Address to National Conference of Catholic Bishops

Six weeks ago Pope John Paul II came to the United States and to the United Nations. In a few full days, he gave our nation, and our world, a remarkable lesson in leadership, a lesson of consistency and courage, rooted in the gospel of Jesus.

In pouring rain and driving wind and bright sunshine, in cathedrals and ballparks, at the United Nations and at a race track, he spoke the truths of our faith and affirmed the best of our nation’s values and challenged us to live up to both.

From the moment he arrived in Newark until he left us in Baltimore, he urged us to ground freedom in truth, to proclaim moral responsibility as an indispensable value for our day, and to preach the gospel in season and out of season, without fear.

The Holy Father did this in an extraordinary context: what many of us saw and felt at Denver two years ago now touched ordinary people in the venues of the visit and the streets of our cities, and reached millions more through television. In ways which seemed transparent to the guiding power of the Holy Spirit, this Successor of the Apostle Peter made the gospel of Jesus come alive as he confirmed us in our faith and called us to help build a civilization of love in the United States of America.

At every step of the visit — and this we heard as the trip progressed – people watched and watched, touched deeply by his celebration of the Eucharist and his leadership at other prayers, and attentive to his preaching. We saw Catholic people rejoice in our belief that Peter is the rock upon which Jesus built his Church and, for all the diversity found in this land, we saw them experience in a profound way our unity in the Church — the Church as the communion of those called, according to God’s plan and purpose, to be the Body of Christ in which all things work together for good (Cf Romans 8:28), and this communion expressed itself in an outpouring of deep affection for the Holy Father.

Here let me say a word about the media, about those who helped bring Pope John Paul and his message to our people and our neighbors.

Last year and the year before, I took the occasion of this address to point out ways in which media reporting had missed its mark, nationally and internationally, in telling the story of the Church and the Pope. This year, I believe, the coverage of the Papal pilgrimage set a new standard of excellence in reporting and commentary.

The Holy Father’s messages came through clearly and in the context of his teaching. I wish to express thanks to those who made it happen.

Why did this media shift occur? For one thing, it is very clear that, as we have taken the media more seriously, so also they have taken us in the Church more seriously. But, more than any other factor, I believe, what made the difference this year is the that the media understand at last who Pope John Paul really is. They had seen his book and recordings become world-wide bestsellers, read why Time chose him to be Man of the Year, and been amazed at the millions who flocked to hear him at Manila. When Pope John Paul II spoke to the United Nations, something quite remarkable took place: before the assembled representatives of the temporal powers of this world, and before a television audience that may have reached a billion, the moral leader of the world — a man whose power is the truth of which he is both custodian and witness — reflected in a profound way on the human condition at the threshold of the new millennium.

No other world leader speaks to humanity, or for humanity, quite like John Paul II. Why is that? I suspect it has to do with the past seventeen years of public witness in service to the truth about the human person.

For him the human person is not a philosophical abstraction. He is able to help us see, in the drama of every human life,. the supreme drama of God’s creative and redemptive action in history. And so the Holy Father can be, as he said at the United Nations, “a witness to hope” at the end of a century of fear. That shadow of fear touched Israel and everywhere nine days ago.

The shock and sorrow we still feel with all who mourn Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin bring home to us how easily harsh rhetoric can breed violent deeds. In our own land, too, we hear intemperate words of suspicion and of hate. Here also, as we preach respect for every human person we must urge words and conduct which show genuine respect for others as persons, no matter what may be their race or religion or sex or age or politics or social class. There is a deep cynicism about politics, not simply in our own land, but throughout the world, at the end of the 20th century.

The Holy Father is certainly not asking us to look to politics for the fulfillment of our lives. But he does remind us that no arena of human action remains untouched by the redemptive grace of God, manifest in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. And so the Holy Father asks us to confront the fears — the fears of “the other,” the fear of difference, the fear of the future — that too often masks as world-weariness or cynicism. We can confront that fear because, as the Holy Father reminded us in Baltimore, Christ has confronted it before us: “There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us and does not now bear with us.”

And so, the Successor of Peter told the nations, “Be not afraid.” Let the tears of the century of sorrows prepare the way “for a new springtime of the human spirit.” “Be not afraid.” This antiphon of Pope John Paul’s pontificate ought to inspire what we bishops do and say as public witnesses to the truth here in the United States, what we do here in our fiftieth general meeting as this conference. “Be not afraid” to preach the truth of the full gospel of Jesus with all its power and challenge, as Pope John Paul reminded us bishops.

This is the gospel which calls first of all to faith in Him who died and rose for us, who invites us to walk after him in the ways of holiness he taught in his Sermon on the Mount. So we do profess Christ as “the light of nations,” and We are reminded of the central document of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Nature of the Church.

This guides us as teachers and guides the teaching in our Catholic schools and our catechists, and is at the heart of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Be not afraid” to call by name those whom the Lord is inviting to the priesthood. When the Holy Father spoke with seminarians, he challenged them to heroic virtue, reminded them of Jesus’ pledge of help and offered them a personal example of persuasive pastoral love. And they cheered the message.

