The recently concluded visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States was a visually exciting spectacle which did not conceal his uncompromising message.
Neither did the multitude's rapturous response at the World Youth Day ceremonies fail to disguise the increasing divide between the substance of the church's teaching and the actual practice of many American Catholics.
For many Catholics, increasingly teetering on the brink of agnosticism, disillusionment and dissatisfaction, the pontiff's visit created the opportunity to examine received orthodoxy. For, in spite of a growing schism, the Catholic Church continues to appeal to American youth in unprecedented numbers.
Yet questions about the relevance of the pontiff's message persist.
The Pope continues to be a repository of projected values of Catholics worldwide. The international reach of Catholicism is vivd testimony to its political power as well as its religious appeal.
The trip could have provided an opportunity for Catholics to do some housecleaning and to address the problems which threaten to undermine the Church. There was instead no real attempt to locate the source of internal problems and quell widespread dissension among Catholics.
In response to the problem of widespread sexual abuse of children, the Pope offered a tepid response in his letter to the US bishops, saying that, "said situations such as these invite us to look at the mystery of the church with eyes of faith."
But a continued failure o address the concerns of its followers will result in further, increasingly effective assaults on the church's moral authority.
This will continue to compound the dilemma facing many Catholics--how to reconcile rigid doctrinal teachings with prevailing social norms and the demands of modern life.
The Catholic Church is, notably, not a democratic institution. It is resolutely impervious to populist demands. In spite of its autocratic handling of salient issues, it needs to change the nature of representation within the church.
Its hierarchical, patriarchal structure with its unrelenting ban on the ordination of women into the priesthood and automatic relegation of women to second-class citizenship is the most vital issue which needs to be addressed.
Otherwise, more challenges to the church's dictates, handed down in magisterial splendor, can be expected with increasing frequency.
Now is the time, in the face of widespread collision with social norms, to deal with the need for exploring processes of accommodation.
In an increasingly secular world, there needs to be increasing interreligious dialogue. The numbers of people seeking alternatives to established religion continue to grow in the face of ineffectual responses from established religions.
So many people are seeking to find or make meaning out of the chaos of modern life, hoping to articulate the much-derided "politics of meaning," that the Catholic Church must be more effective.
Perhaps its increasing failure to do so means that ultimately we must all fashion a faith guided by our own internal compass.