Audiences 2005-2013 21209
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In a previous Catechesis I presented Bernard of Clairvaux, the "Doctor Mellifluus", a great protagonist of the 12th century. His biographer a friend who esteemed him was William of Saint-Thierry on whom I am reflecting in this morning's Catechesis.
William was born in Liège between 1075 and 1080. He came from a noble family, was endowed with a keen intelligence and an innate love of study. He attended famous schools of the time, such as those in his native city and in Rheims, France. He also came into personal contact with Abelard, the teacher who applied philosophy to theology in such an original way as to give rise to great perplexity and opposition. William also expressed his own reservations, pressing his friend Bernard to take a stance concerning Abelard. Responding to God's mysterious and irresistible call which is the vocation to the consecrated life, William entered the Benedictine Monastery of Saint-Nicasius in Rheims in 1113. A few years later he became abbot of the Monastery of Saint-Thierry in the Diocese of Rheims. In that period there was a widespread need for the purification and renewal of monastic life to make it authentically evangelical. William worked on doing this in his own monastery and in general in the Benedictine Order. However, he met with great resistence to his attempts at reform and thus, although his friend Bernard advised him against it, in 1135 he left the Benedictine abbey and exchanged his black habit for a white one in order to join the Cistercians of Signy. From that time, until his death in 1148, he devoted himself to prayerful contemplation of God's mysteries, ever the subject of his deepest desires, and to the composition of spiritual literature, important writings in the history of monastic theology.
One of his first works is entitled De Natura et dignitate amoris (The nature and dignity of love). In it William expressed one of his basic ideas that is also valid for us. The principal energy that moves the human soul, he said, is love. Human nature, in its deepest essence, consists in loving. Ultimately, a single task is entrusted to every human being: to learn to like and to love, sincerely, authentically and freely. However, it is only from God's teaching that this task is learned and that the human being may reach the end for which he was created. Indeed, William wrote: "The art of arts is the art of love.... Love is inspired by the Creator of nature. Love is a force of the soul that leads it as by a natural weight to its own place and end" (De Natura et dignitate amoris 1 PL 184, 379). Learning to love is a long and demanding process that is structured by William in four stages, corresponding to the ages of the human being: childhood, youth, maturity and old-age. On this journey the person must impose upon himself an effective ascesis, firm self-control to eliminate every irregular affection, every capitulation to selfishness, and to unify his own life in God, the source, goal and force of love, until he reaches the summit of spiritual life which William calls "wisdom". At the end of this ascetic process, the person feels deep serenity and sweetness. All the human being's faculties intelligence, will, affection rest in God, known and loved in Christ.
In other works too, William speaks of this radical vocation to love for God which is the secret of a successful and happy life and which he describes as a ceaseless, growing desire, inspired by God himself in the human heart. In a meditation he says "that the object of this love is Love" with a capital "L", namely God. It is he who pours himself out into the hearts of those who love him and prepares them to receive him. "God gives himself until the person is sated and in such a way that the desire is never lacking. This impetus of love is the fulfilment of the human being" (De Contemplando Deo 6, passim, SC 61 bis, pp. 79-83). The considerable importance that William gives to the emotional dimension is striking. Basically, dear friends, our hearts are made of flesh and blood, and when we love God, who is Love itself, how can we fail to express in this relationship with the Lord our most human feelings, such as tenderness, sensitivity and delicacy? In becoming Man, the Lord himself wanted to love us with a heart of flesh!
Moreover, according to William, love has another important quality: it illuminates the mind and enables one to know God better and more profoundly and, in God, people and events. The knowledge that proceeds from the senses and the intelligence reduces but does not eliminate the distance between the subject and the object, between the "I" and the "you". Love, on the other hand, gives rise to attraction and communion, to the point that transformation and assimilation take place between the subject who loves and the beloved object. This reciprocity of affection and liking subsequently permits a far deeper knowledge than that which is brought by reason alone. A famous saying of William expresses it: "Amor ipse intellectus est love in itself is already the beginning of knowledge". Dear friends, let us ask ourselves: is not our life just like this? Is it not perhaps true that we only truly know who and what we love? Without a certain fondness one knows no one and nothing! And this applies first of all to the knowledge of God and his mysteries that exceed our mental capacity to understand: God is known if he is loved!
