Audiences 2005-2013 31017

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 - Barnabas, Silas (also called Silvanus), and Apollos

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Continuing our journey among the protagonists who were the first to spread Christianity, today let us turn our attention to some of St Paul's other collaborators. We must recognize that the Apostle is an eloquent example of a man open to collaboration: he did not want to do everything in the Church on his own but availed himself of many and very different colleagues.

We cannot reflect on all these precious assistants because they were numerous. It suffices to recall among the others, Epaphras (cf. Col
Col 1,7 Col 4,12 Phlm Col 23); Epaphroditus (cf. Phil Ph 2,25 Ph 4,18), Tychicus (cf. Ac 20,4 Ep 6,21 Col 4,7 II Tm Col 4,12 Tt 3,12), Urbanus (cf. Rm Rm 16,9), Gaius and Aristarchus (cf. Ac 19,29 Ac 20,4 Ac 27,2 Col 4,10). And women such as Phoebe, (Rm 16,1), Tryphaena and Tryphosa (cf. Rm 16,12), Persis, the mother of Rufus, whom Paul called "his mother and mine" (cf. Rm 16,12-13), not to mention married couples such as Prisca and Aquila (cf. Rm 16,3 1Co 16,19 II Tm 1Co 4,19).

Among this great array of St Paul's male and female collaborators, let us focus today on three of these people who played a particularly significant role in the initial evangelization: Barnabas, Silas, and Apollos.

Barnabas means "son of encouragement" (Ac 4,36) or "son of consolation". He was a Levite Jew, a native of Cyprus, and this was his nickname. Having settled in Jerusalem, he was one of the first to embrace Christianity after the Lord's Resurrection. With immense generosity, he sold a field which belonged to him, and gave the money to the Apostles for the Church's needs (Ac 4,37).

It was he who vouched for the sincerity of Saul's conversion before the Jerusalem community that still feared its former persecutor (cf. Ac 9,27).

Sent to Antioch in Syria, he went to meet Paul in Tarsus, where he had withdrawn, and spent a whole year with him there, dedicated to the evangelization of that important city in whose Church Barnabas was known as a prophet and teacher (cf. Ac 13,1).

At the time of the first conversions of the Gentiles, therefore, Barnabas realized that Saul's hour had come. As Paul had retired to his native town of Tarsus, he went there to look for him. Thus, at that important moment, Barnabas, as it were, restored Paul to the Church; in this sense he gave back to her the Apostle to the Gentiles.

The Church of Antioch sent Barnabas on a mission with Paul, which became known as the Apostle's first missionary journey. In fact, it was Barnabas' missionary voyage since it was he who was really in charge of it and Paul had joined him as a collaborator, visiting the regions of Cyprus and Central and Southern Anatolia in present-day Turkey, with the cities of Attalia, Perga, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (cf. Ac 13-14).

Together with Paul, he then went to the so-called Council of Jerusalem where after a profound examination of the question, the Apostles with the Elders decided to discontinue the practice of circumcision so that it was no longer a feature of the Christian identity (cf. Ac 15,1-35). It was only in this way that, in the end, they officially made possible the Church of the Gentiles, a Church without circumcision; we are children of Abraham simply through faith in Christ.

The two, Paul and Barnabas, disagreed at the beginning of the second missionary journey because Barnabas was determined to take with them as a companion John called Mark, whereas Paul was against it, since the young man had deserted them during their previous journey (cf. Ac 13,13 Ac 15,36-40).

Hence there are also disputes, disagreements and controversies among saints. And I find this very comforting, because we see that the saints have not "fallen from Heaven". They are people like us, who also have complicated problems.

Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness.

So it was that Paul, who had been somewhat harsh and bitter with regard to Mark, in the end found himself with him once again. In St Paul's last Letters, to Philemon and in his Second Letter to Timothy, Mark actually appears as one of his "fellow workers".

