Audiences 2005-2013 51011
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Turning to the Lord in prayer implies a radical act of trust, in the awareness that one is entrusting oneself to God who is good, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34,6-7 Ps 86,15 :15; cf. Jl 2,13 Jon 4,2 Ps 103,8 :8; Ps 145,8 :8; Ne 9,17). For this reason I would like to reflect with you today on a Psalm that is totally imbued with trust, in which the Psalmist expresses his serene certainty that he is guided and protected, safe from every danger, because the Lord is his Shepherd. It is Psalm 23 [22, according to the Greco-Latin numbering], a text familiar to all and loved by all.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”: the beautiful prayer begins with these words, evoking the nomadic environment of sheep-farming and the experience of familiarity between the shepherd and the sheep that make up his little flock. The image calls to mind an atmosphere of trust, intimacy and tenderness: the shepherd knows each one of his sheep and calls them by name; and they follow him because they recognize him and trust in him (cf. Jn 10,2-4).
He tends them, looks after them as precious possessions, ready to defend them, to guarantee their well-being and enable them to live a peaceful life. They can lack nothing as long as the shepherd is with them. The Psalmist refers to this experience by calling God his shepherd and letting God lead him to safe pastures: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Ps 23,2-3 :2-3).
The vision that unfolds before our eyes is that of green pastures and springs of clear water, oases of peace to which the shepherd leads his flock, symbols of the places of life towards which the Lord leads the Psalmist, who feels like the sheep lying on the grass beside a stream, resting rather than in a state of tension or alarm, peaceful and trusting, because it is a safe place, the water is fresh and the shepherd is watching over them.
And let us not forget here that the scene elicited by the Psalm is set in a land that is largely desert, on which the scorching sun beats down, where the Middle-Eastern semi-nomad shepherd lives with his flock in the parched steppes that surround the villages. Nevertheless the shepherd knows where to find grass and fresh water, essential to life, he can lead the way to oases in which the soul is “restored” and where it is possible to recover strength and new energy to start out afresh on the journey.
As the Psalmist says, God guides him to “green pastures” and “still waters”, where everything is superabundant, everything is given in plenty. If the Lord is the Shepherd, even in the desert, a desolate place of death, the certainty of a radical presence of life is not absent, so that he is able to say “I shall not want”. Indeed, the shepherd has at heart the good of his flock, he adapts his own pace and needs to those of his sheep, he walks and lives with them, leading them on paths “of righteousness”, that is, suitable for them, paying attention to their needs and not to his own. The safety of his sheep is a priority for him and he complies with this in leading his flock.
Dear brothers and sisters, if we follow the “Good Shepherd” — no matter how difficult, tortuous or long the pathways of our life may seem, even through spiritual deserts without water and under the scorching sun of rationalism — with the guidance of Christ the Good Shepherd, we too, like the Psalmist, may be sure that we are walking on “paths of righteousness” and that the Lord is leading us, is ever close to us and that we “shall lack nothing”. For this reason the Psalmist can declare his calm assurance without doubt or fear: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me” (Ps 23,4).
Those who walk with the Lord even in the dark valleys of suffering, doubt and all the human problems, feel safe. You are with me: this is our certainty, this is what supports us. The darkness of the night frightens us with its shifting shadows, with the difficulty of distinguishing dangers, with its silence taut with strange sounds. If the flock moves after sunset when visibility fades, it is normal for the sheep to be restless, there is the risk of stumbling or even of straying and getting lost, and there is also the fear of possible assailants lurking in the darkness.
To speak of the “dark” valley, the Psalmist uses a Hebrew phrase that calls to mind the shadows of death, which is why the valley to be passed through is a place of anguish, terrible threats, the danger of death. Yet the person praying walks on in safety undaunted since he knows that the Lord is with him. “You are with me” is a proclamation of steadfast faith and sums up the radical experience of faith; God’s closeness transforms the reality, the dark valley loses all danger, it is emptied of every threat. Now the flock can walk in tranquillity, accompanied by the familiar rhythmical beat of the staff on the ground, marking the shepherd’s reassuring presence.
