Church Must Face Challenge of Sects Throughout Latin America

Author: John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

Address to the Bishops' Conference of Brazil during their Ad limina visit on 5 September 1995.

Dear Brothers in the Episcopate

1. I have been keenly looking forward to this meeting with you, the Bishops of the North Eastern Regions 1 and 4 here on your <ad limina> visit, and I now greet you in St. Paul's words: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor 13:14)! In welcoming you, I include the clergy, the religious, and the lay faithful of the Ecclesiastical Provinces of Fortaleza and Teresina. I sincerely thank Cardinal Archbishop Aloisio Lorscheider for the sensitive words with which he clearly described the serene and hopeful atmosphere of life in your Dioceses.

Our meeting shows the <deep spiritual and visible bond that exists between your particular Churches and the universal Church>, a communion that derives from the fact of being "grafted" to Christ (cf. Rom 11:17ff). We must constantly turn to him, the chief Shepherd (cf. 1 Pt 5:4), to be aware of the "unsearchable riches" (Eph 3:8) which he has given us to build up his immaculate Bride (cf. Rv 19:7). He is united with her by an unbreakable covenant, and nourishes and takes care of her (cf. Eph 5:29); cf. Dogmatic Constitution <Lumen gentium>, n. 6). Our certitude and our hope rest in him and in the saving power of his Gospel (cf. Rom 1:16).

Following the <ad limina> visits of your Brothers in the Brazilian Episcopate, your presence here vividly recalls not only the immensity of your Dioceses, but also the innumerable challenges inherent in Gospel proclamation that were stressed by the <General Directives of Evangelizing Activity in Brazil> at your Episcopal Conference's meeting this year. More specifically, at previous meetings with the representatives of the Ecclesiastical Provinces of Parana and Sao Paulo, I had the opportunity to reflect on several aspects of their pastoral concern for the Church, and I encouraged them to be vigilant sentinels of the truth, Pastors who proclaim the truth of Christ and the Church, promoters of the spiritual renewal necessary in all the areas of your particular Churches (cf. <Addresses>, 17 February 1995; 21 March 1995). Today our thoughts are directed to some other aspects of your ministry.

Ecumenical dialogue must be sincere search for truth

2. "That they may all be one; ... even as we are one" (Jn 17:21, 22). With these words of John, Apostle and Evangelist, I would like to be united with you, first of all to increase the faith of our brothers and sisters in the diocesan communities whose Pastors you are, so that these solemn words may become ever more real: "That they may all be one, even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (Jn 17:21).

On various occasions Providence has enabled me to insist on one basic conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, according to which it is the Church's decision to assume the ecumenical task of promoting Christian unity and proposing it in a convinced and vigorous manner (cf. Decree on Ecumenism <Unitatis redintegratio>, n. 1). Indeed, this has been the indelible mark of my Pontificate which, as you will remember, I wished to express during my last visit to Brazil (cf. <Address>, 18 October 1991).

I have already had the opportunity to affirm, recently too, that "Here it is not a question of altering the deposit of faith, changing the meaning of dogmas, eliminating essential words from them, accommodating truth to the preferences of a particular age, or suppressing certain articles of the <Creed> under the false pretext that they are no longer understood today. The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. (Encyclical Letter <Ut unum sint>, n. 18). In addressing the representatives of the world of culture in Sao Salvador da Bahia, I recalled that: "the inculturation of the Gospel is not a more or less appropriate adaptation of the values of the contingent culture, but an authentic incarnation within a specific culture in order to purify it and to redeem it" (<Address>, n. 4, 20 October 1991, <L'Osservatore Romano> English edition, 4 November 1991, p. 7).