A synthesis of William of Saint-Thierry's thought is contained in a long letter addressed to the Carthusians of Mont-Dieu, whom he visited and wished to encourage and console. Already in 1690, the learned Benedictine Jean Mabillon, gave this letter a meaningful title: Epistola Aurea (Golden Epistle). In fact, the teachings on spiritual life that it contains are invaluable for all those who wish to increase in communion with God and in holiness. In this treatise, William proposes an itinerary in three stages. It is necessary, he says, to move on from the "animal" being to the "rational" one, in order to attain to the "spiritual". What does our author mean by these three terms? To start with, a person accepts the vision of life inspired by faith with an act of obedience and trust. Then, with a process of interiorization, in which the reason and the will play an important role, faith in Christ is received with profound conviction and one feels a harmonious correspondence between what is believed and what is hoped, and the most secret aspirations of the soul, our reason, our affections. One therefore arrives at the perfection of spiritual life when the realities of faith are a source of deep joy and real and satisfying communion with God. One lives only in love and for love. William based this process on a solid vision of the human being inspired by the ancient Greek Fathers, especially Origen who, with bold language, taught that the human being's vocation was to become like God who created him in his image and likeness. The image of God present in man impels him toward likeness, that is, toward an ever fuller identity between his own will and the divine will. One does not attain this perfection, which William calls "unity of spirit", by one's own efforts, even if they are sincere and generous, because something else is necessary. This perfection is reached through the action of the Holy Spirit who takes up his abode in the soul and purifies, absorbs and transforms into charity every impulse and desire of love that is present in the human being. "Then there is a further likeness to God", we read in the Epistola Aurea, "which is no longer called "likeness' but "unity of spirit', when the person becomes one with God, one in spirit, not only because of the unity of an identical desire but through being unable to desire anything else. In this way the human being deserves to become not God but what God is: man becomes through grace what God is by nature" (Epistola Aurea 262-263, SC 223, pp. 353-355).
Dear brothers and sisters, this author, whom we might describe as the "Singer of Charity, of Love", teaches us to make the basic decision in our lives which gives meaning and value to all our other decisions: to love God and, through love of him, to love our neighbour; only in this manner shall we be able to find true joy, an anticipation of eternal beatitude. Let us therefore learn from the Saints in order to learn to love authentically and totally, to set our being on this journey. Together with a young Saint, a Doctor of the Church, Thérèse of the Child Jesus, let us tell the Lord that we too want to live of love. And I conclude with a prayer precisely by this Saint: "You know I love you, Jesus Christ, my Own! Your Spirit's fire of love enkindles me. By loving you, I draw the Father here, down to my heart, to stay with me always. Blessed Trinity! You are my prisoner dear, of love, today.... To live of love, 'tis without stint to give. And never count the cost, nor ask reward.... O Heart Divine, o'erflowing with tenderness, How swift I run, who all to You has given! Naught but your love I need, my life to bless" [To live of love].
To special groups
I offer a warm welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims present at today's Audience, including the priests from Scotland celebrating their ordination jubilees and the students and staff from St Mary's High School, Casino, Australia. May your Advent visit to Rome be a time of deep spiritual renewal. Upon all of you I invoke God's abundant Blessings!
