On 7 November, in no-nonsense language that mirrored the thrust of the Statement of Conclusions, the 1999 blueprint for reform of Australian Catholicism agreed upon by Australia's bishops and the Holy See, Benedict XVI instructed the Catholic bishops of Switzerland to get their act together in confronting the crisis of faith.
One was also reminded of Benedict's observation in 2005 that the Christian churches in many Western countries were 'dying', and 'above all' in Australia. The situation of the faith in Switzerland is typical of most other Western European nations, where weekly Mass attendances are into single digits, and the monitoring of theological dissent and liturgical abuses by bishops is lax.
Whether Benedict's admonitions prove any more effective for Switzerland than the Statement of Conclusions has proved to be for Australia remains to be seen. Certainly the words of his latest pep talk could have been equally directed at some of Australia's bishops today.
Correction and purification
Benedict XVI's instructions were given during a meeting in Rome with a group of visiting Swiss bishops and in the presence of the heads of various Vatican congregations. The Pope's stated aim in his address was to consider 'certain aspects of the current situation of the Church in Switzerland, identifying those elements worthy of being intensified and promoted, and those in need of correction and purification.'
Benedict told the Swiss bishops that the meeting was, in some way, 'the conclusion of their 'ad limina' visit of February 2005, because on that occasion it had not been possible to accomplish one of the essential parts of the process, the meeting with John Paul II.'
He observed that 'the advance of secularisation and of relativism means not only that the Sacraments, especially participation in Sunday Mass, are reduced in frequency, but also that the moral values proposed by the Church are put in doubt'. In this context, he referred to the crisis of marriage and the family, the increase in divorce and abortions, and unions between people of the same sex, all of which, he said, 'are evident signs of de-Christianisation.'
After highlighting the fact that many people live 'as if God does not exist,' Benedict called on the Swiss bishops 'to ensure that the Word of God and the Christian message are understood,' and insisted they should adopt unanimous positions on theological and moral questions. 'The fundamental duty of the bishop, pastor, and master of faith,' he said, 'is to invite the faithful to a full acceptance of Church teaching.'
On the subject of the liturgy, the Pope affirmed that 'it is a right and duty of everyone to ensure it be celebrated in accordance with the rules laid down by the Church.' As for Sunday Mass, he stressed the need 'to avoid its being substituted, if there are no important reasons to do so, by a celebration of the Word,' and 'to ensure the homily remains an important moment of doctrinal and spiritual formation ... reserved to the priest or the deacon.'
In light of 'the crisis being suffered by the Sacrament of Penance,' as the bishops had highlighted in their five-yearly reports, Benedict identified the need 'for dioceses to relaunch pastoral activity aimed at encouraging the faithful to individual confession' and to 'call upon priests to be assiduous confessors, generously offering the faithful appropriate times for individual confession' while encouraging priests 'to avail themselves frequently of this Sacrament'.
Most importantly, priests 'must rigorously observe Church norms concerning collective absolution [Third Rite] ... which can only take place under truly exceptional circumstances.'
Regarding the collaboration of lay people in priestly ministry, Benedict cautioned that 'care must be taken to ensure' that 'in parishes and pastoral centres the priest remains the pastor and that lay people help the priest, collaborating with him in the various sectors of pastoral life'.
He added: 'The importance of the laity's role must not bring us to underestimate the ministry of priests, so indispensable for the life of the Church.' In this context, the Pope called for 'an intensification in the formation of lay people to increase their faith and doctrinal knowledge, and grant them spiritual energies.'
Benedict then considered the question of priestly and religious vocations, 'a constant concern for the Church in your country'. Here, he said, 'for the future of the Church in Switzerland, it is important to oversee the organisation and orientation of seminaries and of the various faculties and schools of theology, ... with a view to discernment and to the profound human, spiritual, cultural and pastoral formation of candidates to the priesthood'.
The bishops, he insisted, must be 'equally attentive to the initial and permanent formation of future priests, deacons and pastoral lay workers. A sure and faithful teaching of the tradition and Magisterium of the Church will ensure that everyone discovers the richness of Catholic faith.'
That Benedict XVI needed to remind the bishops of one of Europe's oldest Christian countries of so many obvious requirements of their leadership was a reflection on the impact of secularism and relativism on the Church's leaders.
No doubt, similar reminders have been given and will continue to be given to bishops from other countries. But there are limits to what a Pope can do if bishops persistently fail to implement what their office requires of them.
Until more men with the courage to give public witness to their convictions are appointed bishops, Benedict will find the need to give similar addresses to other groups of bishops on similar themes.