The same is true in the realm of ecumenism. Indeed, in the field of inculturation as in that of ecumenism, it can easily be seen how the search for understanding, acceptance or openness to other groups or religious confessions, has caused serious damage to the pure expression of the mystery of the Catholic faith and liturgical prayer, or undue concessions with regard to the objective needs of Catholic morality. Ecumenism is not a false irenicism (cf. <Unitatis redintegratio>, nn. 4, 11). It is not a quest for unity at all costs. Ecumenical dialogue must be nourished by prayer, defined by the Second Vatican Council as <the soul of any ecumenical movement>. This dialogue, which is meaningful only if it is a sincere search for the truth, will be able to ask us to ignore the secondary elements that could become a psychological obstacle to our brothers and sisters of different religious denominations. It would, in any case, never be true, or authentic if it implied even the slightest distortion of a truth of the faith, or the abandonment of the legitimate expression of traditional, popular, Christian piety and the weakening of requirements matured over centuries of ecclesiastical discipline, or of the venerable liturgical traditions of the East, of the Church of Rome and the other Western Churches. Moreover, "Today we know that unity can be achieved through the love of God only if the Churches want it together, in full respect for the traditions of each and for necessary autonomy" (Apostolic Letter <Orientale lumen>, n. 20).

On the other hand, for the fruitful development of true ecumenism, an adequate ecumenical formation and pastoral structures are necessary, such as the ecumenical commissions which collaborate in promoting full unity. The <Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism> published in 1993, gives precise information applicable to the different situations.

Spread of sects represents threat to Catholic Church

3. In the area of Latin America, this need for ecumenical dialogue has become pressing, since we face the serious problem of the sects, spreading like an oil slick and threatening to undermine the structure of faith in many nations.

Of course, I am not referring at this moment to those Churches and Christian communities which possess an objective, if imperfect, basis of communion with the Catholic Church; these, as the Second Vatican Council declared, possess "many elements of sanctification and of truth... found outside its visible confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity" (Dogmatic Constitution, <Lumen gentium>, n. 8). Nevertheless, precisely because the "'universal brotherhood' of Christians has become a firm ecumenical conviction" (Encyclical Letter <Ut unum sint>, n. 42), we must live, nourish and confirm our faith in the search for the unity of all Christians.

The spread of the sects certainly "represents a threat for the Catholic Church and for all the Ecclesial Communities with which she is engaged in dialogue." (Encyclical Letter <Redemptoris missio>, n. 50).

Rightly, the Latin American Episcopate, meeting in Santo Domingo, vividly explained the pastoral challenge which the sects represent today throughout Latin America. The Final Document described these sects and movements with clarity and precision, demonstrated their characteristics and their methods, clarified the political and economic interests implied in their expansion throughout the continent and indicated pastoral challenges and possible ways to act in this sector. (cf. <The Conclusions of the Fourth General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate>, nn. 139-152).

I do not intend to repeat now what you all know very well. In fact, the sometimes malevolent intention of these sects to undermine the foundations of popular faith, in particular with regard to the Eucharistic mystery and the Blessed Virgin, the hierarchical structure of the Church and the primacy of Peter, which endures in the universal pastoral action of the Bishop of Rome, and the expressions of popular piety are common knowledge. It is also clear that the success of their activity can be explained by the people's lack of religious knowledge, due to a large extent to the loss of the religious experience fostered by the people in the small towns of the interior but which has weakened with migration to the suburbs of the large cities, in an almost always painful process of cultural uprooting.

4. It is not a question of a pessimistic attitude in the face of the prevailing situation. The Catholic Church, the immaculate Bride of Christ, possesses in herself the guarantee of eternity which the Lord promised her (cf. Mt 28:19). Although she knows that by God's express will, she possesses "the fullness of the means of salvation" that is, "all means of grace, yet her members fail to live by them with all the fervour that they should" (<Unitatis redintegratio>, nn. 3, 4). I am certain that this conciliar affirmation will not be a mere euphemism for you the moment you face the daily reality of your people who are so sensitive to transcendence and the Christian values of piety and fraternity. Instead of looking at the cold statistics obtained by the varying movement of data, about the number of practicing faithful, we should take up the question asked by the Final "Relatio" of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985: "Does not the spread of sects perhaps lead us to ask whether we have sometimes failed to manifest the sense of the sacred?" (II, A. 1; <L'Osservatore Romano> English edition, 16 December 1985, p. 6).

