|The Church a space for dialogue and prayer
On Monday morning, 21
December , the Holy Father met with the members of the Roman Curia
and Papal Representatives in the Vatican's Clementine Hall for the
traditional exchange of Christmas greetings. The Holy Father summed up
the year from the viewpoint of his three international Apostolic Visits,
to Africa, to the Holy Land and to the Czech Republic, in the light of
being consciously or unconsciously in the presence of God. The following
is a translation of the Pope's Address, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brother Bishops and Priests, Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Solemnity of Christmas, as the Cardinal Dean Angelo
Sodano has just emphasized, is a very special occasion of encounter and
communion. The Child whom we adore in Bethlehem invites us to feel the
immense love of God, that God who came down from heaven and drew close
to each one of us, to make us his children, a part of his own family.
This traditional Christmas meeting of the Successor of
Peter with his closest collaborators is likewise a family meeting, one
which strengthens our bonds of affection and communion so that we may
be, increasingly, that "enduring Upper Room", dedicated to spreading the
Kingdom of God, as has just been recalled.
I thank the Cardinal Dean for his cordial words
expressing the good wishes of the College of Cardinals, the Members of
the Roman Curia and the Governorate, as well as of all the Papal
Representatives who are deeply united with us in bringing to the men and
women of our time the light born in the manger of Bethlehem.
As I receive you with great joy, I also wish to express
to each of you my gratitude for your generous and capable service to the
Vicar of Christ and to the Church.
Another year full of important events for the Church and
for the world is drawing to a close. As I look back upon this year with
great gratitude, I would like at this moment to mention just a few key
points for the life of the Church.
From the Pauline Year we have moved on to the Year for
Priests. From the impressive figure of the Apostle to the Gentiles who,
struck by the light of the Risen Christ and by his call, took the Gospel
to the peoples of the world, we have passed to the humble Curé
of Ars, who spent his whole life in the little village that had been
entrusted to him and yet, precisely in the humility of his service, made
God's reconciling goodness visible throughout the world.
Starting with these two
figures we can see the great breadth of the priestly ministry, the
grandeur of small things, and how, through the seemingly insignificant
service of one individual, God can achieve great things, purifying and
renewing the world from within.
For the Church, and for me
personally, the year now ending was to a great extent marked by Africa.
First of all, there was my Journey to Cameroon and Angola. It was moving
for me to experience the great cordiality with which the Successor of
Peter, the Vicarius Christi, was welcomed.
The Festive joy and warm
affection I met with along all the roads was not directed to a mere
chance guest. In the encounter with the Pope the universal Church could
be experienced, the community that embraces the world and is brought
together by God through Christ
the community that is not founded on human
interests but rather is offered to us by God's loving concern for us.
All together we form the family of God, brothers and
sisters by virtue of our one Father: this was our lived experience. And
we were able to feel that God's loving concern for us in Christ is
neither something of the past nor the fruit of learned theories, but
rather a completely concrete reality, here and now.
God himself is in our midst: we perceived this through
the ministry of the Successor of Peter. Thus we were raised above our
simple everyday routine. Heaven opened up, and this is what makes a day
become a holiday. And it is at the same time something that is enduring.
It continues to be true, even in daily life, that heaven is no longer
closed; that God is near; that in Christ we all belong to one another.
The memory of the liturgical celebrations made a
particularly deep impression on me. The celebrations of the Holy
Eucharist were truly feasts of faith. I would like to mention two
elements that strike me as particularly important. First of all there
was a great shared joy which was also expressed bodily, but in a
disciplined manner, directed to the presence of the living God.
With this, the second element already became apparent:
the sense of sacredness, of the mystery of the living God's presence,
fashioned, as it were, each individual action. The Lord is present
the Creator, the One to whom all things belong, from whom we come and
towards whom we make our pilgrim way.
I spontaneously thought of Saint Cyprian's words; in his
commentary on the "Our Father" he wrote: "Let us remember we are in
God's sight. We must be pleasing in God's eyes, both in the attitude of
our bodies and in the use of our voices" (De Dom. Or., 4 :
CSEL iii, I, p. 269).
Yes, we had this awareness
that we were standing before God. The result was neither fear nor
inhibition, nor external obedience to rubrics nor much less the need of
some to show off to others or to shout out in an undisciplined manner.