This comforting image ends the first part of the Psalm, and gives way to a different scene. We are still in the desert, where the shepherd lives with his flock, but we are now set before his tent which opens to offer us hospitality. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows” (Ps 23,5).
The Lord is now presented as the One who welcomes the person praying with signs of generous hospitality, full of attention. The divine host lays the food on the “table”, a term which in Hebrew means, in its primitive sense, the animal skin that was spread out on the ground and on which the food for the common meal was set out. It is a gesture of sharing, not only of food but also of life in an offering of communion and friendship that create bonds and express solidarity. Then there is the munificent gift of scented oil poured on the head, which with its fragrance brings relief from the scorching of the desert sun, refreshes and calms the skin and gladdens the spirit.
Lastly, the cup overflowing with its exquisite wine, shared with superabundant generosity, adds a note of festivity. Food, oil and wine are gifts that bring life and give joy, because they go beyond what is strictly necessary and express the free giving and abundance of love. Psalm 104 proclaims: “You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (Ps 104,14-15).
The Psalmist becomes the object of much attention for which reason he sees himself as a wayfarer who finds shelter in a hospitable tent, whereas his enemies have to stop and watch, unable to intervene, since the one whom they considered their prey has been led to safety and has become a sacred guest who cannot be touched. And the Psalmist is us, if we truly are believers in communion with Christ. When God opens his tent to us to receive us, nothing can harm us. Then when the traveller sets out afresh, the divine protection is extended and accompanies him on his journey: “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Ps 23,6 :6).
The goodness and faithfulness of God continue to escort the Psalmist who comes out of the tent and resumes his journey. But it is a journey that acquires new meaning and becomes a pilgrimage to the Temple of the Lord, the holy place in which the praying person wants to “dwell” for ever and to which he also wants to “return”. The Hebrew verb used here has the meaning of “to return” but with a small vowel change can be understood as “to dwell”. Moreover, this is how it is rendered by the ancient versions and by the majority of the modern translations. Both meanings may be retained: to return and dwell in the Temple as every Israelite desires, and to dwell near God, close to him and to goodness. This is what every believer yearns and longs for: truly to be able to live where God is, close to him. Following the Shepherd leads to God’s house, this is the destination of every journey, the longed for oasis in the desert, the tent of shelter in escaping from enemies, a place of peace where God’s kindness and faithful love may be felt, day after day, in the serene joy of time without end.
With their richness and depth the images of this Psalm have accompanied the whole of the history and religious experience of the People of Israel and accompany Christians. The figure of the shepherd, in particular, calls to mind the original time of the Exodus, the long journey through the desert, as a flock under the guidance of the divine Shepherd (cf. Is 63,11-14 Ps 77,20-21 Ps 78,52-54). And in the Promised Land, the king had the task of tending the Lord’s flock, like David, the shepherd chosen by God and a figure of the Messiah (cf. 2S 5,1-2 2S 7,8 Ps 78,70-72 :70-72).
Then after the Babylonian Exile, as it were in a new Exodus (cf. Is 40,3-5 Is 40,9-11 Is 43,16-21), Israel was brought back to its homeland like a lost sheep found and led by God to luxuriant pastures and resting places (cf. Ez 34,11-16 Ez 34,23-31). However, it is in the Lord Jesus that all the evocative power of our Psalm reaches completeness, finds the fullness of its meaning: Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” who goes in search of lost sheep, who knows his sheep and lays down his life for them (cf. Mt 18,12-14 Lc 15,4-7 Jn 10,2-4 Jn 10,11-18). He is the way, the right path that leads us to life (cf. Jn 14,6), the light that illuminates the dark valley and overcomes all our fears (cf. Jn 1,9 Jn 8,12 Jn 9,5 Jn 12,46).
He is the generous host who welcomes us and rescues us from our enemies, preparing for us the table of his body and his blood (cf. Mt 26,26-29 Mc 14,22-25 Lc 22,19-20) and the definitive table of the messianic banquet in Heaven (cf. Lc 14,15 ff; Ap 3,20 Ap 19,9). He is the Royal Shepherd, king in docility and in forgiveness, enthroned on the glorious wood of the cross (cf. Jn 3,13-15 Jn 12,32 Jn 17,4-5).