Lastly, I address the young people, the sick and the newlyweds. Today is the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, which called attention to the importance of the Sacrament of Penance in the life of the Church. On this important anniversary I would like to remember certain extraordinary "apostles of the confessional", unflagging stewards of divine mercy: St John Mary Vianney, St Joseph Cafasso, St Leopold Mandic, St Pius of Pietrelcina. May their witness of faith and charity help you, dear young people, to steer clear of sin and to plan your future as a generous service to God and to your neighbour. May it help you, dear sick people, to experience in suffering the mercy of the Crucified Christ. And may it urge you, dear newlyweds, to create in your families an atmosphere of constant faith and mutual understanding. Lastly, may the example of these Saints, persevering and faithful ministers of divine forgiveness be for priests especially in this Year for Priests and for all Christians an invitation to trust always in the goodness of God, receiving and celebrating with trust the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Paul VI Audience Hall
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today we become acquainted with another 12th-century Benedictine monk. His name is Rupert of Deutz, a city near Cologne, home to a famous monastery. Rupert himself speaks of his own life in one of his most important works entitled The Glory and Honour of the Son of Man [De gloria et honore filii hominis super Matthaeum], which is a commentary on part of the Gospel according to Matthew. While still a boy he was received at the Benedictine Monastery of St Laurence at Lièges as an "oblate", in accordance with the custom at that time of entrusting one of the sons to the monks for his education, intending to make him a gift to God. Rupert always loved monastic life. He quickly learned Latin in order to study the Bible and to enjoy the liturgical celebrations. He distinguished himself for his moral rectitude, straight as a die, and his strong attachment to the See of St Peter.
Rupert's time was marked by disputes between the Papacy and the Empire, because of the so-called "Investiture Controversy" with which as I have mentioned in other Catecheses the Papacy wished to prevent the appointment of Bishops and the exercise of their jurisdiction from depending on the civil authorities who were certainly not guided by pastoral reasons but for the most part by political and financial considerations. Bishop Otbert of Lièges resisted the Pope's directives and exiled Berengarius, Abbot of the Monastery of St Laurence, because of his fidelity to the Pontiff. It was in this monastery that Rupert lived. He did not hesitate to follow his Abbot into exile and only when Bishop Otbert returned to communion with the Pope did he return to Liège and agree to become a priest. Until that moment, in fact, he had avoided receiving ordination from a Bishop in dissent with the Pope. Rupert teaches us that when controversies arise in the Church the reference to the Petrine ministry guarantees fidelity to sound doctrine and is a source of serenity and inner freedom. After the dispute with Otbert Rupert was obliged to leave his monastery again twice. In 1116 his adversaries even wanted to take him to court. Although he was acquitted of every accusation, Rupert preferred to go for a while to Siegburg; but since on his return to the monastery in Liège the disputes had not yet ceased, he decided to settle definitively in Germany. In 1120 he was appointed Abbot of Deutz where, except for making a pilgrimage to Rome in 1124, he lived until 1129, the year of his death.
A fertile writer, Rupert left numerous works, still today of great interest because he played an active part in various important theological discussions of his time. For example, he intervened with determination in the Eucharistic controversy, which in 1077 led to his condemnation by Berengarius of Tours. Berengarius had given a reductive interpretation of Christ's presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, describing it as merely symbolic. In the language of the Church the term "transubstantiation" was as yet unknown but Rupert, at times with daring words, made himself a staunch supporter of the Eucharistic reality and, especially in a work entitled De divinis officiis (On divine offices), purposefully asserted the continuity between the Body of the Incarnate Word of Christ and that present in the Eucharistic species of the bread and the wine. Dear brothers and sisters, it seems to me that at this point we must also think of our time; today too we are in danger of reappraising the Eucharistic reality, that is, of considering the Eucharist almost as a rite of communion, of socialization alone, forgetting all too easily that the Risen Christ is really present in the Eucharist with his Risen Body which is placed in our hands to draw us out of ourselves, to incorporate us into his immortal body and thereby lead us to new life. This great mystery that the Lord is present in his full reality in the Eucharistic species is a mystery to be adored and loved ever anew! I would like here to quote the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which bear the fruit of 2,000 years of meditation on the faith and theological reflection: "The mode of Christ's presence under the Eucharistic species is unique and incomparable.... In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist "the Body and Blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ... is truly, really, and substantially contained'.... It is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present... by the Eucharistic species of the bread the wine" (cf. n. 1374). Rupert too contributed with his reflections to this precise formulation.
