Pope's Christmas Address to Roman Curia

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

The world situation constitutes a pressing appeal for the spirit of Assisi

On Monday 22 December the Holy Father received in audience the cardinals and members of the Roman Curia. The Christmas greetings of those present were conveyed by Cardinal Agnelo Rossi, Dean of the College of Cardinals, to the Pope, who then gave the following address.

1. It is with particular joy that I greet you in this traditional meeting which sees us gathered together to exchange with one another greetings for Christmas and for the New Year. I thank the new Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals for the noble words with which he has expressed the sentiments that are suggested by this occasion of family closeness.

In these days immediately preceding the great feast of Christmas, in which we both celebrate and recall the Word of God, life and light of men (cf. Jn 1:4), who for our sake "became flesh and came to dwell in our midst" (Jn 1:14), my spirit spontaneously relives with you, revered and dear brothers of the Roman Curia, what seems to have been the religious event that attracted the greatest attention in the world in this year which is drawing to its close: the World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi on 27 October last.

Indeed, on that day, and in the prayer which was its motivation and its entire content, there seemed for a moment to be even a visible expression of the hidden but radical unity which the divine Word, "in whom everything was created, and in whom everything exists" (Col 1: 16; Jn 1:3), has established among the men and women of this world, both those who now share together the anxieties and the joys of this portion of the twentieth century, and those who have gone before us in history, and also those who will take up our places "until the Lord comes" (cf. 1 Cor 11:26). The fact that we came together in Assisi to pray, to fast and to walk in silence—and this, in support of the peace which is always fragile and threatened, perhaps today more than ever—has been, as it were, a clear sign of the profound unity of those who seek in religion spiritual and transcendent values that respond to the great questions of the human heart, despite the concrete divisions (cf. Nostra Aetate, 1).

New way of commitment to peace

2. This event seems to me to have been so significant that it itself invites us to reflect more deeply, in order to see ever more clearly its meaning, in the light of the now imminent commemoration of the coming of the eternal Son of God in the flesh.

It is indeed obvious that we cannot remain content with the fact itself and its successful realization. It is certain that the Day of Assisi urges all whose personal and community life is guided by a conviction of faith to draw its consequences in a deeper understanding of peace and of a new way of committing oneself to peace. Apart from this, and perhaps in the very first place, the day invites us to an "exegesis" of what happened at Assisi and of its intimate meaning, in the light of our Christian and Catholic faith. The appropriate key to interpret such a great event derives from the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which in a breathtaking way associates rigorous fidelity to the biblical revelation and to the tradition of the Church with awareness of the needs and the anxieties of our times, expressed in such eloquent "signs" (cf. Gaudium etSpes, 4).

3. More than once, the Council established a relationship between the very identity and the mission of the Church on the one hand, and the unity of the human race on the other, especially when it chose to define the Church "as a sacrament, i.e. a sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of all the human race" (Lumen Gentium, 1; 9;cf. Gaudium et Spes, 42).

This radical unity, which belongs to the very identity of the human being, is based on the mystery of the divine creation. The one God inwhom we believe, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Most Holy Trinity, created man and woman with a particular attention, according to the narrative in Genesis (cf. Gen 1:26 ff.; 2:7, 18-24). This affirmation contains and communicates a profound truth: the unity of the divine origin of all the human family, of every man and woman, which is reflected in the unity of the divine image which each one bears in himself (cf. Gen 1:26) and per se gives the orientation to a common goal (cf. Nostra Aetate, 1)."You have made us for yourself, O Lord", exclaims St Augustine, in the fullness of his maturity as a thinker, "and our heart has no rest, until it rests in you" (Conf. 1).The dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum declares that "God, who creates and conserves all things by his Word, provides men with constant evidence of himself... and he has never ceased to take care of the human race, for he wishes to give eternal life to all who seek salvation through perseverance in doing good" (Dei Verbum, 3).Accordingly, there is only one divine plan for every human being who comes into this world (cf. Jn 1:9), one single origin and goal, whatever may be the colour of his skin, the historical and geographical framework within which he happens to live and act, or the culture in which he grows up and expresses himself. The differences are a less important element, when confronted with the unity which is radical, fundamental and decisive.