Rather, there was what the Fathers called "sobria ebrietas": a
sense of joyfulness that in any case remains sober and orderly, uniting
people from within, leading them to a communal praise of God, a praise
which at the same time inspires love of neighbour and mutual
Naturally, an important
part of my Journey in Africa was the meeting with my Brother Bishops and
the inauguration of the Synod for Africa, with the presentation of the
Instrumentum Laboris. That meeting took place in the context of
an evening conversation on the feast of Saint Joseph, a conversation in
which the representatives of the individual episcopates touchingly
expressed their hopes and concerns.
I think that Saint Joseph,
the good master of his house, who personally knows what it means to
consider, attentively and hopefully, the future paths of the family,
lovingly heard us and ushered us into the Synod itself.
Let us cast just a brief
glance at the Synod. What became clear above all during my visit to
Africa was the theological and pastoral import of the papal primacy as a
point of convergence for the unity of God's Family.
There, in the Synod, we saw
emerge even more clearly the importance of collegiality
of the unity of the Bishops who receive their ministry precisely because
they enter into the community of the successors of the Apostles: each
one is a Bishop, a successor of the Apostles, only to the extent that he
participates in the community of those in whom the Collegium
Apostolorum perseveres in unity with Peter and with his Successor.
Just as in the liturgies in
Africa, and then again in Saint Peter's in Rome, the liturgical renewal
of the Second Vatican Council took shape in an exemplary way, so in the
communion of the Synod the conciliar ecclesiology was lived out in a
very practical way. We were also able to hear very moving accounts by
members of the faithful from Africa
accounts of concrete suffering and reconciliation in the tragedies of
the Continent's recent history.
The Synod had as its theme:
The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.
This is a theological and, especially, a pastoral theme of great
timeliness, but it could have been misunderstood as being a political
theme. The task of the Bishops was to transform theology into pastoral
care, namely into a very concrete pastoral ministry in which the great
perspectives found in sacred Scripture and Tradition find application in
the activity of Bishops and priests in specific times and places. Here,
however, it was necessary not to succumb to the temptation to enter
personally into politics and, from being Pastors, to become political
In fact, the very practical
question that Pastors constantly have to face is precisely this: how can
we be realistic and practical without claiming a political competence
that does not belong to us? We might also say: it was the problem of a
positive "laicity", practised and interpreted correctly. This is also a
fundamental theme of the Encyclical Caritas in Veritate,
published on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which thus took up and
further developed the question of the theological and practical role of
the Church's social doctrine.
Did the Synod Fathers
succeed in finding the rather narrow path between mere theological
theory and immediate political action, the path of the "shepherd"?
In my brief address at the
end of the Synod I answered this question in the affirmative, in a
conscious and explicit way. Of course, in drafting the Post-Synodal
Document we will need to pay attention to maintaining this balance and
thereby make that contribution to the Church and society in Africa which
has been entrusted to the Church by virtue of her mission.
I would like to try to
explain this briefly with regard to a single point. As has been said,
the theme of the Synod designated three great words which are basic to
theological and social responsibility: reconciliation
One might say that
reconciliation and justice are the two essential premises of peace and
that, therefore, to a certain extent, they also define its nature. Let
us limit ourselves to the word "reconciliation". A mere glance at the
sufferings and sorrows of recent history in Africa, but also in many
other parts of the world, shows that unresolved and deeply rooted
disputes can in some situations cause outbreaks of violence in which
every trace of humanity seems to disappear. Peace can only be achieved
as the result of inner reconciliation. We may consider the history of
Europe following the Second World War as a positive example of a process
of reconciliation that is succeeding.
The fact that since 1945
there have been no more wars in Western and Central Europe has without a
doubt been due primarily to wise and ethically oriented political and
economic structures, but these were only able to develop because of the
prior existence of inner processes of reconciliation which made possible
a new coexistence.
Every society needs acts of
reconciliation in order to enjoy peace. These acts are a prerequisite of
a good political order, but they cannot be achieved by politics alone.
They are pre-political processes and they must spring from other
The Synod sought to examine
in depth the concept of reconciliation as a task for the Church in our
day, and called attention to its various dimensions. Today Saint Paul's
appeal to the Corinthians has again proved most timely. "We are
ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you
on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5:20).
