The Holy Father met with participants in the 57th general assembly of the Italian Episcopal Conference, which is being held this week.
The Pope noted how the meetings he had held with Italian bishops during their ad limina visits over recent months had served to corroborate his "conviction that in Italy the faith is alive and profoundly rooted, and that the Church is an organization of the people, a capillary network close to individuals and families. The Catholic faith and the presence of the Church remain the great unifying factor of this beloved nation and a precious reservoir of moral energies for the future."
Apart from these "positive elements," Benedict XVI also noted "the difficulties and snares" which, he said, "can grow with the passage of time and of the generations." In this context he warned against "a culture marked by moral relativism, poor in certainties and rich in demands, at times unjustified demands. We also feel the need to reinforce Christian formation through a more profound catechesis, and to this end the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church can be of great service.
"There is also need," he added, "for a constant commitment to place God always at the center of the lives of our communities, giving primacy to prayer, to personal friendship with Jesus and, hence, to the call to sanctity. In particular, great concern must be shown for vocations to the priesthood and to consecrated life."
The Pope noted the connection between the theme of this general assembly — "Jesus Christ, the only Savior of the world: the Church on her mission, ad gentes and among us" — and the goals of the Ecclesial Congress of Verona, held in October 2006.
What is important, he said, is "to announce and bear witness to Jesus Christ," to "those peoples who are opening to the faith for the first time, to the children of the peoples who now live and work in Italy, and to our own people who at times have abandoned the faith and who are anyway subject to the pressure of the secularizing tendencies that seek to dominate the society and culture of this country."
"Today too, as the Declaration Dominus Iesus reaffirmed, we must be fully aware that from the mystery of Jesus Christ, true God and true man living and present in the Church, comes the salvific unicity and universality of Christian revelation and, consequently, the essential task of announcing Jesus Christ to everyone."
"Esteem and respect towards other religions and cultures, with the seeds of truth and goodness they contain, are especially necessary in our own times," said the Holy Father. "However, there must be no reduction in our awareness of the originality, fullness and unicity of the revelation of the true God Who in Christ was definitively given us, and nor can the Church's missionary vocation be diminished or weakened."
The Pope then went on to refer to the bishops' "specific responsibility, not only towards the Churches entrusted to you but also towards the entire nation." And he added: "While fully and cordially respecting the distinction between Church and politics, between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, we cannot but concern ourselves with what is good for mankind," and specifically with "the common good of Italy." In this context the Pope mentioned "the Note approved by the Permanent Episcopal Council dealing with the family founded on marriage and with legislative initiatives concerning de facto unions," in which he identified "full harmony with the teaching of the Apostolic See."
A recent demonstration in support of the family organized in Rome "at the initiative of the Catholic lay faithful but attended by many non-Catholics," said the Holy Father, "certainly contributed to making everyone more aware of the significance and role of the family in society, in the face of a culture that deludes itself that it favors happiness by a unilateral insistence on individual freedom."
The Pope mentioned the "daily service to many forms of poverty, old and new, visible and hidden," and praised the work of Caritas and of volunteer organizations. He invited bishops to promote this service so that "everyone can see there is no separation between the Church, custodian of moral law, and the Church that invites the faithful to become good Samaritans and recognize a brother in each suffering person."
Finally, Pope Benedict recalled the pastoral initiatives underway in preparation for the next World Youth Day, due to be held in Sydney, Australia in 2008. "We well know," he said, "that the Christian formation of the new generations is perhaps the most difficult, but the most supremely important, task the Church has to face."