This past week I met with seven prospective candidates, each located and encouraged by at least one priest. I can testify that, like the young people at Denver, they are ready to consider a calling to a radical life based on gospel values. They are ready for the call to Christian heroism. “Be not afraid” to preach the gospel of life as a breath of new life in the face of cynicism and despair. Last week, recalling the 30th anniversary of Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in Today’s World, the Holy Father pointed out that the Council’s teaching “did not limit itself to fundamental questions. . . it also touched upon the terrain of the immediate problems which assail” our human family.

Less than two months ago in Africa he published his Apostolic Exhortation on the Church in Africa, with many such specifics in striking parallel with our own recent statement on “Political Responsibilities.”

In his visit with us, Pope John Paul witnessed in an extraordinarily personal way how the Church’s commitment to the dignity and value of human life at every stage can touch and transform lives in society today. He came for lunch to Our Daily Bread, the soup kitchen next door to the historic Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore. Here he met people who have faced difficult and sadly typical challenges: there was a young woman, a graduate of our Villa Louise Program for very young, expectant mothers. Like hundreds of others in recent years, she found in the Church support in her decision to choose life for her child and support for the education she needed to be a good mother and a good citizen. Another at the table comes daily to the soup kitchen because he is hungry and has nowhere else to turn. A couple presented their severely developmentally disabled son, now thirty years old. For fifteen years, with Medicaid help, he has lived in a Catholic Charities group home. A single mother of three introduced her six-year old child, who has benefited so much from the Head Start Program at St.Veronica’s– the little girl asked whether she could call the Holy Father “Uncle Pope.” A couple from Mexico were learning English through our ministry to the Spanish speaking (he works an extra job to help their older child attend a Catholic school). To the Holy Father’s right sat a couple with their two children, adopted through Catholic Charities from North Korea.

The Holy Father saw the challenges of poverty and critical need in an affluent society and appreciated how the Church stood at the side of the poor and the needy. As he saw, and we affirm, the Catholic Church brings not only strong convictions but also broad experience to these challenges.

Every day we do feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, educate the young and care for the sick and aging. We help the lonely pregnant teen and the tiny child inside her, and we welcome the refugee and the immigrant. We are called to stand by “the least” in our society, for that is to stand by Christ himself We preach and teach the importance of family, the need for sacrifice and the priority of the common good. We urge welfare reform, a reform will bring unity and strength to the family, and care and protection for children, born and unborn.

In the cultural maelstrom, which pulls many people in so many directions, there are signs among Catholic people of our land that they see in this moment a new and precious possibility. Their question is no longer, “How little do I have to believe, and how little do I have to do to stay in the Church?” Rather it is, “How much of this rich and complex tradition have I made my own?”

Responses to RENEW and other renewal efforts demonstrate their own desire to see how they can be more fully Catholic in their personal and professional lives. They want to be able to defend their faith, to proclaim it to others, to bring its truth to bear on the renewal of American democracy. In these next few days we are assembled as stewards of this rich and complex tradition, inviting our people again to see themselves as “the living stones” out of which God will build a new Jerusalem, the city of the living God. And so together we seek to call them to the faith and holiness of Jesus, light of the world, and to the deeds of charity, justice and peace for which the Church must speak as she shares in the joy and hope and sadness and struggle of that same world.

In New York, in response to questioning from journalists, at a press conference in which we participated together, Dr. Navarro-Valls described the Holy Father as “in love” with the United States. And that love has prompted Pope John Paul to refresh our own sense of direction. After this visit, I do not think many will consider that statement an exaggeration, nor is it an exaggeration for me to say: “Holy Father, we love you.” And our neighbors love him and respect his message.

Following his departure I received, and I am sure the other host bishops have as well, many comments from our neighbors of other Churches and other faiths. Said one active Protestant who never thought that she would watch a Papal Mass on television, and yet remained at her set throughout the day, “he is not just a Catholic Pope, he is universal.” And he was speaking to all citizens of our land when he said, “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like but in having the right to do what we ought.”

In the light of that reminder, I suggest we of the Catholic Church in the United States build now on what we have already done ourselves nationally and locally, build in an ecumenical and, where possible, an interfaith way to address the areas where there is broad agreement on what we ought to do.

Within the past year, in fact, national leaders in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities have individually expressed an interest in joining with us to:

* promote a restoration of basic moral teaching in the public schools (This interfaith effort is already happening in many communities.);

* oppose, within the constitutional limits already acknowledged, pornography in all forms, especially that directed at children.

* approach entertainment media leaders and advertisers regarding immorality and violence in the media;

* strengthen the family by putting in place, on a community-wide basis, solid marriage preparation programs which increase the likelihood of successful marriages and decrease the rate of failure;

* promote “True Love Waits” and similar programs to motivate teens to live chastely before marriage; work with the news and entertainment media to help them understand and convey the deep and genuine religious and moral dimensions of life which so often seem strained out of reporting and programming.

This is crucial in our country where each week more people participate in public worship than in the spectator sports which receive so much more attention. The Holy Father encouraged us to preach and to live the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of life, in the context of democracy, and to seek partners on our pilgrimage. And may God’s blessing be with us all, for “in God is our trust.”

This address by Cardinal William H. Keeler was given Nov. 13, 1995 to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops when he served as the conference’s president.