Benedict XVI Homilies 20038
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
St John begins his account of how Jesus washed his disciples' feet with an especially solemn, almost liturgical language. "Before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end" (Jn 13,1). Jesus' "hour", to which all his work had been directed since the outset, had come. John used two words to describe what constitutes the content of this hour: passage (metabainein, metabasis) and agape - love. The two words are mutually explanatory; they both describe the Pasch of Jesus: the Cross and the Resurrection, the Crucifixion as an uplifting, a "passage" to God's glory, a "passing" from the world to the Father. It is not as though after paying the world a brief visit, Jesus now simply departs and returns to the Father. The passage is a transformation. He brings with him his flesh, his being as a man. On the Cross, in giving himself, he is as it were fused and transformed into a new way of being, in which he is now always with the Father and contemporaneously with humankind. He transforms the Cross, the act of killing, into an act of giving, of love to the end. With this expression "to the end", John anticipates Jesus' last words on the Cross: everything has been accomplished, "It is finished" (Jn 19,30). Through Jesus' love the Cross becomes metabasis, a transformation from being human into being a sharer in God's glory. He involves us all in this transformation, drawing us into the transforming power of his love to the point that, in our being with him, our life becomes a "passage", a transformation. Thus, we receive redemption, becoming sharers in eternal love, a condition for which we strive throughout our life.
This essential process of Jesus' hour is portrayed in the washing of the feet in a sort of prophetic and symbolic act. In it, Jesus highlights with a concrete gesture precisely what the great Christological hymn in the Letter to the Philippians describes as the content of Christ's mystery. Jesus lays down the clothes of his glory, he wraps around his waist the towel of humanity and makes himself a servant. He washes the disciples' dirty feet and thus gives them access to the divine banquet to which he invites them. The devotional and external purifications purify man ritually but leave him as he is replaced by a new bathing: Jesus purifies us through his Word and his Love, through the gift of himself. "You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you", he was to say to his disciples in the discourse on the vine (Jn 15,3). Over and over again he washes us with his Word. Yes, if we accept Jesus' words in an attitude of meditation, prayer and faith, they develop in us their purifying power. Day after today we are as it were covered by many forms of dirt, empty words, prejudices, reduced and altered wisdom; a multi-facetted semi-falsity or falsity constantly infiltrates deep within us. All this clouds and contaminates our souls, threatens us with an incapacity for truth and the good. If we receive Jesus' words with an attentive heart they prove to be truly cleansing, purifications of the soul, of the inner man. The Gospel of the washing of the feet invites us to this, to allow ourselves to be washed anew by this pure water, to allow ourselves to be made capable of convivial communion with God and with our brothers and sisters. However, when Jesus was pierced by the soldier's spear, it was not only water that flowed from his side but also blood (Jn 19,34 cf. 1Jn 5,6-8). Jesus has not only spoken; he has not left us only words. He gives us himself. He washes us with the sacred power of his Blood, that is, with his gift of himself "to the end", to the Cross. His word is more than mere speech; it is flesh and blood "for the life of the world" (Jn 6,51). In the holy sacraments, the Lord kneels ever anew at our feet and purifies us. Let us pray to him that we may be ever more profoundly penetrated by the sacred cleansing of his love and thereby truly purified!
If we listen attentively to the Gospel, we can discern two different dimensions in the event of the washing of the feet. The cleansing that Jesus offers his disciples is first and foremost simply his action - the gift of purity, of the "capacity for God" that is offered to them. But the gift then becomes a model, the duty to do the same for one another. The Fathers have described these two aspects of the washing of the feet with the words sacramentum and exemplum. Sacramentum in this context does not mean one of the seven sacraments but the mystery of Christ in its entirety, from the Incarnation to the Cross and the Resurrection: all of this becomes the healing and sanctifying power, the transforming force for men and women, it becomes our metabasis, our transformation into a new form of being, into openness for God and communion with him. But this new being which, without our merit, he simply gives to us must then be transformed within us into the dynamic of a new life. The gift and example overall, which we find in the passage on the washing of the feet, is a characteristic of the nature of Christianity in general. Christianity is not a type of moralism, simply a system of ethics. It does not originate in our action, our moral capacity. Christianity is first and foremost a gift: God gives himself to us - he does not give something, but himself. And this does not only happen at the beginning, at the moment of our conversion. He constantly remains the One who gives. He continually offers us his gifts. He always precedes us. This is why the central act of Christian being is the Eucharist: gratitude for having been gratified, joy for the new life that he gives us.
