VATICAN CITY, OCT. 21, 2002 ( The social work carried out by the Church, especially among the poor, cannot be reduced to simple material or political work, says John Paul II.

When the Pope met Saturday with a group of bishops visiting from northeast Brazil, he reminded them that a bishop's first mission is to proclaim the truth of the Gospel, without which the work of the Church would be meaningless.

"As vicars and legates of Christ, you are called above all to offer a clear and vigorous proclamation of the Gospel," the Holy Father said.

He urged the Brazilian prelates not to have "reservations about associating the word of Christ to charitable activities by a misunderstood sense of respect for others' convictions."

"It is not an act of charity to leave brothers in darkness about truth," John Paul II stressed. "It is not an act of charity to feed the poor or visit the suffering by taking human resources to them but not communicating to them the Word that saves."

The Holy Father described the serious difficulties endured in northeast Brazil -- lack of employment, housing and health care; educational problems, social differences, and the presence of aggressive sects -- but he urged that pastoral action not be reduced "to the temporal and earthly dimension."

"It is not possible, for example, to think, of the challenges of the Church in Brazil by limiting oneself to some important but circumstantial questions, related to social policy, the concentration of land, the question of the environment, and others," he continued.

"To claim for the Church a participatory model of a political character, where decisions are voted on at the 'base,' limited to the poor and outcasts of society, but abstracted from the presence of all the segments of the People of God, would impair the original redemptive meaning proclaimed by Christ," the Pope warned.

On the contrary, "the fundamental mission of the bishop is evangelization, a task that he must carry out not only individually, but as Church," John Paul II stressed.

This mission is summarized in the triple mandate to "teach, sanctify and govern," he added.

The Holy Father acknowledged that the bishops of northeast Brazil must carry out the task of teaching in a cultural environment characterized by a high level of illiteracy, divorce, child violence, malnutrition, and superficiality promoted by some media.

In this ambience, the duty of the bishop is "to invite members of the particular Churches entrusted to him to accept in all its fullness the teaching of the Church in regard to questions of faith and morals," even if it means going against the current of the prevailing mentality, the Pope said.

In particular, this work must be done with young people -- a majority in Brazil's population -- promoting "the formation of a moral conscience, which must be respected as the 'sanctuary' of man alone with God, whose voice resounds in the intimacy of the heart," he added.

At the same time, John Paul II said, "remind your faithful that conscience is an exacting tribunal, whose judgment must always be conformed with the moral norms revealed by God and proposed with authority by the Church."

In this educational work, there must be a "return to the sacrament of reconciliation, unfortunately quite abandoned today, even in Catholic areas of your country," the Pontiff added.

In regard to "sanctification," the second mission of the bishop, John Paul II urged the prelates to highlight the two fundamental sacraments of Christian life: baptism and the Eucharist.

He said the living of the Eucharist, "source and center of the whole of Christian life," has two critical challenges in Brazil: on the one hand, the lack of priests and their unequal distribution, and on the other, the worrying drop in Sunday Mass attendance.

"It is evident that this situation suggests a provisional solution in order not to leave the community abandoned, with the risk of progressive spiritual impoverishment," the Pope emphasized.

"However, the incomplete sacramental character of these liturgical functions, carried out by persons who are not ordained, should induce the whole parish community to pray with greater fervor so that the Lord will send workers for his harvests," he said.

Lastly, the Pope focused on the bishop's mission to "govern." Above all, he must care for the priests, "especially when there is a delay in the fruits of pastoral work, with the possible temptation to discouragement and sadness."

"Many pastors do not have the feeling of working in an evangelical vineyard, but rather in an arid steppe," the Holy Father said. Yet, "the risen Lord walks with you and makes your efforts fruitful."