By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
São Paulo, Brazil
While Benedict XVI is too genteel a figure to engage in what political writers call “taking someone to the woodshed,” his speech this afternoon to some 430 Brazilian bishops came about as close as he’s likely to get.
Wrapped in gratitude for the bishops’ service, and for the warm welcome he’s received in Brazil, Benedict’s message was nonetheless an unambiguous call to order. He began with a reflection on the obedience of Christ, and that set the tone for much of what followed.
Brazilian Catholicism is famous for its social commitment, but Benedict pointedly reminded the bishops that the ultimate purpose of the church must remain “the salvation of individual souls." He urged them to "strict vigilance," warning that "the integrity of the faith, together with ecclesiastical discipline, is and always will be a theme that requires the attention and commitment of all of you."
Benedict weaved philosophical, programmatic and disciplinary messages into his roughly 4,000 word text, delivered in Portuguese in São Paulo’s Catedral da Sé.
At a philosophical level, Benedict made an argument that runs like a leitmotif through his pontificate, and which formed an important element of his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth: Without the full truth about God and human life revealed in Jesus Christ, no program of social action can succeed.
“Wherever God and his will are unknown, wherever faith in Jesus Christ and in his sacramental presence is lacking, the essential element for the solution of pressing social and political problems is also missing," he said.
For that reason, the pope said, it’s important to teach the faith “without interpretations motivated by a rationalistic ideology.” The bishops, he said, must take care that this doesn’t happen.
In terms of pastoral programs, Benedict analyzed the problem of Catholic defections to Pentecostal churches, which he called a source of “just concern,” as the result of a lack of evangelization and catechesis which places “Christ and his church at the center of every explanation.” He therefore urged an urgent program of missionary outreach, stressing “personal and communal adhesion to Christ.”
"In fact, the integrity of the faith, together with ecclesiastical discipline, is and will always be an area requiring careful oversight on your part," the pope said.
Specifically, Benedict urged new missionary efforts in the peripheries of Brazil’s sprawling megalopolises, as well as in rural areas.
“The poor people of the peripheries and of the country need to feel the closeness of the church, both in terms of helping them with their most urgent needs, as well as in defense of their rights and in the common promotion of a society founded on justice and peace,” he said.
With respect to the rapid growth of Pentecostal churches, Benedict asked the bishops to embrace a “frank” approach to ecumenism, capable not merely of dialogue but also of defending the Catholic faith.
Paraphrasing liberation theology’s famous “option for the poor,” Benedict said that “the gospel is addressed in a special way to the poor.”
The pope also endorsed the growth of lay movements and associations that can play a role in expanding the church’s network of pastoral care, as long as those groups take their cues from their pastors and bishops.
At the disciplinary level, Benedict urged the bishops to “a strict vigilance” across a variety of fronts:
•tDefending life against “offenses justified in the name of individual liberty”;
•tOpposing divorce and “free unions”;
•tDefending priestly celibacy (the pope mentioned this point twice);
•tOffering deep evangelization and catechesis to Catholics, to protect them from the “aggressive proselytism of the sects”;
•tEnsuring that individual confession, rather than communal rites, remains the normal form of the sacrament;
•tRestoring a sense of the sacred to liturgies, and ensuring that liturgical rules are observed;
•tEnsuring that the faith is transmitted “without reductive visions and confusion about the mission” of the church;
•tAvoiding “the risk of deviations in the area of sexuality” among candidates for the priesthood and religious life.
Benedict concluded by saying that these were the most important themes that “clamor for my attention as pastor of the universal church.”
In his welcoming address to the pope, Archbishop Geraldo Lyrio Rocha of Mariana, President of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, thanked Benedict for a gift from the pope to churches in Brazil’s Amazon region.