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A Tale of Two Cities (Opening Address)

National Conference of Catholic Bishops

My brother bishops, observers and guests, and those who are with us by television, Charles Dickens saw good and evil at work in his own day and so came to write "A Tale of Two Cities." Like Dickens, I wish to tell a tale of two cities, a tale of cities, like our land itself, marked by contrast. A recent issue of The Washington Post tells the striking story of the shadowed side of the contrast, a story of lost hope: "Jessica Bradford is 11 years old," the story explained. "Jessica knows five people who have been killed. It could happen to her, she says.... She has known since she was in fifth grade what she wanted to wear at her funeral. 'I think my prom dress is going to be the prettiest dress of all,' Jessica said. 'When I die, I want to be dressy for my family.' "In the last five years, 224 children younger than 18 have been killed in the District either as targets of shootings or as bystanders. The carnage has been taken in by children who live close to the gunfire, such as Jessica, and by some children removed from it. As they've mastered Nintendo... and long division, some children have sized up their surroundings and concluded that death is close at hand. So, like Jessica, they have begun planning their funerals." The story of Jessica is a story of lost hope - children who believe they've come into the world only to die violently and die young. In sharp contrast to that, through the grace of God, our nation and the world witnessed another story in another city this year - a story of hope renewed. It took place in Denver, with 186,000 young people from around the world gathered for a spiritual pilgrimage called World Youth Day. They gathered with the Gospel's words far their theme: "I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly." ' This year Denver was singled out as experiencing the same kind of open, running wounds from violence as Washington, Baltimore, and so many other cities, large and small alike. But for a few days last summer it became a city transformed. There was a sudden and dramatic reduction in violent crime; there were no murders - not a single one. It was a city filled with young people who greeted everyone cordially and left a trail of good will behind them. Those young people simply and most enthusiastically celebrated God and God's love for them. They lis- tened and they spoke, they prayed and sang and walked - always peacefully. They spent days in seri- ous sessions of catechetics, with Mass and other prayer. They also gave expression to their faith in service projects. Many helped build homes for the poor and distributed food to the hungry. All assisted one another in their pilgrims' way. From more than 100 countries they showed that people of different races, colors, cul- tures, and languages could come together and effectively communicate their faith. The world watched and the world was amazed at the powerful image of those young people so hungry for a clarity of faith and a desire to understand the basic values which give greater meaning to their lives. The youth recognized the answer to their quest for faith and values sym- bolized and personified in one very special pilgrim who came from a great distance: poet, philosopher, priest, veteran of Nazi and commu- nist oppression, witness to nearly two millennia of faith, their shepherd, the successor of the Apostle Peter, Pope John Paul II A few weeks ago Cardinal Pironio quoted to the officers of the conference words of the Holy Father, "I used to say 'lux ex oriente' - light comes from the East, but now, after Denver, I can say also, 'lux ex occidente' - light comes from the West!" At our meeting Cardinal Pironio expressed again the appreciation of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. For him, Denver was unique, unique because so many young peo- ple took part in the catechesis, four times as many as ever before. Unique because so many bishops, especially from the United States, accompanied their young people and met with them at Denver. And unique because there was so clearly evident a sense of universal church. To Cardinal Pironio and later to the Holy Father we could explain how much World Youth Day meant to us bishops in the United States - with them, we cannot forget it. We could speak of the enthusiasm of the young people coming back to their parishes and schools, communities and dioces- e to tell of their own rich personal experience at Denver, an enthusiasm spilling over to touch deeply people of other churches, other faiths, so much so that the marvelous ecumenical and interfaith dimensions have scarcely been told. We could tell of the commitment we bishops are mak- ing for the future - a new bonding between bishop and youth, strength- ening the indispensable role of youth in the life of diocesan churches. In Denver, young people listened to the Holy Father's invitation to re- flect, and, they responded again and again with applause and with cheers as he asked them to accept responsi- bility for building a culture of life to overcome the culture of death. One evening 200,000 participated. The next day half a million and more were there as adults joined those who spent the night at Cherry Creek State Park - ordinary people of faith whose pilgrimage included prayer ill self-denial and thus underscored the difference between the reality of lived faith and the skewed witness of a materialistic society. Millions more were able to participate in World Youth Day through the media. The good news is that World Youth Day received the quantity of coverage it deserved. That should be acknowledged. We are especially grateful to EWTN, VISN and the local Denver television stations for tireless efforts. But what kind of job did the national media do? It is an important question, because it addresses an issue that confronts us every day. Does the media understand the role of religion in people's lives? Most reports on World Youth Day itself were fair, even glowing. However, when the media turned from the events of those days to give an assessment of the Catholic Church in general, they confirmed what many have long suspected: that in much of the media there is a preprogrammed "Catholic Story." In this story the church in the United States is in disarray, rift with dissent. I asked that our conference staff review a large sample of the media coverage. That review has confirmed a tendency on the part of the media to tell this story of their own making. Regularly reports of the enthusiasm and love of the youth for the Holy Father would have as wrap-arounds the predictable caveats that many Catholics do not agree with him. The media's "American Catholic Story" is a caricature wherein complex issues are crudely stated - crudely and quickly stated. During my own days in Denver I was invited by