I would first like to express my heartfelt thanks to the Rector and to the academic authorities of the Pontifical Urban University, the Major Officers and Representatives of Students, for their proposal to name the restored Aula Magna in my honor. I would like to thank in a special way the Chancellor of the University, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, for having welcomed this initiative. It is a great joy for me to be so ever-present in the work of the Pontifical Urban University.
In the course of several visits that I was able to make as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I was always struck by the atmosphere of universality that reigns in this university, in which young people from virtually all countries of the world are preparing for service to the Gospel in today’s world. Even today, I see inwardly in front of me, in this hall, a community made up of many young people, who make us feel so alive the wonderful reality of the Catholic Church.
“Catholic”: This definition of the Church, which belongs to the profession of faith since ancient times, carries something of Pentecost. It reminds us that the Church of Jesus Christ was never about just one nation or one culture, but that it was destined to humanity from the outset. The last words that Jesus said to his disciples were: “Make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). And at the time of Pentecost the Apostles spoke in all languages, thus being able to demonstrate, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the full breadth of their faith.
Since then the Church has really grown on every continent. Your presence, dear students, reflects the face of the universal Church. The prophet Zechariah had announced a messianic kingdom which would go from sea to sea, and would be a kingdom of peace (Zech 9.9s.). And in fact, wherever the Eucharist is celebrated and men, from the Lord, become one body among themselves, there is something of that peace which Jesus Christ had promised to give to his disciples. You, dear friends, be cooperators of this peace that, in a world torn and violent, it becomes increasingly urgent to build and cherish. This is why it is so important to the work of your university, in which you want to learn how to get closer to Jesus Christ to become His witnesses.
The Risen Lord commissioned his apostles, and through them the disciples of all time, to bring his word to the ends of the earth and make disciples of men. The Second Vatican Council, taking up a constant tradition in the decree “Ad Gentes”, has highlighted the deep reasons of this missionary task and has assigned it to the Church of today with renewed force.
But does it still have value? – many today ask, inside and outside the Church – indeed, is the mission still relevant? Would it not be more appropriate between religions to meet in dialogue together and serve the cause of peace in the world? The counter-question: can dialogue replace the mission? Today, in fact, many people have the idea that religions should respect each other and, in the dialogue between them, become a joint peacekeeping force. In most cases this way of thinking takes for granted that the different religions are variants of one and the same reality; that “religion” is the common gender, which takes different forms according to the different cultures, but still expresses the same reality. The question of truth, the one that originally moved the Christians more than anything else, here is put in parentheses. It is assumed that the real truth about God, in the final analysis, is unattainable and that at most it can make present what is ineffable only with a variety of symbols. This renunciation of the truth seems realistic and helpful for peace between world religions.
And yet it is lethal to the faith. Indeed, faith loses its binding nature and its seriousness if all boils down to basically interchangeable symbols, able to examine only from afar the inaccessible mystery of the divine.
Dear friends, you see that the issue of mission puts us not only before the basic questions of faith but also in front of that of what man is. Within a short welcome address, obviously I can not attempt to thoroughly analyze this issue, which profoundly affects all of us today. I would like, however, at least to hint at the direction our thinking should take. I do this by moving from two different starting points.
1 The common opinion is that religions are as it were side by side, as the continents and individual countries on a map. However, this is not accurate. Religions are in motion at a historical level, just as peoples and cultures are in movement. There are religions in waiting. The tribal religions are of this type: they have their moment in history, and yet they are waiting for a larger meeting that leads to fullness.
We, as Christians, we are convinced that, in silence, they await the encounter with Jesus Christ, the light that comes from him, which alone can bring them fully to their truth. And Christ awaits them. The encounter with him is not the intrusion of a stranger who destroys their own culture and their own history. It is, however, the entrance into something bigger, to which they are on the way. So this meeting is always at the same time, purification and maturation. Moreover, the meeting is always mutual. Christ awaits their history, their wisdom, their view of things.