Yet with this, we do not remain passive recipients of divine goodness. God gratifies us as personal, living partners. Love given is the dynamic of "loving together", it wants to be new life in us starting from God. Thus, we understand the words which, at the end of the washing of the feet, Jesus addresses to his disciples and to us all: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (Jn 13,34). The "new commandment" does not consist in a new and difficult norm that did not exist until then. The new thing is the gift that introduces us into Christ's mentality. If we consider this, we perceive how far our lives often are from this newness of the New Testament and how little we give humanity the example of loving in communion with his love. Thus, we remain indebted to the proof of credibility of the Christian truth which is revealed in love. For this very reason we want to pray to the Lord increasingly to make us, through his purification, mature persons of the new commandment.
In the Gospel of the washing of the feet, Jesus' conversation with Peter presents to us yet another detail of the praxis of Christian life to which we would like finally to turn our attention. At first, Peter did not want to let the Lord wash his feet: this reversal of order, that is, that the master - Jesus - should wash feet, that the master should carry out the slave's service, contrasted starkly with his reverential respect for Jesus, with his concept of the relationship between the teacher and the disciple. "You shall never wash my feet", he said to Jesus with his usual impetuosity (Jn 13,8). His concept of the Messiah involved an image of majesty, of divine grandeur. He had to learn repeatedly that God's greatness is different from our idea of greatness; that it consists precisely in stooping low, in the humility of service, in the radicalism of love even to total self-emptying.
And we too must learn it anew because we systematically desire a God of success and not of the Passion; because we are unable to realize that the Pastor comes as a Lamb that gives itself and thus leads us to the right pasture.
When the Lord tells Peter that without the washing of the feet he would not be able to have any part in him, Peter immediately asks impetuously that his head and hands be washed. This is followed by Jesus' mysterious saying: "He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet" (Jn 13,10). Jesus was alluding to a cleansing with which the disciples had already complied; for their participation in the banquet, only the washing of their feet was now required. But of course this conceals a more profound meaning. What was Jesus alluding to? We do not know for certain. In any case, let us bear in mind that the washing of the feet, in accordance with the meaning of the whole chapter, does not point to any single specific sacrament but the sacramentum Christi in its entirety - his service of salvation, his descent even to the Cross, his love to the end that purifies us and makes us capable of God. Yet here, with the distinction between bathing and the washing of the feet, an allusion to life in the community of the disciples also becomes perceptible, an allusion to the life of the Church. It then seems clear that the bathing that purifies us once and for all and must not be repeated is Baptism - being immersed in the death and Resurrection of Christ, a fact that profoundly changes our life, giving us as it were a new identity that lasts, if we do not reject it as Judas did. However, even in the permanence of this new identity, given by Baptism, for convivial communion with Jesus we need the "washing of the feet". What does this involve? It seems to me that the First Letter of St John gives us the key to understanding it. In it we read: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1Jn 1,8ff.). We are in need of the "washing of the feet", the cleansing of our daily sins, and for this reason we need to confess our sins as St John spoke of in this Letter. We have to recognize that we sin, even in our new identity as baptized persons. We need confession in the form it has taken in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In it the Lord washes our dirty feet ever anew and we can be seated at table with him.
But in this way the word with which the Lord extends the sacramentum, making it the exemplum, a gift, a service for one's brother, also acquires new meaning: "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet" (Jn 13,14). We must wash one another's feet in the mutual daily service of love. But we must also wash one another's feet in the sense that we must forgive one another ever anew. The debt for which the Lord has pardoned us is always infinitely greater than all the debts that others can owe us (cf. Mt 18,21-35). Holy Thursday exhorts us to this: not to allow resentment toward others to become a poison in the depths of the soul. It urges us to purify our memory constantly, forgiving one another whole-heartedly, washing one another's feet, to be able to go to God's banquet together.
