Audiences 2005-2013 20126

Wednesday, 20 December 2006 - The meaning of Christmas

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

"The Lord is close: come, let us adore him". With this invocation, the liturgy invites us in these last days of Advent to approach as it were on tip-toe the Bethlehem Grotto where the extraordinary event that changed the course of history took place: the birth of the Redeemer.

On Christmas Night we will pause, once again, before the crib and contemplate with wonder the "Word made flesh". Sentiments of joy and gratitude will be renewed in our hearts, as they are every year, while we listen to the Christmas melodies that sing of the extraordinary event in so many languages.

It was out of love that the Creator of the universe came to dwell among us. In his Letter to the Philippians, St Paul says that Christ, "though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (
Ph 2,6). He appeared in human form, adds the Apostle, humbling himself. At holy Christmas we will relive the fulfilment of this sublime mystery of grace and mercy.

St Paul says further, "When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Ga 4,4-5). In truth, the Chosen People had been waiting for the Messiah for many centuries but they imagined him as a powerful and victorious army leader who would free his followers from foreign oppression.

The Saviour, on the contrary, was born in silence and in absolute poverty. He came as "the light that enlightens every man", St John notes, yet "his own people received him not" (Jn 1,9). "But", the Apostle added, "to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God" (ibid., Jn 1,12). The light promised was to illumine the hearts of those who had persevered in vigilant and active expectation.

The Advent liturgy also exhorts us to be sober and watchful in order not to let ourselves be burdened by sin and excessively worldly concerns. Indeed, it is by watching and praying that we will be able to recognize and accept the splendour of Christ's birth. St Maximus of Turin, a Bishop of the fourth and fifth centuries, said in one of his homilies: "The time warns us that the Birth of Christ the Lord is at hand. The world with its own apprehensions speaks of something imminent that will renew it, and desires with impatient expectation that the splendour of a brighter sun may illumine its darkness.... This expectation of creation also persuades us to wait for Christ, the new Sun, to rise" (cf. Hom.61a, 1-3). Creation itself, therefore, leads us to discover and recognize the One who must come.

But the question is: is the humanity of our time still waiting for a Saviour? One has the feeling that many consider God as foreign to their own interests. Apparently, they do not need him. They live as though he did not exist and, worse still, as though he were an "obstacle" to remove in order to fulfil themselves. Even among believers - we are sure of it - some let themselves be attracted by enticing dreams and distracted by misleading doctrines that suggest deceptive shortcuts to happiness.

Yet, despite its contradictions, worries and tragedies, and perhaps precisely because of them, humanity today seeks a path of renewal, of salvation, it seeks a Saviour and awaits, sometimes unconsciously, the coming of the Saviour who renews the world and our life, the coming of Christ, the one true Redeemer of man and of the whole of man.

Of course, false prophets continue to propose a salvation "at a cheap price", that always ends by producing searing disappointments.

The history of the past 50 years itself demonstrates this search for a Saviour "at a cheap price" and highlights all the disappointments that have derived from it. It is the task of us Christians, with the witness of our life, to spread the truth of Christmas which Christ brings to every man and woman of good will.

Born in the poverty of the manger, Jesus comes to offer to all that joy and that peace which alone can fulfil the expectations of the human soul.

But how should we prepare ourselves to open our hearts to the Lord who comes? The spiritual attitude of watchful and prayerful expectation remains the fundamental characteristic of the Christian in this Advent Season. It is this attitude that distinguishes the protagonists of that time: Zechariah and Elizabeth, the shepherds, the Magi, the humble, simple people, above all Mary and Joseph's expectation! The latter, more than any of the others, felt in the first person the anxiety and trepidation for the Child who would be born.

It is not difficult to imagine how they spent the last days, waiting to hold the newborn Infant in their arms. May their attitude be our own, dear brothers and sisters! In this regard, let us listen to the exhortation of St Maximus, Bishop of Turin, cited above: "While we are waiting to welcome the Nativity of the Lord, let us clothe ourselves in clean garments, without a stain. I am speaking of clothing the soul, not the body. Let us not be clad in silk raiments but in holy works! Sumptuous clothing may cover the limbs but does not adorn the conscience" (ibid.).

