VATICAN CITY, DEC. 10, 2004 ( John Paul II concluded a series of meetings with U.S. bishops with an exhortation to proclaim Christ and to be faithful to the Church's teaching authority.

Over the past eight months the Pope has met with groups of U.S. bishops on their five-yearly visits to Rome. Today he received the prelates of the ecclesiastical provinces of Minnesota, and of North and South Dakota, after having read the reports they presented on their dioceses.

The Pope acknowledged that these "ad limina apostolorum" visits have enabled him "to hear the living voice of the Church throughout the United States, ... a source of great consolation for me, and an invitation to give thanks to the Triune God for the rich harvest which his grace continues to bring forth in your local Churches."

The Holy Father gave the American prelates "two charges."

"The first is a fraternal encouragement to persevere joyfully in the ministry entrusted to you, in obedience to the authentic teaching of the Church," he said.

"Can we not see in the pain and scandal of recent years both a sign of the times and a providential call to conversion and deeper fidelity to the demands of the Gospel?" the Pope asked in English.

"In the life of each believer and the life of the whole Church, a sincere examination of conscience and the recognition of failure is always accompanied by renewed confidence in the healing power of God's grace and a summons to press on to what lies ahead," he said.

"In her own way, the Church in the United States has been called to begin the new millennium by 'starting afresh from Christ' and by making the truth of the Gospel clearly the measure of her life and all her activity," John Paul II continued.

"In this light, I once more praise your efforts to ensure that each individual and group in the Church understands the urgent need for a consistent, honest and faithful witness to the Catholic faith, and that each of the Church's institutions and apostolates expresses in every aspect of its life a clear Catholic identity," he emphasized.

"This is perhaps the most difficult and delicate challenge which you face in your role as teachers and shepherds of the Church in America today, yet it is one which cannot be renounced. In fulfilling your duty to 'teach, exhort and correct with all authority,' you are first called to be 'united in mind and judgment,' working harmoniously in the proclamation of the Gospel," the Pope exhorted.

The Pontiff's second charge entrusted to the American prelates was "a heartfelt appeal to keep your gaze fixed on the great goal set before the whole Church at the dawn of this third Christian millennium: the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of humanity."

"If the events of the past few years have necessarily focused your attention on the interior life of the Church, this should in no way distract you from lifting your eyes to the great task of the new evangelization and the need for a new apostolic outreach," he said.

"'Duc in altum!' The Church in America must speak increasingly of Jesus Christ, the human face of God and the divine face of man, devoting the best of her efforts to a more compelling proclamation of the Gospel, the growth of holiness, and the more effective transmission of the treasure of the faith to the younger generation," the Holy Father continued.

"Since a clear sense of mission will naturally bear fruit in unity of purpose among all the members of the Christian community, such a missionary outreach will surely promote the work of reconciliation and renewal within your local Churches," he said.

"It will also consolidate and advance the Church's prophetic witness in contemporary American society," the Pope continued. "The Church feels responsible for every human being and for the future of society, and this responsibility falls in a particular way to the lay faithful, whose vocation is to be a leaven of the Gospel in the world."

He added: "As we look to the challenges lying before the Church in the United States today, two urgent tasks immediately present themselves: the need for an evangelization of culture in general, which, as I have stated, is a unique contribution which the Church in your country can make to the mission 'ad gentes' today, and the need for Catholics to cooperate fruitfully with men and women of good will in building a culture of respect for life."