Another controversy in which the Abbot of Deutz was involved concerns the problem of the reconciliation of God's goodness and omnipotence with the existence of evil. If God is omnipotent and good, how is it possible to explain the reality of evil? Rupert, in fact, reacted to the position assumed by the teachers of the theological school of Laon, who, with a series of philosophical arguments, distinguished in God's will the "to approve" and the "to permit", concluding that God permits evil without approving it and hence without desiring it. Rupert, on the other hand, renounces the use of philosophy, which he deems inadequate for addressing such a great problem, and remains simply faithful to the biblical narration. He starts with the goodness of God, with the truth that God is supremely good and cannot desire anything but good. Thus he identifies the origin of evil in the human being himself and in the erroneous use of human freedom. When Rupert addresses this topic he writes pages filled with religious inspiration to praise the Father's infinite mercy, God's patience with the sinful human being and his kindness to him.
Like other medieval theologians, Rupert too wondered why the Word of God, the Son of God, was made man. Some, many, answered by explaining the Incarnation of the Word by the urgent need to atone for human sin. Rupert, on the other hand, with a Christocentric vision of salvation history, broadens the perspective, and in a work entitled The Glorification of the Trinity, sustains the position that the Incarnation, the central event of the whole of history was planned from eternity, even independently of human sin, so that the whole creation might praise God the Father and love him as one family gathered round Christ, the Son of God. Then he saw in the pregnant woman of the Apocalypse the entire history of humanity which is oriented to Christ, just as conception is oriented to birth, a perspective that was to be developed by other thinkers and enhanced by contemporary theology, which says that the whole history of the world and of humanity is a conception oriented to the birth of Christ. Christ is always the centre of the exegetic explanations provided by Rupert in his commentaries on the Books of the Bible, to which he dedicated himself with great diligence and passion. Thus, he rediscovers a wonderful unity in all the events of the history of salvation, from the creation until the final consummation of time: "All Scripture", he says, "is one book, which aspires to the same end (the divine Word); which comes from one God and was written by one Spirit" (De glorificatione Trinitatis et procesione Sancti spiritus I, V, PL 169, 18).
In the interpretation of the Bible, Rupert did not limit himself to repeating the teaching of the Fathers, but shows an originality of his own. For example, he is the first writer to have identified the bride in the Song of Songs with Mary Most Holy. His commentary on this book of Scripture has thus turned out to be a sort of Mariological summa, in which he presents Mary's privileges and excellent virtues. In one of the most inspired passages of his commentary Rupert writes: "O most beloved among the beloved, Virgin of virgins, what does your beloved Son so praise in you that the whole choir of angels exalts? What they praise is your simplicity, purity, innocence, doctrine, modesty, humility, integrity of mind and body, that is, your incorrupt virginity" (In Canticum Canticorum 4, 1-6, CCL 26, pp. 69-70). The Marian interpretation of Rupert's Canticum is a felicitous example of harmony between liturgy and theology. In fact, various passages of this Book of the Bible were already used in liturgical celebrations on Marian feasts.
Rupert, furthermore, was careful to insert his Mariological doctrine into that ecclesiological doctrine. That is to say, he saw in Mary Most Holy the holiest part of the whole Church. For this reason my venerable Predecessor, Pope Paul VI, in his Discourse for the closure of the third session of the Second Vatican Council, in solemnly pronouncing Mary Mother of the Church, even cited a proposal taken from Rupert's works, which describes Mary as portio maxima, portio optima the most sublime part, the very best part of the Church (cf. In Apocalypsem 1, 7, PL 169, 1043).
