At 5.45 p.m. local time (11.45 p.m. in Rome), the Holy Father presided at the celebration of Vespers with bishops of the United States at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.
At the beginning of his homily, the Holy Father highlighted the American people's "great vitality and creativity" and their generosity towards the poor and needy, which also finds expression in "the many forms of humanitarian assistance provided by American Catholics through Catholic Charities and other agencies".
"America is also a land of great faith" said the Pope, noting how its people are well-known for "their religious fervour" and "do not hesitate to bring moral arguments rooted in biblical faith into their public discourse". At the same time, "respect for freedom of religion is deeply ingrained in the American consciousness".
"People today need to be reminded of the ultimate purpose of their lives", said Pope Benedict. "Without God ... our lives are ultimately empty. ... The goal of all our pastoral and catechetical work, the object of our preaching, and the focus of our sacramental ministry should be to help people establish and nurture that living relationship with 'Christ Jesus, our hope'".
He went on: "At a time when advances in medical science bring new hope to many, they also give rise to previously unimagined ethical challenges. This makes it more important than ever to offer thorough formation in the Church's moral teaching to Catholics engaged in healthcare". In this context he told the bishops that "yours is a respected voice that has much to offer to the discussion of the pressing social and moral questions of the day. ... It falls to you to ensure that the moral formation provided at every level of ecclesial life reflects the authentic teaching of the Gospel of life".
In this regard, the Pope identified a "matter of deep concern to us all" as being "the state of the family within society. ... Divorce and infidelity have increased, and many young men and women are choosing to postpone marriage or to forego it altogether". At the same time there exists "an alarming decrease in the number of Catholic marriages in the United States together with an increase in cohabitation, in which the Christ-like mutual self-giving of spouses, sealed by a public promise to live out the demands of an indissoluble lifelong commitment, is simply absent".
"It is your task to proclaim boldly the arguments from faith and reason in favour 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 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 fulfil our deep yearning for intimacy with others and with the Lord.
"Among the countersigns to the Gospel of life", the Pope added, "found in America and elsewhere, is one that causes deep shame: the sexual abuse of minors" by the clergy. "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".
"While it must be remembered that the overwhelming majority of clergy and religious in America do outstanding work in bringing the liberating message of the Gospel to the people entrusted to their care, it is vitally important that the vulnerable always be shielded from those who would cause harm".
Children, said the Holy Father, "have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person. ... We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike. ...Indeed, every member of society can contribute to this moral renewal and benefit from it".
Turning his attention to priests, the Pope highlighted the fact that they too "need your guidance and closeness during this difficult time. ... At this stage a vital part of your task is to strengthen relationships with your clergy, especially in those cases where tension has arisen between priests and their bishops in the wake of the crisis. It is important that you continue to show them your concern, to support them, and to lead by example".
"We need to rediscover the joy of living a Christ-centred life, cultivating the virtues and immersing ourselves in prayer", the Pope concluded his homily. "Time spent in prayer is never wasted, however urgent the duties that press upon us from every side".
During the course of his meeting with the U.S. prelates, three bishops posed questions to the Holy Father.
In the first question, the Holy Father was asked to give his assessment of the challenges of secularism and relativism, and his advice on how to confront these challenges more effectively.
"Perhaps", he replied, "America's brand of secularism poses a particular problem: it allows for professing belief in God, and respects the public role of religion and the Churches, but at the same time it can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator. Faith becomes a passive acceptance that certain things 'out there' are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life. The result is a growing separation of faith from life. ... This is aggravated by an individualistic and eclectic approach to faith and religion: far from a Catholic approach to 'thinking with the Church', each person believes he or she has a right to pick and choose".
"What is needed, I am convinced, is a greater sense of the intrinsic relationship between the Gospel and the natural law on the one hand, and, on the other, the pursuit of authentic human good, as embodied in civil law and in personal moral decisions. In a society that rightly values personal liberty, ... the Gospel has to be preached and taught as an integral way of life, offering an attractive and true answer, intellectually and practically, to real human problems. ... I believe that the Church in America, at this point in her history, is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality and presenting it, in an engaging and imaginative way, to a society which markets any number of recipes for human fulfilment".
The second question put to the Pope concerned Catholics' abandonment of the practice of the faith, sometimes by an explicit decision, but often by distancing themselves quietly and gradually from attendance at Mass and identification with the Church.
"It is becoming more and more difficult, in our Western societies, to speak in a meaningful way of 'salvation'", said Benedict XVI. "Yet salvation - deliverance from the reality of evil, and the gift of new life and freedom in Christ - is at the heart of the Gospel. We need to discover, as I have suggested, new and engaging ways of proclaiming this message. ... It is in the Church's liturgy, and above all in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, that these realities are most powerfully expressed and lived in the life of believers; perhaps we still have much to do in realising the Council's vision of the liturgy as the exercise of the common priesthood and the impetus for a fruitful apostolate in the world".
Finally, answering a question on the decline in vocations, Pope Benedict recalled how "the ability to cultivate vocations to the priesthood and the religious life is a sure sign of the health of a local Church" and he reaffirmed the importance of prayer. "Nor am I speaking only of prayer for vocations", he added. "Prayer itself, born in Catholic families, nurtured by programs of Christian formation, strengthened by the grace of the Sacraments, is the first means by which we come to know the Lord's will for our lives".
Before concluding the Pope also acknowledged "the immense suffering endured by the people of God in the archdiocese of New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina, as well as their courage in the challenging work of rebuilding". He also presented Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans with a chalice, "as a sign of my prayerful solidarity with the faithful of the archdiocese".