By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The goal of the Year of Faith, which concludes Nov. 24, has been to educate Catholics about basic church teachings, strengthen their faith and inspire them to share it with others. If it has succeeded, as organizers say it has, the credit ultimately lies less with its special projects and events than with the historic papal transition that occurred in its course.
"The election of Pope Francis has given new visibility to the core teachings of Jesus Christ, which ultimately is what the Year of Faith sought to achieve," Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told Catholic News Service.
Both Pope Benedict XVI, who opened the celebration in October 2012, and Pope Francis dedicated their Year of Faith talks to explaining the creed, looking at modern cultural challenges to faith, recognizing faith as a gift, and urging Catholics to proclaim God’s love and share the Gospel.
But a different pope means a different personality and a different style, even when teaching or preaching on the same themes. In addition, a new pope tends to draw more visitors to the Vatican because many Catholics are eager to meet their new shepherd.
Eight months after Pope Francis’ March 13 election, the number of visitors to the Vatican continues to be higher than usual, which most observers attribute to his easy rapport with a crowd and his touching focus on children and the sick.
By Nov. 13, more than 8 million Catholics had come to Rome and officially registered as Year of Faith pilgrims at a visitors’ center just down the street from St. Peter’s Basilica. But Father Francesco Spinelli, an official at the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, said the real number of participants in Year of Faith events at the Vatican is far higher, "because most come without registering at all."
Pope Francis will close the Year of Faith with Mass Nov. 24, the feast of Christ the King. The evening before, he will preside over the Rite of Acceptance, a brief ceremony in which adults who had been inquiring about the Catholic faith officially become catechumens preparing for baptism.
The pope also plans to publish an apostolic exhortation on the new evangelization, promoting what he calls a "culture of encounter" between Christ and humanity and among believers themselves. The document and the ceremony with future Catholics will underline a key point of Pope Francis’ teaching: Christ not only knocks on hearts to get inside, he knocks on the doors of churches asking to be let out into the world.
At his general audience Oct. 16, the pope asked the crowd: "Are we missionaries by our words, and especially by our Christian life, by our witness? Or are we Christians closed in our hearts and in our churches: ‘sacristy Christians’?"
Archbishop Jose Octavio Ruiz Arenas, secretary of the new evangelization council, told Catholic News Service that Pope Benedict proposed the Year of Faith "to give a strong push to the new evangelization" and to help Catholics "recognize the joy that comes from the great gift of faith" and from knowing that God loves them so much that he sent his son to save them.
Pope Francis’ election during the Year of Faith can be seen as "providential," the archbishop said. "The personality of Pope Francis, his closeness, his use of language that is simple and profound, his desire to go out and meet people, has captivated people’s hearts.
"The Holy Spirit knew what he was doing," Archbishop Ruiz said. "He wanted to be sure that in the Year of Faith many people who had been far from the church would hear an invitation to respond to the Lord," and, from what bishops and pastors around the world are reporting, it seems to have worked, he said.
Both popes have insisted that being an authentic Christian isn’t simply about one’s private prayer life; it must be evident in the way a person interacts with others and with the world.
A month before he stepped down, Pope Benedict said that believing in God "makes us harbingers of values that often do not coincide with the fashion and opinion of the moment. It requires us to adopt criteria and assume forms of conduct that are not part of the common mindset."
"Christians must not be afraid to go ‘against the current’ in order to live their faith, resisting the temptation to conform," he said.
Pope Francis, in a Year of Faith talk in April, said, "Being Christian is not just about obeying orders, but means being in Christ, thinking like him, acting like him, loving like him; it means letting him take possession of our life and change it, transform it and free it from the darkness of evil and sin."
"This is a precious service that we must give to this world of ours which all too often no longer succeeds in raising its gaze on high, no longer succeeds in raising its gaze to God," Pope Francis said.
The two popes naturally brought distinctive styles to the Year of Faith, Archbishop Ruiz said, but it is "only a hypothesis" to think, for example, that Pope Benedict would have used the pro-life celebration in June to denounce abortion, or the family life celebration in October to denounce same-sex marriage. "Pope Benedict’s magisterium wasn’t concentrated just on that," Archbishop Ruiz said, and the retired pope designed the Year of Faith celebrations to be expressions of "joy and happiness," not protests.
Msgr. Tighe said, "One of the particular achievements of Pope Benedict was showing — with strong philosophical and theological arguments — the legitimate claim of faith to having a place in the public square and in public debate."
"In a simpler, more directly pastoral way, Pope Francis is almost literally bringing faith to the public square, particularly in and through the media," he said. "We see especially in social media a huge desire on the part of people to share his words and deeds."
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