The 24th Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity on the theme: "Witnessing to Christ in politics ", took place at the Villa Aurelia in Rome from 20 to 22 May 2010. Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, introduced the assembly with an overview of the challenges and current issues that concern Christians involved in the political arena. He emphasised the topicality of this question and the urgent need to deal with it. He underlined the need to restate the limits of politics in order to control the risk of it being absolutised. He also stressed that it is essential to safeguard and defend ethical principles that are there to protect each and every individual. The cardinal also insisted that charity in politics must be rediscovered in order to establish a true " civilisation of love ". Professor Lorenzo Ornaghi, political sociologist and rector of the Sacred Heart Catholic University, gave a talk on " Politics and democracy today: status quaestionis". He concentrated on the relations that exist between democracy, the state and politics, and on the great patrimony we have in the social doctrine of the Church that opposes ideological politics. Professor Ornaghi concluded his talk with a call for all of us to have that creative drive of which Pope Benedict XVI speaks, one that emerges from the meeting of culture and politics and brings something new if it is filled with an authentically Christian spirit. He encouraged young people to enter the political arena with realism and passion, inspired by the Christian values they believe in and practise for the sake of the common good. On Thursday afternoon we had the authoritative contributions of Cardinal Camillo Ruini and Archbishop Rino Fisichella. In his talk on " The Church and the political community: some reference points ", Cardinal Ruini listed the fundamental principles of the magisterium on the topic, in particular those dealt with in Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae. He pointed out their topicality and basic contents, especially those concerning the relationship between the political community and the Church and religious freedom. He spoke of the principles in the encyclical Centesimus Annus by John Paul II which express appreciation for authentic democracy and those in Deus Caritas Est by Benedict XVI which explain how the Church and state are separate realities, but that are in reciprocal relationship in the common service they must render so that there may be justice and charity for humankind. Archbishop Fisichella, who has been a guest of the dicastery several times in the past, gave a talk on " The mission of the lay faithful in politics ". He dealt with the most important topics for Catholics in politics today: the challenge presented by the lack of interest in seeking the truth that alone can combine personal welfare and that of the community; the responsibility to train young leaders, to which Benedict XVI refers constantly when speaking of the emergency in education; the central importance of national and international legislative questions on bioethical matters. He outlined the characteristics of Catholics in politics. They must be humble in recognising that their commitment is an authentic vocation, and they must be people of spirituality and prayer who are credible and live coherent lives, and who give witness to their faith. He emphasised the importance of Catholics dedicated to politics being involved in the Christian community, for it is here that they understand their identity and find support for their mission. Friday began with an interesting panel discussion in which we heard the testimonies of Josep Miró i Ardèvol, president of " Ecristians " and actively involved in politics, Savino Pezzotta, a deputy in the Italian parliament, and Roberto Formigoni, governor of the region of Lombardy. Josep Miró i Ardèvol focussed attention on the need for action by Catholics in politics that is a manifestation of Christian charity and that is inspired by the social doctrine of the Church, that is coherent with the faith, and that puts professional competence, moral rigour and cultural skills at the service of the common good. He also emphasised the need for an international cultural and educational reference plan that could help new leaders. According to Savino Pezzotta’s experience, Catholics should place emphasis on their witness as belonging, not to a party, but to the Church, the ecclesial community. They should adhere to the principles of social doctrine as an ongoing application of the Gospel in history, and live out their faith as a public matter, with sincerity; work specifically for the common good according to evangelical charity, especially in the social field, inspired by the magisterium, prepared to pay in person, to step aside, to leave space for young people and to be engaged in their training. Roberto Formigoni pointed out that Christianity has an intrinsic political dimension, and this is seen in its two thousand years of social engagement and building up the common good. He emphasised that the Christian community should encourage vocations to politics and educate their children for public involvement so that they may, through innovative and creative faith, defend that which has been built up through long tradition, and continue to offer service to every person. Nowadays this is done mostly by putting into practice the principle of subsidiarity which replaces the centrality of the state apparatus with that of the person, the family and intermediate levels of society. The morning concluded with the papal audience granted to the participants of the Plenary Assembly (see separate article).
The afternoon session began with a talk by Professor Andrea Riccardi on "What lessons can we learn today from the great Christian figures in the history of politics? ". He gave an enthralling reconstruction of the history of the Church in the last century, a century of martyrdom, in which there were great Catholic men and women engaged in society and public life, including Fr. Luigi Sturzo, Eduardo Frei, Alcide De Gasperi, Robert Schuman, Leopold Sèdar Senghor, Julius Nyerere, Dag Hammarskjöld and Lech Walesa. He brought us on a journey back through memory and to many parts of the world. He stressed that, at the basis of this great flourishing of witnesses to Christ in social and political life, there was a "movement " at the popular level that was creative and that was founded on the strength of people and nations that represented the community of provenance and of belonging.
On Saturday 22 May we looked towards the future of Catholics in politics. The day began with Professor Guzmán Carriquiry, undersecretary of the dicastery, who spoke on "Criteria and ways to prepare the lay faithful to take up political commitment ". He called on all of us, in the light of the Pope’s words, to consider how the urgent need to train a new generation of Catholics to be engaged in politics means to give life, through the waters of baptism, so that Christians may rediscover the dignity, beauty, gratitude, joy and responsibility of their vocation, and become key players in public life and society. He said that they are called to respond to their vocation in communion with the Church, to have real experiences of a living faith and to give witness through the building up of the human community and the common good so that there may be a " revolution of love " with a spirit of true Christian charity. He recalled the fundamental importance of social doctrine, and indicated that one very good formative path was that of belonging to lively Catholic communities, like ecclesial associations and movements, that offer Christian identity, spiritual nourishment and support in times of difficulty.
After Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko summed up what had been said in this first part of the Assembly, Bishop Josef Clemens, secretary of the dicastery, spoke of the future plans of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and gave a short account of what has been done during the past few months (see next article). The topicality of the theme of this Assembly drew interest from the members and consultors. They were very actively involved and contributed extensively to the discussions, during breaks and times of sharing, and enriched the debate and exchange of ideas with their witness as Christians engaged in the life of the Church in countries and cultures all over the world.