"Springtime of Evangelization" is a golden book to be read and meditated upon often, as it gives the Holy Father's thought and direction for the future of the Church in the United States. It is a collection of 13 addresses given to various groups of bishops on their "ad-limina" visits to the See of Peter last year. This book offers inspiration to bishops, priests, consecrated religious, and laity who are increasingly confronted with a "culture of death" — a culture increasingly hostile to the spiritual values of the Christian faith.
The Vicar of Christ reveals himself to be well-informed concerning major problems facing the faithful today:
- religious indifference,
- religious skepticism,
- dissent and disobedience from within the Church's own ranks,
- and the corrosive spirit of moral relativism, which dissolves all certainty regarding doctrinal and moral truth.
As a wise and gentle physician who skillfully probes the wounds of an injured body, Pope John Paul II brings a healing balm to his patient as he reminds all faithful Catholics to "hold fast to the very Person of Jesus." It is the authentic doctrine of Vatican II that he brings to bear on the destructive errors that have been spread by those who have distorted both the spirit and letter of Vatican II, thereby engendering confusion among the faithful. Confident that as the third Millennium approaches, God is preparing a great "Springtime for Christianity", the Pope proceeds to confirm and strengthen the bishops – and thereby all the faithful – in the "Catholic faith that comes to us from the Apostles."
He reminds his brethren in the episcopate that they are "the ones primarily responsible for the Church's holiness, doctrine, and mission." They are responsible for safeguarding the Catholic identity of their flocks, for spreading the Catholic faith ("evangelization"), and stimulating the laity to form a Catholic culture amidst the challenges of contemporary secularism. He stresses that "the bishops' duty to teach, sanctify, and govern is in fact a personal one which cannot be surrendered to others." Moreover, the bishops must not fail "vigorous lay action" – which he encourages with great enthusiasm – by a "lack of pastoral leadership."
Catholics who have been disturbed by false accusations that the Church since Vatican II has changed its teachings on faith and morals, and even its understanding of the Mass and sacraments, will be heartened by the Holy Father's insistence on the "unchanging faith of the Church." He rightly notes that "there are signs that Vatican II has brought a new steadfastness in the faith, new signs of holiness, and a new love of the Church." Discouraged Catholics cannot fail to be edified by the Pope's upholding of the reality of the objective moral law, the nature of objective truth, the dogmatic truths of divine Revelation, and the hierarchical and Petrine character of the visible Church, as well as his outright rejection of "a concept of the Church too marked by civil and political terms, or so 'spiritualized' that the individual's subjective choices become the criterion of behavior." The Church, he explains, is the great defender of moral wisdom and true human freedom in the modern world, and is "never marginal, even when she seems weak in the eyes of the world." He does not hesitate to address the rulers of the Church in words which will find ready resonance in every CUF member who is deeply concerned about the present catechetical situation in the Church:
There are still some tendencies towards a reductive understanding of the Church. As a result, inadequate ecclesiologies, radically different from what the Council and the subsequent Magisterium have presented, have found their way into theological and catechetical work...Efforts to renew catechesis must be based on the premise that Christ's teaching, as transmitted in the Church and as authentically interpreted by the Magisterium, has to be presented in all its richness, and the methodologies used have to respond to the nature of the faith as truth received.
There is no equivocation in the Pope's sterling defense of "Humanae Vitae" and his repudiation of:
1. religious indifference, and
2. philosophical skepticism, and an irrational fideism.
3. The ordination of women to the priesthood is contrary to the will of Christ.
4. Holy Scripture is not to be read in accordance with a "sterile rationalism or surrendering to cultural pressures that compromise biblical truth."
5. He denounces moral relativism, declaring bluntly for today's politicians: "A climate of moral relativism is incompatible with democracy."
6. He does not hesitate to affirm that "the indissolubility of marriage is a teaching that comes from Christ Himself, and the first duty of pastors and pastoral workers is therefore to help couples overcome whatever difficulties arise. The referral of matrimonial cases to the tribunal should be a last resort... If the judge cannot reach moral certainty in the canonical trial, he must find in favor of the validity of the matrimonial bond."
7. Wherever challenges to the truth of Catholic teaching may be encountered, bishops "must see to it that [Catholic teaching] is faithfully transmitted, and take appropriate measures to guard the faithful from the deceit of opinions which dissent from it."
8. The "dulling of consciences" with regard to contraceptions, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, the withdrawal of food and water from the terminally ill, and the moral obligations of Catholic educators and public officials must be remedied through the "pastoral planning" of bishops.
Space does not permit reproducing striking comments of the Pope on the centrality of Christ in the spiritual life, the contemplative nature of Catholic liturgical worship, the splendor of the priesthood, and the beauty of consecrated religious life. Vatican II, he reminds American bishops, did not intend a "clericalizing of the laity and a laicizing of the priesthood; this is not what the Council had in mind."
It is not too much to say that the reading of these 13 addresses constitutes a refreshing and most welcome reaffirmation of the unchanging doctrines of the Church by its visible head who insists, above all, that Catholic teaching must be stated clearly to the faithful, who have the right to hear the full truth. In his preface, Cardinal Francis George further echoes the thinking of the Holy Father: "No program, no administratively efficient structure, can replace the personal witness of faith that the world hungers for spiritually." For his part, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus sums up well yet another major theme in the Holy Father's addresses by observing: "The greatest contribution to American public life is for Catholic Americans to live the Catholic faith thoroughly, authentically, radically."
Editor Fr. Thomas D. Williams, L.C., is to be commended for his masterful introduction and for making the Pope's addresses accessible to Catholics who are seeking to deepen their understanding and appreciation of the truths of our faith. The Vicar of Christ not only calls bishops but all Catholics to "engage in the good fight of the faith." The failure of Catholics to be faithful to Christ and His Church might well bring about a "new spiritual crisis," signs of which are already ominous. The Pope warns that "a new era of barbarism" rather than a new "springtime" for Catholic Christianity could well follow "this century of tears." Overriding any such pessimistic consideration, however, is the Roman Pontiff's tone of intrepid faith and confidence in Christ the Lord of history who speaks to us as in every generation: "Be not afraid." The Pope leaves no doubt that the future of the "new evangelization" is indeed "a task for the entire People of God, but will depend in a decisive way on the lay faithful being aware of their baptismal vocation and their responsibility for bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to their culture and society."
What Pope John Paul II said to the bishops of the United States is a real eye-opener to Catholics who are so often misled by the shallow and superficial news reports of the secular media. Basilica Press is to be congratulated for this most timely publication.