12/22/2005, 00.00
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Pope: Christ's Christmas and 2005 "which is about to set"

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – With an imposing speech to members of the Roman Curia to mark the exchange of Christmas greetings, Benedict XVI today offered to them and the rest of the world a profound and moving letter, touching upon the salient events of this year about to draw to a close: from the last days of Wojtyla and his "chair of suffering and silence" to questions about the persistence of evil in the world; from the World Youth Day to the rediscovery of faith and adoration among youth; from an evaluation of the Second Vatican Council to an analysis about what is true and false reform in the Church. There are also important references to dialogue of the Church with the modern world on questions of relativism and freedom of worship, and of the place of faith and mission in the modern, secularized world. A milestone in this pope's pontificate. We present in its entirety (translation by AsiaNews).


Dear Cardinals,

venerable brothers in the episcopate and the priesthood,

dear brothers and sisters!

"Expergiscere, homo: quia pro te Deus factus est homo – Arise, man, because God has made himself man for you" (St Augustine, Discourses, 185). With this invitation of St Augustine to grasp the true meaning of the Christmas of Christ, I open my meeting with you, dear collaborators of the Roman Curia, as the Christmas festivities draw nearer. To each one of you, I extend an affectionate greeting, thanking you for the sentiments of devotion and affection, expressed efficiently by Cardinal Dean, to whom my grateful sentiments go. God became man for us: this is the message which each year spreads from the silent grotto of Bethlehem to the farthest ends of the earth. Christmas is a feast of light and of peace, it is a day of interior wonder and joy which spreads across the universe because "God made himself man". From a humble grotto in Bethlehem, the eternal Son of God became a little Child, turning to each one of us: he calls upon us, invites us to be born again with him because, together with him, we can live eternally in communion with the Most Holy Trinity.

With hearts full of joy arising from this awareness, let us go back in our minds to the events of the year which is about to set. Great events which left a deep impact on the life of the Church lie just behind us.

The memory of John Paul II

I think first of all of the departure of our loved Holy Father John Paul II, preceded by a long journey of suffering and gradual loss of speech. No pope has left us a quantity of texts comparable to what he left us: no Pope was previously able to visit the world, as he did, and to talk directly to men of all the continents. But at the end, his was a journey of suffering and silence. Unforgettable images, which will stay with us forever, recall Palm Sunday when, with a palm branch in his hand and wracked by pain, he stayed at the window and gave us the blessing of the Lord, about to walk towards the Cross. Then the image in his private chapel, holding the Crucifix in his hand, participating in the Via Crucis in the Colosseum, where he had led the procession so many times, bearing the Cross himself. And finally, the mute blessing on Easter Sunday, when we saw through the pain, the promise of the resurrection, of eternal life, shining. The Holy Father, with his words and actions, gave us great things; but no less important was the lesson he gave us from the school of suffering and silence. In his last book, "Memoria e Identità (Memory and Identity)" (Rizzoli 2005), he left us an interpretation of suffering which is not a theological or a philosophical theory, but the long-matured fruit of his own personal journey of suffering, travelled with the help of faith in the Crucified Lord. This interpretation, which he elaborated in faith and which gave meaning to his suffering lived in communion with that of the Lord, spoke through his dumb pain, transforming it into a great message. Both at the beginning, and once again at the end of the above-mentioned book, the Pope showed himself to be deeply touched by the sight of the power of evil, which we experienced so dramatically in the century which has just come to a close. He says in the text: "It was not evil on a small scale… it was an evil of gigantic proportions, an evil which made use of state structures to undertake its ill-omened work, an evil set into the system" (page 198). Is evil perhaps invincible? Is it really the ultimate power in history? Precisely because of the experience of evil, the question of redemption became the essential and central question of Pope Wojtyla's life and thoughts as a Christian. Is there a limit against which the power of evil is shattered? Yes, there is, answered the Pope in this book of his, as he did in his Encyclical on redemption. The power which limits evil is divine mercy. Divine mercy opposes violence and the posturing of evil – as the "totally other" of God, as the power of God – throughout history. We can say with the Apocalypse that the lamb is stronger than the dragon.