Holy Thursday is a day of gratitude and joy for the great gift of love to the end that the Lord has made to us. Let us pray to the Lord at this hour, so that gratitude and joy may become in us the power to love together with his love. Amen.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In his farewell discourse, Jesus announced his imminent death and resurrection to his disciples with these mysterious words: “I go away, and I will come to you”, he said (Jn 14,28). Dying is a “going away”. Even if the body of the deceased remains behind, he himself has gone away into the unknown, and we cannot follow him (cf. Jn 13,36). Yet in Jesus’s case, there is something utterly new, which changes the world. In the case of our own death, the “going away” is definitive, there is no return. Jesus, on the other hand, says of his death: “I go away, and I will come to you.” It is by going away that he comes. His going ushers in a completely new and greater way of being present. By dying he enters into the love of the Father. His dying is an act of love. Love, however, is immortal. Therefore, his going away is transformed into a new coming, into a form of presence which reaches deeper and does not come to an end. During his earthly life, Jesus, like all of us, was tied to the external conditions of bodily existence: to a determined place and a determined time. Bodiliness places limits on our existence. We cannot be simultaneously in two different places. Our time is destined to come to an end. And between the “I” and the “you” there is a wall of otherness. To be sure, through love we can somehow enter the other’s existence. Nevertheless, the insurmountable barrier of being different remains in place. Yet Jesus, who is now totally transformed through the act of love, is free from such barriers and limits. He is able not only to pass through closed doors in the outside world, as the Gospels recount (cf. Jn 20,19). He can pass through the interior door separating the “I” from the “you”, the closed door between yesterday and today, between the past and the future. On the day of his solemn entry into Jerusalem, when some Greeks asked to see him, Jesus replied with the parable of the grain of wheat which has to pass through death in order to bear much fruit. In this way he foretold his own destiny: these words were not addressed simply to one or two Greeks in the space of a few minutes. Through his Cross, through his going away, through his dying like the grain of wheat, he would truly arrive among the Greeks, in such a way that they could see him and touch him through faith. His going away is transformed into a coming, in the Risen Lord’s universal manner of presence, yesterday, today and for ever. He also comes today, and he embraces all times and all places. Now he can even surmount the wall of otherness that separates the “I” from the “you”. This happened with Paul, who describes the process of his conversion and his Baptism in these words: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Ga 2,20). Through the coming of the Risen One, Paul obtained a new identity. His closed “I” was opened. Now he lives in communion with Jesus Christ, in the great “I” of believers who have become – as he puts it – “one in Christ” (Ga 3,28).
So, dear friends, it is clear that, through Baptism, the mysterious words spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper become present for you once more. In Baptism, the Lord enters your life through the door of your heart. We no longer stand alongside or in opposition to one another. He passes through all these doors. This is the reality of Baptism: he, the Risen One, comes; he comes to you and joins his life with yours, drawing you into the open fire of his love. You become one, one with him, and thus one among yourselves. At first this can sound rather abstract and unrealistic. But the more you live the life of the baptized, the more you can experience the truth of these words. Believers – the baptized – are never truly cut off from one another. Continents, cultures, social structures or even historical distances may separate us. But when we meet, we know one another on the basis of the same Lord, the same faith, the same hope, the same love, which form us. Then we experience that the foundation of our lives is the same. We experience that in our inmost depths we are anchored in the same identity, on the basis of which all our outward differences, however great they may be, become secondary. Believers are never totally cut off from one another. We are in communion because of our deepest identity: Christ within us. Thus faith is a force for peace and reconciliation in the world: distances between people are overcome, in the Lord we have become close (cf. Ep 2,13).
