The Ideal Concept of the Christian Life

Author: Pope Paul VI


Pope Paul VI

In the Public Hall at Castel Gandolfo on Wednesday, August 7th the Holy Father addressed his audience on the theme, "The Christian Man".

Beloved Sons and Daughters,

Stimulated by the recent Council, we should like to trace out just what is the concept of man modelled on the Christian life.


Now the Christian life may be defined as a continual search for perfection. This definition is not complete, because it is purely subjective, and omits many other aspects of the Christian life. It is exact, however, in the sense that the kingdom of God, the economy of salvation, the relationship established by Christianity between our littleness and the greatness of God, His ineffable transcendence, His infinite goodness demands a transformation, a purification, a moral and spiritual elevation of man called to so great a destiny. It requires the search for, and the effort toward a personal state of feeling, thought and mentality, a way of conduct, and a wealth of grace and gifts that we call perfection.


Everyone sees that modern man is continually looking for something new and different from what he is. His restlessness, his critical spirit, his conviction that he can change his very existence, his thirst for fulfilment, pleasure and happiness, his strain toward a new humanism—all prove the truth of that. Perhaps Christianity itself introduced to humanity the first stirrings of this ferment. And so, in certain respects, the Christian and the modern man present characteristics that are very much alike.


But the search for the ideal man, differs greatly in the two concepts, the Christian and the profane. (This is a practical classification in this simple discourse.) We can get the difference between the two concepts both as regards human perfection and the ways of obtaining it, particularly from the pedagogical field where teachers work for the formation of the true, complete and perfect man.

Let us note in passing how the two concepts run through the itinerary of life in contrary directions. The Christian ideal begins with the known premise of the dignity of man and his perfectibility, but based at the same time on a two-fold negative observation: the one derives from his inheritance of original sin which has weakened the very nature of man, giving rise to a lack of balance, deficiencies and weakness of his faculties. The other denies the ability of human power alone to reach the true perfection which is necessary to man’s salvation, namely his sharing in the life of God through grace. And from these premises the concept of Christian perfection unfolds itself as a victory achieved through grace and a patient practice of the natural and supernatural virtues. Perfection becomes possible, progressive and certain of final fulfilment.

On the contrary, the other concept, the profane, as we call it, begins with optimistic premises; man born without congenital, moral imperfections, naturally good and holy, and favoured by an education that allows him free development, possesses sufficient strength to reach his ideal stature in its fulness on condition that his environment does not hinder the spontaneous expression of his faculties. But too often experience, in fact, contradicts this optimism that soon gives way to a pessimistic vision—they call it realistic—about which Literature and psychology offer very sad examples (cfr. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n. 10).


The point that seems to deserve our consideration is the reform that man must work in himself. We spoke about it in our first Encyclical, "Ecclesiam suam". But discussion on this topic is never finished. The word "reform" has had many meanings. There is on about which We do not now intend to speak, namely, the historico-religious Protestant Reformation. Today this term "reform" is in vogue again and dominates the evolutionary and innovating changes of modern life. And it is in this sense, predominantly external, that it recurs again and again in the discussions on the Church. It seems to be suggested by another word "aggiornamento" or renewal. Neither do we intend to discuss the meaning of this word. Suffice it to note that many, interested in giving Christianity a living and modern expression, put a great deal of faith and trust in exterior and juridical transformation of the Church, in a change of "structure", as they say. How often this longed-for reform consists merely in a conformity to the mentality and manner of our time.


Under various aspects there may be a plausible need for organizational and pastoral changes in the canonical legislation of the church. The revision of Canon law now going on is directed to this need. But for that which interests us now, it would not be sufficient to look at exterior reform only, however compelling and lawful it might be. On the one hand, it would be illusory to build a Church inconsistent with its established traditions, designed according to arbitrary structures and improvised by unauthorized reformers, as though the Church could ignore what is derived from the constitutional principles established by Christ Himself. It would be illusory, on the other hand, if the reform, even though promoted by sincere spirituality, should fall into the mould of secular life heedless of the requirements proper to faith and devoted attachment to the cross of the Lord. The admonitions of St. Paul sound in our ear: "Do not be conformed to this world" (cfr. Rom. 12,2), "lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power" (1 Cor. 1,17).


It is precisely of that interior reform to which St. Paul refers, that we are going to speak. "Be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Rom. 12,2). And this is the most necessary reform and the most difficult. Change your thoughts, your tastes, according to the Will of God; correct those faults that we often boast of as our principles and qualities; search for a continual interior uprightness of feelings and resolutions. Let yourselves be really guided by the love of God and, consequently, by the love of your neighbour. Listen truly to the word of the Lord, and accustom yourself to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit with humility and interior silence, nourish that "sense of the Church" that makes it easy for you to understand how much of the divine and how much of the human is in it. Make yourselves available with simplicity and a spirit of sacrifice that facilitates charity and the generous following of Christ. This is the reform which, before every other, is demanded of us. It is that which the council preaches surprisingly enough in the context of ecumenism: "As every renewal of the Church consists, especially, in increased fidelity to one’s vocation, it is without doubt the cause of the movement toward unity. The Pilgrim Church is called to this continual reform. There is no true ecumenism without a change of heart" (Decree on Ecumenism, nn. 6 and 7).

Two precious concepts on the theme of Christian perfection are: conversion (the celebrated "metanoia"), and its continual progress.

We must be converted, that is, better ourselves continually. These are concepts that we can find in other Conciliar documents, especially in the one relating to religious perfection. For religious perfection requires that we are bound not merely by occasional and fleeting resolutions, but by vows that are binding, lasting and perpetual.

Dear Sons, if we were to ask the Lord what we ought to do in order to be truly faithful, and remembering that all, because they are baptized, because they are members of the Church in various ways, are called to sanctity (cfr. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church nn. 11 and 40), he would finish for each of us his charming reply: "If you wish to be perfect…" (Matt. 19,20) Let each of us listen to the mysterious and divine Voice in the depths of our own conscience.

So may our Apostolic Blessing help you, dear Sons and Daughters!

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 August 1968, page 8

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