1. I am pleased to welcome you at this solemn and important moment in your process of discernment. You are celebrating an Extraordinary Congress, during which you intend to update your Constitutions. This initiative is in response to the Church's invitation to maintain the vitality and timeliness of the meaning of your consecration, its value for the new evangelization and for an ever more effective witness to God's love for mankind.
I greet the General President, Miss Nidia Colussi, together with the Council and the other persons responsible for the Apostles of the Sacred Heart Secular Institute. I also greet the priests who assist them and the delegates from the various Italian provinces and from Latin America.
2. You have met to reflect on the path traveled thus far and to plan the next stages. The Sacred Heart of Jesus, placed at the centre of your spirituality, shows you the high road to a witness that is humble and often ignored by men, but precious and appreciated in the eyes of God. You wish to participate in the apostolic mission of the Lord: it is not by chance that you call yourselves "Apostles of the Sacred Heart"!
Look then to him: he "delivered himself" (tradidit semetipsum) for the life of the world. He willingly obeyed the Father until death, death on a cross, so that the new life of God's children might triumph in history. Thus you too are called to be the leaven of liberation and salvation for mankind and all creation (cf. Rom Rm 8,18-21), by sharing from within, in your secular condition, the living situation of your many brothers and sisters.
3. I would like to make three recommendations to you, recommendations that are also the reason for my prayer for you and for your institute.
In the first place, I urge you always to maintain the spirit of simplicity that your founder taught with such insistence. Charity, the ineffable gift of the Holy Spirit, finds in humility its necessary foundation and the possibility of its maximum expression.
I urge you then to continue your valuable service of support, prayer and active concrete assistance to vocations of special consecration. I particularly entrust you with priestly vocations: may they be present in your spirit and your apostolic hearts as the first and most important gift you can help implore and obtain for the Church from the mercy of God, the Lord of the harvest (cf. Mt Mt 9,38).
Finally, I hope that where you live and work you will continue to be that successful leaven of Gospel witness that your choice of secular consecration demands.
4. In entrusting you with these thoughts, I invoke on your persons, on your loved ones and on the entire Institute of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart the constant assistance of the Lord, so that, scattered like little seeds throughout the world, without giving in to its allurements, you may be for everyone who approaches you an occasion for meeting Jesus and the inexhaustible wealth of love that flows from his blessed Heart.
May the Blessed Virgin, whom you venerate with the beautiful title of Mother of Good Counsel, watch over you. With these wishes I impart to each of you my special Blessing as a pledge of every heavenly grace.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. After my visit to Annifo, here I am among you in Cesi, to embrace in spirit you and all the peoples of the Marches struck by the earthquake. I greet the Archbishop of Camerino and the President of the Regional Episcopal Conference, the Archbishop of Fermo; I greet the parish priest and the entire community of this town, which witnessed the destruction of almost all its homes. I extend a cordial wish to the inhabitants of the other centres, where churches and homes collapsed or have become unsafe. I go in spirit to all the families, to the sick, the elderly and the children. I would like to say to them all, especially to those who feel discouraged: Take heart! Take heart! The Lord is near! The Pope is close to you!
I have been close to you from the very beginning when I heard the news of this devastating earthquake. I prayed for you and continue to do so. But today I am here among you, even if for a short while, to show my solidarity with you. At the beginning of a new year, I come to you in the name of that God who chose to dwell in the midst of our frail humanity, to instill in it a hope that is new and unconquerable, because it is based on faith.
2. The trials of life make us aware of our human precariousness. They remind us that on earth we are merely sojourners, and our homeland is not here below but with God. At this Christmas season, however, the liturgy says repeatedly that God himself, the Creator and Lord of all things, is not far from us, even when the opposite seems true. He sympathizes with our suffering: he came to live among us, hiding himself in our human condition, because he wants to imbue it with love, the source and ultimate meaning of all life.
The Psalmist says: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea" (Ps 46 :2-3). In the midst of all upheavals, the believer never loses the awareness of the Lord's comforting presence. You too, dear brothers and sisters, with the strength his support, can not only materially rebuild your towns, but you will have the spiritual energy for an authentic interior and community renewal.