The Church expresses the inner reality of Baptism as the gift of a new identity through the tangible elements used in the administration of the sacrament. The fundamental element in Baptism is water; next, in second place, is light, which is used to great effect in the Liturgy of the Easter Vigil. Let us take a brief look at these two elements. In the final chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, there is a statement about Christ which does not speak directly of water, but the Old Testament allusions nevertheless point clearly to the mystery of water and its symbolic meaning. Here we read: “The God of peace … brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant” (He 13,20). In this sentence, there is an echo of the prophecy of Isaiah, in which Moses is described as the shepherd whom the Lord brought up from the water, from the sea (cf. Is 63,11). And Jesus now appears as the new, definitive Shepherd who brings to fulfilment what Moses had done: he leads us out of the deadly waters of the sea, out of the waters of death. In this context we may recall that Moses’ mother placed him in a basket in the Nile. Then, through God’s providence, he was taken out of the water, carried from death to life, and thus – having himself been saved from the waters of death – he was able to lead others through the sea of death. Jesus descended for us into the dark waters of death. But through his blood, so the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, he was brought back from death: his love united itself to the Father’s love, and thus from the abyss of death he was able to rise to life. Now he raises us from the waters of death to true life. This is exactly what happens in Baptism: he draws us towards himself, he draws us into true life. He leads us through the often murky sea of history, where we are frequently in danger of sinking amid all the confusion and perils. In Baptism he takes us, as it were, by the hand, he leads us along the path that passes through the Red Sea of this life and introduces us to everlasting life, the true and upright life. Let us grasp his hand firmly! Whatever may happen, whatever may befall us, let us not lose hold of his hand! Let us walk along the path that leads to life.
In the second place, there is the symbol of light and fire. Gregory of Tours (4th century) recounts a practice that in some places was preserved for a long time, of lighting the new fire for the celebration of the Easter Vigil directly from the sun, using a crystal.Light and fire, so to speak, were received anew from heaven, so that all the lights and fires of the year could be kindled from them. This is a symbol of what we are celebrating in the Easter Vigil. Through his radical love for us, in which the heart of God and the heart of man touched, Jesus Christ truly took light from heaven and brought it to the earth – the light of truth and the fire of love that transform man’s being. He brought the light, and now we know who God is and what God is like. Thus we also know what our human situation is: what we are, and for what purpose we exist. When we are baptized, the fire of this light is brought down deep within ourselves. Thus, in the early Church, Baptism was also called the Sacrament of Illumination: God’s light enters into us; thus we ourselves become children of light. We must not allow this light of truth, that shows us the path, to be extinguished. We must protect it from all the forces that seek to eliminate it so as to cast us back into darkness regarding God and ourselves. Darkness, at times, can seem comfortable. I can hide, and spend my life asleep. Yet we are not called to darkness, but to light. In our baptismal promises, we rekindle this light, so to speak, year by year. Yes, I believe that the world and my life are not the product of chance, but of eternal Reason and eternal Love, they are created by Almighty God. Yes, I believe that in Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, in his Cross and resurrection, the face of God has been revealed; that in him, God is present in our midst, he unites us and leads us towards our goal, towards eternal Love. Yes, I believe that the Holy Spirit gives us the word of truth and enlightens our hearts; I believe that in the communion of the Church we all become one Body with the Lord, and thus we encounter his resurrection and eternal life. The Lord has granted us the light of truth. This light is also fire, a powerful force coming from God, a force that does not destroy, but seeks to transform our hearts, so that we truly become men of God, and so that his peace can become active in this world.