At the end of the book, looking back retrospectively at the attack on 13 May 1981 and even on the basis of the experience of his journey with God and with the world, John Paul II deepened his response further. That which poses limits on the power of evil, the power which ultimately wins over is – this is what he tells us- the suffering of God, the suffering of the Son of God on the Cross: "The suffering of the crucified God is not only a form of suffering like the others… Christ, suffering for all of us, conferred a new meaning upon suffering, he introduced it in a new dimension, in a new order: that of love… The passion of Christ on the Cross gave a radically new meaning to suffering, he transformed it from within… it is a suffering which burns and consumes evil with the flame of love… Each human suffering, each pain, each infirmity encloses a promise of salvation… Christ is the Redeemer of the world: 'By his bruises we are healed' (Is 53, 5)". (pag. 198 ss.). All this is not merely well-versed theology, but an expression of faith lived and matured in suffering. Certainly, we need to do all we can to alleviate suffering and to impede the injustice which provokes suffering of the innocents. All the same, we must also do our all so that all men may be able to discover the meaning of suffering, to be thus able to accept their own suffering and to unite it to the suffering of Christ. In this way, it merges with the redeeming love and becomes, as a consequence, a force against the evil of the world. The answer the world had with the death of the Pope was an overwhelming manifestation of recognition of the fact that in his ministry, he had given himself totally to God for the world: a thank-you for the fact that he, in a world full of hate and violence, taught us once again about love and suffering in the service of others; he showed us, so to speak, the Redeemer and redemption live, and gave us the certainty that, in fact, evil does not have the last word in the world.

The World Youth Day in Cologne

I want to mention, albeit briefly, two other events that Pope John Paul II set in motion. They are World Youth Day (WYD) in Cologne and the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist that brought to a close the Year of the Eucharist that John Paul II himself had inaugurated.

All those who participated in World Youth Day shall cherish it as a great gift. More than a million young people gathered in the city of Cologne, on the Rhine River, and in neighbouring towns. They came to hear the Word of God, pray together, receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, sing and celebrate together, enjoy life, and worship and receive the Eucharistic Lord in the great Saturday evening and Sunday meetings, days filled with joy.

Other than their normal patrolling duties, police had little to do. The Lord had evidently gathered his flock from beyond every border and barrier. In the great communion that we became, he made us feel His presence.The WYD motto—"We have come to worship Him"—evokes two images which from the start favoured the right approach. First, there was the image of the pilgrim, of man transcending his day-to-day activities, setting out on a journey in search of his essential destination, that of truth and life, that of God. Two elements stand out in this image of man on a journey in pursuit of his life's goals. One is an invitation not to see the world around us as just raw material to use but rather as a canvass on which we see the "Creator's handwriting", the love and reason that created the world that the universe talks about, which we can perceive if we pay attention, if our inner senses are awaken and perceptive of what is at the core of reality. Then there is an invitation to listen to the historical revelation which, alone, can offer us the key to understand the silent mystery of creation, showing us the path to the true Master of the world and of history that the poor manger in Bethlehem embodies.

The other image sees man at worship: "We have come to worship Him". Adoration precedes action or change in the world. It alone can truly free us; it alone can give us the bearings we need to act. In an increasingly rudderless world, threatened by a do-it-yourself attitude, we must focus on adoration. All those who attended World Youth Day will never forget the striking silence that united and inspired the million or so young people when the Lord of the Sacrament was placed on the altar. Let our hearts retain the images of Cologne for they continue to make themselves felt.

Without mentioning any name in particular, let me thank all those who made possible World Youth Day. Together, let us especially give thank to the Lord because ultimately only He could give us the experience of those days.