In being born among us, may the Child Jesus not find us distracted or merely busy, beautifying our houses with decorative lights. Rather, let us deck our soul and make our families a worthy dwelling place where he feels welcomed with faith and love. May the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph help us to live the Mystery of Christmas with renewed wonder and peaceful serenity.

With these sentiments, I would like to offer my most fervent good wishes for a holy and happy Christmas to all of you present here and to your relatives, with a special remembrance for those who may be in difficulty or who are suffering in body and spirit. Happy Christmas to you all!

To special groups

I welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims here today. May these final days of Advent be full of spiritual wonder. To you and your loved ones, especially those who may be in difficulty or suffering, I extend my best wishes for a happy and holy Christmas!

I greet the Italian-speaking pilgrims. In particular, I greet the Delegation of the Calabria Region, come for the official presentation of the great Christmas tree set up in St Peter's Square and of the others trees arranged in this Hall, in the Apostolic Palace and in various other places in the Vatican.

I thank you for this gift from your Land of Calabria, a heartfelt "thank you!". And I extend my special thanks to all who made possible this tribute which reminds visitors of the birth of Jesus, Light of the world.

Lastly, I would like to greet the young people, the sick and the newly-weds. Dear friends, thank you for your participation in this encounter. Christmas is in a few days' time, and I imagine that at home you are putting the finishing touches to your cribs, which are a particularly evocative portrayal of the Nativity. I hope that such an important element, not only of our spirituality but also of our culture and art, will continue to be a simple and eloquent way of recalling the One who came "to dwell among us". Merry Christmas to you all!

Paul VI Audience Hall

Wednesday, 3 January 2007 - The joyful event of Christ's birth

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Thank you for your affection. I wish you all a happy New Year! This first General Audience of the new year still takes place in the atmosphere of Christmas, which invites us to rejoice in the Redeemer's birth. On coming into the world, Jesus lavished his gifts of goodness, mercy and love upon men and women. As if interpreting the sentiments of the people of every epoch, the Apostle John observes: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God" (
1Jn 3,1).

Anyone who stops to meditate before the Son of God lying helpless in the crib can only feel surprised at this humanly incredible event; one cannot but share the wonder and humble abandonment of the Virgin Mary, whom God chose to be Mother of the Redeemer precisely because of her humility.

In the Child of Bethlehem, every person discovers he is freely loved by God; in the light of Christmas God's infinite goodness is revealed to each one of us. In Jesus, the Heavenly Father inaugurated a new relationship with us; he made us "sons in the Son himself". During these days, it is precisely on this reality that St John invites us to meditate with the richness and depth of his words, of which we have heard a passage.

The beloved Apostle of the Lord stresses that we are really sons: "and so we are" (1Jn 3,1). We are not only creatures, but we are sons; in this way God is close to us; in this way he draws us to himself at the moment of his Incarnation, in his becoming one of us. Therefore, we truly belong to the family whose Father is God, because Jesus, the Only-Begotten Son, came to pitch his tent among us, the tent of his flesh, to gather all the nations together into a single family, the family of God, belonging to the divine Being united in one people, one family.

He came to reveal to us the true Face of the Father and if we now use the word "God", it is no longer a reality known only from afar. We know the Face of God: it is that of the Son, who came to bring the heavenly realities closer to us and to the earth.

St John notes: "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us" (1Jn 4,10). At Christmas, the simple and overwhelming announcement resounds throughout the world: "God loves us". "We love", St John says, "because he first loved us" (1Jn 4,19). This mystery is henceforth entrusted to our hands so that through our experience of divine love we may live aspiring to the realities of Heaven. And this, let us say, is also our practice in these days: to live truly reaching for God, seeking first of all the Kingdom and its righteousness, certain that the rest, all the rest, will be given to us as well (cf. Mt 6,33). The spiritual atmosphere of the Christmas Season helps us to grow in our knowledge of this.

The joy of Christmas, however, does not make us forget the mystery of evil (mysterium iniquitatis), the power of darkness that attempts to dim the splendour of the divine light. And unfortunately, we experience this power of darkness everyday.

In the Prologue to his Gospel, proclaimed several times in the past few days, John the Evangelist writes: "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not receive it" (cf. Jn 1,5).