Dear brothers and sisters, Psalm 23 invites us to renew our trust in God, abandoning ourselves totally in his hands. Let us therefore ask with faith that the Lord also grant us on the difficult ways of our time that we always walk on his paths as a docile and obedient flock, and that he welcome us to his house, to his table, and lead us to “still waters” so that, in accepting the gift of his Spirit, we may quench our thirst at his sources, springs of the living water “welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4,14 cf. Jn 7,37-39). Many thanks.
To special groups:
I welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, especially those from England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Nigeria, Singapore, the Philippines and the United States. My special greeting goes to the alumni and friends celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Filipino College. I also greet the new students from the Pontifical Beda College, and I offer prayerful good wishes to the deacon class of the Pontifical North American College and their families. Upon all of you I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.
In a special way, I would like to greet the Delegation of the Theology Faculty of the University of Thessaloniki, who have wished to confer upon me the Apostle Jason of Thessaloniki Gold Medal. I am deeply honoured by this gracious gesture, which is an eloquent sign of the growing understanding and dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox Christians. I pray that it will be a harbinger of ever greater progress in our efforts to respond in fidelity, truth and charity to the Lord’s summons to unity. I thank the Delegation most cordially, and I offer my prayerful good wishes for their teaching and research. God bless you all!
APPEAL FOR THE HORN OF AFRICA
Dramatic news on the famine which has hit the Horn of Africa region is constantly arriving. I greet Cardinal Robert Sarah, President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and Mons. Giorgio Bertin, Apostolic Administrator of Mogadishu, present at this Audience together with several representatives of Catholic charitable organizations, who will meet to verify and give a further impulse to the initiatives that aim to face this humanitarian emergency. A representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has also launched an appeal for the affected peoples, will take part in this meeting as well. I renew my heartfelt invitation to the international community to continue in its commitment to those peoples, and I ask everyone to offer prayers and concrete help for the great number of our brothers and sisters who are so harshly tried, particularly the children who are dying every day in that region from disease and the lack of water and food.
I am particularly glad to welcome the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception of Ivrea, whose Foundress, Mother Antonia Maria Verna, they had the joy of seeing raised to the honours of the altar. I hope that the luminous example of the new Blessed will strengthen the dynamism of a life totally given, and, for those who share the charism, renewed fidelity to the commitments of Christian life.
I also greet the Formators and students of the International Pontifical College, Mater Ecclesiae, and the Opera Edimar Foundation of Padua.
Lastly, I address the young people, the sick and the newlyweds. May St Francis of Assisi, whose liturgical feast we celebrated yesterday, help you to live the Gospel in love and joy. My blessing to you all.
St. Peter's Square12101
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our continuing catechesis on Christian prayer, we now turn to Psalm 126. This Psalm is a joyful prayer of thanksgiving for God’s fidelity to his promises in bringing about Israel’s return from the Babylonian Exile: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced” (Ps 126,3). A similar spirit of joy and thanksgiving should mark our own prayer as we recall the care which God has shown to us in the events of our lives, even those which seem dark and bitter. The Psalmist implores God to continue to grant Israel his saving help: “May those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy” (Ps 126,5). This imagery of the seed which silently grows to maturity reminds us that God’s salvation is at once a gift already received and the object of our hope, a promise whose fulfilment remains in the future. Jesus will use this same imagery to express the passage from death to life, from darkness to light, which must take place in the lives of all who put their faith in him and share in his paschal mystery (cf. Jn 12,24). As we pray this Psalm, may we echo the song of the Virgin Mary by rejoicing in the great things which the Almighty has done for us (cf. Lc 1,49) and by awaiting in hope the fulfilment of God’s promises.
* * *
I welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, especially the members of the NATO Defense College, and pilgrims from England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Lebanon, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Canada and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke God’s abundant blessings of joy and peace!