If man is not reconciled
with God, he is also in conflict with creation. He is not reconciled
with himself, he would like to be something other than what he is and
consequently he is not reconciled with his neighbour either. Part of
reconciliation is also the ability to acknowledge guilt and to ask
from God and from others.
Lastly, part of the process
of reconciliation is also the readiness to do penance, the willingness
to suffer deeply for one's sin and to allow oneself to be transformed.
Part of this is the
gratuitousness of which the Encyclical Caritas in Veritate
speaks repeatedly: the readiness to do more than what is necessary,
not to tally costs, but to go beyond merely legal requirements. Part of
this is the generosity which God himself has shown us. We think of
Jesus' words: "If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there
remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift
there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and
then come and offer your gift" (Mt 5:23ff.).
God, knowing that we were
unreconciled and seeing that we have something against him, rose up and
came to meet us, even though he alone was in the right. He came to meet
us even to the Cross, in order to reconcile us. This is what it means to
give freely: a willingness to take the first step; to be the first to
reach out to the other, to offer reconciliation, to accept the suffering
entailed in giving up being in the right.
To persevere in the desire
for reconciliation: God gave us an example, and this is the way for us
to become like him; it is an attitude constantly needed in our world.
Today we must learn once more how to acknowledge guilt,
we must shake off the illusion of being innocent. We must learn how to
do penance, to let ourselves be transformed; to reach out to the other
and to let God give us the courage and strength for this renewal.
Today, in this world of
ours, we need to rediscover the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
The fact that it has largely disappeared from the daily life and habits
of Christians is a symptom of a loss of truthfulness with regard both to
ourselves and to God; a loss that endangers our humanity and diminishes
our capacity for peace.
Saint Bonaventure was of
the opinion that the Sacrament of Penance was a sacrament of humanity as
such, a sacrament that God had instituted in its essence immediately
after original sin through the penance he imposed on Adam, even though
it could only take on its full shape in Christ, who is the reconciling
power of God in person and who took our penance upon himself. In fact,
the unity of sin, repentance and forgiveness is one of the fundamental
conditions for being truly human: these conditions find complete
expression in the sacrament, yet in their deepest roots they are part of
the experience of being human persons as such.
Thus the Synod of Bishops
for Africa was right to reflect also on the rites of reconciliation
found in the African tradition, as places of learning and preparation
for the great reconciliation which God gives in the Sacrament of
however, demands the broad "forecourt" of the acknowledgement of sin and
humble repentance. Reconciliation is a pre-political concept and a
pre-political reality, and for this very reason it is of the greatest
importance for the task of politics itself.
Unless the power of
reconciliation is created in people's hearts, political commitment to
peace lacks its inner premise.
At the Synod, the Pastors
of the Church strove for that inner purification of man which is the
essential prior condition for building justice and peace. But this
purification and inner development towards true humanity cannot exist
this key word brings to mind the second important journey of the year:
my pilgrimage to Jordan and the Holy Land.
In this regard I would like
first of all to thank warmly the King of Jordan for the great
hospitality with which he welcomed me and accompanied me throughout my
pilgrimage. My gratitude more especially concerns the exemplary way in
which he has worked for peaceful coexistence between Christians and
Muslims, respect for the religion of others, and for cooperation in our
common responsibility before God.
I also heartily thank the
Government of Israel for all it did to enable my visit to take place
peacefully and safely. I am particularly grateful for the possibility
granted me to celebrate two great public liturgies
in Jerusalem and Nazareth
in which Christians were able to appear
publicly as communities of faith in the Holy Land.
Lastly, my thanks go also
to the Palestinian Authority which likewise
welcomed me with great cordiality; it too
gave me the possibility of presiding at a public liturgical celebration
in Bethlehem and of coming to know the sufferings as well as the hopes
of the Territory. Everything that can be seen in those countries cries
out for reconciliation, justice and peace.
My visit to Yad Vashem
represented an overwhelming encounter with the cruelty of human sin,
with the hatred of a blind ideology which, with no justification,
consigned millions of human beings to death and thereby, in the end,
even wished to eliminate God from the world, the God of Abraham, Isaac
and Jacob, and the God of Jesus Christ.
Thus, Yad Vashem is, in the
first place, a memorial against hatred, a heartfelt appeal for
purification and forgiveness, for love. This very monument to human sin
made all the more important my visit to the places commemorating the
faith, and allowed us to perceive their continuing relevance.
