VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI urged the world's bishops on Sunday to try to bring back Catholics who have left the church as he opened a three-week meeting to reinvigorate the church's evangelization mission.
Some 262 cardinals, bishops and priests from around the world are in Rome for the meeting, or synod, called to give impetus to the pope's efforts to re-evangelize parts of the world where Catholicism has fallen by the wayside.
At the start of the Mass, Benedict named two new "doctors" of the church, conferring one of the Catholic Church's highest honors on the 16th-century Spanish preacher, St. John of Avila, and the 12th-century German mystic, St. Hildegard of Bingen. They join the ranks of only 33 other church doctors who have been singled out over the course of Christianity for their contributions to and influence on Catholic doctrine.
Benedict has long lamented that in Europe and the Americas, Catholics no longer practice their faith or pass it onto their children. That concern is reflected in the synod's working document that will form the basis of discussion over the next three weeks.
"There is a clear link between the crisis in faith and the crisis in marriage," the pope said.
The so-called "new evangelization" is a top priority for Benedict, who routinely laments how cultures in Europe and the West that were once profoundly Christian have become increasingly secular.
The church has been beset by competition from rival Protestant churches in Latin America, dissent from Catholics who oppose church teaching on homosexuality and desertions in the U.S. and Europe from Catholics fed up by years of sex abuse scandals.
"The church exists to evangelize," Benedict said in his homily, urging a new missionary spirit among the church's pastors to reawaken the faith among Catholics who have been baptized but no longer practice their faith.
The synod coincides with the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 church meetings that modernized the church.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, was named by Benedict to run the meeting.
At the start of the Mass, Cardinal Angelo Amato, head of the Vatican's saint-making office, read aloud the reasons why the church was proclaiming St. John and St. Hildegard doctors, saying their "holiness and eminent doctrine" shine hundreds of years after they lived.
Benedict is particularly fond of Hildegard, who was considered a saint in his native Germany but was never officially proclaimed one by the Vatican. Benedict, who himself referred to Hildegard as a saint, earlier this year passed the decree making her one officially, a requirement for her to be named a church doctor.
The last church doctor named was St. Therese of Lisieux, France, in 1997. The first church doctors were Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great.