Today we see more and more clearly another aspect: while in the countries of its great history Christianity in many ways has become tired and some branches of the great tree grown from the mustard seed of the Gospel have become dry and fall to the ground, from the encounter of the religions in waiting with Christ springs new life. Where before there was only fatigue, new dimensions of the faith are manifested and bring joy.
2 Religion itself is not a unitary phenomenon. There are always various distinct dimensions in it. On the one hand is the magnitude of reaching out beyond the world, to the eternal God. Yet, on the other hand, there are elements in it arising from the history of men and their practice of religion; where certainly noble and beautiful things may arise, but base and destructive things also, where the selfishness of man has taken possession of religion, and instead of an opening, turned it into a closure within his own space.
For this reason, religion is never simply only a positive or only a negative phenomenon: in it this and the other aspect are mixed. At its beginnings, the Christian mission felt very strongly especially the negative elements of the pagan religions in which it found itself. For this reason, the Christian message was at first extremely critical of religion. Only by overcoming their traditions, which in part it also considered demonic, faith could develop its renewing power. On the basis of elements of this kind, the Protestant theologian Karl Barth put religion and faith in opposition, judging the first as an absolutely negative, as the arbitrary behavior of man who, taking himself as his point of departure, tries to control God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has taken up this position settling in favor of a Christianity “without religion.” That is without a doubt a one-sided view that can not be accepted. Yet it is fair to say that every religion, to remain in the right, at the same time must also always be critical of religion. Clearly this is true, since its inception, and according to its nature, with the Christian faith, which, on the one hand, looks with great respect at the deep longing and the deep richness of religions, but on the other hand, looks critically also at what is negative. It goes without saying that the Christian faith must constantly develop this critical force also in relation to its religious history.
For us Christians, Jesus Christ is the Logos of God, the light that helps us to distinguish between the nature of religion and its distortion.
3 In our time the voice of those who want to convince us that religion as such is outdated becomes ever stronger. Only critical reason should guide the actions of man. Behind such views is the conviction that with positivist thought reason in all its purity has finally acquired dominion. In fact, even this way of thinking and living is historically conditioned and tied to certain historical cultures. To consider it as the only one which is valid would belittle man, taking away essential dimensions of his existence. Man becomes smaller, not larger, when there is no space for an ethos that, according to its authentic nature, goes beyond pragmatism, when there is no more space for our gaze fixed on God. The proper place for positivist reason is in the major fields of technical action and the economy, and yet that does not exhaust everything that is human. So, it is up to us who believe to repeatedly open wide the doors which, beyond mere technique and pure pragmatism, lead to all the greatness of our existence, to the encounter with the living God.
1 These reflections, perhaps a little difficult, should show that even today, in a profoundly changed world, the task of communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others remains reasonable.
And yet there is also a second easier way to justify this task today. Joy demands to be communicated. Love demands that to be communicated. The truth demands to be communicated. He who has received a great joy can not simply keep it for himself, he must transmit it. The same applies to the gift of love, for the gift of the recognition of the truth which manifests itself.
When Andrew met Christ, he could not help but say to his brother: “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:41). And Philip, who had been given the same encounter, could not help but say to Nathanael that he had found him of whom Moses and the prophets had written (John 1:45). We do not proclaim Jesus Christ to bring to our community as many members as possible; much less for power. Let’s talk about Him because we feel we need to transmit the joy that was given to us.
We will be credible proclaimers of Jesus Christ when we have truly met him in the depths of our existence, when, through the encounter with Him, we will have been given the great experience of truth, love and joy.
2 The deep tension between the mystical offering to God, in which we are totally given over to him, and responsibility for others and for the world he created, is part of the nature of religion. Martha and Mary are always inseparable, even if, from time to time, the emphasis can fall on one or the other. The meeting point between the two poles is the love in which we touch at the same time God and his creatures. “We have known and believed love” (1 Jn 4:16): This phrase expresses the true nature of Christianity. The love that is achieved and is reflected in a multifaceted way in the saints of all time, is the authentic proof of the truth of Christianity.