As in the past, the tragedy of the rejection of Christ unfortunately manifests and expresses itself also today in so many different ways. Perhaps even the most subtle and dangerous are the forms of the rejection of God in the contemporary era: from a clear refusal to indifference, from scientific atheism to the presentation of a so-called modernized or better, post-modernized Jesus. A man Jesus, reduced in a different way to a mere man of his time, deprived of his divinity; or a Jesus so highly idealized that he seems at times like the character of a fable.

Yet Jesus, the true Jesus of history, is true God and true man and never tires of proposing his Gospel to all, aware that he is a "sign of contradiction that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed", as the elderly Simeon would prophesy (cf. Lc 2,32-35).

Actually, it is only the Child lying in the manger who possesses the true secret of life. For this reason he asks us to welcome him, to make room for him within us, in our hearts, in our homes, in our cities and in our societies. The words of John's Prologue echo in our minds and hearts: "To all who received him... he gave power to become children of God" (Jn 1,12). Let us endeavour to be among those who welcome him. Before him one cannot remain indifferent. We too, dear friends, must continuously take sides. What will our response be? With what attitude will we welcome him? The simplicity of the shepherds and the seeking of the Magi who scrutinized the signs of God by means of the star come to our help. The docility of Mary and the wise prudence of Joseph serve as an example to us.

The more than 2,000 years of Christian history are filled with examples of men and women, youth and adults, children and elderly people who believed in the mystery of Christmas, who opened their arms to the Emmanuel and with their lives became beacons of light and hope.

The love that Jesus, born in Bethlehem, brought into the world binds to himself in a lasting relationship of friendship and brotherhood all who welcome him. St John of the Cross says: "In giving us all, that is, his Son, in him God has now said all. Fix your eyes on him alone... and you will find in addition more than you ask and desire" (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book I, Ep. 22, 4-5).

Dear brothers and sisters, at the beginning of this new year let us revive within us the commitment to open our minds and hearts to Christ, sincerely showing him our desire to live as his true friends.

Thus, we will become collaborators of his plan of salvation and witnesses of that joy which he gives to us so that we may spread it around us in abundance.

May Mary help us open our hearts to the Emmanuel who took on our poor, weak flesh in order to share with us the arduous journey of earthly life. In the company of Jesus, however, this tiring journey becomes a joyful journey. Let us proceed together with Jesus, let us walk with him and thus the new year will be a happy and good year.
* * *

I greet the English-speaking visitors, including the pilgrims from Singapore and North America, especially the seminarians from St Meinrad School of Theology. I extend a particular welcome to the group from the American College in Louvain, here to celebrate the 150th anniversary of their foundation. May the peace of the newborn King fill your hearts, making you his witnesses in the world, and may God bless you abundantly throughout the year 2007.

Lastly, I address the young people, the sick and the newly-weds. Dear young people, I hope that you will be able to view each day as a precious gift of God. May the new year bring to you, dear sick people, comfort and relief in body and spirit. And you, dear newly-weds, imitating the Holy Family of Nazareth, strive every day to build an authentic communion of love.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007 - Stephen, the Protomartyr

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

After the period of festivity, we return to our Catecheses. I have meditated with you on the figures of the Twelve Apostles and on St Paul. We then began to reflect on other figures of the newborn Church and so let us consider today the person of St Stephen, whom the Church commemorates the day after Christmas.

St Stephen is the most representative of a group of seven companions. Tradition sees in this group the seed of the future ministry of "deacons", although it must be pointed out that this category is not present in the Book of Acts. In any case, Stephen's importance is due to the fact that Luke, in his important book, dedicates two whole chapters to him.

Luke's narrative starts with the observation of a widespread division in the primitive Church of Jerusalem: indeed, she consisted entirely of Christians of Jewish origin, but some came from the land of Israel and were called "Hebrews", while others, of the Old Testament Jewish faith, came from the Greek-speaking Diaspora and were known as "Hellenists". This was the new problem: the most destitute of the Hellenists, especially widows deprived of any social support, ran the risk of being neglected in the daily distribution of their rations. To avoid this problem, the Apostles, continuing to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word, decided to appoint for this duty "seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" to help them (
Ac 6,2-4), that is, by carrying out a social and charitable service.

To this end, as Luke wrote, at the Apostles' invitation the disciples chose seven men. We are even given their names. They were: "Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus. These they set before the Apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them" (cf. Ac 6,5-6).