3. During the days that disrupted the peaceful working life of these lands, your peoples gave an exceptional witness of dignity, which aroused universal admiration. The material damage did not weaken your attachment to these areas. On the contrary, the decision taken by the vast majority of the earthquake victims to continue living in their own towns shows that the trial they underwent made their sense of identity and belonging even stronger.
An encouragement in this regard was certainly the birth during these months of numerous babies, which gladdened many of the communities struck by the earthquake. From here I would like to greet all the children who are a promise for the future and the life of these lands. I have already had the opportunity to meet some of them, and now from this small town in the Apennines I would like to address all the children of the Marches and Umbria. In the festive atmosphere of Christmas, my affectionate greeting and embrace go to them! Dear children, may the Lord bless you; may he make you grow good and courageous; may he grant you and your loved ones much serenity and joy.
Maybe years from now, these children born during the earthquake will learn from their parents: "You were born at the time of the earthquake, but you did not know a thing". See, that is the way life goes. I was born during the war between Poland and communist Russia, but did not know a thing. Yet I have always had great admiration and great gratitude for those who had confidence during that war and then triumphed. It was very important. It was 1920.
4. Next to the children are their parents: these are the families to whom I express my admiration for their determination and commitment in reacting to the difficult test of an intense and prolonged earthquake. Many of them live in emergency situations; they are in temporary lodgings. May these families never lack for support from all of us. In this regard, I cannot fail to emphasize the surprisingly generous response that the earthquake caused even from beyond the confines of the regions involved. In fact, dear brothers and sisters, over these months you have been able to count on a vast network of solidarity, which has made you feel less isolated.
Despite the difficult working conditions due both to the season and to problems of communication, the commitment of everyone has already made it possible to re-establish the most essential services in almost every town. Particularly significant was the presence of so many volunteers who came from all over Italy and who shared with the earthquake victims their hardships and anxieties, tragedies and hopes. The solidarity of so many people was likewise remarkable. In the most diverse ways they sent material assistance together with countless testimonies of spiritual closeness and affection. Among the various organizations involved in this work, I particularly encourage the work of Caritas, which co-ordinates the services of solidarity on behalf of the ecclesial community.
I would like to express my appreciation of all that has been done and I encourage the authorities concerned to continue on the path that they have taken, to carry out in timely fashion the necessary initiatives for financing and coordinating the reconstruction work. With my greetings for the new year I express my best wishes that your lives will return to normal as soon as possible: the houses, churches and public buildings, rebuilt to anti-earthquake standards, will be a sign of the return to normality, and above all of a spiritual identity that endures and looks to the future.
Dear brothers and sisters, I invite you to continue vying with one another in generous brotherhood and, as I invoke the constant protection of the Virgin Mary, I impart my Blessing to everyone with great affection.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. I greet you with affection and deep emotion! Today I am finally able to fulfil the desire that I have been carrying in my heart since I first heard the tragic news of the earthquake that has caused you so much suffering. I wanted to come immediately to the areas struck by the earthquake, but this would have hindered the work of the rescue squads. Over these months I have constantly followed your trials; I have shared your suffering and I have prayed for you. The Lord now permits me to show you personally my sentiments and to embrace you and all those who shared the same sad experience in many towns of these dear regions of Umbria and the Marches.
Thank you for your presence! Like a large family, made stronger and more united by your recent trials, you have faced the cold and many hardships to gather round the Pope and to testify in this way to your desire to rebuild the material and human fabric of your community so seriously affected by the earthquake.
Here before the little church given to you by Caritas to replace yours which was completely destroyed, I wish to extend my cordial thoughts to my Venerable Brother, Bishop Arduino Bertoldo of Foligno, thanking him for the words that he addressed to me on behalf of you all. With him I wish also to greet the Bishop emeritus, the parish priest and the other religious authorities. I cordially greet the Hon. Micheli, Undersecretary of the Prime Minister's Office, and the Hon. Barberi, Undersecretary of Civil Defence. I also greet the Mayor and the civil and military authorities gathered here. To all I extend the expression of my appreciation.
