[The following report-- one in a series of daily reports on the activities of the special Synod of the Americas-- comes through the courtesy of the international news agency ZENIT, based in Rome.]

     It is clear that the sects are not the only problem in America, or even the most important. Nonetheless, these groups are posing serious questions to the Catholic hierarchy of the New World.

      The Synod is beginning to see how the sects and new religious movements, such as "New Age," are successful in both hemispheres simply because the Catholic Church lacks the trained personnel and resources to provide the spiritual help needed by Americans today. Before blaming the sects, therefore, the participants are first analyzing the causes within the Church.

      Bishop Jose Luis Lacunza of Chitré, Panama, explained that the bishops must consider dialogue with other Christian confessions to be an "irreversible decision." In recent years, John Paul II has desired to push forward this movement for unity among those who call themselves followers of Christ. But now the aggressive and proselytizing presence of the so-called "sects" is generating confusion, suspicion, and a defensive attitude, which has raised obstacles to ecumenical dialogue in the Catholic Church. According to the Panamanian bishop, this stems from a lack of ecumenical formation among Christians, especially in Latin America, where ecumenism is perceived as "something unnecessary and superfluous-- a question for experts or even a sign of weakness." How should the Church react?

      One of the fundamental reasons sects are able to draw Catholics away from the Church is a lack of catechetical education, which the Catholic Church can help overcome in a unique way by means of its schools. In the Continent, it directs more than 60,000 primary and secondary schools, with more than 17 million students; in addition, there are 330 universities and 40 theological faculties in the Catholic education system.

      Nevertheless, Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, pointed out that many of these institutions do not provide an authentically Catholic spiritual formation, because students often do not receive Christian guidance in harmony with the bishops' pastoral initiatives. According to Cardinal Laghi, the adjective "Catholic" should be more than just a decoration; it represents an "educational plan".

      Some Catholic universities are failing to fulfill their educational function as well, according to the General Director of the Jesuits, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. In the last few years, these institutions have been in conflict with the Church over the issue of how Catholic they have to be to be called "Catholic." To resolve this problem, Father. Kolvenbach proposed that these faculties of higher education listen "to the teachings of the Church in an atmosphere of openness which presupposes academic liberty."

      Many sects or new religious movements use economic resources or promises of economic aid as a means of winning converts, especially in Latin America. Msgr. Romulo Emiliani Sanchez, vicar of Darien, Panama, denounced "these campaigns which target the most marginalized members of society" (immigrants, prisoners, the sick, and those living in the slums of major cities). These actions demand a response from the pastors of the Church, above all in reviewing the type of help and social action thus far applied by the Church in these areas. At times, these areas have been politicized, and the need to accompany the sick and imprisoned has been forgotten. "As our presence increases in these areas, the sects' presence will decrease," concluded Monsignor Emiliani.

      Ethnic minorities in particular have left the Church for the sects. Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, asked the Synod to seriously face the challenge of racial integration and charity among ethnic groups, since this belongs to the heart of the Gospel message. Cardinal Gantin, a native of Benin, referred to Rev. Martin Luther King, as "the apostle of non-violence and integration of African-Americans into society." As another example of work in this field, he spoke of St. Peter Claver, the Spanish Jesuit who was a great missionary to Africans in the Columbian city of Cartagena.

      Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, spoke of the fascination many American Christians have for Eastern religions, as evident in the popularity of Oriental meditation and asceticism, as well as yoga. According to Cardinal Arinze, all bishops, priests, and religious must feel responsible for teaching the Christian faithful the riches of Christian meditation, prayer, contemplation, asceticism and mysticism.

      This crisis requires a decisive response on the part of every bishop. Archbishop Charles Joseph Chaput asked the bishops of the Synod how they view their work as bishops. He asked that every bishop ask himself at the end of the day, before going to sleep: Am I an apostle or am I a manager? "We are evangelizers first. That is our paramount purpose."

      Archbishop Carmelo Juan Giaquinta of Resistencia, Argentina, added this observation: "The Church would be more credible if we talked less about ourselves and more about Jesus Christ crucified."

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November 25, 1997 volume 8, no. 38         DAILY CATHOLIC