The act of the laying on of hands can have various meanings. In the Old Testament, this gesture meant above all the transmission of an important office, just as Moses laid his hands on Joshua (cf. Nm NM 27,18-23), thereby designating his successor. Along the same lines, the Church of Antioch would also use this gesture in sending out Paul and Barnabas on their mission to the peoples of the world (cf. Ac 13,3).

The two Pauline Letters addressed to Timothy (cf. 1Tm 4,14 2Tm 1,6) refer to a similar imposition of hands on Timothy, to confer upon him an official responsibility. From what we read in the First Letter to Timothy, we can deduce that this was an important action to be carried out after discernment: "Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man's sins" (1Tm 5,22).

Thus, we see that the act of the laying on of hands developed along the lines of a sacramental sign. In the case of Stephen and his companions, it was certainly an official conferral of an office by the Apostles, but at the same time an entreaty for the grace to carry it out.

The most important thing to note is that in addition to charitable services, Stephen also carried out a task of evangelization among his compatriots, the so-called "Hellenists". Indeed, Luke insists on the fact that Stephen, "full of grace and power" (Ac 6,8), presented in Jesus' Name a new interpretation of Moses and of God's Law itself. He reread the Old Testament in the light of the proclamation of Christ's death and Resurrection. He gave the Old Testament a Christological reinterpretation and provoked reactions from the Jews, who took his words to be blasphemous (cf. Ac 6,11-14).

For this reason he was condemned to stoning. And St Luke passes on to us the saint's last discourse, a synthesis of his preaching. Just as Jesus had shown the disciples of Emmaus that the whole of the Old Testament speaks of him, of his Cross and his Resurrection, so St Stephen, following Jesus' teaching, interpreted the whole of the Old Testament in a Christological key. He shows that the mystery of the Cross stands at the centre of the history of salvation as recounted in the Old Testament; it shows that Jesus, Crucified and Risen, is truly the goal of all this history.

St Stephen also shows that the cult of the temple was over and that Jesus, the Risen One, was the new, true "temple". It was precisely this "no" to the temple and to its cult that led to the condemnation of St Stephen, who at this moment, St Luke tells us, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and seeing heaven, God and Jesus, St Stephen said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God" (cf. Ac 7,56).

This was followed by his martyrdom, modelled in fact on the passion of Jesus himself, since he delivered his own spirit to the "Lord Jesus" and prayed that the sin of those who killed him would not be held against them (cf. Ac 7,59-60).

The place of St Stephen's martyrdom in Jerusalem has traditionally been located outside the Damascus Gate, to the north, where indeed the Church of Saint-Étienne [St Stephen] stands beside the famous École Biblique of the Dominicans. The killing of Stephen, the first martyr of Christ, unleashed a local persecution of Christ's disciples (cf. Ac 8,1), the first one in the history of the Church. It was these circumstances that impelled the group of Judeo-Hellenist Christians to flee from Jerusalem and scatter. Hounded out of Jerusalem, they became itinerant missionaries: "Those who were scattered went about preaching the word" (Ac 8,4).

Their persecution and consequent dispersion became a mission. Thus, the Gospel spread also to Samaria, Phoenicia and Syria, as far as the great city of Antioch where, according to Luke, it was proclaimed for the first time also to the pagans (cf. Ac 11,19-20), and where, for the first time the name "Christians" was used (Ac 11,26).

In particular, Luke noted that those who stoned Stephen "laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul" (Ac 7,58), the same man who from being a persecutor was to become an outstanding Apostle of the Gospel.

This means that the young Saul must have heard Stephen's preaching and must therefore have been acquainted with its principal content. And St Paul was probably among those who, following and listening to this discourse, "were enraged and... ground their teeth against him" (Ac 7,54).

And at this point, we can see the marvels of divine Providence. After his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul, a relentless enemy of Stephen's vision, took up the Christological interpretation of the Old Testament made by the First Martyr, deepening and completing it, and consequently became the "Apostle to the Gentiles".

The Law is fulfilled, he taught, in the Cross of Christ. And faith in Christ, communion with Christ's love, is the true fulfilment of all the Law. This is the content of Paul's preaching. He showed in this way that the God of Abraham had become the God of all. And all believers in Jesus Christ, as children of Abraham, shared in the promises. St Stephen's vision was brought about in St Paul's mission.

