Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix and Archbishops Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, William E. Lori of Baltimore and Gerald Lacroix of Quebec leave in procession after attending the opening Mass of the International Congress on the Church in America in St. P eter’s Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 9. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The universal church needs Catholics in the Americas who are joyful missionaries, well-catechized and faithful to the teachings of the church, Pope Benedict XVI said.

The only way to solve today’s problems is through credible and effective Christian witness and charity, he said, since only actions based on God’s truth and love can be the “decisive force which will transform the American continent,” he said.

The pope made his comments during the opening Mass of a Dec. 9-12 international congress marking the 15th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops for America.

The congress, organized by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and the Knights of Columbus, was looking at ways Catholics can cooperate more closely to confront today’s challenges in North, Central and South America.

The pope said some of the problems the whole continent must deal with include increased secularization, affronts to human dignity, threats to the institution of marriage, migration, violence, the illegal drugs and arms trades, corruption and inequality and poverty “caused by questionable economic, political and social” policies.

While the solutions will require careful technical or institutional responses, nothing will ever be fully resolved without an “encounter with the living Christ,” he said.

It’s that personal rapport with God that “gives rise to attitudes and ways of acting based on love and truth” — the true source and light for real transformation, he said.

In order to bring that saving message to everyone in a way that’s effective and credible, Catholics need to “purify and strengthen” their spiritual lives by growing closer to God, especially through the sacraments, the pope said.

“This will be encouraged by a correct and ongoing doctrinal formation marked by complete fidelity to the word of God and the church’s magisterium,” he said.

“A renewed missionary spirit and zealous generosity” will be “an irreplaceable contribution to what the universal church expects and needs from the church in America,” he added.

Carl A. Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, told the congress that the Americas represent a new “post-Christian” land, in which people are familiar with Christ and, at the same time, woefully ignorant of his message.

American countries and cultures “built upon Christian faith show great failures of charity, dignity and truth — failures inconsistent with being disciples of the God who is love,” he said Dec. 10.

Such ignorance not only has facilitated a culture of death throughout the Americas, it has also “resulted in a mischaracterization of Christ and of the mission of the church.”

The world is “mortally hungry for the presence of the living God,” he said, and those who are poor or hurting must be able to see the “caring face of Christ in those he has called to follow him.”

The only way the church can be that hopeful, loving presence is by rebuilding Catholic identity and helping its members to live holy lives that are “formed and strengthened by the sacraments and lived in total faithfulness to the church and in commitment to Jesus Christ.”

“The method that speaks strongest of Christ is love,” he said, so “we should be prepared to let charity be our measure of the new evangelization.”

The Catholic Church is especially well-positioned to offer concrete solutions to communities’ varied problems, he said, because “no other institution lays out a single vision” that can transcend cultures and languages. The church’s vision is not a political vision, he said, but “a vision of humanity encountering Christ.”

“Diversity is sanctified and purified in its communion in the church by orienting us toward Christ,” the truth and each other, he added.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston told Catholic News Service that while language and culture can be difficult obstacles, “what unites us is so much more.”

Catholics are united by a shared faith, traditions, the Eucharist and the “new commandment to love one another,” he said.

Cardinal Thomas C. Collins of Toronto told CNS that his archdiocese works very hard to preserve the diverse cultures of its large immigrant communities. Its parishes celebrate Mass in 37 different languages, he said.

Catholics learn about and share immigrant communities’ “deep spiritual understanding that will help us face secularism, which seems to be the dominate culture in North America,” he said.

Youth movements are critical in helping second-generation youth not lose the cultural identity and faith of their parents since young people tend inevitably to assimilate into the dominant culture, he said.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix told CNS that the church has also found unlikely partners in the evangelical communities in its fight against secularism and threats to life.

Post-Vatican II ecumenical partners, such as the Anglicans, “have slipped away from the basic teaching about Jesus Christ, the human person and marriage, which has made dialogue and cooperation with them much more difficult,” he said.

Newer dialogue partners, such as the Orthodox Church and Mormons, and even communities that were one anti-Catholic, such as the Baptists, not only share many of the same values concerning the sanctity of life and marriage, but are eagerly seeking active partnerships with the Catholic Church to protect such values and religious freedom.

Bishop Olmsted said the church can better evangelize by looking at legitimate strategies employed by evangelical movements. While proselytism must be avoided because it doesn’t fully respect the human person nor present the truth in its fullness, “we can still learn a lot” from sects and other movements.

“For example, we should learn from the way they use mega-events to move people in a way that helps them to realize this is a really important issue,” he said.

“Sects also see people that have leadership abilities and train them to go back to their peers and influence them, which is exactly what we need to do as well,” he added.

While the church tries to foster the enthusiasm and love for Christ seen in many evangelical and Catholic charismatic movements, the bishop said, it should also promote solid formation “because zeal alone is a dangerous thing.”

“Without zeal, we won’t really act, he said, but if it’s not zeal that’s well-formed and desires and knows it needs to continue to be formed, we will not be able to make the impact that Christ really calls us to have.”

— By Carol Glatz Catholic News Service