The question of religious education and the formation in the faith of the next generation of Catholics in the United States was the theme of Pope Benedict's remarks to bishops from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (Regions X-XIII), who have just completed their five-yearly "ad limina" visit. Among the visiting bishops were Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Bishop William Skylstad, formerly of Seattle (and former USCCB president), who is now apostolic administrator of Baker, Oregon.
In his talk, the pope acknowledged "the great progress that has been made in recent years in improving catechesis, reviewing texts and bringing them into conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church". He also praised efforts underway "to preserve the great patrimony of America’s Catholic elementary and high schools, which have been deeply affected by changing demographics and increased costs, while at the same time ensuring that the education they provide remains within the reach of all families, whatever their financial status".
"On the level of higher education, many of you have pointed to a growing recognition on the part of Catholic colleges and universities of the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service of the Gospel. Yet much remains to be done, especially in such basic areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines."
The pope continued, "The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership: such discord harms the Church’s witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom."
"It is no exaggeration", the pope added, "to say that providing young people with a sound education in the faith represents the most urgent internal challenge facing the Catholic community in your country".
"First, as we know, the essential task of authentic education ... is not simply that of passing on knowledge, essential as this is, but also of shaping hearts. There is a constant need to balance intellectual rigour in communicating ... the richness of the Church’s faith with forming the young in the love of God, the praxis of the Christian moral and sacramental life and, not least, the cultivation of personal and liturgical prayer".
The Holy Father went on to explain that "the question of Catholic identity, not least at the university level, entails much more than the teaching of religion or the mere presence of a chaplaincy on campus. All too often, it seems, Catholic schools and colleges have failed to challenge students to reappropriate their faith as part of the exciting intellectual discoveries which mark the experience of higher education. The fact that so many new students find themselves dissociated from the family, school and community support systems that previously facilitated the transmission of the faith should continually spur Catholic institutions of learning to create new and effective networks of support.
"In every aspect of their education, students need to be encouraged to articulate a vision of the harmony of faith and reason capable of guiding a life-long pursuit of knowledge and virtue. ... In effect, faith by its very nature demands a constant and all-embracing conversion to the fullness of truth revealed in Christ. ... The Christian commitment to learning, which gave birth to the medieval universities, was based upon this conviction that the one God, as the source of all truth and goodness, is likewise the source of the intellect’s passionate desire to know and the will’s yearning for fulfilment in love.
"Only in this light can we appreciate the distinctive contribution of Catholic education, which engages in a “diakonia of truth” inspired by an intellectual charity which knows that leading others to the truth is ultimately an act of love. Faith’s recognition of the essential unity of all knowledge provides a bulwark against the alienation and fragmentation which occurs when the use of reason is detached from the pursuit of truth and virtue; in this sense, Catholic institutions have a specific role to play in helping to overcome the crisis of universities today".
While visiting Rome, the American bishops were able to address several issues of common concern. According to Bishop Soto, these were:
--How can we better assist immigrants whose marriage annulment cases must be heard in countries where the Church’s Tribunals are not functioning properly?
-- How can Canonical Tribunals better cooperate in a time of limited resources?
-- While the debates in the United States over changing definitions of marriage are ongoing, Europe has acquiesced with little public discourse to a growing relativistic notion of marriage. How the Church in the United States responds will be important to the rest of the Church.
-- The necessity of ensuring the trust of the faithful in the Church’s ministry when the conduct of priests is in question.
-- The Church is most persuasive in society when it actively participates in society. The recent federal re-definition of religious organizations threatens not only the good work being done but our ability for effective evangelical persuasion. Will this re-definition affect the Church’s work with immigrants?
-- The Congregation of the Clergy expressed an interest not only in priests but deacons as well. Noting the growing number of deacons in the United States, there was gratitude for the leadership the bishops in America have provided to the rest of the Church in this area.
-- The United States wishes to develop its own missal in Spanish. We encouraged the Congregation of Divine Worship to assist us in this regard. The Congregation, in turn, recognized that the United States was now the second largest Spanish-speaking nation and assured us of their support.
-- The New Evangelization is for believers who lack fervor of faith as well as the desire to belong to a community of faith. Catholic women and men may be faithful but do not see themselves as faithful witnesses.