Stephen's story tells us many things: for example, that charitable social commitment must never be separated from the courageous proclamation of the faith. He was one of the seven made responsible above all for charity. But it was impossible to separate charity and faith. Thus, with charity, he proclaimed the crucified Christ, to the point of accepting even martyrdom. This is the first lesson we can learn from the figure of St Stephen: charity and the proclamation of faith always go hand in hand.

Above all, St Stephen speaks to us of Christ, of the Crucified and Risen Christ as the centre of history and our life. We can understand that the Cross remains forever the centre of the Church's life and also of our life. In the history of the Church, there will always be passion and persecution. And it is persecution itself which, according to Tertullian's famous words, becomes "the seed of Christians", the source of mission for Christians to come.

I cite his words: "We multiply wherever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed..." (Apology 50, 13): Plures efficimur quoties metimur a vobis: semen est sanguis christianorum. But in our life too, the Cross that will never be absent, becomes a blessing.

And by accepting our cross, knowing that it becomes and is a blessing, we learn Christian joy even in moments of difficulty. The value of witness is irreplaceable, because the Gospel leads to it and the Church is nourished by it. St Stephen teaches us to treasure these lessons, he teaches us to love the Cross, because it is the path on which Christ comes among us ever anew.
* * *

I welcome all the English-speaking visitors present at today's Audience, including the young members of the Focolare Movement. May your visit to Rome be a source of inspiration to renew your commitment to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. Upon all of you, I invoke God's abundant Blessings of joy and peace.

Lastly, my thoughts go to the young people, the sick and the newly-weds. May the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which we celebrated last Sunday, reawaken in everyone the grace and memory of our own Baptism. May it be for you, dear young people, a stimulus to witness always to the joy of attachment to Christ. May it be for you, dear sick people, a cause of comfort. May it support you, dear newly-weds, in making your family an authentic heart of faith and love.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007 - Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (1)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins tomorrow. I myself will conclude it in the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls this 25 January with the celebration of Vespers, to which representatives of the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities of Rome are also invited.

The days from 18 to 25 January, and in other parts of the world the week around Pentecost, are a strong time of commitment and prayer on the part of all Christians, who can avail themselves of the booklets produced jointly by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.

I have been able to sense how sincere the desire for unity is at the meetings I have had with various representatives of Churches and Ecclesial Communities in these years, and in a most moving way, during my recent Visit to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul, Turkey.

On these and on other experiences that opened my heart to hope, I will reflect at greater length next Wednesday. The way to unity remains long and laborious; yet, it is necessary not to be discouraged and to journey on, in the first place relying on the unfailing support of the One who, before ascending into Heaven, promised his followers: "I am with you always, to the close of the age" (
Mt 28,20).

Unity is a gift of God and the fruit of his Spirit's action. Consequently, it is important to pray. The closer we draw to Christ, converting to his love, the closer we also draw to one another.

In some countries, including Italy, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is preceded by the Day of Christian-Jewish reflection, which is celebrated precisely today, 17 January.

For almost 20 years now the Italian Bishops' Conference has dedicated this Judaism Day to furthering knowledge and esteem for it and for developing the relationship of reciprocal friendship between the Christian and Jewish communities, a relationship that has developed positively since the Second Vatican Council and the historic visit of the Servant of God John Paul II to the Major Synagogue of Rome.

To grow and be fruitful, the Jewish-Christian friendship must also be based on prayer. Therefore, today I invite you all to address an ardent prayer to the Lord that Jews and Christians may respect and esteem one another and collaborate for justice and peace in the world.

This year the biblical theme proposed for common reflection and prayer during this "Week" is: "He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak" (Mc 7,31-37). These words are taken from Mark's Gospel and refer to the healing of a deaf-mute by Jesus. In this short passage, the Evangelist recounts that the Lord, after putting his fingers into his ears and touching his tongue with saliva, worked the miracle by saying: "Ephphatha", which means "be opened". Having regained his hearing and the gift of speech, the man roused the admiration of others by telling what had happened to him.