St. Peter's Square19101
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I would like to meditate with you on a Psalm that sums up the entire history of salvation recorded in the Old Testament. It is a great hymn of praise that celebrates the Lord in the multiple, repeated expressions of his goodness throughout human history: it is Psalm 136 or 135 according to the Greco-Latin tradition.
A solemn prayer of thanksgiving, known as the “Great Hallel”, this Psalm is traditionally sung at the end of the Jewish Passover meal and was probably also prayed by Jesus at the Last Supper celebrated with his disciples. In fact, the annotation of the Evangelists, “and when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (cf. Mt 26,30 Mc 14,26), would seem to allude to it.
The horizon of praise thus appears to illumine the difficult path to Golgotha. The whole of Psalm 136 unfolds in the form of a litany, marked by the antiphonal refrain: “for his steadfast love endures for ever”. The many wonders God has worked in human history and his continuous intervention on behalf of his people are listed in the composition. Furthermore, to every proclamation of the Lord’s saving action the antiphon responds with the basic impetus of praise.
The eternal love of God, is a love which, in accordance with the Hebrew term used, suggestive of fidelity, mercy, kindness, grace and tenderness, is the unifying motif of the entire Psalm. The refrain always takes the same form, whereas the regular paradigmatic manifestations of God’s love change: creation, liberation through the Exodus, the gift of land, the Lord’s provident and constant help for his people and for every created being.
After a triple invitation to give thanks to God as sovereign (Ps 136,1-3), the Lord is celebrated as the One who works “great wonders” (Ps 136,4), the first of which is the Creation: the heavens, the earth, the heavenly bodies (Ps 136,5-9). The created world is not merely a scenario into which God’s saving action is inserted rather is the very beginning of that marvellous action. With the Creation, the Lord shows himself in all his goodness and beauty, he commits himself to life, revealing a desire for goodness which gives rise to every other action of salvation.
And in our Psalm, re-echoing the first chapter of Genesis, the principal elements of the created world are summed up, with special insistence on the heavenly bodies, the sun, the moon and the stars, magnificent created things that govern the day and the night. Nothing is said here of the creation of human beings but they are ever present; the sun and the moon are for them — for men and women — so as to structure human time, setting it in relation to the Creator, especially by denoting the liturgical seasons. And it is precisely the Feast of Easter that is immediately evoked, when, passing to God’s manifestation of himself in history, the great event of the exodus, freedom from slavery in Egypt begins, whose most significant elements are outlined:
The liberation from Egypt begins with the plague of killing the Egyptian firstborn, the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the journey through the desert to the entry into the Promised Land (Ps 136,10-20). This is the very first moment of Israel’s history; God intervened powerfully to lead his people to freedom; through Moses, his envoy, he asserted himself before Pharaoh, revealing himself in his full grandeur and at last broke down the resistance of the Egyptians with the terrible plague of the death of the firstborn. Israel could thus leave the country of slavery taking with it the gold of its oppressors (cf. Ex 12,35-36) and “defiantly” (Ex 14,8), in the exulting sign of victory.
At the Red Sea too the Lord acted with merciful power. Before an Israel so terrified by the sight of the Egyptians in pursuit as to regret its departure from Egypt (cf. Ex 14,10-12), God, as our Psalm says, “divided the Red Sea in sunder... and made the people of Israel pass through the midst of it... but overthrew Pharaoh and his host” (Ps 136,13-15). The image of the Red Sea “divided” into two seems to call to mind the idea of the sea as a great monster hacked into two and thereby rendered harmless. The might of the Lord overcomes the danger of the forces of nature and of these soldiers deployed in battle array by men: the sea, which seemed to bar the way of the People of God, let Israel cross on dry ground and then swept over the Egyptians, submerging them. Thus the full salvific force of the Lord’s “mighty hand, and an outstretched arm” (cf. Dt 5,15 Dt 7,19 Dt 26,8) was demonstrated: the unjust oppressor was vanquished, engulfed by the waters, while the people of God “walked on dry ground through the sea”, continuing its journey to freedom.