You are justly concerned by the lack of doctrine and by the religious ignorance which leave your people open to the pernicious influence of an environment where moral permissiveness holds sway, making them extremely vulnerable to the enticements of the sects and the new religious groups, especially when these adopt demanding norms of rigorous discipline. "Modern man lives under the threat of an eclipse of conscience" (Angelus, n. 3, 14 March 1982; <L'Osservatore Romano> English edition, 22 March 1982, p. 2), of serious proportions, since the same climate of moral relativism finds a ready vehicle in the media which transmits the rarefied atmosphere that divorce, illegal unions and other deviations create in family life (cf. Pastoral Constitution <Gaudium et spes>, n. 17). This is why I again insist on the urgent need to "rediscover and to set forth once more the authentic reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and <a truth to be lived out>" (Encyclical Letter, <Veritatis splendor>, n. 88): In this work an irreplaceable task is incumbent upon you: the great responsibility of being "Teachers of the faith". The purpose of the teaching and the very divulgation of the <Catechism of the Catholic Church> is to preserve carefully the unity of the faith and fidelity to Catholic teaching.

Sects cause serious religious harm to their followers

5. Certain social classes are nevertheless very vulnerable. On the one hand, there is a tendency to believe in easy solutions to existential problems, as though positive thinking were enough to resolve the conflicts caused by pain and death, forgetting that human suffering can neither be separated from original sin nor from the "<sinful background> of the personal actions and social processes in human history. (<Salvifici doloris>, n. 15). On the other, there are those who expect an immediate and simple response, even to their material needs. The quest for salvation at any cost, regardless of the fallacious methods used to achieve it, draws people to adhere to various pseudo-religious denominations.

In this sense, the easy recruitment of new followers is worrying. Although they are subjected to psychological pressure to support their own sect with financial obligations which exceed their means, they accept them passively in return for unlikely and outrageous promises, healing or even of salvation, contrary to God's plan. The sects cause serious religious harm to their followers. It is not only a question of abandoning personal beliefs; when the enthusiasm of false remedies has passed, in fact, they do not always return to the faith but lapse religious indifferentism. Furthermore, religious indifferentism begets inconsistency in principles, to the point of making people believe, erroneously, that it is possible to retain an intimate living contact with the Church, with her ministry, with her life and mission, keeping their personal faith intact —including too, liturgical and sacramental devotion, and Christian dogma and morality — while adhering to other cults and religious denominations. Thus some expect to receive the sacraments even though they participate in or contribute financially to supporting "churches", cults or philanthropic institutions which preach reincarnation, for example.

In a final analysis, where does this inner schism in man come from? In other words, what does evangelization lack in order to ensure the fidelity of the People of God, journeying to the final homeland?

Your people rejoice in beauty of solemn liturgy

6. I am sure that you will agree with me about the existence of several oversights in the evangelizing process of your Churches, oversights, moreover which were pointed out this year at Itaici by the Brazilian Episcopate as an urgent need, to be met by giving new life to the various forms of liturgical celebration and communication of the Word, at the same time preserving the pastoral quality of the celebration of the sacraments (cf. <General Directives>, n. 257).

It is precisely in line with these directives that it is necessary to stress, on the one hand, your communities' and pastoral workers' lack of vision, and on the other, a need for better public relations in the acceptance of people; lastly, how can we fail to notice a certain hesitancy and inertia in the process of the people's evangelization?

What can <your communities' and ministers' lack of vision be attributed to?>

We all know that today we are living in a world where communication through image is very important. The external signs of Christian life, especially the more traditional, today as in the past, have a great appeal for your people, mostly simple people whose cultural background has been deeply marked by the Catholic faith in these four centuries of evangelization in Brazil.