In Jordan we saw the lowest
point of the land along the River Jordan. How could one not be reminded
of the words of the Letter to the Ephesians, which tell us that Christ
"descended into the lower parts of the earth" (Eph 4:9).
In Christ God descended to
the lowest depths of the human being, even into the night of hatred and
blindness, the darkness of man's distance from God, in order to kindle
there the flame of his love. He is present in even the darkest night:
"if I go down to the nether world, behold, you are there": this phrase
of Psalm 139:8 became a reality in Jesus' descent. Thus the
encounter with the places of salvation in the Church of the Annunciation
in Nazareth, in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, at the site of
the Crucifixion on Calvary, and before the empty tomb, witness to the
Resurrection, was in some sense to touch the history of God with us.
Faith is not a myth. It is
real history whose traces are tangible for us. This realism of faith
does us good, especially amid the turmoil of the present time. God truly
revealed himself. In Jesus Christ he truly became flesh. As the Risen
One, Jesus remains true man, he ceaselessly opens our humanity to God
and always proves that God is a God who is near. Yes, God is alive and
relates to us. In all his grandeur he is still the God who is near,
"God-with-us", who continually calls out to us: let yourselves be
reconciled, with me and with one another! He always sets before our
personal and community life the task of reconciliation.
Finally, I would like once
again to express my joy and gratitude for my Visit to the Czech
Republic. Prior to this Journey I had always been told that it was a
country with a majority of agnostics and atheists, in which Christians
are now only a minority. All the more joyful was my surprise at seeing
myself surrounded everywhere by great cordiality and friendliness, that
the important liturgies were celebrated in a joyful atmosphere of faith;
that in the setting of the University and the world of culture my words
were attentively listened to; and that the state authorities treated me
with great courtesy and did their utmost to contribute to the success of
I could now be tempted to
say something about the beauty of the country and the magnificent
testimonies of Christian culture which only make this beauty perfect.
But I consider most important the fact that we, as believers, must have
at heart even those people who consider themselves agnostics or
When we speak of a new
evangelization these people are perhaps taken aback. They do not want to
see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of
thought and will. Yet the question of God remains present even for them,
even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his concern for
In Paris, I spoke of the
quest for God as the fundamental reason why Western monasticism, and
with it, Western culture, came into being.
As the first step of
evangelization we must seek to keep this quest alive; we must be
concerned that human beings do not set aside the question of God, but
rather see it as an essential question for their lives. We must make
sure that they are open to this question and to the yearning concealed
Here I think naturally of
the words which Jesus quoted from the Prophet Isaiah, namely that the
Temple must be a house of prayer for all the nations (cf. Is 56:7; Mk
11:17). Jesus was thinking of the so-called "Court of the Gentiles"
which he cleared of extraneous affairs so that it could be a free space
for the Gentiles who wished to pray there to the one God, even if they
could not take part in the mystery for whose service the inner part of
the Temple was reserved.
A place of prayer for all
by this he was thinking of people who know God, so to speak, only from
afar; who are dissatisfied with their own gods, rites and myths; who
desire the Pure and the Great, even if God remains for them the "unknown
God" (cf. Acts 17:23).
They had to pray to the
unknown God, yet in this way they were somehow in touch with the true
God, albeit amid all kinds of obscurity. I think that today too the
Church should open a sort of "Court of the Gentiles" in which people
might in some way latch on to God, without knowing him and before
gaining access to his mystery, at whose service the inner life of the
Today, in addition to
interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom
religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who
nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw
near to him, albeit as the Unknown.
Finally, once again, a word
about the Year for Priests. As priests we are available to all: to those
who know God at first hand and to those for whom he is the Unknown. We
all need to become acquainted with him ever anew, and we need to seek
him constantly in order to become true friends of God.
How, in the end, can we get
to know God other than through those people who are friends of God? The
inmost core of our priestly ministry consists of our being Christ's
friends (cf. Jn 15:15), friends of God through whom others may also
discover God's closeness.
And so, together with my
profound gratitude for all the assistance which you have given to me
throughout the past year, these are my good wishes for Christmas: may we
become ever closer friends of Christ and thus friends of God, and so
become the salt of the earth and the light of the world. I wish all of
you a Holy Christmas and a Happy New Year!