2. On my way here by helicopter to Annifo, the first stage of a journey that will take me to Cesi and Assisi, as I looked at the area around the Appennines of Umbria and the Marches, I was shocked by the scene of destruction that unfolded before my eyes. From Cascia and Norcia to Spoleto, from Fabriano and Macerata to Camerino, from Foligno to Assisi, the sight of historic homes, churches and palaces laden with history, reduced to a mound of rubble within a few moments, is shocking and moving. To the peoples of these areas, rich in art and culture, whom I was not able to visit, I extend my affectionate greeting.
I was able personally to observe how the earthquake has profoundly affected the environment, your patrimony of monuments, the places of work and life, the symbols of the religious and cultural identity of this area. Here in Annifo, then, the seismic shocks, which were particularly violent, almost completely destroyed the residential area, leaving only seven houses standing: a situation that unfortunately is very similar in many of the nearby towns, both in Umbria and in the Marches. How can we fail to see in the homes, churches, roads and squares destroyed the symbol of a privacy invaded, of human bonds violated, of an historical continuity interrupted, of a sense of security lost? How can we fail to share the distress of those who saw collapse with their homes the fruit of years of hard-earned savings and many sacrifices?
How can we fail to think of the sick who felt even more weak and alone, when taken from the protective warmth of their homes and their family's affection? What can we say about the bewilderment of the little ones, suddenly deprived of their familiar surroundings and games and exposed to the unknown, to the hardship of makeshift shelters?
At this time, then, my thoughts go in particular to the people who died in those tragic events. In entrusting them to the Lord, I hope that their memory may arouse in everyone the commitment to rebuild as soon as possible the places where they lived, worked, prayed and loved.
3. Dear brothers and sisters, the earthquake, which initially made you feel weak and defenceless, did not erase from your hearts the greatest treasure: the heritage of Christian and human values which for centuries has kept your communities together. Indeed, the earthquake emphasized in a surprising way the human and spiritual resources you possess. Admirable acts of goodness, solidarity and fraternal sharing, the work of children and adults, of persons with responsibility and simple citizens, have marked and continue to mark the daily life of your districts in the post-earthquake period.
Among the ruins of your towns you are perhaps writing one of the most significant pages of your history. Continue confidently to walk in unity! Look to the future with an open mind. The mystery of Christmas on which we are meditating these days reminds us that the Lord is Emmanuel, God-with-us, the God who came among us to abide with us. May this contemplation, nourished by the Christian faith, the precious inheritance handed down by your fathers and the cornerstone of the lives of your communities, help you in this particular moment to trust unswervingly in divine Providence, nurturing an active hope and a fraternal and common love.
4. At Christmas these words of joy resounded among you in an unusual way: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased" (Lc 2,14). Annifo and many other centres struck by the earthquake, both large and small, recalled on the holy night the poverty and precariousness of the stable in Bethlehem. This emergency situation makes you, dear brothers and sisters, the privileged recipients of the angels' joyous announcement: may serenity and peace be with you, because Christ has come among us!
I would like to repeat these same words to you, while exhorting you not to give in to discouragement, even when faced with great difficulties. Rather, entrust your plans, your suffering, your lives to the Lord! He will soothe your wounds; he will sustain your intentions and he will accompany you in the difficult journey that awaits you.
With these wishes, as I invoke on each one of you the maternal protection of the Virgin Mary and of your patron saints, I impart my Blessing with great affection to you and to your families.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. After visiting the little towns of Annifo and Cesi, from where I wished to embrace in spirit all the other places struck by the tragedy of the earthquake, now I am here in Assisi, this city of yours clearly marked by such a harsh trial. I am with you to give you concrete proof of my closeness and that of the whole ecclesial community to each of you. In Bologna, where I went for the Eucharistic Congress the day after the first tremours, I had already expressed my solidarity with all those who had been struck by the quake. Since then I have not ceased to follow them each day, sharing their anxiety, and I am grateful to the Lord that today he has granted me the opportunity to be among you to show you my affection.
I extend a cordial greeting first of all to the Pastor of this beloved Diocese, dear Bishop Sergio Goretti, whom I thank for his warm words, and to all the Bishops of the areas affected by the earthquake, especially to the Archbishop of Spoleto and the Bishop of Fabriano, whose Dioceses I have been unable to visit but whom I have wanted to be here with a representation of some of their people's parish priests. I also greet the community of the Friars Minor Conventual who care so lovingly for this Patriarchal Basilica. My respectful thoughts also turn to the Prime Minister, to the Secretary of the Council of Ministers and to the Undersecretary for the Co-ordination of Civil Defence, to the Presidents of the regions of Umbria and the Marches, to the Mayor of Assisi and the many mayors of the municipalities affected by the earthquake and to all the civil, military and religious authorities present.