4. The divine plan, unique and definitive, has its centre in Jesus Christ, God and man, "in whom men find the fullness of their religious life, and in whom God has reconciled all things to himself" (Nostra Aetate, 2).Just as there is no man or woman who does not bear the sign of his or her divine origin, so there is no one who can remain outside or on the margins of the work of Jesus Christ who "died for all" and is therefore "the Saviour of the world" (cf. Jn 4:42). "We must therefore hold that the Holy Spirit gives to all men the possibility of coining into contact with the paschal mystery, in the way that God alone knows" (Gaudium et Spes, 22).

As we read in the first Letter to Timothy, God "wills that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is only one God, and one mediator between God and men" (1 Tim 2:4-6).

This radiant mystery of the created unity of the human race, and of the unity of the salvific work of Christ, which brings with it the birth of the Church as its minister and instrument, was manifested clearly at Assisi, in spite of the differences between the religious professions, which were not at all concealed or watered down.

Order of Unity

5. In the light of this mystery, it becomes clear that the differences of every type, and first of all the religious differences, belong to another order, to the extent that they derive from the design of God. If it is the order of unity that goes back to creation and redemption and is therefore, in this sense, "divine", such differences—and even religious divergences—go back rather to a "human fact", and must be overcome in progress towards the realization of the mighty plan of unity which dominates the creation. There are undeniably differences that reflect the genius and the spiritual "riches" which God has given to the peoples (cf. AdGentes, 11).I am not referring to these divergences; I intend here to speak of the differences in which are revealed the limitation, the evolutions and the falls of the human spirit which is undermined by the spirit of evil in history (Lumen Gentium, 16).

It may be the case that persons are often unaware of this radical unity of their origin and destination, and their place in one and the same divine plan; and when they profess religions which are diverse and mutually incompatible, they can also feel that their divisions are insuperable. Yet despite these divisions, they are included in the great and unique design of God, in Jesus Christ, who "has united himself in a certain manner to every man" (Gaudium et Spes, 22),even if the person in question is not aware of this.

6. In this great design of God for humanity, the Church finds her identity and her task as "universal sacrament of salvation" precisely in being "a sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race" (Lumen Gentium, 1); this means that the Church is called to work with all her energies (evangelization, prayer, dialogue) so that the wounds and divisions of men—which separate them from their Origin and Goal, and make them hostile to one another—may be healed; it means also that the entire human race, in the infinite complexity of its history, with its different cultures, is "called to form the new People of God" (Lumen Gentium, 13)in which the blessed union of God with man and the unity of the human family are healed, consolidated, and raised up: "All persons, accordingly, are called to this catholic unity of the people of God, which prefigures and promotes universal peace, and to which, in various ways, belong or are orientated both the Catholic faithful and the others who believe in Christ, and finally all who have been called to salvation by the grace of God" (ibid.).

7. The universal unity based on the event of creation and redemption cannot fail to leave a trace in the lived reality of people, even when they belong to different religions. For this reason, the Council invited the Church to discover and respect the seeds of the Word present in such religions (Ad Gentes, 11),and affirmed that all those who have not yet received the Gospel are "orientated" towards the supreme unity of the people of God, to which all Christians already belong through his grace and through the gift of faith and of baptism, and to which the Catholics "who conserve the unity of communion under the Successor of Peter" know that they "are united for further reasons" (cf. Lumen Gentium, 15).

It is precisely the real and objective value of this "orientation" towards the unity of the one People of God—which is often hidden from our eyes—that can be glimpsed anew in the Day of Assisi; and in the prayer with the Christian representatives who were present, there is the profound communion which already exists between us in Christ and in the Spirit, a communion that is living and active even if as yet incomplete, and which was manifested in its own particular way.