Our Psalm now refers to this journey, recalling in one short phrase Israel’s long pilgrimage toward the promised land: he “led his people through the wilderness, for his steadfast love endures for ever” (Ps 136,16). These few words refer to a 40-year experience, a crucial period for Israel which in letting itself be guided by the Lord learned to live in faith, obedience and docility to God’s law. These were difficult years, marked by hardship in the desert, but also happy years, trusting in the Lord with filial trust. It was the time of “youth”, as the Prophet Jeremiah describes it in speaking to Israel in the Lord’s name with words full of tenderness and nostalgia: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jr 2,2).
The Lord, like the shepherd of Psalm 23 whom we contemplated in a Catechesis, for 40 years guided, taught and cherished his people, leading it right to the promised land, also overcoming the resistance and hostility of enemy peoples that wished to block its way to salvation (cf. Ps 136,17-20).
So as the “great wonders” that our Psalm lists unfold, we reach the moment of the conclusive gift, the fulfilment of the divine promise made to the Fathers: “gave their land as a heritage, for his steadfast love endures for ever; a heritage to Israel his servant, for his steadfast love endures for ever” (Ps 136,21-22). Then, in celebrating the Lord’s eternal love, the gift of land was commemorated, a gift that the people were to receive but without ever taking possession of it, continuing to live in an attitude of grateful acknowledgment and gratitude.
Israel received the land it was to live in as “a heritage”, a generic term which designates the possession of a good received from another person, a right of ownership which specifically refers to the paternal patrimony. One of God’s prerogatives is “giving”; and now, at the end of the journey of the Exodus, Israel, the recipient of the gift, enters as a son or daughter the land of the promise now fulfilled. The time of wandering, of living in tents, of living a precarious life, is over.
It was then that the happy period of permanence began, of joy in building houses, of planting vineyards, of living in security (cf. Dt 8,7-13). Yet it was also the time of the temptation to idolatry, contamination with pagans, self-sufficiency that led to the Origin of the gift being forgotten.
Accordingly, the Psalmist mentions Israel’s low estate and foes, a reality of death in which the Lord, once again reveals himself as Saviour: “He... remembered us in our low estate, for his steadfast love endures for ever; and rescued us from our foes, for his steadfast love endures for ever” (Ps 136,23-24).
At this point a question arises: how can we make this Psalm our own prayer, how can we ourselves claim this Psalm as our own prayer? What is important is the Psalm’s setting, for at the beginning and at the end is the Creation. Let us return to this point: the Creation as God’s great gift by which we live and in which he reveals himself in his great goodness. Therefore, to think of the Creation as a gift of God is a common point for all of us.
The history of salvation then follows. We can of course say: this liberation from Egypt, the time in the desert, the entry into the Holy Land and all the other subsequent problems are very remote from us, they are not part of our own history. Yet we must be attentive to the fundamental structure of this prayer. The basic structure is that Israel remembers the Lord’s goodness. In this history dark valleys, arduous journeys and death succeed one another but Israel recalls that God was good and can survive in this dark valley, in this valley of death, because it remembers. It remembers the Lord’s goodness and his power; his mercy is effective for ever. And this is also important for us: to remember the Lord’s goodness. Memory strongly sustains hope. Memory tells us: God exists, God is good, his mercy endures for ever. So it is that memory unfolds, even in the darkest day or time, showing the way towards the future. It represents “great lights” and is our guiding star. We too have good memories of the goodness, of God’s merciful love that endures for ever.
Israel’s history is a former memory for us, too, of how God revealed himself, how he created a people of his own. Then God became man, one of us: he lived with us, he suffered with us, he died for us. He stays with us in the Sacrament and in the Word. It is a history, a memory of God’s goodness that assures us of his goodness: his love endures for ever. And then, in these 2,000 years of the Church’s history there is always, again and again, the Lord’s goodness. After the dark period of the Nazi and Communist persecution, God set us free, he showed that he is good, that he is powerful, that his mercy endures for ever. And, as in our common, collective history, this memory of God’s goodness is present, it helps us and becomes for us a star of hope so that each one also has his or her personal story of salvation.
We must truly treasure this story, and in order to trust must keep ever present in our mind the memory of the great things he has also worked in my life: his mercy endures for ever. And if today I am immersed in the dark night, tomorrow he sets me free, for his mercy is eternal.
