knowledge can help that person live the responsibilities which arise from the vocation received from God.”

In the same document, the Pope recalls the admonition of his predecessor, Pope St. Leo the Great: “Acknowledge, O Christian, your dignity!”

“It is a dignity,” John Paul II adds, “which brings demands.… ‘Upon all the lay faithful, then, rests the exalted duty of working to assure that each day the divine plan of salvation is further extended to every person, of every era, in every part of the earth.’”

Repeating his call at the lay assembly, the Pope, himself once a consultant to the curial body, said all Christians must deepen their “consciousness of the gift received in baptism and the responsibilities which are derived from it.”

The Pope highlighted trends that add an urgency to that appeal. Two phenomena that “more than ever” need to be “analyzed attentively,” he said, are the growing number of non-baptized people, even in “regions which for centuries have been of Christian tradition”; and the number of baptized who tend to “forget that they have become, by received grace, ‘new creatures.’”

It is therefore necessary, he said, to “revive the missionary spirit” of the Church in providing programs of “Christian initiation for the numerous youth and adults who are asking for baptism” and to begin a process of “renewal of Christian formation for those who have distanced themselves from the faith they have received.”

The question of education “to the faith and in the faith” is of utmost importance, the Pope said, “in an epoch when the ability to transmit the faith in continuity with tradition seems to have lost its vigor.”

Archbishop Stafford told the Register that “the crisis of our time, which is a very ancient crisis going back centuries, is the break between Sunday and the rest of the week, the break between nature and grace, the break between everyday work and faith. But as some of our members from the East have pointed out, crisis also offers opportunity. The challenge is for us to unfold a theology that makes sense in the life of the everyday layman from Monday through Saturday.”

“It is up to laypeople to help us,” the prelate said. “Is Christ revealed to you, and to your brothers and sisters working in the everyday world…? Does Christ make sense to them? If he doesn't, why doesn't he make sense? And if he does make sense, in what area does he make sense?”

Part of the solution involves identifying people who do “manifest Jesus Christ in their everyday lives,” he said. Following the call of the Vatican II, Pope John Paul has energetically promoted the canonization of lay saints.

“The entire people of God, and the lay faithful in particular, can find at this moment new models for holiness and new witnesses of heroic virtue lived in the ordinary everyday circumstances of human existence,” said the Pope in his landmark document on lay people.

But there are other models as well. “I think that in some ways the pattern or the model of post-modern Catholic laypersons,” Archbishop Stafford told the Register, “would be a person like the [17th-century French] scientist [Blaise] Pascal, who was the father of mathematics, one of the first in understanding the challenge of a non-Copernican world and the loneliness of man in that world. And yet still at bottom he affirmed the God and Father of Jesus Christ as the fire of immense free love. And that was revealed in [Pascal's] everyday life as a mathematician, scientist, and lay theologian.”

Despite evidence of “widespread de-Christianization,” the Pope also indicated “signs of hope.” In the first place, he recalled World Youth Days, especially the most recent one this summer in Paris.

He pointed out the “desire for a more human and true life” and “need for meaning and an ideal” vigorously expressed by youth; sentiments that are “stronger and more vivacious than the nihilistic conformism which seems to invade many spirits.”

The Pope also underlined “the process of affirmation of the true dignity of women,” which “has met the active sympathy of the Church, because the ‘feminine genius’continues to enrich the Christian community and society.”

Lastly, he praised the “admirable commitment of numerous lay people” to various human, social, and charitable activities and who put themselves “at the service of the common good in political, cultural, and economic institutions.”

New lay movements, like World Youth Days and Catholic Action, have sprung up in the Church since the Vatican Council. Archbishop Stafford, who was archbishop of Denver for the World Youth Day there in 1993, said he interpreted this as an answer to Pope John XXIII's prayer that through Vatican II, which he opened, the Church would enjoy a “new Pentecost.”

“I think the manifestation of that is the new ecclesial movements and their various charisms,” said the archbishop.

“The Church, especially the parish and the diocese, has to be more open to the charism of the Spirit,” he told the Register. “Most of these new movements within the Church are basically an out-stocking of the institutional character of the Church and are basically charismatic in their evolution and origin. So we have to help the Western Church, at least, to be open to the charismatic element,” he said.

The Pope has consecrated 1998 in the three-year preparation for the Jubilee to the Holy Spirit. The Laity Council will consequently be taking a closer look next year at the work of the Holy Spirit in lay movements, Archbishop Stafford said.

“The future of our Church,” he told the Register, “is going to be increasingly in need of the insight of the Catholic layperson who is living out, as the Second Vatican Council says, the “secular character” of their Christian vocation. We must listen closely to the unfolding of their experience in the marketplace. It is only by listening to them that we will eventually overcome this chronic, centuries-old division between faith and the everyday life.”

As John Paul II said, “The whole Church is counting on an ever more active commitment on the part of the faithful in every outpost of the world.”

John Norton is based in Rome.