In the early Church there was a custom whereby the Bishop or the priest, after the homily, would cry out to the faithful: “Conversi ad Dominum” – turn now towards the Lord. This meant in the first place that they would turn towards the East, towards the rising sun, the sign of Christ returning, whom we go to meet when we celebrate the Eucharist. Where this was not possible, for some reason, they would at least turn towards the image of Christ in the apse, or towards the Cross, so as to orient themselves inwardly towards the Lord. Fundamentally, this involved an interior event; conversion, the turning of our soul towards Jesus Christ and thus towards the living God, towards the true light. Linked with this, then, was the other exclamation that still today, before the Eucharistic Prayer, is addressed to the community of the faithful: “Sursum corda” – “Lift up your hearts”, high above all our misguided concerns, desires, anxieties and thoughtlessness – “Lift up your hearts, your inner selves!” In both exclamations we are summoned, as it were, to a renewal of our Baptism: Conversi ad Dominum – we must always turn away from false paths, onto which we stray so often in our thoughts and actions. We must turn ever anew towards him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We must be converted ever anew, turning with our whole life towards the Lord. And ever anew we must withdraw our hearts from the force of gravity, which pulls them down, and inwardly we must raise them high: in truth and love. At this hour, let us thank the Lord, because through the power of his word and of the holy Sacraments, he points us in the right direction and draws our heart upwards. Let us pray to him in these words: Yes, Lord, make us Easter people, men and women of light, filled with the fire of your love. Amen.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The date 2 April is impressed in the Church's memory as the day of the departure from this world of the Servant of God Pope John Paul II. Let us relive with emotion the hours of that Saturday evening when the news of his death was greeted by a great prayerful crowd that filled St Peter's Square to overflowing. For several days the Vatican Basilica and this Square were truly the heart of the world. A never-ending river of pilgrims paid homage to the body of the venerated Pontiff and his funeral was marked by a further testimony of the esteem and affection he had won in the hearts of multitudes of believers and people who had come from every corner of the earth. Today too, as it did three years ago, 2 April falls shortly after Easter. The heart of the Church is still deeply immersed in the mystery of the Lord's Resurrection. We can truly interpret the whole life of my beloved Predecessor, particularly his Petrine ministry, in the sign of the Risen Christ. He had an extraordinary faith in him and carried on an unusual and uninterrupted conversation with him. Indeed, among his many human and supernatural qualities he possessed exceptional spiritual and mystic sensibilities. It was enough to see him praying: he literally immersed himself in God and it seemed that in those moments everything else was foreign to him. At liturgical celebrations he was attentive to the mystery-in-action, showing an outstanding ability to grasp the eloquence of God's Word in the development of history, at the profound level of God's plan. As he often said, Holy Mass for him was the centre of every day, and every day of his life. The "living and holy" reality of the Eucharist gave him the spiritual energy to guide the People of God on their journey through history.
John Paul II passed away on the eve of the Second Sunday of Easter, at the end of the "day that the Lord has made". His agony took place throughout this "day", in the new space-time which is the "eighth day", desired by the Most Holy Trinity through the work of the Incarnate Word, dead and Risen. In this spiritual dimension Pope John Paul II often demonstrated that during his life he had in a certain way already been steeped in this spiritual dimension, both earlier and especially in the fulfilment of his mission as Supreme Pontiff. His Pontificate as a whole and in a multitude of specific moments appears to us as a sign and testimony of the Resurrection of Christ. The paschal dynamism that made John Paul II's life a total response to the Lord's call could not be expressed without participation in the suffering and death of the Divine Master and Redeemer. "The saying is sure", the Apostle Paul said: "If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him" (2Tm 2,11-12). Since his childhood Karol Wojtyla had experienced the truth of these words, encountering the cross on his way, in his family and among his people. It was not long before he decided to carry it with Jesus, following in his footsteps. He wanted to be Jesus' faithful servant to the point of accepting the call to the priesthood as a lifelong gift and commitment. He lived with him and wished to die with him, all through the unique mediation of Mary Most Holy, Mother of the Church and Mother of the Redeemer, intimately and effectively associated with the saving mystery of his death and Resurrection.
In this evocative reflection may we be guided by the biblical Readings just proclaimed: "Do not be afraid" (Mt 28,5). The words we have just heard, which the Angel of the Resurrection addressed to the women by the empty tomb, had become a sort of motto that had been on Pope John Paul II's lips since the solemn beginning of his Petrine ministry. He often repeated them to the Church and to humanity on the way towards the Year 2000, and then through that historical goal and beyond, to the dawn of the third millennium. He always spoke them with unbending firmness, first brandishing his crosier crowned with a Crucifix and then, when his physical energy was ebbing away, almost clinging to it until that last Good Friday, when he took part in the Way of the Cross in his private Chapel, gripping the Cross tightly in his arms. We cannot forget his last and silent testimony of love for Jesus. That eloquent scene of human suffering and faith on that last Good Friday also showed believers and the world the secret of the entire Christian life. His "Do not be afraid" was not based on human strength or successes achieved but only on the Word of God, the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ. As John Paul II was gradually emptied of everything, at last even the ability to speak, this entrustment of himself to Christ appeared ever more clearly. As it was for Jesus, so too it was for John Paul II: in the end words gave way to the extreme sacrifice, to the gift of self. And his death was sealed by a life entirely given to Christ and even physically conformed to him with features of suffering and trusting abandonment in the Heavenly Father's arms. "Let me go to the Father" were his last words, the fulfilment of a life completely spent in striving to know and contemplate the Face of the Lord.