The Synod of the Eucharist

The word "adoration" brings us to the second great event that I want to talk about: the Synod of Bishops and the Year of the Eucharist.With the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia and the apostolic letter Mane nobiscum Domine, Pope John Paul II gave us the essential elements. Through his personal experience of the Eucharistic faith, he also put into practice the teachings of the Church. Informed by the encyclical itself, the Congregation for Divine Worship published the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum to serve as a practical tool for the correct implementation of the Conciliar Constitution on Liturgy and Liturgical Reform. Can anything be added to this in terms of doctrine? The Synod did exactly this thanks to the Fathers of the Church; their contributions mirror the richness of Eucharistic life in today's Church and the inexhaustibility of its Eucharistic faith. Their thoughts shall appear in a post-synodal paper along with Synod's Propositiones.I want to stress here once more a point that I mentioned when talking about World Youth Day: the adoration of the Risen Lord who is in the Eucharist as flesh and blood, body and soul, God and man.It is moving to see that the joy of the Eucharistic worship is reawakening throughout the Church and that it is bearing its fruits.

When the liturgy was being reformed, worshiping during and outside mass was seen as unrelated. At the time, some said that the Eucharistic Bread was not offered for contemplation but to be eaten. Yet, in the Church's experience of prayer this opposition has become meaningless. Did not St Augustine himself say: ". . . nemo autem illam carnem manducat, nisi prius adoraverit; . . . peccemus non adorando (Let no one eat this flesh before adoring it; . . . we would sin if we did not adore it" (cf Enarr. in Ps 98: 9 CCL XXXIX 1385). In fact, we do not just get something out of the Eucharist for it is where people meet and come together. But it is the Son of God who wants to meet and be with us—such union can only occur through adoration. Receiving the Eucharist means adoring He whom we receive. Only this way can we become one with Him. Hence, the development of the Eucharistic adoration in the Middle Ages was the most coherent consequence of the Eucharistic mystery. Only in adoration can the Eucharist be truly received.

The social mission that is in the Eucharist grows out of this personal meeting with the Lord. Its purpose is not only to break down barriers that separate us from the Lord, but also those that divide us amongst ourselves.