Every Christian, spiritually deaf and mute because of original sin, receives with Baptism the gift of the Lord who places his fingers on his face and thus, through the grace of Baptism, becomes able to hear the Word of God and to proclaim it to his brethren. Indeed, from that very moment it is his task to mature in knowledge and love for Christ so as to be able to proclaim and witness effectively to the Gospel.

This topic, shedding light on two aspects of the mission of every Christian community - the proclamation of the Gospel and the witness of charity -, also underlines how important it is to translate Christ's message into concrete initiatives of solidarity. This encourages the journey to unity because it can be said that any relief to the suffering of their neighbour which Christians offer together, however little, also helps to make more visible their communion and fidelity to the Lord's command.

Prayer for Christian unity cannot, however, be limited to one week a year. The unanimous plea to the Lord that in times and ways known only to him he may bring about the full unity of all his disciples must extend to every day of the year.

Furthermore, the harmony of intentions in the service to alleviate human suffering, the search for the truth of Christ's message, conversion and penance are obligatory steps through which every Christian worthy of the name must join his brother or sister to implore the gift of unity and communion.

I exhort you, therefore, to spend these days in an atmosphere of prayerful listening to the Spirit of God, so that important steps may be made on the path to full and perfect communion among all Christ's disciples. May the Virgin Mary obtain this for us; may she, whom we invoke as Mother of the Church and help of all Christians, sustain our way towards Christ.

To special groups

Today, I am pleased to offer a cordial welcome to the Canons of the Chapter of Leeds Cathedral. I also extend a warm greeting to the members of the Cantinovum Choir from Finland. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today's Audience, especially those from Ireland, England, Australia and the United States of America, I cordially invoke God's Blessings of joy and peace.

Lastly, I address the young people, the sick and the newly-weds. Today, we are celebrating the liturgical memorial of St Anthony Abbot, the outstanding Father of Monasticism, teacher of spiritual life and sublime model of Christian life. May his example help you, dear young people, to follow Christ without compromises; may he sustain you, dear sick people, in moments of hardship and trial; and may he stimulate you, newly-weds, not to neglect prayer in your everyday life.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007 - Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (2)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Tomorrow, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes to a close. This year its theme has been the words in Mark's Gospel: "He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak" (cf.
Mc 7,31-37). We too will be able to repeat these words that express the people's admiration at the healing of a deaf-mute worked by Jesus when we see the wondrous flowering of the commitment to restoring Christian unity.

Reviewing the ground we have covered in the past 40 years, it is surprising to see how the Lord has awakened us from the torpor of self-sufficiency and indifference: how he makes us ever more able to "listen to each other" and not just "to hear each other"; how he has loosened our tongues so that the prayers we raise to him may have a greater force of conviction for the world.

Yes, it is true, the Lord has granted us many graces and the light of his Spirit has illumined many witnesses. They have shown that everything may be obtained by prayer when we can obey with trust and humility the divine commandment of love and adhere to Christ's longing for the unity of all his disciples.

"The concern for restoring unity", the Second Vatican Council affirms, "involves the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone, according to the talent of each, whether it be exercised in daily Christian living or in theological and historical studies" (Unitatis Redintegratio
, n. 5).
Our first common task is to pray. In praying, and praying together, Christians become more aware of their kinship, even if they are still divided; moreover, in praying we learn to listen to the Lord better because only by listening to the Lord and following his voice can we find the way to unity.

Ecumenism is, of course, a slow process, sometimes even discouraging when people yield to the temptation to "hear" rather than to "listen", to speak half-heartedly instead of speaking out courageously. It is not easy to give up a "convenient deafness", as though the unchanging Gospel were unable to flourish anew and reassert itself as a providential leaven of conversion and spiritual renewal for each one of us.

Ecumenism, as I said, is a slow process, it is a slow and uphill journey like every penitential process. However, it is a journey which, after the initial difficulties and even in their midst, also offers broad spaces of joy, refreshing stops, and from time to time allows one to breathe deeply the purest air of full communion.

The experience of the recent decades after the Second Vatican Council demonstrates that the search for Christian unity takes place at various levels and in innumerable circumstances: in parishes, in hospitals, in contacts between people, through the collaboration of local communities in every part of the world and especially in those regions where to make a gesture of good will for one's brother or sister demands a great effort and also a purification of memory.

The meetings and events that constantly mark my ministry, the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, Pastor of the universal Church, also fit into this context of hope, punctuated by practical steps towards the full communion of Christians.