Consequently, it is not the fact that we have never erred but our capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness which makes us saints. And we can all learn this way of holiness. In any case, Barnabas, together with John Mark, returned to Cyprus (Ac 15,39) in about the year 49. From that moment we lose track of him. Tertullian attributes to him the Letter to the Hebrews. This is not improbable. Since he belonged to the tribe of Levi, Barnabas may have been interested in the topic of the priesthood; and the Letter to the Hebrews interprets Jesus' priesthood for us in an extraordinary way.

Silas was another of Paul's companions. "Silas" is a Greek form of a Jewish name (perhaps sheal, "to ask, to invoke", which has the same root as the name "Saul"); from which the Latin form Sylvanus also derives. The name Silas is attested to only in the Book of Acts, while the name "Silvanus" appears only in the Pauline Letters. He was a Jew from Jerusalem, one of the first to become a Christian, and he enjoyed high esteem in that Church (cf. Ac 15,22), since he was considered a prophet (cf. Ac 15,32).

He was charged to inform "the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia" (Ac 15,23) of the decisions taken at the Council of Jerusalem and to explain them. Evidently he was considered capable of bringing about a sort of mediation between Jerusalem and Antioch, between Jewish-Christians and Christians of pagan origin and thereby of serving the unity of the Church in the diversity of rites and origins.

When Paul separated from Barnabas he took Silas with him as his new travelling companion (Ac 15,40). With Paul, he reached Macedonia (and the cities of Philippi, Thessalonica and Beroea), where he stopped, while Paul went on to Athens and then to Corinth.

Silas joined him in Corinth, where he cooperated in preaching the Gospel; indeed, in the Second Letter that Paul addressed to that Church, he spoke of "Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I" (2Co 1,19). This explains how he came to be the joint author, together with Paul and Timothy, of the two Letters to the Thessalonians.

This also seems important to me. Paul does not act as a "soloist", on his own, but together with these collaborators in the "we" of the Church. This "I" of Paul is not an isolated "I" but an "I" in the "we" of the Church, in the "we" of the apostolic faith. And later, Silvanus is also mentioned in the First Letter of Peter, in which we read: "I have written [briefly] to you... by Silvanus, a faithful brother" (1P 5,12). Thus, we also see the communion of the Apostles. Silvanus serves Paul and he serves Peter, because the Church is one and the missionary proclamation is one.

Paul's third companion, whom we want to recall is Apollos. This name is probably an abbreviation of Apollonius or Apollodorus. Although this is a pagan name, he was a fervent Jew from Alexandria, Egypt. Luke, in his book, the Acts of the Apostles, describes him as "an eloquent man, well versed in the Scriptures... fervent in spirit" (Ac 18,24-25).

Apollos' entry on the scene of the first evangelization took place in the city of Ephesus. He had gone there to preach and had the good fortune to come across the Christian couple, Priscilla and Aquila, who introduced him to a fuller knowledge of the "way of God" (cf. Ac 18,26).

From Ephesus he went to Achaia and reached the city of Corinth: where he arrived with a letter of recommendation from the Christians of Ephesus, in which they charged the Corinthians to give him a good welcome (cf. Ac 18,27). In Corinth, as Luke wrote: "he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully confuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus" (Ac 18,27-28), the Messiah.

His success in that city, however had a problematic sequence since there were certain members of that Church who, fascinated by his way of speaking, opposed the others in his name (cf. 1Co 1,12 1Co 3,4-6 1Co 4,6).

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul expressed his appreciation of Apollos' work, but reprimanded the Corinthians for wounding the Body of Christ by splitting it into opposing factions. From this whole affair he drew an important teaching: Be it I or Apollos, he says, we are none other than diakonoi, that is, simple ministers, through whom you have come to the faith (cf. 1Co 3,5).

Everyone has a different task in the field of the Lord: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.... we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building" (1Co 3,6-9).