The 40th anniversary of the Vatican II Council: discontinuity and reform

The last event of the year that I would like to cover on this occasion is the celebration of the conclusion of the Vatican II Council 40 years ago.  This memory brings to mind a question: What has been the Council's result? Has it been received properly?  What, in how the Council has been received, has been good, what has been insuffiicient or wrong?  What is there still to be done?  No one can deny that in large sections of the Church, the Council's reception has been carried out in a rather different manner, without even wanting to apply to what has happened the description that the great doctor of the Church, Saint Basil, gave of the Church's situation after the Council of Nicaea: he compared it to a naval battle in the darkness of a storm, saying among other things:  Harsh rises the cry of the combatants encountering one another in dispute; already all the Church is almost full of the inarticulate screams, the unintelligible noises, rising from the ceaseless agitations that divert the right rule of the doctrine of true religion... (De Spiritu Sancto, XXX).   It is not a dramatic description such as this that we would want to apply to the post-Council situation, but some of what has happened does reflect itself in it.  The question arises:  Why has the reception given to the Council so far, in large sectors of the Church, been so difficult?  Well, all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or -- as we would say today -- on its correct hermeneutic, on the right key to interpretation and application.  The problems of reception derived from the fact that two contrasting hermeneutics found themselves face to face and battled it out.  One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.  On one hand, there is an interpretation that I would like to call "hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture"; it was frequently able to find favour among mass media, and also a certain sector of modern theology.  On the other hand, there is the "hermeneutics of reform", of the renewal of the continuity of the single Church-subject, which the Lord has given us: it is a subject that grows in time and develops, remaining however always the same, the one subject of the People of God on their way.  Hermeneutics of discontinuity risk leading to a fracture between the pre-Council and post-Council Church.  It asserts that the Council texts as such would still not be the true expression of the spirit of the Council.  They would be the result of compromises within which, to reach unanimity, many old and ultimately useless things had to be dragged along and reconfirmed.  It is, however, not in these compromises that the true spirit of the Council would be revealed, but instead in the drive toward newness that underpin the texts: only this would represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from it and in conformity with it, it would be necessary to go forward.  Precisely because the texts would reflect only imperfectly the true spirit of the Council and its novelty, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts, making room for the new, in which the more profound, even though still indistinct, intention of the Council would express itself.  In short: it would be necessary to follow not the Council texts, but its spirit.  In this way, of course, a huge margin remains for the question of how then to define this spirit and, as a result, room is made for any whimsicality.  With this, however, there is a basic misunderstanding of the nature of a Council as such.  In this way, it is considered as a sort of a constituent assembly, that eliminates an old consitution and creates a new one.  But a constituent assembly needs a mandator and them a confirmation on the part of the mandator, that is the people that the constitution must serve.  The Council Fathers did not have such a mandate and no one had ever given one to them; furthermore, no one could have done so, because the Church's essential constitution comes from the Lord and has been given to us so that we can reach eternal life and, starting from this perspective, we are also able to illuminate life in time and time itself.  Bishops, through the Sacrament they have received, are trustees of the Lord's gift.  They are "stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor 4:1); as such, they must be found "faithful and wise" (cf Luke 12:41-48).  This means they much administer the gift of the Lord in the right way, so that it does not remain hidden in some hiding-place, but bears fruit and the Lord, in the end, can say to the administrator: "Since you have been faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities" (cf Mat 24:14-30, Luke 19:11-27).  This evangelical parable expresses the dynamism of faithfulness, which is of interest in service to the Lord, and it also makes evident how in a Council dynamism and faithfulness must become one. In opposition to the hermeneutics of discontinuity is the hermeneutics of reform, as was presented first by Pope John XXIII in his speech for the Council's opening, October 11, 1962, and then by Pope Paul VI in the closing speech of December 7, 1965.  I would like to quote Pope John XXIII's well known words in which this hermeneutic is unequivocally expressed when he said that the Council "wishes to transmit doctrine pure and whole, without attenuating or falsifying it", and continues: "Our duty is not only to watch over this precious treasure, as if we were only concerned with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with active will and without fear to this work, which our age demands...  It is necessary that this sure and immutable doctrine, faithfully respected, must be deepened and presented in a way that answers the needs of our time.  One thing is in fact the deposit of faith, that is the truths contained in our venerated doctrine, and another thing is the way they are enounced, maintaining nevertheless their same meaning and scope" (S. Oec. Conc. Vat. II Constitutiones Decreta Declarationes, 1974, pp. 863-865).  It is clear that this commitment to expressing a particular truth in a new way calls for fresh reflection upon it and a new relationship with it; it is also clear that the new word can mature only if it derives from an aware understanding of the truth expressed and that, on the other hand, the reflection on faith also requires that this faith is lived.  In this sense, the plan proposed by Pope John XXIII was extremely demanding, just as the synthesis of faithfulness and dynamism is demanding.  But wherever this interpretation has been the guideline for the reception of the Council, there new life has grown and new fruits have matured. Forty years after the Council, we can ascertain that the positive aspects are greater and more vibrant than they appeared in the years around 1968.  Today we can see that the good seed, even if it develops slowly, nevertheless grows, and our profound gratitude for the work carried out by the Council grows along with it. 