I know well how badly the earthquake has affected the precious human and artistic heritage that marks your land, dear brothers and sisters. I also know, however, that you are determined not to give in to discouragement even in the face of so many great difficulties. The Pope is here today to tell you that he is with you and wants to encourage you in your firm resolve to undertake the hard task of rebuilding.
2. From the top of this hill full of Franciscan landmarks, one's gaze sweeps the valley, rises over the slopes of the mountains and can embrace in a single glance all the localities struck by the earthquake - the small mountain communities and the large centres, such as Nocera Umbra and Gualdo Tadino. Their problems are substantially the same, and similar damage has been done to their homes and monuments, rich in art and culture. To the suffering of those who have lost their loved ones is added the pain of those who have seen the sacrifices of a lifetime disintegrate in an instant and are now tempted to yield to despair.
However it is our duty to recognize that during the days of repeated seismic tremours, the evidence of dignity and love for their own land offered by the people of Umbria and the Marches aroused great admiration in everyone. Dear brothers and sisters, may you never stop striving for your ideals! May your strength of soul, your gifts of diligence and your traditional enterprise never weaken! Indeed, my hope is that they will ultimately be strengthened by this trial, to be expressed in effective and concrete collaboration that will guarantee a rapid recovery.
In this context, I would like to express my keen appreciation of the generous contribution made by the volunteer workers and by all those who are helping at various levels in the work of relief and reconstruction. I encourage each one to intensify his efforts to continue in the work undertaken. Faith tells us that what is done for those who are needy and suffering is done to Christ (cf. Mt Mt 25,40).
Now that the emergency phase has passed, that of rebuilding is about to start. May the year that has just begun be the year of rebirth and of social and economic recovery for these areas! I note with satisfaction the initiatives undertaken by the local and regional administrative authorities, as well as the considerable funds allocated by the Italian Government to meet your most urgent needs. I hope that everything will be completed as soon as possible, so that the panorama of cities and countryside, today largely scarred by piles of rubble and ruined roads, will be restored to their former picturesque beauty by the necessary work of repairing and rebuilding the damaged homes, churches and monuments. And here the words: "Francis, go and repair my house" are more timely than ever.
3. I have come here to Assisi to pray at the tomb of the "Poverello". From this place sacred to the Franciscan tradition and badly damaged by the earthquake, from this basilica admired by men and women throughout the world, I pray fervently to the Lord for the earthquake victims, for their relatives and for all who are still living in precarious conditions. I also pray for the workers and volunteers who labour with the utmost dedication in the worthy task of providing assistance and aid to the homeless. May the Lord comfort them all and make everyone aware of his support!
St Francis, the seraphic son of this land, witnessed with his life to the value of solidarity and service offered lovingly to the needy. Clare, a humble, delicate plant born in this town, spent her whole life here, accompanying with her prayer the apostolic work of the peacemakers and preachers of the Gospel. How can we fail to feel their presence among us during the difficulties and trials of these months? From heaven they certainly bless and sustain the active, competitive generosity which sees people involved from every corner of Italy at the side of those struck by the earthquake. At the same time, they invite you all, dear brothers and sisters, to face with evangelical spirit the precarious situation in which you are living. In the lives of Francis and Clare there were many moments of suffering and loneliness. One need only remember the many illnesses, hardships and anxieties which culminated in the mystical embrace of the Crucified One which occurred at La Verna, and in the constant adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
May the Franciscan message about the value that hardship and pain acquire in the light of the Gospel help you to recognize and accept in the painful events of recent months the designs of a Father who is always loving even when he allows trials to occur.
4. Dear brothers and sisters, we are in the spirit of the Christmas holidays, and a few days ago we began a new year. I would like to express to each of you my cordial wishes for 1998: may it be a year of hope and solidarity. Quod Deus avertat a nobis: not an earthquake year. I am sure that it will not be long before Assisi and the other cities and towns struck by the earthquake recover their picturesque charm and are as resplendent as ever with the restored beauty of their monuments. Thus they will be better able to fulfil their natural vocation of being a symbol of peace and brotherhood for the Church, for Italy and for the whole world.