After returning to Ephesus, Apollos resisted Paul's invitation to return to Corinth immediately, postponing the journey to a later date of which we know nothing (cf. 1Co 16,12). We have no further information about him, even though some scholars believe he is a possible author of the Letter to the Hebrews which Tertullian believed Barnabas had written.

These three men shine in the firmament of Gospel witnesses as they are distinguished by one common feature as well as by individual characteristics. They had in common, in addition to their Jewish origin, their dedication to Jesus Christ and the Gospel, besides the fact that all three were collaborators of the Apostle Paul.

In this original evangelizing mission they found their purpose in life and as such stand before us as shining examples of selflessness and generosity.

Moreover, let us think again of St Paul's phrase: both Apollos and I are servants of Jesus, each one in his own way because it is God who gives the growth. These words also apply to us today, to the Pope, the Cardinals, Bishops, priests and laity. We are all humble ministers of Jesus. We serve the Gospel as best we can, in accordance with our talents, and we pray God to make his Gospel, his Church, increase in our day.
* * *

To special groups

I welcome the English-speaking visitors present at today's Audience, including the students and Professors from the Minsk State University. May your visit to Rome strengthen your commitment to be generous witnesses to Christ's love and truth. Upon you all, I invoke God's blessings of joy and peace!

Lastly, my thoughts go to the young people, the sick and the newly-weds. Today the liturgy commemorates St John Bosco, father and teacher of the young to whom he proclaimed the Gospel with tireless zeal. May his example encourage you, dear young people, to live your Christian vocation authentically; may it help you, dear sick people, to offer up your suffering in union with Christ's for the salvation of humanity; may it sustain you, dear newly-weds in your reciprocal commitment to building your family faithful to the love of God and neighbour.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007 - Priscilla and Aquila

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Taking a new step in this type of portrait gallery of the first witnesses of the Christian faith which we began some weeks ago, today we take into consideration a married couple.

The couple in question are Priscilla and Aquila, who take their place, as we already mentioned briefly last Wednesday, in the sphere of numerous collaborators who gravitated around the Apostle Paul. Based on the information in our possession, this married couple played a very active role in the post-Paschal origins of the Church.

The names Aquila and Priscilla are Latin, but the man and woman who bear them were of Hebrew origin. At least Aquila, however, geographically came from the diaspora of northern Anatolia, which faces the Black Sea - in today's Turkey -, while Priscilla was probably a Jewish woman from Rome (cf.
Ac 18,2).

However, it was from Rome that they reached Corinth, where Paul met them at the beginning of the 50s. There he became associated with them, as Luke tells us, practicing the same trade of making tents or large draperies for domestic use, and he was even welcomed into their home (cf. Ac 18,3).

The reason they came to Corinth was the decision taken by the Emperor Claudius to expel from Rome the city's Jewish residents. Concerning this event the Roman historian Suetonius tells us that the Hebrews were expelled because "they were rioting due to someone named Chrestus" (cf. "The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Claudius", n. 25).

One sees that he did not know the name well - instead of Christ he wrote "Chrestus" - and he had only a very confused idea of what had happened. In any case, there were internal discords within the Jewish community about the question if Jesus was the Christ. And for the Emperor these problems were the reason to simply expel all Jews from Rome.

One can deduce that the couple had already embraced the Christian faith in the 40s, and now they had found in Paul someone who not only shared with them this faith - that Jesus is the Christ - but who was also an Apostle, personally called by the Risen Lord.

Therefore, their first encounter is at Corinth, where they welcomed him into their house and worked together making tents.

In a second moment they transferred to Ephesus in Asia Minor. There they had a decisive role in completing the Christian formation of the Alexandrian Jew Apollo, who we spoke about last Wednesday.

Since he only knew the faith superficially, "Priscilla and Aquila... took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately" (Ac 18,26).

When Paul wrote the First Letter to the Corinthians from Ephesus, together with his own greeting he explicitly sent those of "Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house" (1Co 16,19).