Venerable and dear Brothers, I thank you all for joining me at this Holy Mass of suffrage for beloved John Paul II. I address a special thought to the participants of the First World Congress on Divine Mercy, which is opening this very day and which intends to deepen his rich Magisterium on the subject. God's mercy, as he himself said, is a privileged key to the interpretation of his Pontificate. He wanted the message of God's merciful love to be made known to all and urged the faithful to witness to it (cf. Homily at Krakow-Lagiewniki, 17 August 2002). This is why he desired to raise to the honour of the altars Sr Faustina Kowalska, a humble Sister who, through a mysterious divine plan, became a prophetic messenger of Divine Mercy. The Servant of God John Paul II had known and personally experienced the terrible tragedies of the 20th century and for a long time wondered what could stem the tide of evil. The answer could only be found in God's love. In fact, only Divine Mercy is able to impose limitations on evil; only the almighty love of God can defeat the tyranny of the wicked and the destructive power of selfishness and hate. For this reason, during his last Visit to Poland, he said on his return to the land of his birth: "Apart from the mercy of God there is no other source of hope for mankind" (ibid.).
Let us give thanks to the Lord for having given the Church this faithful and courageous Servant of his. Let us praise and bless the Blessed Virgin Mary for having watched ceaselessly over his person and ministry, for the benefit of the Christian people and all humanity. And while we offer the redeeming Sacrifice for his chosen soul, let us pray to him to continue to intercede from Heaven for each one of us, especially for me whom Providence called to take up his priceless spiritual legacy. The Church, following his teaching and example, faithfully continues without compromise in her evangelizing mission and never ceases to spread Christ's merciful love, a source of true peace for the whole world. Amen.
At the end of Mass the Holy Father greeted the faithful with the following words:
Before concluding the celebration I would like to address my cordial greeting to you all, dear brothers and sisters who have come from different countries.
I am happy to greet all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at this celebration of the Eucharist. We have remembered with love my venerated Predecessor, Pope John Paul II. May his example of joy and courage in his service to the Church inspire us to embrace with hope and generosity the task of being faithful Christians in our daily lives. May God bless you all!
I invoke the heavenly protection of Mary Most Holy, Mother of the Church, upon all those present and upon all who are linked to us by radio and television.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We may see our meeting in the ancient Basilica of St Bartholomew on Tiber Island as a pilgrimage in memory of the martyrs of the 20th century, countless men and women, known and unknown, who shed their blood for the Lord in the 1900s. It is a pilgrimage guided by the Word of God which, like a lamp to our feet, a light on our way (cf. Ps 119,105 : 105), brightens the life of every believer with its light. This church was especially designated by my beloved Predecessor John Paul II as a place for the memorial of the 20th century martyrs and entrusted by him to the Community of Sant'Egidio, which this year is thanking the Lord for the 40th anniversary of its foundation.
I greet with affection the Cardinals and Bishops who have wished to take part in this liturgy. I greet Prof. Andrea Riccardi, Founder of the Sant'Egidio Community, and I thank him for his words; I greet Prof. Marco Impagliazzo, President of the Community, the Chaplain, Mons. Matteo Zuppi, as well as Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni-Narni-Amelia.