The event of Assisi can thus be considered as a visible illustration, an exegesis of the events, a catechesis, intelligible to all, of what is presupposed and signified by the commitment to ecumenism and to the inter-religious dialogue which was recommended and promoted by the Second Vatican Council.

8. The source of inspiration, and the fundamental orientation, for such a commitment is always the mystery of unity, both the unity already attained in Christ through faith and baptism and the unity which is expressed in the condition of being "orientated" towards the People of God and hence is still to be attained perfectly.

Thus, as the first unity finds its adequate expression in the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio onecumenism, which continues to be valid, the second unity is formulated, on the level of inter-religious relationships and dialogue, in the Declaration Nostra Aetate. Both of these are to be read in the context of the Constitution Lumen Gentium.

And it is within this second dimension—still somewhat novel, when compared with the first—that the Day of Assisi offers us precious elements for our reflection, elements that are illuminated by an attentive reading of this Declaration on the non-Christian religions.

Here too, the Council speaks of the "one community" formed by people in this world (n. 1) and explains this as the fruit of the "one origin" held in common, "because God made the entire human race dwell on all the face of the earth" (ibid.), so that the race might make towards "one single ultimate goal, God, whose providence, testimony of goodness and plan of salvation include all persons, so that the elect may come together in the Holy City which will be lit up by the glory of God, and where the peoples will walk in his light" (ibid.).

In the paragraphs that follow, the Declaration teaches us to appreciate the various non-Christian religions within this general framework of our radical unity, while at the same time emphasizing the authentic values that distinguish these religions in their endeavour to respond "to the obscure puzzles of the human condition" (ibid.); in this endeavour, the Council wishes to see "a ray of that truth that enlightens all men" (n. 2). And thus "the Catholic Church rejects nothing in these religions that is true and holy", and indeed "exhorts her children with prudence and charity... while always bearing witness to the Christian faith and life, to recognize, conserve and promote the spiritual, moral and social values that are found in them" (ibid.).

In doing this, the Church intends above all to recognize and respect that "orientation" to the People of God of which the Constitution Lumen Gentium speaks (n. 16), to which I have referred earlier. When the Church behaves in this way, she is aware that she follows a divine indication, because it is the Creator and Redeemer who, in his plan of love, has ordained this mysterious relationship between religious men and women and theunity of the People of God.

There is above all a relationship with the Hebrew People: "that people to whom were given the covenants and the promises, and of whom Christ was born according to the flesh" (Lumen, Gentium, 16), and who is united to us by a spiritual "bond" (cf. N.E., 2).There is also a relationship to "those who recognize the Creator, and among these in the first place are the Muslims who, professing to maintain the faith of Abraham, adore together with us a God who is unique and mysterious, and who will judge men on the last day" (Lumen Gentium, 16).

Furthermore, there is a relationship to those "who seek an unknown God in shadows and images", and from whom "God himself is not far off" (cf. Lumen Gentium, 19).

Unity of origin and goal of the human family

9. The Day of Assisi, showing the Catholic Church holding the hands of brother Christians, and showing us all these joining hands with the brothers of the other religions, was a visible expression of these statements of the Second Vatican Council. With this day, and by means of it, we have succeeded, by the grace of God, in realizing this conviction of ours, inculcated by the Council, about the unity of the origin and goal of the human family, and about the meaning and the value of the non-Christian religions—without the least shadow of confusion or syncretism.

Has not the day taught us to read afresh, in our turn, with eyes more open and penetrating, the rich teaching of the Council about the salvific plan of God, about the centrality of this plan in Jesus Christ, and about the profound unity which is the starting-point and the goal of this plan, by means of the ministry of the Church? The Catholic Church revealed herself to her children and to the world in the exercise of her function of "promoting unity and charity among men, indeed, among the peoples" (NostraAetate, 1).