Hence, we come to know the most important role that this couple played in the environment of the primitive Church: that of welcoming in their own house the group of local Christians when they gathered to listen to the Word of God and to celebrate the Eucharist. It is exactly this type of gathering that in Greek is called "ekklesěa" - the Latin word is "ecclesia", the Italian "chiesa" - which means convocation, assembly, gathering.

In the house of Aquila and Priscilla, therefore, the Church gathered, the convocation of Christ, which celebrates here the Sacred Mysteries.

Thus, we can see the very birth of the reality of the Church in the homes of believers. Christians, in fact, from the first part of the third century did not have their own places of worship. Initially it was the Jewish Synagogue, until the original symbiosis between the Old and New Testaments dissolved and the Church of the Gentiles was forced to give itself its own identity, always profoundly rooted in the Old Testament.

Then, after this "break", they gathered in the homes of Christians that thus become "Church". And finally, in the third century, true and proper buildings for Christian worship were born.

But here, in the first half of the first century and in the second century, the homes of Christians become a true and proper "Church". As I said, together they read the Sacred Scripture and celebrate the Eucharist.

That was what used to happen, for example, at Corinth, where Paul mentioned a certain "Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church" (Rm 16,23), or at Laodicea, where the community gathered in the home of a certain Nympha (cf. Col Col 4,15), or at Colossae, where the meeting took place in the house of a certain Archippus (cf. Phlm 2).

Having returned subsequently to Rome, Aquila and Priscilla continue to carry out this precious function also in the capital of the Empire.

In fact, Paul, writing to the Romans, sends this precise greeting: "Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks; greet also the church in their house" (Rm 16,3-5).

What extraordinary praise for these two married persons in these words! And it is none other than Paul who extends it. He explicitly recognizes in them two true and important collaborators of his apostolate.

The reference made to having risked their lives for him is probably linked to interventions in his favour during some prison stay, perhaps in the same Ephesus (cf. Ac 19,23 1Co 15,32 2Co 1,8-9). And to Paul's own gratitude even that of all the Churches of the Gentiles is joined. Although considering the expression perhaps somewhat hyperbolic, it lets one intuit how vast their ray of action was and therefore, their influence for the good of the Gospel.

Later hagiographic tradition has given a very singular importance to Priscilla, even if the problem of identifying her with the martyr Priscilla remains.

In any case, here in Rome we have a Church dedicated to St Prisca on the Aventine Hill, near the Catacombs of Priscilla on Via Salaria.

In this way, the memory of a woman who has certainly been an active person and of great value in the history of Roman Christianity is perpetuated. One thing is sure: together with the gratitude of the early Church, of which St Paul speaks, we must also add our own, since thanks to the faith and apostolic commitment of the lay faithful, of families, of spouses like Priscilla and Aquila, Christianity has reached our generation.

It could grow not only thanks to the Apostles who announced it. In order to take root in people's land and develop actively, the commitment of these families, these spouses, these Christian communities, of these lay faithful was necessary in order to offer the "humus" for the growth of the faith. As always, it is only in this way that the Church grows.

This couple in particular demonstrates how important the action of Christian spouses is. When they are supported by the faith and by a strong spirituality, their courageous commitment for the Church and in the Church becomes natural. The daily sharing of their life prolongs and in some way is sublimated in the assuming of a common responsibility in favour of the Mystical Body of Christ, even if just a little part of it. Thus it was in the first generation and thus it will often be.

A further lesson we cannot neglect to draw from their example: every home can transform itself in a little church. Not only in the sense that in them must reign the typical Christian love made of altruism and of reciprocal care, but still more in the sense that the whole of family life, based on faith, is called to revolve around the singular lordship of Jesus Christ.