The Church and the modern world

Paul VI, in his speech for the Council's closing, then indicated another specific motivation for which the 'hermeneutics of discontinuity' could appear to be convincing. In the great debate concerning the human being that characterizes modern times, the Council had to dedicate itself specifically to the subject of anthropology.  It had to raise questions on the relationship between the Church and her faith, on the one hand, and man and the modern world on the other. (ibid, pp. 1066 s.).  The question becomes still clearer, if in the place of the generic term of "today's world", we choose another more precise one: the Council had to find a new definition of the relationship between the Church and the modern age.  This relationship started out difficultly with the Galileo trial.  It broke completely, when Kant defined "religion within pure reason" and when, in the radical phase of the French Revolution, an image of the state and of man was spread that practically intended to crowd out the Church and faith.  The clash of the Church's faith with a radical liberalism and also with natural sciences that claimed to embrace, with its knowledge, the totality of reality to its outmost borders, stubbornly setting itself to make the "hypothesis of God" superfluous, had provoked in the 19th century under Pius IX, on the part of the Church, a harsh and radical condemnation of this spirit of the modern age.  Thus, there were apparently no grounds for an positive and fruitful agreement, and drastic were also the refusals on the part of those who felt they were the representatives of the modern age.  However, in the meantime, the modern age also had its development.  It was becoming clear that the American Revolution had offered a model of the modern state that was different from that theorized by the radical tendencies that had emerged from the second phase of the French Revolution.  Natural sciences began, in a more and more clear way, to reflect their own limits, imposed by their own method which, though achieving great things, was nevertheless not able to comprehend the totality of reality.  Thus, both sides began to progressively open up to each other.  In the period between the two world wars and even more after the Second World War, Catholic statemen had shown that a modern lay state can exist, which nevertheless is not neutral with respect to values, but lives tapping into the great ethical fonts of Christianity.  Catholic social doctrine, as it developed, had become an important model between radical liberalism and the Marxist theory of the state.  Natural sciences, which would unreservedly profess to its own method in which God had no access, realized ever more clearly that this method was not comprehensive of the totality of reality and thus opened once again their doors to God, knowing that reality is greater than naturalistic method and what it can embrace.  It could be said that three tiers of questions were formed that now, at the hour of Vatican II, awaited a response.  First and foremost, it was necessary to define in a new way the relationship between faith and modern science; this regarded, however, not only natural sciences, but also historical sciences because, in a certain school, the historical-critical method claimed for itself the final words on the interpretation of the Bible and, demanding full exclusiveness for its understanding of Sacred Scriptures, it opposed, on important points, the interpretation that the faith of the Church had elaborated.  Secondly, it was necessary to define in a new way the relationship between the Church and the modern state, which made room to citizens of various religions and ideologies, acting impartially towards these religions and simply taking on the responsibility for the orderly and tolerant coexistence between citizens and for their freedom to exercise their religion.  To this, thirdly, was connected in a more general way the problem of religious tolerance -- a question that called for a new definition of the relationship between Christian faith and religion in the world.  In particular, in the face of the recent crimes of the National-Socialist regime and, in general, in a retrospective look on a long and difficult history, it was necessary to evaluate and define in a new way the relationship between the Church and the faith of Israel. 

These are all important subjects upon which we cannot now dwell much here. It is clear that in all these sectors, which together are one problem, some discontinuities would emerge. Although this may not have been fully appreciated at first, the discontinuities that did emerge—notwithstanding distinct concrete historical situations and their needs—did prevent continuity at the level of principles. The nature of true reform lies in this combination of multi-levelled continuity and discontinuity. In this process of change through continuity we had to learn how to understand better than before that the Church's decisions about contingent matters—for example, about actual forms of liberalism or liberal interpretations of the Bible—were necessarily themselves contingent because related to a reality itself changeable.

We had to learn how to recognise that in such decisions only principles express what is lasting, embedded in the background and determining the decision from within. The concrete forms these decisions take are not permanent but depend upon the historical situations. They can therefore change. Thus, for example, with freedom of religion seen as expressing mankind's inability to find truth, relativism becomes the canon. From being a social and historical necessity it is incorrectly elevated to a metaphysical level that loses its true meaning. It therefore becomes unacceptable to those who believe that mankind can reach the truth of God and, based on truth's inner dignity, is related to such knowledge.

This is completely different from viewing freedom of religion as a necessity that human coexistence requires or even seeing it as an inherent consequence of the truth that such freedom cannot be imposed from the outside but must come from a conviction from within.

By adopting a decree on religious freedom, the Second Vatican Council recognised and made its own an essential principle of the modern state. And in doing so, it reconnected with the wider heritage of the Church.

The Church itself is conscious that it is fully in sync with the teachings of Jesus (cf Mt, 22: 21), the Church of the early martyrs, and with all the martyrs.

Although the early Church dutifully prayed for emperors and political leaders as a matter of fact (cf 1 Tm, 2: 2), it refused to worship them and thus rejected the state religion.

In dying for their faith in the one God revealed in Jesus Christ, the martyrs of the early Church also died on behalf of freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one's own religion. No state can impose any religion; instead, religion must be freely chosen with the grace of God and in freedom of conscience.

