For an afterword on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States, I turn to two old friends who shared some serious thoughts with me regarding papal visits and American Catholicism. I found the contrast and the convergence between them illuminating. Maybe you will, too.
Friend Number One suggested a comparison between Christianity in St. Paul’s day and conditions now, and pointed to a return to Paul’s hope-filled, apostolic spirit as the best antidote to contemporary ills of the Church. Recalling Paul’s letter to the Philippians — the Macedonians who were the first Christian community in Europe — he wrote:
“He urged them to rejoice and stop quarreling. The best was yet to come. He wanted them to know that their petty problems were minor compared with the bright future ahead.
“He spoke to them with a quiet compassion, recognizing that although the Greatest Commandment — to love God with your whole mind, heart, and soul — would bear fruit in the splendors of Christendom, the second great commandment — to love your neighbor — required deep pastoral concern and genuine interest in local problems.”
Today, my friend observed, people sometimes write off Christianity’s prospects in Europe (and in other places as well — including the United States). Paul of Tarsus wouldn’t do that. To the Philippians, Paul hammered home the idea that the remarkable resiliency of the Church is attributable in the end to faith in “a God who…knows how to get up out of the grave.”
It’s the same message that even now comes “pulsing down the centuries to us in every springtime renewal of the Kingdom of God.” We’ve heard it preached by Pope Benedict in these days. But how are we to recapture that spirit and accomplish that result? Here’s where Friend Number Two comes in. He pointed to something that happened — or, more accurately, didn’t happen — after Pope John Paul II’s second U.S. trip in 1987.
After the visit, the American bishops’ conference published the Pope’s talks in a little book with an introduction by the conference president of that day. He wrote that John Paul’s words deserved “close and careful study” so that the trip’s good effects would be “continued long into the future.”
The book has long since gone out of print, my friend remarked, it’s a stretch to imagine anyone but historians reading those talks now, and much of what the Pope called for then has not been realized.
That’s particularly so, he said, where John Paul’s appeals for a revival of the sacrament of Penance are concerned.
The sacrament’s potential for renewing the Church was nothing short of “immeasurable,” the Pope insisted. Yet its reception by American Catholics was way down. It remains so today. Whereas 80% of American Catholics went to confession at least yearly in the 1950s and 1960s, by 2005 more than half said they never receive the sacrament of reconciliation.
Dickens called the era of the French Revolution the best and worst of times, but all times are like that, mixed bags of darkness and light. Certainly that’s how things stand with American Catholicism today. And at this troubled moment, the Holy Father has proclaimed a Year of St. Paul.
May that great Apostle lead us back to faith like his, as Friend Number One urged. And may American Catholics in large numbers grasp the truth of what friend Number Two said: Reviving the sacrament of Penance is central to an authentic revival of our faith. It’s the key to the spiritual renewal of American Catholicism to which Pope Benedict has summoned us all.
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