Let us return to the Psalm, because at the end it returns to the Creation. The Lord, it says, “gives food to all flesh, for his steadfast love endures for ever” (Ps 136,25). The prayer of the Psalm concludes with an invitation to praise: “Give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures for ever”.
The Lord is our good and provident Father, who gives his children their heritage and lavishes life-giving food upon all. God who created the heavens and the earth and the great heavenly bodies, who entered human history to bring all his children to salvation is the God who fills the universe with his presence of goodness, caring for life and providing bread.
The invisible power of the Creator and Lord of which the Psalm sings is revealed in the humble sign of the bread he gives us, with which he enables us to live. And so it is that this daily bread symbolizes and sums up the love of God as Father and opens us to the fulfilment of the New Testament, to that “Bread of Life”, the Eucharist, which accompanies us in our lives as believers, anticipating the definitive joy of the messianic banquet in Heaven.
Brothers and Sisters, the praise and blessing of Psalm 136, has made us review the most important stages in the history of salvation, to reach the Paschal Mystery in which God’s saving action reaches its culmination. Let us therefore celebrate with grateful joy the Creator, Saviour and faithful Father, who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3,16). In the fullness of time, the Son of God became man to give life, for the salvation of each one of us, and gave himself as bread in the Eucharistic mystery to enable us to enter his Covenant which makes us his children. May both God’s merciful goodness and his sublime “steadfast love for ever” reach far afield.
I would therefore like to conclude this Catechesis by making my own the words that St John wrote in his First Letter and that we must always have in mind in our prayers: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1Jn 3,1). Many thanks.
To special groups:
I offer cordial greetings to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, especially those from England, Norway, Nigeria, Australia, Indonesia and the United States. My greeting also goes to the members of Legatus visiting Rome on pilgrimage and to the group of Lutheran pilgrims from Iceland. I also welcome the group of Anglican seminarians taking part in a month of study in Rome. Upon all of you I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!
Lastly I greet the sick, the newlyweds and the young people, especially those recently confirmed, led by their pastor, Bishop Claudio Stagni of Faenza-Modigliana. Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of St Luke the Evangelist. May his love for Christ sustain you, sick people, in accepting suffering in union with the divine Teacher; may it encourage you, dear newlyweds to live the sacrament of marriage to the full; and may it foster in you, young people and children, an ever more convinced adherence to the word of salvation, so as to bear witness to it joyfully among your peers. Many thanks.
Paul VI Audience Hall26101
Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today the usual appointment of the General Audience assumes a special character, because we are on the eve of the Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World, which will take place tomorrow in Assisi, 25 years after the first historic meeting Blessed John Paul II convened. I chose to give this Day the name of “Pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”, to stress the commitment that we desire to solemnly renew, together with the members of different religions, and also with men and women, non-believers who sincerely search for the truth, in promoting the authentic good of humanity and in building peace. As I have already mentioned, “Whoever is on the path to God cannot but transmit peace, whoever builds peace cannot but come closer to God”.
As Christians, we believe that the most precious contribution we can make to the cause of peace is that of prayer. That is why we are here today, as the Church of Rome, together with the pilgrims who have come to the City, to listen to the word of God, to invoke with faith the gift of peace. The Lord can enlighten our minds and hearts and guide us to be builders of justice and reconciliation in our daily lives and in the world.
In the passage from the Prophet Zechariah that we just listened to, a proclamation full of hope and light resounds (cf. Za 9,10). God promises salvation, he invites us to “rejoice greatly” because this salvation is coming true. He speaks of a King: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he” (Za 9,9), but the one who is announced is not a king invested with human power, the force of arms; he is not a king who dominates by political or military might; he is a gentle king, who reigns with humility and meekness before God and men, a king different from the great sovereigns of the world: “riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass”, says the Prophet (ibid.). He appears mounted on the animal of the common man, of the poor, as opposed to the war chariots of the hosts of the earth’s powerful. Indeed, he is a king who will cut off these chariots of war, break the bow of battle, command peace to the nations (cf. Za 9,10).