A missionary Church required to proclaim its message to all the nations must commit itself to freedom of religion. It must pass on the gift of truth that exists for all and at the same time reassure nations and governments that it does not want to destroy their identities and cultures. It must show that it brings an answer they intimately expect. This answer is not lost among the many cultures, but instead enhances unity among men and thus peace among nations.

By defining in a new way the relationship between the faith of the Church and some essential elements of modern thinking, the Second Vatican Council revised and even corrected some past decisions. But in an apparent discontinuity it has instead preserved and reinforced its intimate nature and true identity.

The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic both before and after the Council, throughout time. It "presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God, announcing the cross and death of the Lord until He comes (cf Lumen gentium, 8).

The Church, a sign of contradiction

Yet those who expected that with this fundamental 'Yes' to the modern age, all tensions would melt away, and that this 'openness to the world' would render everything harmonious, underestimated the inner tensions and contradictions of the modern age.

Given man's new power over himself and over matter, these dangers have not disappeared; instead, they have acquired a new dimension.  We can clearly illustrate this by looking at current history.

In our time too, the Church remains a 'sign of contradiction' (Lk, 2: 34) and for this reason in 1976, Pope John Paul II, then a cardinal, gave it as the title to the Spiritual Exercises he preached to Pope Paul VI and the Roman curia.

The Council could not abolish this Gospel contradiction in the face of the dangers and errors of mankind. What it did do was put aside wrong or superfluous contradictions in order to present to our world the requirements of the Gospel in all its greatness and purity.

The steps taken by the Council towards the modern age—which has been loosely presented as "openness to the world"—belong ultimately to the endless problem of the ever changing relationship between faith and reason.

Undoubtedly, the Council faced situations that existed before. In his first Epistle, St Peter urged Christians to be ready to answer (apo-logia) anyone who asked them the logos, the reason for their faith (cf 3: 15).

This meant that biblical faith had to interact with and relate to Greek culture, learning how to recognise, by interpreting distinctions as well as through contact and affinity with the latter, the one God-given reason.

When Medieval Christianity, largely schooled in the Platonic tradition, came into contact with Aristotle's ideas via Jewish and Arab philosophers in the 13th century, faith and reason almost became irreconcilable.  But St Thomas Aquinas was especially able to find a new synthesis between faith and Aristotelian philosophy. Faith could relate in a positive manner with the dominant notions of reason of the time.

The exacting disputes between modern reason and Christian faith, which started off on the wrong foot with Galileo's trial, went through several phases. But by the time the Second Vatican Council was convened new thinking was possible.

The new approach found in the conciliar papers sets out guidelines but also the essential direction so that the dialogue between faith and reason, very important nowadays, has found its orientation in Vatican II. This dialogue must now be developed with the open-mindedness and clear understanding that the world rightly expects from us at this point in time.

We can look back with gratitude to the Second Vatican Council. If we read and accept it guided by a correct interpretation, it can become a great force in the ever necessary renewal of the Church.

Finally, perhaps I should mention April 19 of this year, when, despite my fears, the College of Cardinals elected me as successor to Pope John Paul II and, as Bishop of Rome, successor to St Peter. The tasks that the office entails are beyond what I could have imagined myself capable of. Only by placing my trust in God was I able to obey and say "Yes" to this choice. Now as then, I call on all of you that your prayers may be my strength and support.

Let me also thank from the bottom of my heart all those who have embraced me and still do with a lot of trust, kindness and understanding, and who accompany me every day with their prayers.

Christmas is almost upon us. God our Lord did not use the outer trappings of power against the threats of History as we men do in keeping with the norms of our world and might have expected from Him.

He wields the weapon of kindness; revealed Himself as a babe in a manger; and so uses His power against the destructive might of violence. Thus, He saves us and shows us what He saves.

This Christmas, let us meet Him full of trust as did the shepherds and the Wise Men from the East. Let us call on Mary to lead us to the Lord. Let us call on Him to shine His face upon us. Let us call on Him to defeat the violence of this world and let us experience the power of kindness.

It is with these feelings that I impart on all of you a heartfelt Apostolic blessing.

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