Not by chance does Paul compare, in the Letter to the Ephesians, the matrimonial relationship to the spousal communion that happens between Christ and the Church (cf. Ep 5,25-33). Even more, we can maintain that the Apostle indirectly models the life of the entire Church on that of the family. And the Church, in reality, is the family of God.

Therefore, we honour Aquila and Priscilla as models of conjugal life responsibly committed to the service of the entire Christian community. And we find in them the model of the Church, God's family for all times.
* * *

To special groups

I extend a cordial welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims present at today’s Audience, especially those from England, Ireland, China, and the United States of America. May your visit to Rome inspire you to live the truth of the Gospel ever more fully. Upon all of you I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

Lastly, my thoughts go to the young people, the sick and the newly-weds.Dear young people, everywhere be witnesses of non-violence and of peace and with your generous commitment, you will contribute to build a better future for all. You, dear sick people, with your sufferings, consider yourselves "collaborators" of Christ, who took upon himself the sufferings of the world. And you, dear newly-weds, build your happiness day by day, as the Apostle Paul exhorts, rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer, contribute to the needs of the brethren (cf. Rm 12,12-13).

Paul VI Audience Hall

Wednesday, 14 February 2007 - Women at the service of the Gospel

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today, we have come to the end of our journey among the witnesses of early Christianity mentioned in the New Testament writings. And we use the last step of this first journey to dedicate our attention to the many female figures who played an effective and precious role in spreading the Gospel.

In conformity with what Jesus himself said of the woman who anointed his head shortly before the Passion: "Truly, I say to you, wherever this Gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her" (
Mt 26,13 Mc 14,9), their testimony cannot be forgotten.

The Lord wants these Gospel witnesses, these figures who have made a contribution so that faith in him would grow, to be known, and their memory kept alive in the Church. We can historically distinguish the role of the first women in early Christianity, during Jesus' earthly life and in the events of the first Christian generation.

Jesus, as we know, certainly chose from among his disciples 12 men as Fathers of the new Israel and appointed them "to be with him, and to be sent out to preach" (Mc 3,14-15).

This fact is obvious; but, in addition to the Twelve, pillars of the Church and fathers of the new People of God, many women were also chosen to number among the disciples. I can only mention very briefly those who followed Jesus himself, beginning with the Prophetess Anna (cf. Lc 2,36-38), to the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4,1-39), the Syro-Phoenician woman (cf. Mc 7,24-30), the woman with the haemorrhage (cf. Mt 9,20-22) and the sinful woman whose sins were forgiven (cf. Lc 7,36-50).

I will not even refer to the protagonists of some of his effective parables, for example, the housewife who made bread (cf. Mt 13,33), the woman who lost the drachma (cf. Lc 15,8-10), the widow who pestered the judge (cf. Lc 18,1-8). More important for our topic are the women who played an active role in the context of Jesus' mission.

In the first place, we think spontaneously of the Virgin Mary, who with her faith and maternal labours collaborated in a unique way in our Redemption to the point that Elizabeth proclaimed her "Blessed... among women" (Lc 1,42), adding: "Blessed is she who believed..." (Lc 1,45).

Having become a disciple of her Son, Mary manifested total trust in him at Cana (cf. Jn 2,5), and followed him to the foot of the Cross where she received from him a maternal mission for all his disciples of all times, represented by John (cf. Jn 19,25-27).

Then there are various women with roles of responsibility who gravitated in their different capacities around the figure of Jesus. The women who followed Jesus to assist him with their own means, some of whose names Luke has passed down to us, are an eloquent example: Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Susanna and "many others" (cf. Lc 8,2-3).

The Gospels then tell us that the women, unlike the Twelve, did not abandon Jesus in the hour of his Passion (cf. Mt 27,56). Among them, Mary Magdalene stands out in particular. Not only was she present at the Passion, but she was also the first witness and herald of the Risen One (cf. Jn 20,1).