In one of my Pastoral Visits to your land — a visit which reminds me of the beloved people of the State of Piaui and Ceara— I still remember that I wanted to thank the Almighty for having so deeply rooted in the heart of the People of God in this country, the Cross, the Eucharist, and the "Aparecida" (cf. <10th National Eucharistic Congress of Fortaleza>, 9 July 1980).

Thus it can be understood how much the Brazilian appreciates the external signs of the faith! He wishes to see the churches with their religious characteristics, with the authentic expressions of sacred art that awaken piety and lead to prayer, to recollection and contemplation of the mystery of God. He wants to hear with joy the sound of your churches' bells, summoning people to liturgical celebrations or prayers in the morning or afternoon, to praise Our Lady! A ringing bell — so many silence it! reaches many ears as a sign of ecclesial vitality. In the music of your churches the Brazilian wants to hear the invitation— to praise God, to give thanks and to pray humbly and with trust, and he feels discouraged when these songs contain in their text a political or purely earthly message, and when with their musical expression they do not reflect religious music, proving clearly profane in their rhythm, in their melodic sequence, and in the accompaniment of musical instruments. Your people rejoice at the beauty and dignity of the solemn liturgy, without pomp or show, of a dignified and pious worship which is really associated with liturgical activity in harmony with what the Second Vatican Council stated, "whether making prayer more pleasing, promoting unity of minds, or conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites" (Apostolic Constitution <Sacrosanctum Concilium>, n. 112).

Try to confer a pious and dignified atmosphere on liturgical celebrations making them joyful at the proper moments and always spiritually consoling. The liturgy of the Word, which is intimately linked to the Eucharistic Liturgy (cf. ibid., n. 56), always contains a spiritual message, from beginning to end. It is certain that there are many who do not possess enough to satisfy their own physical hunger, but generally the people hunger more for God than for material bread, since they understand that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Mt 4:4). It is necessary to see the Church as Church and not merely as the promoter of social reforms. This duty stems from the faith and not from a requirement prior to preaching the Gospel. In this way and in no other, the following words of the Second Vatican Council can be understood: "Such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigour, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life" (Dogmatic Constitution <Dei Verbum>, n. 21.)

Your people, dear Brothers in the Episcopate, want to see in priests the authentic ministers of God, in their dress as well as in their external behaviour. They want to see the man of God in the ministers of his Church as a presence that inspires love, respect and faith. The people have this right and can demand it of their Pastors. What people desire, what they hope for, is that the priest, by his witness of life and his words, should speak to them of God. The <character> conferred on the priest by the sacrament of Orders allows him to act in the name and "in the person of Christ the head" (<Presbyterorum ordinis>, 2), participating in the authority with which Christ governs his Church. On the other hand, the sacred minister is called to exercise the "sacred power of Order, that of offering sacrifice and forgiving sins, and to exercise the priestly office <publicly> on behalf of men in the name of Christ" (ibid., n. 2). For this reason it is appropriate that both aspects of the priestly ministry should preserve their just value, bearing in mind that "in a secularized" and materialistic society ... it is particularly important that the community be able to recognize the priest, man of God and dispenser of his mysteries, by his attire as well, which is an unequivocal sign of his dedication and his identity as a public minister. (<Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests>, n. 66).

Has not the commitment to seek lost sheep waned?

7. Now we need to consider another equally important aspect. This is <relationships with others and their acceptance in your communities>. The Church is the house of the Father. The greatest bond that unites the members of the Church is love, love of God which is extended to love of neighbour. It was precisely this fraternal love which gave the early communities in the Church an enormous capacity for evangelization through their common witness of life.