Dear friends, from these rapid allusions we realize that Rupert was a fervent theologian endowed with great depth. Like all the representatives of monastic theology, he was able to combine rational study of the mysteries of faith with prayer and contemplation, which he considered the summit of all knowledge of God. He himself sometimes speaks of his mystical experiences, such as when he confides his ineffable joy at having perceived the Lord's presence: "in that brief moment", he says, "I experienced how true what he himself says is. Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart" (De gloria et honore Filii hominis. Super Matthaeum 12, PL 1168, 1601). We too, each one of us in our own way, can encounter the Lord Jesus who ceaselessly accompanies us on our way, makes himself present in the Eucharistic Bread and in his Word for our salvation.
To special groups
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I offer a warm welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims present at today's Audience. I greet especially the groups from South Korea, South Africa and the United States of America. As we prepare with joy to celebrate our Saviour's birth this Christmas, let us renew our commitment to bring the light of Christ to those we meet. May God bless you all!
Lastly, I greet the young people, the sick and the newlyweds. The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception that we celebrated yesterday, reminds us of Mary's unique adherence to God's saving plan.
Paul VI Audience Hall16129
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today we shall become acquainted with John of Salisbury who belonged to one of the most important schools of philosophy and theology of the Middle Ages, that of the Cathedral of Chartres in France. Like the theologians of whom I have spoken in the past few weeks, John too helps us understand that faith, in harmony with the just aspirations of reason, impels thought toward the revealed truth in which is found the true good of the human being.
John was born in Salisbury, England, between 1100 and 1120. In reading his works, and especially the large collection of his letters, we learn about the most important events in his life. For about 12 years, from 1136 to 1148, he devoted himself to study, attending the best schools of his day where he heard the lectures of famous teachers. He went to Paris and then to Chartres, the environment that made the greatest impression on his formation and from which he assimilated his great cultural openness, his interest in speculative problems and his appreciation of literature. As often happened in that time, the most brilliant students were chosen by prelates and sovereigns to be their close collaborators. This also happened to John of Salisbury, who was introduced to Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury the Primatial See of England by a great friend of his, Bernard of Clairvaux. Theobald was glad to welcome John among his clergy. For 11 years, from 1150 to 1161, John was the secretary and chaplain of the elderly Archbishop. With unflagging zeal he continued to devote himself to study; he carried out an intense diplomatic activity, going to Italy ten times for the explicit purpose of fostering relations between the Kingdom and Church of England and the Roman Pontiff. Among other things, the Pope in those years was Adrian IV, an Englishman who was a close friend of John of Salisbury. In the years following Adrian iv's death, in 1159, a situation of serious tension arose in England, between the Church and the Kingdom. In fact, King Henry II wished to impose his authority on the internal life of the Church, curtailing her freedom. This stance provoked John of Salisbury to react and, in particular, prompted the valiant resistence of St Thomas Becket, Theobald's successor on the episcopal throne of Canterbury, who for this reason was exiled to France. John of Salisbury accompanied him and remained in his service, working ceaselessly for reconciliation. In 1170, when both John and Thomas Becket had returned to England, Thomas was attacked and murdered in his cathedral. He died a martyr and was immediately venerated as such by the people. John continued to serve faithfully the successor of Thomas as well, until he was appointed Bishop of Chartres where he lived from 1176 until 1180, the year of his death.
