Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., President of the USCCB, welcomed the Holy Father to the United States on behalf of the bishops and the Catholic people, calling him a father and a friend in Christ. Cardinal George spoke of the difficult history of the Catholic Church in the United States and asked the Holy Father to speak of hope. Cardinal George spoke of the five priorities that the USCCB has adopted for the next five years.
Pope Benedict addressed the bishops, beginning by acknowledging the bicentennial of the establishment of the dioceses of Boston, Louisville (originally Bardstown), New York, and Philadelphia, and the raising of Baltimore to an archdiocese. The Holy Father spoke warmly of the diversity of the Church in the United States and encouraged the bishops to continue to welcome the immigrants who come to the United States seeking a better life.
The Holy Father lauded the Church in the United States for its generosity and faith. He noted the importance of freedom of religion which allows people to worship in accord with their beliefs.
Pope Benedict gave a special welcome to the Bishops of the Eastern Churches. Many of these bishops serve communities that suffer in their homelands.
Pope Benedict then looked at how the Bishops can sow the seeds of the Gospel in the United States, helping people to make all things new in Christ. He emphasized that faith must not be reserved only for Mass on Sunday, but must pervade all aspects of our lives. He spoke of the dangers presented by secularism, materialism, and individualism.
The Holy Father emphasized the critical role played by faith formation so that all that Catholics do may bear good fruit and so that they may be leaven in a society facing many ethical challenges.
Pope Benedict emphasized that the bishops must support the family and marriage. The family is a place of evangelization and handing on the faith. Healthy families are an important building block of a peaceful society.
The Holy Father addressed the shame arising from the sexual abuse of minors by some clerics and the pain this abuse has caused in many communities. He noted that the majority of clerics serve faithfully, but the vulnerable must always be protected, not only in the Church, but in the wider society as well. The Holy Father said that the sexual abuse crisis must be viewed in the wider context of sexual mores. He pointed out the damaging effects of pornography and violence, stressing the importance of sound moral formation. Pope Benedict also stressed the need for bishops to offer fatherly support to their priests, especially in light of the tensions arising from the crisis, helping priests to draw spiritual strength from being configured to the suffering Christ.
Pope Benedict said that, despite the press of duties, prayer, including adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary, and the Liturgy of the Hours, must remain at the center of life, so that the Bishops may be more closely configured to Christ, the Good Shepherd.
The bishops responded to the address with a standing ovation.
Following his address, the Holy Father took a few questions. The first question was asked by Bishop J. Vann Johnston, Jr., the newest bishop in the United States. It dealt with the pastoral challenge of evangelizing in light of secularism and relativism. Pope Benedict said that, in the United States, secularism has not been opposed to religion. However, religious belief can be reduced to the least common denominator. He expressed the importance of sound formation so that the laity embrace a Catholic view of reality and become leaven for the world. He stressed a new for true conversion of spirit and for an understanding of the relationship between the Gospel and natural law. Following the Gospel must be seen as an integral way of life.
Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, the longest serving bishop in the United States asked the second question, addressing the issue of Catholics abandoning the practice of the faith. The Holy Father said that it is important to create a Catholic identity grounded not on externals, but on a way of thinking and acting grounded in the Gospel and enriched by the Church’s Tradition. Preaching must be strong. People must learn how to pray and must be renewed by the Liturgy. He expressed the importance of speaking meaningfully about salvation and encouraging an eschatological sense, so that people will be drawn to the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. OUr love for Christ must lead us to build up the Church and extend his kingdom. Religion is never purely private.
The third question came from Bishop Basil Schott, OFM, the chairman of the Eastern Bishops of the United States. He asked about the decline in vocations. Pope Benedict said that vocations to the priesthood and religious life are the sign of a healthy Church. God continues to call. We must encourage a generous response to that call. He spoke of the important role played by prayer and by strong Catholic families, as well of the importance of strong vocation directors and seminary formators. It is critical to listen to the idealism of young people in the Church and to have a presbyterate marked by fraternity and its unity in the Spirit.
In honor of Pope Benedict’s 81st birthday, Cardinal George presented him with a check for $870,000 from the faithful of the United States in support of his charitable works.
In closing, the Holy Father presented a silver rose to the Basilica as a commemoration of his visit. He also gave a chalice to Archbishop Alfred Hughes, the Archbishop of New Orleans, as a sign of his solidarity with the people of that diocese who have suffered so deeply in light of Hurricane Katrina and as a sign of his personal gratitude for the devotion of the bishops who serve these people.p>
The Holy Father’s address can be found here.