May Francis and Clare of Assisi obtain from the Lord strength for those tried; may they obtain light for their minds and warmth for their hearts, so that they can quickly achieve all they hope for. With this wish, I cordially impart a special, affectionate Blessing to you gathered here, to the suffering, to the volunteer workers and to everyone involved in various ways in the work of rebuilding, as well as to all the inhabitants of Umbria and the Marches.
The Holy Father then spoke extemporaneously:
Happy New Year! I thought that my first visit this year would be to Cuba; instead it is to Assisi! Rain was also forecast for today, but thanks be to God for the sun, the sun of St Francis.
1. I welcome you with joy, while you are gathered in Rome for the General Chapter of your Congregation. I thank the Superior General, Sr Luisa Giuliani, for the words she addressed to me on behalf of you all, and I extend to her my wishes that she will be able to fulfil with generosity and abundant fruits the office in which she has been reconfirmed.
Your meeting, dear sisters, almost coincides with the liturgical season of Christmas, a time which is very advantageous for reviewing every experience in the light of faith and, following the example of the Virgin Mary, for meditating on God's plan, our vocation and the mission which he entrusts to us.
Your religious family is named after the Mother of God, and from her I especially ask you to learn ever more deeply the virtue of discernment, in complete docility to the action of the Holy Spirit, to whom this year is dedicated in preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.
2. The theme of this Chapter - "With Mary, the new Woman, in the service of God in one's brothers and sisters" - also invites you to start out again towards a new stage in your journey under the guidance of the one who is the model of consecration and discipleship in the spirit of evangelical radicalism (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Vita consecrata VC 28).
Your reflection, based on the charism that marks the identity of the institute, stressed the importance of continuing formation and highlighted the demands of your mission in the areas of education, health care and pastoral service.
With regard to continuing formation, I would like to recall the primacy of life in the Spirit. "Living in the Spirit, consecrated persons discover their own identity and find profound peace; they grow more attentive to the daily challenges of the Word of God, and they allow themselves to be guided by the original inspiration of their institute. Under the action of the Spirit, they resolutely keep times for prayer, silence and solitude, and they never cease to ask the Almighty for the gift of wisdom in the struggles of everyday life (cf. Wis Sg 9,10)" (Vita consecrata VC 71).
3. Your meeting is formulating basic guidelines for the life of each religious and for each community: first of all, following the example of the Mother Foundresses, the commitment to renewing your "being" and your "serving"; then, the awareness of the need to put Christ always at the centre of your lives, as well as constantly to renew and strengthen your bonds of communion; finally, as regards the apostolate, the guideline of choosing to "humanize life" in the various areas of your service: schools, foster-homes, hospitals, homes for the elderly, centres for responding to various forms of marginalization.
I can only encourage you to continue with renewed enthusiasm in these activities which the Holy Spirit suggests to you at such an important moment in the institute's life, such as this celebration of the General Chapter: open your hearts to receive the interior movements of God's grace.
4. Your visit, dear sisters, offers me the opportunity to express my gratitude and appreciation for your commitment and to confirm you in your intentions. You are well aware of how much the Church esteems the consecrated life. Particular evidence of this was given by the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops dedicated to it, which was above all a unanimous thanksgiving for the great gift of the consecrated life. It is at the very heart of the Church and is a decisive element for her mission (cf. ibid, n. 3), to which it makes a specific contribution through the witness of a life given totally to God and to one's brothers and sisters (cf. ibid, n. 76).
With the maternal help of Mary most holy, may this be your personal task and that of your entire Congregation! With this wish, I cordially impart to you and to your sisters a special Apostolic Blessing.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. The collective homage of the Diplomatic Corps, on the threshold of the New Year, always takes on the character of moving solemnity and heartfelt familiarity. I cordially thank your Dean, Ambassador Atembina-Te-Bombo, who has courteously presented your friendly good wishes and delicately evoked certain aspects of my apostolic mission.