It was precisely to Mary Magdalene that St Thomas Aquinas reserved the special title, "Apostle of the Apostles" (apostolorum apostola), dedicating to her this beautiful comment: "Just as a woman had announced the words of death to the first man, so also a woman was the first to announce to the Apostles the words of life" (Super Ioannem, ed. Cai, 2519).

Nor was the female presence in the sphere of the primitive Church in any way secondary. We will not insist on the four unnamed daughters of Philip the "Deacon" who lived at Caesarea; they were all endowed with the "gift of prophecy", as St Luke tells us, that is, the faculty of intervening publicly under the action of the Holy Spirit (cf. Ac 21,9). The brevity of information does not permit more precise deductions.

It is rather to St Paul that we are indebted for a more ample documentation on the dignity and ecclesial role of women. He begins with the fundamental principle according to which for the baptized: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Ga 3,28), that is, all are united in the same basic dignity, although each with specific functions (cf. 1Co 12,27).

The Apostle accepts as normal the fact that a woman can "prophesy" in the Christian community (1Co 11,5), that is, speak openly under the influence of the Spirit, as long as it is for the edification of the community and done in a dignified manner.

Thus, the following well-known exhortation: "Women should keep silence in the Churches" (1Co 14,34) is instead to be considered relative. Let us leave to the exegetes the consequent, much discussed problem of the relationship between the first phrase - women can prophesy in Churches - and the other - they are not permitted to speak; that is, the relationship between these two apparently contradictory instructions. This is not for discussion here.

Last Wednesday we already came across the figure of Prisca or Priscilla, Aquila's wife, who surprisingly is mentioned before her husband in two cases (cf. Ac 18,18 Rm 16,3): In any case, both are explicitly described by Paul as his sun-ergoús, "collaborators" (Rm 16,3).

There are several other important points that cannot be ignored. It should be noted, for example, that Paul's short Letter to Philemon is actually also addressed to a woman called "Apphia" (cf. Phlm 2). The Latin and Syriac translations of the Greek text add to this name "Apphia", the appellative "soror carissima" (ibid.), and it must be said that she must have held an important position in the community at Colossae. In any case, she is the only woman mentioned by Paul among those to whom he addressed a Letter.

Elsewhere, the Apostle mentions a certain "Phoebe", described as "a deaconess of the Church at Cenchreae", the port town east of Corinth (Rm 16,1-2). Although at that time the title had not yet acquired a specific ministerial value of a hierarchical kind, it expresses a true and proper exercise of responsibility on the part of this woman for this Christian community. Paul recommends that she be received cordially and assisted "in whatever she may require". Then he adds: "for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well".

In the same epistolary context the Apostle outlines with delicate touches the names of other women: a certain Mary, then Tryphaena, Tryphosa and "the beloved" Persis, as well as Julia, of whom he writes openly that they have "worked hard among you" or "worked hard in the Lord" (Rm 16,6 , 12b, 15), thereby emphasizing their strong ecclesial commitment.

Furthermore, in the Church at Philippi two women were to distinguish themselves, Euodia and Syntyche (cf. Phil Ph 4,2). Paul's entreaty to mutual agreement suggests that these two women played an important role in that community.

In short, without the generous contribution of many women, the history of Christianity would have developed very differently.

This is why, as my venerable and dear Predecessor John Paul II wrote in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem: "The Church gives thanks for each and every woman.... The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine "genius' which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness" (n. 31).

As we can see, the praise refers to women in the course of the Church's history and was expressed on behalf of the entire Ecclesial Community. Let us also join in this appreciation, thanking the Lord because he leads his Church, generation after generation, availing himself equally of men and women who are able to make their faith and Baptism fruitful for the good of the entire Ecclesial Body and for the greater glory of God.

To special groups

I am pleased to welcome the many English-speaking pilgrims present, especially those from England, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Japan and the United States of America. My special greetings go to the members of the International Catholic Committee on Scouting from the United States, the representatives of the John Carroll Society from Washington, D.C., and the students and faculty of the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland. Upon all of you I invoke God's Blessings of peace and joy.

