WASHINGTON -- In a speech that delved into difficult issues from abortion to immigration and sexual abuse, Pope Benedict XVI charged U.S. bishops to do a better job of making sure that Masses are vibrant invitations to follow Jesus Christ -- or risk losing their church by attrition.
"Do people today find it difficult to encounter God in our churches? Has our preaching lost its salt? Might it be that many people have forgotten, or never really learned, how to pray in and with the church?" he asked 350 assembled bishops in response to a pre-selected question about a decline in Mass attendance.
"I think we are speaking about people who have fallen by the wayside without consciously having rejected their faith in Christ, but, for whatever reason, have not drawn life from the liturgy, the sacraments, preaching."
He spoke at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It was one of the most important talks of his six-day U.S. visit, as he was giving the bishops his clear directions for the U.S. church, and defining areas where it needs to improve.
Pittsburghers had a high profile at the event, as Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., formerly Pittsburgh's bishop, arrived with him in the popemobile. And Metropolitan Basil Schott of the Byzantine Archeparchy of Pittsburgh was one of three bishops to ask the pope a question.
The bishops gave the pope an $870,000 gift for his 81st birthday, collected by their faithful, to assist papal charity efforts worldwide. The pope presented Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans with a chalice, to show his solidarity with the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Earier in the day, Pope Benedict celebrated his first full day in the United States awash in the pomp and ceremony that befits the visiting head of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the bright spring sunshine on the White House South Lawn, Pope Benedict and President Bush sounded similar themes on the importance of freedom and the need for moral values to help shape public debates.
"The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility toward the less fortunate," the pope said. "It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one's deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate."
In his greeting, Mr. Bush said: "We need your message to reject this dictatorship of relativism and embrace a culture of justice and truth. In a world where some see freedom as simply the right to do as they wish, we need your message that true liberty requires us to live our freedom not just for ourselves."
After a celebration of graciousness that lasted more than an hour, the pair went inside for private talks in the Oval Office, where they discussed issues including immigration, the Middle East and the need to fight poverty and pandemics, especially in Africa, according to a joint statement.
After the meeting, the pope left the White House and rode in the popemobile along Pennsylvania Avenue back to the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican's Embassy. The pope waved from his bullet-proof vehicle at the thousands of people seeking to catch a glimpse.
The pope skipped a White House dinner in his honor last night to attend the prayer service with U.S. bishops.
The White House estimated that 13,500 guests went through the rigors of the South Lawn security check for what was billed as the largest such arrival ceremony of the Bush presidency, and among the largest ever at the White House. The pope was greeted with a 21-gun salute and a host of dignitaries led by Mr. Bush. Opera soprano Kathleen Battle sang "The Lord's Prayer," and the Marine Band performed the national anthems of the United States and the Holy See.
The ceremony was interrupted as children's voices burst into "Happy Birthday." The beaming pontiff looked on and applauded. "Thank you for the gracious words of welcome on behalf of the people of the United States of America," he said. Pope Benedict went on to praise the role religion has had in shaping the United States and its "vast pluralistic society."
Addressing the bishops later, the pope again expressed "deep shame" for the sexual abuse of minors by priests. He repeated the opening remarks of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, saying complaints of abuse were "sometimes very badly handled." But he also endorsed their efforts to remove all offenders from ministry and to have outside monitoring of their own continued response to reports of abuse -- efforts that a few bishops have resisted at times.
"It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged," he said. "It is vitally important that the vulnerable always be shielded from those who would cause harm."
He expressed clear concern about abortion and related bioethical issues, but within a context of wider Catholic social teaching about the need to care for the poor. Of several politically charged issues in his speech, he addressed immigration first and gave it the most attention.
Quoting the "huddled masses" inscription on the Statue of Liberty, the pope said, "I want to encourage you and your communities to continue to welcome the immigrants who join your ranks today, to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrows and trials and to help them flourish in their new home."
He praised the United States as "a land of great faith," but warned against the corrosive influence of secularism, meaning a way of living as if God doesn't have expectations of human beings.
"While it is true that this country is marked by a genuinely religious spirit, the subtle influence of secularism can nevertheless color the way people allow their faith to influence their behavior," he said.
In later remarks, he said, "we have seen this emerge in an acute way in the scandal given by Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion."
He urged the bishops to provide solid leadership and teaching, particularly on matters of family and sexual conduct. He did not explicitly mention gay marriage, though it was implied in his description of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. He focused instead on issues among heterosexuals, and urged them to make Catholic teaching about sexuality and marriage attractive, especially to youth.
"Divorce and infidelity have increased, and many young men and women are choosing to postpone marriage or to forego it altogether," he told the bishops.
"It is your task to proclaim boldly the arguments from faith and reason in favor of the institution of marriage, understood as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, open to the transmission of life. This message should resonate with young people today, because it is essentially an unconditional and unreserved 'yes' to life, a 'yes' to love and a 'yes' to the aspirations at the heart of our common humanity, as we strive to fulfill our deep yearning for intimacy with others and with the Lord," the pope said.
Metropolitan Schott asked a question about the need for more priests, saying their numbers have been declining while the Catholic population has grown. But he added that the personal holiness of young men entering seminary today "gives us cause for hope."
Prayer, the pope replied, would be the key to overcoming the growing shortage of priests.
Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh said the talk had so much breadth and depth that he needed time to pray over it. "There wasn't anything that was minor," he said. "It was so powerful. I was hanging on every word."
The pope's message on sexual abuse was "a clarion call to say that we can never stop" the current efforts to prevent and heal the wounds of abuse, Bishop Zubik said. "I was thrilled to hear him speak of the immigration issue. Not only does it lie at the heart of the gospel, but [also] who we are as a country."
He had already anticipated the pope's words about making Mass more compelling.
"I've told our priests that we have to get back to the basics. Preaching is not a checklist task, but the heart of our ministry" that needs to be based on prayer and the movement of the Holy Spirit, he said.
The Los Angeles Times contributed. Ann Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published April 17, 2008 4:00 AM