At the beginning of this year 1998, let us allow to shine for all of today's men and women the light which rose over the world on the day of the birth of the Divine Child. By its very nature, that light is universal, its brightness illumines everyone without exception. It reveals both our successes and our setbacks in the management of creation and in our mission at the service of society.
2. Very fortunately there is no lack of positive achievements. Central and Eastern Europe have continued their progress towards democracy, gradually freeing themselves from the burdens and conditionings of the totalitarian regime of yesterday. Let us hope that this progress will prove effective everywhere!
Not far from us, Bosnia-Hercegovina is experiencing a more or less relative peace, although the recent local elections have shown the precarious nature of the peacemaking process between the different communities. In this regard, I would like to extend an earnest invitation to the international community to pursue its efforts in favour of the return of the refugees to their homes, and in favour of respect for the fundamental rights of the three ethnic communities which make up the country. These are preconditions necessary for the vitality of the country: my unforgettable pastoral visit to Sarajevo, last Spring, made me even more clearly aware of this.
The enlargement of the European Union eastwards, and its efforts to achieve monetary stability, should lead to an ever greater complementarity among the peoples involved, in respect for each one's identity and history. In a way it is a question of sharing the heritage of values which each nation has succeeded in bringing into being: the dignity of the human person, his inalienable fundamental rights, the inviolability of life, freedom and justice, the sense of solidarity and the rejection of discrimination.
Also within this continent, we cannot but encourage the resumption of dialogue between the parties which for so many years have been opposed to one another in Northern Ireland. May all parties have the courage to persevere in order to overcome present perils, there as in other regions of Europe!
In Latin America, the process of democratization has continued, even though here and there pernicious reactions have hindered its advance, as shown by the tragic events which occurred in the Mexican Province of Chiapas, a few days before Christmas. At the end of this month, God willing, I will make a Pastoral Visit to Cuba. The first visit of a Successor of Peter to that Island will give me an opportunity to strengthen not only the courageous Catholics of that country but also all their fellowcitizens in their efforts to achieve a homeland ever more just and united, where all individuals can find their rightful place and see their legitimate aspirations recognized.
As regards Asia, where more than half of humanity lives, we must applaud the talks being held in Geneva between the two Koreas. Success here would considerably reduce tension in the whole region, and would undoubtedly encourage constructive dialogue between other countries in the region which are still divided or hostile, and would thus encourage them to undertake a dynamic process of solidarity and peace. The financial fluctuations which have recently occupied centre stage in certain countries of that part of the world call for serious reflection on the morality of the economic and financial markets which have led to the considerable development of Asia in recent years. Greater sensitivity to social justice and more respect for local cultures could in the future avoid unpleasant surprises, the victims of which are always the local peoples.
I do not need to insist in order to remind you of the interest with which the Pope and his collaborators are following the evolution of the situation in China, hoping that that evolution will favour the establishment of more friendly relations with the Holy See. This would enable Chinese Catholics to live their faith fully inserted into the communion of the whole Church as she approaches the Great Jubilee.
My thoughts likewise go to the Church in Vietnam which is still aspiring to better conditions of existence. I cannot forget the people of East Timor, and in particular the sons and daughters of the Church there, still awaiting more peaceful conditions in order to be able to look to the future with greater confidence.
At this point I would like to address a cordial greeting to Mongolia, which has expressed the desire to establish closer links with the Apostolic See.
3. In a more general way, I would consider as being among the positive aspects of our review the increase of sensitivity in the world to questions connected with the preservation of an environment worthy of man, and the international consensus which made possible, just a month ago in Ottawa, the signing of a treaty banning antipersonnel mines (which the Holy See is preparing to ratify). All this shows an ever more concrete respect for human beings, considered individually and as members of society, as well as in their role as stewards of creation; and this also corresponds to the conviction that true happiness can only come about when we work with one another, not against one another.
The initiatives undertaken by the leaders of the international community on behalf of children, who are all too frequently victimized in their innocence, the battle against organized crime and drug trafficking, the efforts to oppose every form of contemptible trafficking in human beings: these clearly show that, with political determination, it is possible to strike at the causes of the disorders which too often disfigure the human person.