Lastly, I greet you, dear young people, sick people and newly-weds. Today, we celebrate the Feast of Sts Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles who first spread the faith among the Slavic peoples.

May their witness help you, dear young people, to generously follow the Saviour of the world; may he encourage you, dear sick people, to unite your sufferings with those of the Crucified Christ; may it be an example to you, dear newly-weds, to make the Gospel the fundamental rule of your family life.

Paul VI Audience Hall

Ash Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Greetings to a group of predominantly young people gathered in St Peter's Basilica:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I am happy to greet you and to address my cordial welcome to each one of you, with a special greeting for the many school children present here.

Today, Lent begins, a "powerful" liturgical season, a time of peace and of commitment to serving our brothers and sisters, to be lived keeping our gaze always fixed on Jesus, who is setting out towards his death and Resurrection.

Dear young people, take this invitation as if Christ were addressing it personally to each one of you and accept it generously.

By faithfully taking the austere Lenten journey, you will be able to become aware of the risks to which your spiritual life is exposed and will be encouraged to fulfil your Christian vocation joyfully.
Mary is beside you, the Woman of Hope who sustains you and guides you with her motherly tenderness during the 40 days that lead us to Easter.

With her help, renewed within the great Paschal Mystery, you will be able to celebrate the central event of salvation and the supreme revelation of God's merciful love.

A good Lent to you all!

Ash Wednesday

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Ash Wednesday, which we are celebrating today, is a special day for us Christians, marked by an intense spirit of recollection and reflection. In fact, we are setting out on the journey of Lent, which consists in listening to the Word of God and in prayer and penance.

For 40 days the liturgy will help us relive the salient phases of the mystery of salvation. As we know, man was created to be a friend of God; but the sin of our first parents destroyed this relationship of trust and love and consequently rendered humankind incapable of fulfilling its original vocation.

Yet, thanks to Christ's redeeming sacrifice, we were saved from the power of evil: indeed, Christ, the Apostle John wrote, made himself a victim of expiation for our sins (cf.
1Jn 2,2); and St Peter added: he died for our sins once and for all (cf. 1P 3,18).

Dead in Christ to sin, the baptized person is reborn to new life, freely re-established with his dignity as a child of God. For this reason, in the primitive Christian community Baptism was considered as "the first resurrection" (cf. Ap 20,5 Rm 6,1-11 Jn 5,25-28).

From the outset, therefore, Lent was lived as the season of immediate preparation for Baptism, to be solemnly administered during the Easter Vigil. The whole of Lent was a journey towards this important encounter with Christ, this immersion in Christ, this renewal of life. We have already been baptized but Baptism is often not very effective in our daily life.

Therefore, Lent is a renewed "catechumenate" for us too, in which once again we approach our Baptism to rediscover and relive it in depth, to return to being truly Christian.

Lent is thus an opportunity to "become" Christian "anew", through a constant process of inner change and progress in the knowledge and love of Christ. Conversion is never once and for all but is a process, an interior journey through the whole of life.

This process of evangelical conversion cannot, of course, be restricted to a specific period of the year: it is a daily journey that must embrace the entire span of existence, every day of our life.

In this perspective, for each Christian and for all Ecclesial Communities, Lent is the favourable spiritual season for training ourselves to seek God with greater tenacity, opening our heart to Christ.

St Augustine once said that our life is a unique exercise of the desire to draw close to God, of becoming able to let God into our being. "The entire life of the fervent Christian", he says, "is holy desire".

If this is the case, we are further inspired in Lent to "tear out the roots of vanity from our desires", to teach the heart to desire, that is, to love God.

"God", St Augustine says further, "this simple syllable is all we desire" (cf. Tract in Iohn., 4). And let us hope that we may truly begin to desire God and thus to desire true life, love itself and the truth.