the "Today" program to explain the Catholic Church's position on abortion, birth control, celibacy and the male priesthood - I was to be given 30 seconds. The glib answers they seek to important questions leave no room for detail and nuance, no room for the whole universe of concerns on which the Holy Father challenges all humanity. One most objectionable media technique is the tendency to interview people with the extreme views at either end of the spectrum and then suggest the interview has covered the whole spectrum. What that technique does, in fact, is exclude from the conversation the broad mass of the Catholic population. Much of the evidence used to support the media's "American Catholic Story" is found in the polls of Catholics paid for by the media. These polls need to be challenged bath on their width and their depth. The same few issues are covered in poll after poll, giving evidence of the narrowness of the media's concerns. In many ways the media continues to show that they have not grasped the vital role of the church in people's lives. We, the bishops of the church in this land, face a major challenge in addressing this situation, and we dare not ignore it. Television, with an unrivaled ability to bring millions of people to events taking place far away, remains neglectful of religious news, and more and more newspapers are becoming equally neglectful. On any given weekend 30-40 percent of our nation's population attend religious services. Thirty to 40 percent. That means churches and temples attracted more people this past weekend than all major league baseball attracted all last season. But while every newspaper and television station has a team of sports reporters and editors, it is rare to find even one full time religion reporter in a news-room - rarer still to find a religion reporter who truly understands the religion about which reports are written. Whatever the media, they need religion reporters who know their field, who understand the specifically religious issues. There is also a need for journalists to respect their own profession. What they do must concern us bishops not only because the image of the church is involved, but also because the media's mission is not unlike our own. We, too, are messengers of news - the good news of the truth that makes us free. The news media are called to something similar. Their reach has become so great and their power so all-present that they have a greater responsibility than ever to report accurately and truthfully so that an informed public can order its affairs in true freedom. Such self-respect includes the realization that division and conflict are not the only news worth reporting. In the case of Denver, the media's, "American Catholic Story" was most concisely formulated in the question asked by Ted Koppel on "Nightline" on the day the pope arrived, "The Catholic Church: coming together or coming apart?" People did not go to Denver to disagree; people are not filling our suburban churches Sunday after Sunday to protest. As I said in the course of the welcome ceremony at Mile High Stadium, our pilgrimage was a time of celebration because the Catholic Church is, in fact, alive and growing in the United States. The real "American Catholic Story" is that the church in this land grew last year alone by a million members. The real "American Catholic Story" is that our schools continue to increase in enrollment - despite difficult economic times, many have waiting lists because people value a Catholic education. The real "American Catholic Story" records an increase in those beginning theological studies for the diocesan priesthood every year for the past three years. The real story notes that our Catholic press brings a fresh perspective on the news to more than 25 million subscribers, that our Catholic hospitals serve more than 50 million patients yearly. From the real "American Catholic Story" we know that our Catholic Charities do more than any other private group in the country to care for the hungry, the homeless and those in greatest need - all part of our concern to promote and honor human life and dignity at every stage. The real "American Catholic Story" does not ignore the difficulties and challenges we face but recognizes also the remarkable graces and blessings we share every day. We need to help the media understand that the real "American Catholic Story" is the story of millions of people who love the church, who are not polarized over issues. People who convincingly live their faith by working and sacrificing. People, motivated by faith, who make real, positive and lasting contributions to our society. These people, our people, were well represented in Denver by the best possible media relations team. I would like to salute the young people who came to Denver. What they came to cheer and went home to celebrate was the message Pope John Paul gave to them - to work for "a culture of life when all around us are the signs of a culture of death." A culture in which, as the Holy Father pointed out, there is "injustice, discrimination, exploitation," as well as violence. In the name of progress and freedom, false models of progress are adopted in the culture of death. "Quality of life" and "individual rights" are pursued by neglecting and even eliminating the weakest, the most defenseless and the innocent among us - the unborn, the elderly, the disabled. In the culture of death sophisticated technology becomes an end in itself; in the culture of death our natural environment is abused; in the culture of death there is no right or wrong, no objective truth. In the culture of death life itself becomes "just one more commodity to be organized, commercialized and manipulated according to convenience." Amid this encircling gloom the Holy Father pointed to the light of Christ: "Have no fear. The outcome of the battle for life is already decided," he told the young people, "even though the struggle goes on against great odds and with much suffering." "The Church needs your energies, your enthusiasm, your youthful ideals, in order to make the Gospel of life penetrate the fabric of society, transforming people's hearts in order to create a civilization of true justice and love." A tale of two cities: Washington, like so many of our urban centers, a city seeking freedom from violence and from fear; Denver, for a brief time a city of peace and hope, a passing sign of the true goal of pilgrims, the city of goodness and light which is forever. Some, perhaps the media included, rivet their eyes on the earthly city and do not catch this vision. But for those who follow Jesus, it is the goal, and the way to it is clear - fidelity to the Gospel. On a dusty plain outside Denver Pope John Paul II affirmed this faith when he spoke the words which now echo around the United States - indeed around the world: "Do not be ashamed of the Gospel. Be proud of the Gospel!"