These advances are all the more in need of being consolidated, since the world around us is still so changeable and since its equilibrium can be compromised at any moment by an unexpected conflict, a fresh economic crisis or the baneful effects of the disturbing spread of poverty.
4. The fragility of our societies is painfully demonstrated by the "crisis spots" which are in the forefront of the news and which have once more cast a shadow over the joyful atmosphere of the celebrations of recent days.
I am thinking in the first place of Algeria, which practically every day is thrown into mourning by deplorable massacres. We see a whole country held hostage to an inhuman violence which no political cause, far less a religious motivation, could legitimate. I insist on repeating clearly to all, once again, that no one may kill in God's name: this is to misuse the divine name and to blaspheme. It would be appropriate for all people of good will, in that country and elsewhere, to unite in ensuring that the voice of those who believe in dialogue and fraternity is finally heard. And I am convinced that they are the majority of the Algerian people.
The situation in Sudan still does not permit us to speak of reconciliation and peace. Furthermore, the Christians of this country continue to be the object of grievous discriminations which the Holy See has time and again brought up with the civil authorities, unfortunately without any notable improvement.
Peace seems to have moved further away from the Middle East, since the peace process begun in Madrid in 1991 is practically at a standstill, when it is not altogether endangered by ambiguous or even violent incidents. My thoughts turn at this time to all those Israelis and Palestinians who in recent years had hoped that justice, security, peace and a normal everyday life would finally dawn on this Holy Land. Today, what remains of this desire for peace? The principles of the Madrid Conference and the guidelines of the 1993 Oslo meeting paved the way to peace. They still remain the only effective means of moving forward. There is no need at all to attempt other paths. I would like to assure you and, through you, the whole international community, that the Holy See will for its part continue to dialogue with all the parties concerned in order to encourage the determination of both sides to salvage peace and to heal the wounds of injustice. The Holy See maintains a constant concern for this part of the world and it conducts its activity in accordance with the principles which have always guided it. The Pope, in particular, in these years preceding the celebration of the Jubilee of the Year 2000, turns his gaze towards Jerusalem, the Holy City par excellence, praying daily that it will become soon and for ever, together with Bethlehem and Nazareth, a place of justice and peace where Jews, Christians and Muslims will finally be able to walk together before God.
Not far from there, an entire people is the victim of a constraint which puts it in hazardous conditions of survival. I refer to our brothers and sisters in Iraq, living under a pitiless embargo. In response to the appeals for help which unceasingly come to the Holy See, I must call upon the consciences of those who, in Iraq and elsewhere, put political, economic or strategic considerations before the fundamental good of the people, and I ask them to show compassion. The weak and the innocent cannot pay for mistakes for which they are not responsible. I therefore pray that this country will be able to regain its dignity, experience normal development, and thus be in a position to reestablish fruitful relations with other peoples, within the framework of international law and world solidarity.
We cannot pass over in silence the tragedy of the Kurdish peoples, which in these very days has drawn everyone's attention; the immediate demands of compassion towards refugees in extreme situations must not make us forget the quest of millions of their brothers and sisters who are also calling for secure and acceptable conditions of life.
Finally, it is my duty, unfortunately, to draw your attention to the drama of the peoples of the central part of Africa. In these last months we have witnessed a regional recomposition of ethnic and political balances. All of your chanceries know about the events which have taken place in Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and just recently in Congo-Brazzaville. I shall not therefore recall the facts here, but mention essentially the trials inflicted on these peoples: armed conflict, displacement of persons, the tragedy of refugees, deficient health conditions, a defective administration of justice... Faced with such situations, no one's conscience can remain at peace. Today, in the greatest silence, intimidation and killing still continue. This is why I wish to address myself to the political leaders of these countries: if violent attainment of power becomes the norm, if insistence on ethnic considerations continues to override all other concerns, if democratic representation is systematically put aside, if corruption and the arms trade continue to rage, then Africa will never experience peace or development, and future generations will mercilessly judge these pages of African history.