But who is this king of whom the Prophet Zechariah speaks? Let us go for a moment to Bethlehem and listen again to what the Angel says to the shepherds who keep watch in the night guarding their flock. The Angel announces to them a great joy which will come to all the people, tied to a humble sign: a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (cf. Lc 2,8-12). And a multitude of the heavenly host sings “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased” (Lc 2,14), to people of good will. The birth of that babe, who is Jesus, brings a proclamation of peace for the whole world. But let us now go to the final moments of Christ’s life, when he enters Jerusalem greeted by a cheering crowd. The Prophet Zechariah’s message of the coming of a humble and meek king comes back to mind of Jesus’ disciples in a special way after the events of the passion, death and resurrection, of the Paschal Mystery, when they look with the eyes of faith to that joyful entry of their Master into the Holy City. He rides a borrowed ass (cf. Mt 21,2-7): he is not in a rich carriage, not on a horse like the great ones. He does not enter Jerusalem accompanied by a powerful host of chariots and horsemen. He is a poor king, the king of those who are the poor people of God. In the Greek text the word praeîs appears, meaning the meek, the mild; Jesus is the king of the anawim, of those whose hearts are free from the longing for power and material riches, the desire and quest for domination over others. Jesus is the king of those who have that interior freedom that makes one capable of overcoming greed, the selfishness that is in the world, and know that God alone is their wealth.
Jesus is the poor king among the poor, meek among those who desire to be meek. In this way he is the king of peace, thanks to the power of God, who is the power of goodness, the power of love. He is a king who cuts off the chariots and war horses, who breaks the bows of war; a king who realizes peace on the Cross, joining earth and heaven and building a bridge of brotherly love among all people. The Cross is the new bow of peace, the sign and the instrument of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of understanding, the sign that love is stronger than any violence and oppression, stronger than death: evil is conquered by good, by love.
This is the new kingdom of peace of which Christ is king; and it is a kingdom that encompasses the whole earth. The Prophet Zechariah announces that this meek king, a peaceful one, shall rule “from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Za 9,10). The kingdom that Christ inaugurates has universal dimensions. The horizon of this poor meek king, is not that of a territory, of a State, but the ends of the world; beyond every barrier of race, language, culture, he creates a communion. He creates unity. And where do we see this message being realized today? In the great network of Eucharistic communities that covers the whole of the earth, Zechariah’s shining prophecy surfaces anew. It is a vast mosaic of communities in which this gentle and peaceful king’s sacrifice of love is made present; it is a vast mosaic which constitutes the “Kingdom of peace” of Jesus from sea to sea to the ends of the earth; it is a multitude of “islands of peace”, radiating peace. Everywhere, in every situation, in every culture, from big cities with their sky-scrapers to little villages with their humble dwellings, from massive cathedrals to small chapels, he comes, he makes himself present; and by entering into communion with him men too are united among themselves in one single body, overcoming division, rivalry, grudges. The Lord comes in the Eucharist to take us out of our individualism, away from our particularities that exclude others, in order to form us into one single body, one single kingdom of peace in a divided world.
But how can we build this kingdom of peace in which Christ is king? The commandment which he leaves his Apostles and, through them, each of us is: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations... and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28,19). Like Jesus, the messengers of peace of his kingdom must set out, they must respond to his invitation. They must go, but not with the might of war or the force of power. In the Gospel passage that we listened to Jesus sends 70 disciples out into the great harvest, which is the world, inviting them to pray the Lord of the harvest that there may be no lack of labourers in his harvest (cf. Lc 10,1-3); but he does not send them with powerful means, but “as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Lc 10,3), without purse, bag, or sandals (cf. Lc 10,4). St John Chrysostom, in one of his homilies, comments: “For so long as we are sheep, we conquer: though ten thousand wolves prowl around, we overcome and prevail. But if we become wolves, we are worsted, for the help of our Shepherd departs from us” (Homily 33, 1: PG 57,389). Christians must never yield to the temptation to become wolves among wolves; it is not with might, with force, with violence that Christ’s kingdom of peace grows, but with the gift of self, with love carried to the extreme, even towards enemies. Jesus does not conquer the world with the force of arms, but with the force of the Cross, which is the true guarantee of victory. The consequence of this for those who want to be disciples of the Lord, his envoys, is to be prepared for the passion and martyrdom, to lose their own life for him, so that in the world goodness, love and peace may triumph. This is the prerequisite needed to say, upon entering into every situation: “Peace be to this house” (Lc 10,5).
