When Pope Benedict visited the United States last April, he spoke to the bishops of this country assembled in Washington’s Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
In a prepared answer to a question submitted before he spoke concerning the failure of some American Catholics to practice the faith, the pope made clear that he had two specific concerns on his mind for a lackadaisical American church.
The Roman pontiff reminded the American bishops of the urgent need for modern man to reflect on salvation and the end of the world. That’s right. A reconsideration of salvation and eschatology were the papal balm for curing America’s feeble observance of the faith.
Pope Benedict defined salvation as “deliverance from the reality of evil and the gift of new life and freedom in Christ.” The Holy Father located the possibility of a renewed appreciation of salvation in the context of liturgy. The pontiff observed that it is in the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments that the believer can best become more aware of how far man has strayed from a righteous path and how gracious God has been in drawing man back to that noble path. The Eucharist, as well as the sacraments of baptism, penance, confirmation and anointing, emphasizes the sinful state from which man has to be delivered.
The sacrifice of Christ on the tragic cross, renewed on the altar by his sacramental body and blood, must be grasped as Christ’s effort to save man from the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. Baptism and penance similarly rescue man from a sinful state. Confirmation and anointing continue this process of recovery. Yet, modern man rarely reflects on the need to be rescued, the need to be healed, the need to be saved. Having no sense of sin, no awareness of needing redemption, the modern believer can miss a vital point of these sacred rituals.
Why go to the holy sacrifice, why go to confession, why get baptized or anointed, if I am already at peace with God? Once the need, the absolute need, for these saving sacraments is obscured, the desire to participate in them wanes.
The pope spoke of a “quiet apostasy,” whereby the modern Catholic does not leave the Church but simply neglects the Church because he has no feel for being saved. Faithful participation in the sacraments and an ampler grasp of the meaning of the sacraments should lead to a renewed respect for being saved.
The pope lamented, as well, the “almost complete eclipse of an eschatological sense” in formerly Christian societies. Eschatology generally refers to the “end times,” to that “dies irae” that sent chills up and down medieval spines, that era of final judgment. But the Roman pontiff cautions the American church that the end of the world is not merely a question of one’s personal destiny (heaven or hell). Eschatology more broadly refers to the fulfillment of all creation. This wider concept of God’s mercy demands that the believer work not only for his own salvation but for “the building up of the Church and the extension of his Kingdom.” The pope was reacting here to the contemporary tendency to view religion and spirituality as “a purely private affair,” a personal quest for wholeness that holds little regard for the salvation of the neighbor or the transformation of society into the likeness of Christ.
Again, the regular worship of God and the regular hearing of the Gospel in the midst of the believing assembly at Mass and during the sacraments will awaken a sense of community, a sense of broader responsibility, a sense of common destiny, among the faithful.
Both salvation and eschatology compel the believer to look beyond himself: to look to Christ in order to be saved from sin, and to look at the surrounding world that eventually must be conformed to Christ. In today’s Gospel, the friends of the paralyzed man go to great lengths to have him rescued from sickness and sin. They saw the need of healing and the saw the need of sharing this healing with their friend. And they saw Christ as the unique source of healing. A desire for healing, a facing up to sickness and sin actually led these men to Christ.
The pope asks American Catholics to confront sin, both personal and corporate, with renewed vigor and to share their gift of healing with the whole world.