I would also like to appeal to the solidarity of the countries of the continent. Africans ought not to rely on outside assistance for everything. Within their own ranks there are many men and women with all the human and intellectual aptitudes to meet the challenges of our time and to manage societies in an appropriate way. However, more "African" solidarity is needed to support countries in difficulty, and also to avoid discriminatory measures or sanctions being imposed upon them. They should all assist one another in the analysis and evaluation of political options, and should also agree not to take part in arms trafficking. Rather the countries of the continent should favour peace-making and reconciliation, if necessary through peace forces composed of African soldiers. In this way the credibility of Africa will be more real in the eyes of the rest of the world and international help would doubtless become more intensive, with respect for the sovereignty of nations. It is urgently necessary that territorial disputes, economic initiatives and human rights should mobilize the energies of Africans to arrive at equitable and peaceful solutions which will allow Africa to face the twenty-first century with better opportunities and more confidence.
5. In reality, all these problems show the vulnerability of the women and men of the end of this century. Certainly, it is fortunate that the International Organizations, for example, are concerning themselves more and more with indicating criteria to improve the quality of human life and with implementing concrete initiatives. The Apostolic See considers itself in solidarity with these activities of multilateral diplomacy, in which it willingly collaborates through its Observer Missions. In this regard, I would merely mention this morning that the Holy See is formally associated with the workings of the World Trade Organization, with the aim of promoting human and spiritual progress in a sector which is vital for the development of peoples.
However, we should not forget that modern men and women are often subject to ideologies which impose models of society or of behaviour which claim to decide about everything, about life and death, about the private domain and even thought, about procreation and genetic heritage. Nature would be no more than simple matter, open to every experiment. One sometimes has the impression that life is appreciated only in terms of utility or the prosperity it can procure, that suffering is considered to be without meaning. The handicapped and the elderly are neglected because they are seen as an encumbrance, the child to be born is too often considered an intrusion into an existence planned in terms of subjective interests not marked by generosity. Abortion and euthanasia then rapidly come to be seen as acceptable "solutions".
The Catholic Church and the majority of spiritual traditions know from experience that man is unfortunately capable of betraying his humanity. He must then be enlightened and accompanied so that, in his wanderings, he can always find again the sources of life and order which the Creator has inscribed in the most intimate part of his being. Wherever man is born, suffers and dies, the Church will always be present in order to signify that, precisely at the moment when man experiences his limits, there is Someone who calls him in order to welcome him and give meaning to his fragile existence.
Conscious of my responsibility as Pastor at the service of the universal Church, I have often had the opportunity in the acts of my ministry to recall the absolute dignity of the human person from the moment of conception to his last breath, the sacred character of the family as the special place able to protect and ensure the proper development of the person, the greatness and beauty of responsible parenthood, and the noble aims of medicine and scientific research.
These are some of the questions which the conscience of believers must take into account. When man runs the risk of being regarded as an object which can be manipulated or made subject to one's will, when one no longer sees the image of God in man, when the for love and self-sacrifice is deliberately obscured, when selfishness and profit become the prime driving force of economic activity, then anything is possible and barbarism is not far away.
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, these reflections are not new to you who witness day by day the work of the Pope and his collaborators. But I wanted to put them before you once again for your consideration, because one has the impression at times that the leaders of society and the heads of International Organizations allow themselves to be influenced by a new language, which recent technologies seem to accredit and which certain legislative systems allow or even endorse. What we have, though, are ideologies finding a voice or pressure groups seeking to impose their ideas and their way of life on everyone. The social pact is then seriously weakened and citizens lose their points of reference.
Those who are guarantors of the law and of a country's social cohesion, or those in charge of organizations created for the good of the community of nations, cannot escape the duty of fidelity to the unwritten law of the human conscience, of which the ancients spoke and which is for everyone believer and nonbeliever alike the foundation and universal guarantee of human dignity and of life in society. Regarding this, I cannot but restate what I have already written: "If there exists no ultimate truth which guides and directs political action, then ideas and convictions can be easily exploited for the benefit of the powerful" (Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 46). In the forum of conscience, "there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. Whether one be the master of the world or the most wretched on the face of the earth, it makes no difference: faced with moral demands, we are all absolutely equal" (Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, 96).
6. With this I conclude my presentation, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, and upon each of you, your families, the leaders of your countries and your fellow citizens I invoke divine protection throughout the year now beginning. May Almighty God help each of us to forge new paths where people may meet and walk together! This is the prayer which I raise to God each day for the whole of humanity, that it may be ever more worthy of this name!