Then, Jesus' exhortation, recorded by the Evangelist Mark, rings out more timely than ever: Repent, and believe in the Gospel (cf. Mc 1,15). The sincere desire for God prompts us to reject evil and to do good.

This conversion of the heart is primarily a free gift from God, who created us for himself and redeemed us in Jesus Christ: our true happiness consists in dwelling in him (cf. Jn 15,3).

For this reason he himself anticipates our desire with his grace and accompanies our efforts for conversion.

What does "to be converted" actually mean? It means seeking God, moving with God, docilely following the teachings of his Son, Jesus Christ; to be converted is not a work for self-fulfilment because the human being is not the architect of his own eternal destiny. We did not make ourselves.

Therefore, self-fulfilment is a contradiction and is also too little for us. We have a loftier destination.
We might say that conversion consists precisely in not considering ourselves as our own "creators" and thereby discovering the truth, for we are not the authors of ourselves.

Conversion consists in freely and lovingly accepting to depend in all things on God, our true Creator, to depend on love. This is not dependence but freedom.

To be converted thus means not pursuing one's own personal success - that is something ephemeral - but giving up all human security, treading in the Lord's footsteps with simplicity and trust so that Jesus may become for each one, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta liked to say, "my All in all".

Those who let themselves by conquered by him do not fear losing their life, for on the Cross he loved us and gave himself for us. It is precisely by losing our life for love that we rediscover it.

In my Message for Lent, published a few days ago, I wanted to highlight the immense love God has for us, so that Christians of every community can pause in spirit during the Lenten Season with Mary and John, the beloved disciple, beside the One who on the Cross consummated the sacrifice of his life for humanity (cf. Jn 19,25).

Yes, dear brothers and sisters, the Cross is the definitive revelation of love and divine mercy for us as well, men and women of this epoch, all too often distracted by earthly and transient apprehensions and concerns.

God is love, and his love is the secret of our happiness. So it is that there is no other way to enter into this mystery of love than to lose ourselves, to give ourselves: the way of the Cross.

"If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mc 8,34).

This is why the Lenten liturgy, while it invites us to reflect and to pray, spurs us to hold penance and sacrifice in greater esteem, to reject sin and evil and to conquer selfishness and indifference.

Prayer, fasting and penance, and charitable works for our brethren thus become spiritual paths on which to start out in order to return to God, in response to the repeated appeals to conversion that today's liturgy also contains (cf. Jl Jl 2,12-13 Mt 6,16-18).

Dear brothers and sisters, may the Lenten Season, which we are beginning today with the austere and significant Rite of the Imposition of Ashes, be a renewed experience of the merciful love of Christ, who poured out his Blood for us on the Cross.

Let us docilely attend his school, to learn in turn to "give anew" his love to our neighbours, especially those who are suffering and in difficulty. This is the mission of every disciple of Christ, but to carry it out it is essential to continue listening to his Word and to be assiduously nourished by his Body and his Blood.

May the Lenten journey, which in the ancient Church was a journey towards Christian initiation, towards Baptism and the Eucharist, be a "Eucharistic" Season for us in which we participate with greater fervour in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

May the Virgin Mary, who after sharing in the sorrowful Passion of her divine Son experienced the joy of his Resurrection, accompany us during this Lent towards the Mystery of Easter, the supreme Revelation of God's Love.

A good Lent to you all!

To special groups

I am pleased to greet the pilgrimage group from the Diocese of Jelgava in Latvia, led by Bishop Antons Justs. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today's Audience, especially those from England, Wales, Ireland, Finland, Japan and the United States, I cordially invoke God's Blessings for a fruitful and spiritually enriching Lent.

Lastly, my thoughts go to the sick and the newly-weds. Welcome, dear friends. The Pope has a special place in his heart for you. To all of you and to your loved ones I address my affectionate greeting, which I accompany with a special Blessing.

Audiences 2005-2013 31017