One of the expectations for the upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the United States of America will be to animate the faith of the Catholic community in this country. Can he do it?
Well, he certainly can try! Something I have noticed in reading and observing -- reading the Holy Father's encyclicals on love (Deus Caritas Est) and hope (Spe Salvi) as well as other speeches and documents, is that Benedict is the quintessential teacher. Having been a seminary professor in his native Germany prior to being ordained bishop in the late 1970s, he is methodical in his explanations and in his praxis.
Pope Benedict XVI apparently sees himself very much in line with his predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, whom he has declared to be "Servant of God", a title given to one who is seriously being considered for the processes of beatification and canonization. And the current pope seems to consider himself very much in tune with the spirit and original direction of Vatican Council II, begun by Bd. John XXIII and continued and concluded by his other predecessor, the Servant of God Paul VI.
Without being intentially contentious (he seemed to be genuinely surprised by the violent reactions by some Muslims worldwide to his professorial presentation at the University of Ravensburg in Germany in September 2006), the Holy Father attempts to methodically present his perspective and his teaching in a rational and deliberate manner.
Yet, as the February 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has noted, Catholics in the U.S, as well as other practitioners of religion (or no religion, for that matter!) are rather fluid in their self-identification. Many Catholics eschew the notion of the Catholic Church as having an exclusive claim on being the "one true Church" and, likely from living in such a pluralistic society as ours, many have abandoned exclusive teachings by the Church.
This is especially visible among Catholics and their choices regarding sexual practice (e.g. artificial contraception and pre-marital sexual relationships). And, of course, divorce among Catholics has continued, even with pre-marital preparation (e.g. Pre-Cana courses).
A relatively small cadre of practicing Catholic young people seem intent, perhaps militantly so, on their identity as Catholic. They participate in all sorts of Catholic-oriented activities, and they number in the thousands, for sure. But, quite frankly, are they the majority of Catholic youth? It would seem not. Just look at the pews in the average Catholic parish on Sunday morning!
Allegiance to the Catholic Church as an institution in the U.S.A. has been suffering for several decades; none of this is new. It does seem to have hastened, however. Perhaps some of this can be traced to the sexual abuse crisis in the American Church which blew up in spring 2002. (By the way, the U.S. Church is not the only one to be struggling with these very issues.)
Thus, Pope Benedict XVI is preparing to arrive in our country to animate Catholics -- by promoting active practice of the Catholic Faith , especially among youth, I am sure. He is emphasizing the necessity of promoting the Culture of Life, as espoused by the Servant of God John Paul II. He will likely encourage the member nations of the U.N. and our U.S. government to work toward an end to the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, speak on behalf of persecuted Christians, seek to promote human rights, and to defend human life, especially the most vulnerable (the pre-born, the aged and the disabled).
And Pope Benedict will likely speak to Catholics to promote a Culture of Vocations among Catholic youth, as proposed by the Intercontinental Congress of Catholic Youth in Canada in 2003. Let's see how this plays out -- especially how our Catholic people here in the United States respond to his messages.