VATICAN CITY, JAN. 30, 2001 ( The great challenge for Christians in a godless society is the defense of human life from conception until natural death, John Paul II warned today.

"The abortion statistics published over the last decades in your country are alarming," the Holy Father told Hungarian bishops during their "ad limina" visit to Rome. "Do everything possible to encourage pregnant women to continue their pregnancy to full term."

The Pope conveyed his thoughts in his message to the Magyar Church, which embraces 6.5 million baptized Catholics among Hungary´s 11 million people.

Now that the nation´s Communist persecution is over, the Holy Father observed, Hungary is living in a materialist society in which the life and dignity of man are in grave danger.

Thus the Church has the mission to "inspire in our world an authentic ´culture of life,´´´ he said. He warned that "in many countries of the Old Continent ... the diffusion of the culture of death is increasingly worrying."

"In these tragic times, the Church assumes an important function," the Pope added. "Christians must increasingly become what they are called to be: salt of the earth and light of the world."

In particular, John Paul II requested the bishops and priests "to speak out in every occasion, whether opportune or inopportune. You must intervene there where you see you must defend God and man! You are not of the world, but do not segregate yourselves from the world."

In the wake of Communism and atheism, the countries of the East now have a secular society "in which God is increasingly silenced," the Pontiff said. This is why this society "has need of your voice," he stressed.

The Holy Father insisted that to "give a soul to society, it might be good to try to ally oneself with the pastors and the Christians of other Churches and ecclesial communities. In fact, the ecumenism of witness opens a wide field of collaboration."

He reminded the bishops, "Many, certainly, live as if God did not exist. However, the desire for him is always alive in hearts. ... In fact, man is not satisfied with the human, but he seeks a truth that transcends him, because he sees, even if in a confused way, that therein lies the meaning of his own life. The answer to the question of life is the great occasion presented to the Church."

John Paul II concluded with a critical appeal: "Let us open our doors to all those who are seeking God! Whoever asks for the truth of the Church has the right to hope that the word of God will be expressed and transmitted authentically and integrally.

"In this way, the quest for truth is protected from the dangers of an indeterminate, irrational, syncretist religiosity, and the living Church of God is revealed as it is, the column and support of truth."