What is true for all peoples, has a basic importance for your people. It is above all cordial. Its emotional make-up makes it need to feel loved and welcomed. The people are very sensitive to the environment it comes in contact with, and it hopes to find joy, simplicity and human warmth. The Catholic, even more in the face of the rise of sects, must assume a charitable attitude: "There must be charity towards one's partner in dialogue, and humility with regard to the truth which comes to light and which might require a review of assertions and attitudes" (Encyclical Letter <Ut unum sint>, n. 36). It is not a question of resorting to personal attacks or of assuming positions contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. The pastoral slogan one of your Dioceses coined could be useful: "Welcome in order to evangelize". It is important to pay personal attention to those who seek the Church, to be available, considerate and attentive and be a haven to those in need of spiritual comfort. It is certain that your evangelizing work will flourish if in your communities what is appropriately defined as "the ministry of acceptance" of people is promoted and facilitated by a serene and cordial attitude in the priests and their co-workers.

8. Lastly, where do we encounter <a lack of zeal and initiative in the proclamation of the Gospel?>

The evangelization to which the Church is called in this last part of the century must be, as I have so frequently repeated, new in its ardor, methods, and expression. This ardor, as I said in Santo Domingo, "presupposes a solid faith, an intense pastoral charity and immense fidelity which, under the Spirit's action, will generate a mysticism, an uncontainable enthusiasm for the task of proclaiming the gospel. In New Testament language, it is the <parresia> which inflames the heart of the apostle" (<Inaugural Address>, n. 10; <L'Osservatore Romano> English edition, 21 October 1992, p. 7).

Proselytism at all costs and the enthusiasm of those who work for the sects and several pseudo-spiritual movements demand attention. Has not the commitment to seek lost sheep waned? Contrary to what occurs in the Gospel parable, it is not a single sheep which has strayed, but part of the flock.

For this reason, on the 25th anniversary of the Conciliar Decree <Ad gentes>, I would like to stress that: "proclamation is the permanent priority of mission.... In the complex reality of mission, initial proclamation has a central and irreplaceable role, since it introduces man 'into the mystery of the love of God, who invites him to enter into a personal relationship with himself in Christ' and opens the way to conversion. (Encyclical Letter <Redemptoris missio>, n. 44). Precisely because "the love of Christ controls us" (2 Cor 5:14), "mission is an issue of faith, an accurate indicator of our faith in Christ and his love for us" (Encyclical Letter <Redemptoris missio>, n. 11).

All this shows, dear Brothers, that it is not enough to call, to summon, and to wait for people to come. As another slogan of the pastoral action in one of your Dioceses says, you must be "a Church which goes towards the People!" You must be a Church which seeks people out, which invites them not only through the general appeal of the media, but also by personal invitation, from house to house, from street to street, in an unflagging effort, respectful but present in all places and social environments.

This is why it is important to be able to count on the generosity of the lay faithful. I am referring in particular to all those who seek to live the baptismal consecration as intensely as possible, both personally and in the traditional religious associations or in the new lay movements that are emerging in the Church thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit. Rely on their spiritual progress and respect it, but do not cease to invite them to participate in the work of evangelization.

9. Your task is a missionary challenge, that of preparing the Church of the third millennium, through redoubling your commitment to the new evangelization. In the light of the commandment of love, venerable Brothers in the Episcopate, be fearless apostles of the truth and builders of a fraternal community, ready to listen to the One who consecrated you (cf. Is 61:1) to be merciful witnesses of God's benevolence to you.

The Spirit of the Redeemer who has guided you until now, will not leave you alone in the face of these challenges. Your <ad limina> visit positively underlines your union with the Bishop of Rome and your membership in the Episcopal College: may this be a support to you!

I would like to ask you to convey my affectionate encouragement to all those who are at the service of the Gospel in your Dioceses: to the priests, to the religious and to the laity who assume responsibility and undertake many tasks for the community's benefit, as well as to all the faithful.

I commend to the Virgin Mother, <Nossa Senhora Aparecida>, the projects, hopes and difficulties of the present time in the nation. With this in mind, I ask the Lord to bless you, your priests, religious and faithful of this Land of the Holy Cross that is particularly dear to me.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
27 September 1995

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