In this place full of memories let us ask ourselves: why did these martyr brothers and sisters of ours not seek to save the irreplaceable good of life at all costs? Why did they continue to serve the Church in spite of grave threats and intimidation? In this Basilica where the relics of the Apostle Bartholomew are preserved and the mortal remains of St Adalbert venerated, we hear the resonance of the eloquent witness of those who, not only in the 1900s but from the very beginning of the Church, putting love into practice, offered their lives to Christ in martyrdom. In the icon set above the main altar, which portrays some of these witnesses of faith, the words of the Book of Revelation stand out: "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation" (Ap 7,13). The old man who asks who the people dressed in white are and where they came from is told: "They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Ap 7,14). At first it appears a strange answer. However, in the coded language of the Seer of Patmos it contains a precise reference to the clear flame of love that impelled Christ to pour out his blood for us. By virtue of that blood, we have been purified. Sustained by that flame, the martyrs too poured out their blood and were purified in love: in the love of Christ who made them capable of sacrificing themselves for love in their turn. Jesus said: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15,13). Every witness of faith lives this "greater love" and, after the example of the Divine Teacher, is ready to sacrifice his life for the Kingdom. In this way we become friends of Christ; thus, we are conformed to him, accepting the extreme sacrifice without limiting the gift of love and the service of faith.
Stopping by the six altars that commemorate the Christians who fell under the totalitarian violence of Communism, Nazism, those killed in America, Asia and Oceania, in Spain and Mexico, in Africa, we retrace in spirit numerous sorrowful events of the past century. So many fell while they were carrying out the evangelizing mission of the Church: their blood mingled with that of the indigenous Christians to which they had transmitted the faith. Others, often in a minority condition, were killed in hatred of the faith. Lastly, many sacrificed themselves, undaunted by threats and dangers, in order not to abandon the needy, the poor or the faithful entrusted to them. They were Bishops, priests, men and women religious and faithful lay people. How many they are! At the Ecumenical Jubilee Commemoration for the new martyrs celebrated at the Colosseum on 7 May 2000, the Servant of God John Paul II said that these brothers and sisters of ours in the faith stand as a vast panorama of Christian humanity in the 20th century, a panorama of the Gospel of the Beatitudes, lived even to the shedding of blood. And he was in the habit of repeating that Christ's witness to the point of bloodshed speaks with a stronger voice than the divisions of the past.
It is true: it seems as though violence, totalitarianism, persecution and blind brutality got the upper hand, silencing the voices of the witnesses to the faith who humanly speaking appeared to be defeated by history. But the Risen Jesus illumines their testimony and thus we understand the meaning of martyrdom. Tertullian says of this: "Plures efficimur quoties metimur a vobis: sanguis martyrum semen christianorum - Our numbers increase every time we are cut down by you: the blood of martyrs is the seed of [new] Christians" (Apol. 50, 13; CCC, PL 1,603). A force that the world does not know is active in defeat, in the humiliation of those who suffer for the Gospel: "for when I am weak", the Apostle Paul exclaims, "then I am strong" (2Co 12,10). It is the power of love, defenceless and victorious even in apparent defeat. It is the force that challenges and triumphs over death.
This 21st century also opened under the banner of martyrdom. When Christians are truly the leaven, light and salt of the earth, they too become the object of persecution, as was Jesus; like him they are "a sign of contradiction". Fraternal life in common and the love, faith and decisions in favour of the lowliest and poorest that mark the existence of the Christian community sometimes give rise to violent aversion. How useful it is then to look to the shining witness of those who have preceded us in the sign of heroic fidelity to the point of martyrdom! And in this ancient Basilica, thanks to the care of the Sant'Egidio Community, the memory of so many witnesses to the faith who died in recent times is preserved and venerated. Dear friends of the Community of Sant'Egidio, looking at these heroes of the faith, may you too strive to imitate their courage and perseverance in serving the Gospel, especially among the poorest. Be builders of peace and reconciliation among those who are enemies or who fight one another. Nourish your faith by listening to and meditating on the Word of God, daily prayer and active participation in Holy Mass. Authentic friendship with Christ will be the basis of your mutual love. Sustained by his Spirit you will be able to help build a more fraternal world. May the Blessed Virgin, Queen of Martyrs, sustain you and help you to be genuine witnesses of Christ.
Benedict XVI Homilies 20038