In this sense, one must say also that the very identity of the Catholic Church and her self-awareness have been reinforced at Assisi. For the Church—that is, we ourselves—has understood better, in the light of this event, what is the true sense of the mystery ofunity and reconciliation which the Lord has entrusted to us, and which he himself carried out first, when he offered his life "not for the people only, but also to unite the children of God who had been scattered abroad" (Jn 11:52).

10. The Church carries out this essential ministry of hers in various ways: through evangelization, the administration of the sacraments, and the pastoral guidance by the Successor of Peter and by the bishops, through the daily service of the priests, the deacons, and the religious, through the endeavours and the witness of missionaries and catechists, through the silent prayer of the contemplatives and the suffering ofthe sick, the poor and the oppressed, and through so many forms of dialogue and collaboration between Christians in order to put into effect the ideals of the Beatitudes and to promote the values of the Kingdom of God.

The Church carried out this ministry at Assisi too, in a manner hitherto unknown, but nonetheless effective and laborious, as was acknowledged by our guests, who expressed their joy and urged that we continue along the path we had begun.

Apart from this, the situation of the world—as we see it on this eve of Christmas—is itself a dramatic appeal to rediscover and keep alwaysalive the spirit of Assisi, as a. motive of hope for the future.

11. At Assisi, in an extraordinary way, there was the discovery of the unique value that prayer has for peace; indeed, it was seen that it is impossible to have peace without prayer, the prayer of all, each one in his own identity and in search of the truth. In keeping with what we have said, one must see in this another wonderful manifestation of that unity which binds us together, beyond the differences and divisions which are known to all. Every authentic prayer is under the influence of the Spirit "who intercedes insistently for us... because we do not even know how to pray as we ought", but he prays in us "with unutterable groanings" and "the One who searches hearts knows what are the desires of the Spirit" (cf. Rom 8:26-27). We can indeed maintain that every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person.

This too was seen at Assisi: the unity that comes from the fact that every man and woman is capable of praying, that is, of submitting oneself totally to God and of recognizing oneself to be poor in front of him. Prayer is one of the means to realize the plan of God among men (cf. Ad Gentes, 3).

In this way, it was seen that the world cannot give peace (cf. Jn 14:27), but that peace is a gift of God, and that it is necessary to entreat it of him by means of the prayers of all.

12. As I suggest these reflections on the extraordinary event which took place at Assisi on 27 October last to you, the cardinals, archbishops, bishops and members of the Roman Curia, my desire is above all that this may help us to prepare ourselves better to receive

once again the Word in whom "all things were created" (cf. Jn 1:3) and by whom all are called to "have life, and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10), and who, with his coining, his death and his resurrection, wished "to recapitulate all things in himself, the things of heaven and the things of the earth" (cf. Eph 1: 10).

"With the incarnation, he united himself in a certain manner to every person" (Gaudium etSpes, 22), and to him I wish once more to entrust the sequel that is to be given to the Day of Assisi and to the commitments which all in the Church must take on, or are already taking on, in order to respond to the fundamental vocation of the Church among mankind to be "the sacrament of universal redemption" and "the mighty seed of unity and of hope for all humanity" (Lumen Gentium, 9).

I am certain that all of you, collaborators of the Roman Curia, are deeply aware of this mission; and I thank you for this, as well as for the irreplaceable help which you offer me day after day in the service of the Universal Church, together with the papal representatives in the various countries of the world.

13. And while I express to you all my most fervent Christmas wishes, I should like to renew the expression of my gratitude to all those who have accepted my invitation, not without difficulties and inconveniences, and have inspired us by their example, not only to bear witness before the world to the common commitment to peace, but also to reflect on the mystery of the work of God in the world. It is this mystery that we wish to serve; and we now prepare to celebrate its supreme moment in the fullness of time, in the night of Christmas, under the maternal eye of Mary.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 January 1987, page 6

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