In front of St Peter’s Basilica, these are two large statues of Sts Peter and Paul, easily identifiable: St Peter holds in his hand the keys, St Paul holds in his hands a sword. Those unfamiliar with the history of the latter might think that this was a great leader who led powerful armies and subdued peoples and nations by the sword, obtaining fame and wealth for himself by the blood of others. Instead it is exactly the opposite: the sword held between his hands is the instrument by which Paul was put to death, with which he was martyred and that shed his blood. His battle was not one of violence, of war, but that of martyrdom for Christ. His only weapon was the message: “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Co 2,2). And his preaching was not based on “plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power” (1Co 2,4). He dedicated his life to spreading the Gospel message of reconciliation and peace, spending all of his energy to make it vibrant to the ends of the earth. And this was his strength: he did not seek a tranquil, comfortable life, free from hardships, from opposition, but was consumed by the Gospel, he gave himself unreservedly, and so became the great messenger of Christ’s peace and reconciliation. The sword that St Paul holds in his hands is a reminder, too, of the power of truth, that can often wound, it can hurt; the Apostle remained faithful to this truth to the end. He served it, suffered for it, he gave up his life for it. This same logic holds true also for us, if we want to be bearers of the kingdom of peace proclaimed by the Prophet Zechariah and fulfilled by Christ: we must be willing to pay in person, to suffer misunderstanding, rejection, persecution in the first person. It is not the sword of the conqueror that builds peace, but the sword of the suffering, of whoever gives up his/her own life.
Dear brothers and sisters, as Christians let us ask God for the gift of peace, let us pray to him that he may make us instruments of his peace in a world still torn by hatred, by divisions, by selfishness, by war. Let us ask him that the meeting tomorrow in Assisi may encourage dialogue between people of different religious confessions and bring a ray of light capable of illuminating the minds and hearts of all men, so that bitterness may give way to forgiveness, division to reconciliation, hatred to love, violence to gentleness, and that peace may reign in the world. Amen.
Before the end of the General Audience, the Holy Father stopped for a moment in St Peter’s Basilica to greet the pilgrims gathered as there was not enough space in the Paul VI Audience Hall.
I am pleased to receive you in Saint Peter’s Basilica and to extend a warm welcome to all of you who could not be accommodated in the Audience Hall. Always stay faithfully united to Christ and bear joyful witness to the Gospel. To all of you I cordially impart my Blessing.
The Pope then returned to the Paul VI Audience Hall, where the celebration took place and where then he made an appeal and greeted the various language groups.
Dear brothers and sisters, before greeting you in the different languages, I will start by making an Appeal. In this time, my thoughts go out to the peoples of Turkey severely hit by an earthquake, causing a grave loss of human life, many missing and extensive damage. I invite you all to join me in prayer for those who have lost their lives and to be spiritually close to the many people so harshly tried. May the Most High sustain those engaged in relief efforts. And now I shall greet you in the different languages.
To special groups
I am happy to welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors here today. I ask you to accompany me in prayer as I journey tomorrow to Assisi for the celebration of the Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World, together with representatives of different religions. I extend special greetings to the pilgrims from the Diocese of Niigata in Japan celebrating their centenary. I also welcome those present from England, Denmark, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam and the United States. May Almighty God bless all of you!
Lastly I greet the young people, the sick and the newlyweds. May the example of St Francis of Assisi, at whose tomb we will pray tomorrow, sustain you, dear young people, in your commitment of daily fidelity to Christ; encourage you, dear sick people, always to follow Jesus on the path of trial and suffering; help you, dear newlyweds, to make your family a place of constant encounter with the love of God and of neighbour. Thank you all. Good day.
Paul VI Audience Hall
Audiences 2005-2013 51011