I would like here to review the most significant events that took place in 2006 and were a cause for joy and gratitude to the Lord.

The year began with the official visit of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The International Commission of the Catholic Churches and the Reformed Churches entrusted to their respective authorities for consideration, a document that marks the end of a dialogue process that began in 1970, hence, it has continued for more than 36 years. The document is entitled: "The Church as a Community of Common Witness to the Kingdom of God".

On 25 January 2006 - consequently, one year ago - the delegates for European ecumenism took part in the solemn conclusion of the "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity" in the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls. They had been convoked jointly by the Council of European Episcopal Conferences and by the Conference of European Churches for the first stage in the upcoming third European Ecumenical Assembly that will be held in Sibiu, on Orthodox territory, in September 2007.

I was able at the Wednesday Audiences to receive the delegation of the World Baptist Alliance and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that remains faithful to its regular visits to Rome.

I was also able to meet with the Hierarchs of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, which I follow with affection, nurturing the bond of friendship that bound His Holiness Ilia II to my venerable Predecessor, the Servant of God Pope John Paul II.

In continuing this resume of last year's ecumenical encounters, I come to the "Summit of Religious Leaders" held in Moscow in July 2006; with a special message, Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and All the Russias, requested communion with the Holy See.

The visit of Metropolitan Kirill from the Patriarchate of Moscow was also useful. It brought to the fore the intention to achieve a more explicit normalization of our bilateral relations.

Equally satisfying was the visit of priests and students from the Diakonia Apostolica College of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece. I am also pleased to recall that at its General Assembly in Porto Alegre the World Council of Churches gave Catholic participation ample room.

On that occasion, I sent a special Message. I also wished to send a Message to the General Assembly of the World Methodist Council in Seoul. Likewise, I recall with pleasure the cordial visit of the Secretaries of the Christian World Communions, organizations for reciprocal information and contact between the various denominations.

And as we review the events of the year 2006, we come to the official visit last November of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the Anglican Communion. In the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the Apostolic Palace I shared with him and his entourage a meaningful moment of prayer.

Then, regarding the unforgettable Apostolic Visit to Turkey and the meeting with His Holiness Bartholomew I, I would like to recall the many gestures that were even more eloquent than words. I take this opportunity to greet His Holiness Bartholomew I once again and I thank him for the letter he wrote to me upon my return to Rome; I assure him of my prayers and my commitment to take steps to ensure that that embrace of peace we exchanged during the Divine Liturgy in St George's Church at the Phanar may bring results.

The year ended with the official visit to Rome of H.B. Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, and we exchanged exigent gifts: the icons of the Panaghia, the "All Holy", and of Sts Peter and Paul embracing.

Are these not moments of lofty spiritual value, moments of joy in which to draw a breath on the slow ascent to unity, of which I spoke? These moments cast light on the commitment - often silent, but strong - that brings us together in the quest for unity. They encourage us to make every effort to continue on this slow but important climb.

Let us entrust ourselves to the constant intercession of the Mother of God and of our Patron Saints, so that they may sustain us and help us not to withdraw from our good resolutions; so that they may encourage us to redouble all our efforts, praying and working with trust in the certainty that the Holy Spirit will do the rest. He will grant us full unity when and as he pleases. And strengthened by trust in this, let us go forward on the path of faith, hope and charity. The Lord will guide us.
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To special groups

I greet with affection all the English-speaking pilgrims present at today's Audience, especially the groups from Denmark and the United States of America. I pray that your visit to Rome will deepen your faith and hope in Christ, who alone can bring healing to our world. Upon all of you and upon your loved ones, I invoke God's Blessings of joy and peace.

Lastly, I address a greeting to the young people, the sick and the newly-weds. Today, we are celebrating the liturgical memorial of St Francis de Sales, who pointed out the way of holiness as a call addressed to every state of life. Accept this invitation, dear young people, and respond generously to Christ who calls you to make the Gospel your rule of life. The Lord offers you, dear sick people, a privileged path to walk in conformity with his will: may you be able to welcome all the opportunities of grace offered by your particular condition. And you, dear newly-weds, following the teachings of St Francis de Sales, work every day to build your adherence to the Gospel in reciprocal love.

Audiences 2005-2013 20126