I would like to point out two of John of Salisbury's works that are considered his masterpieces, bearing elegant Greek titles: Metalogicon (In Defence of Logic), and Policraticus (The Man of Government). In the first of these works, not without that fine irony that is a feature of many scholars, he rejects the position of those who had a reductionist conception of culture, which they saw as empty eloquence and vain words. John, on the contrary, praises culture, authentic philosophy, that is, the encounter between rigorous thought and communication, effective words. He writes: "Indeed, just as eloquence that is not illuminated by reason is not only rash but blind, so wisdom that does not profit from the use of words is not only weak but in a certain way is mutilated. Indeed, although, at times, wisdom without words might serve to square the individual with his own conscience, it is of rare or little profit to society" (Metalogicon, 1, 1, PL 199, 327). This is a very timely teaching. Today, what John described as "eloquence", that is, the possibility of communicating with increasingly elaborate and widespread means, has increased enormously. Yet the need to communicate messages endowed with "wisdom", that is inspired by truth, goodness and beauty is more urgent than ever. This is a great responsibility that calls into question in particular the people who work in the multiform and complex world of culture, of communications, of the media. And this is a realm in which the Gospel can be proclaimed with missionary zeal.
In the Metalogicon John treats the problems of logic, in his day a subject of great interest, and asks himself a fundamental question: what can human reason know? To what point can it correspond with the aspiration that exists in every person, namely, to seek the truth? John of Salisbury adopts a moderate position, based on the teaching of certain treatises of Aristotle and Cicero. In his opinion human reason normally attains knowledge that is not indisputable but probable and arguable. Human knowledge this is his conclusion is imperfect, because it is subject to finiteness, to human limitations. Nevertheless it grows and is perfected, thanks to the experience and elaboration of correct and consistent reasoning, able to make connections between concepts and the reality, through discussion, exchanges and knowledge that is enriched from one generation to the next. Only in God is there perfect knowledge which is communicated to the human being, at least partially, by means of Revelation received in faith, which is why the knowledge of faith, theology, unfolds the potential of reason and makes it possible to advance with humility in the knowledge of God's mysteries.
The believer and the theologian who deepen the treasure of faith, also open themselves to a practical knowledge that guides our daily activity, in other words moral law and the exercise of the virtues. John of Salisbury writes: "God's clemency has granted us his law, which establishes what it is useful for us to know and points out to us what it is legitimate for us to know of God and what it is right to investigate.... In this law, in fact, the will of God is explained and revealed so that each one of us may know what he needs to do" (Metalogicon 4, 41, PL 199, 944-945). According to John of Salisbury an immutable objective truth also exists, whose origin is in God, accessible to human reason and which concerns practical and social action. It is a natural law that must inspire human laws and political and religious authorities, so that they may promote the common good. This natural law is characterized by a property that John calls "equity", that is, the attribution to each person of his own rights. From this stem precepts that are legitimate for all peoples, and in no way can they be abrogated. This is the central thesis of Policraticus, the treatise of philosophy and political theology in which John of Salisbury reflects on the conditions that render government leaders' just and acceptable.
Whereas other arguments addressed in this work are linked to the historical circumstances in which it was composed, the theme of the relationship between natural law and a positive juridical order, mediated by equity, is still of great importance today. In our time, in fact, especially in some countries, we are witnessing a disturbing divergence between reason, whose task is to discover the ethical values linked to the dignity of the human person, and freedom, whose responsibility is to accept and promote them. Perhaps John of Salisbury would remind us today that the only laws in conformity with equity are those that protect the sacredness of human life and reject the licitness of abortion, euthanasia and bold genetic experimentation, those laws that respect the dignity of marriage between a man and a woman, that are inspired by a correct secularism of the State a secularism that always entails the safeguard of religious freedom and that pursue subsidiarity and solidarity at both the national and the international level. If this were not so, what John of Salisbury terms the "tyranny of princes", or as we would say, "the dictatorship of relativism" would end by coming to power, a relativism, as I recalled a few years ago, "which does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires" (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Dean of the College of Cardinals, Homily, Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff, 18 April 2005).
In my most recent Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, in addressing people of good will who strive to ensure that social and political action are never separated from the objective truth about man and his dignity, I wrote: "Truth, and the love which it reveals, cannot be produced: they can only be received as a gift. Their ultimate source is not, and cannot be, mankind, but only God, who is himself Truth and Love. This principle is extremely important for society and for development, since neither can be a purely human product; the vocation to development on the part of individuals and peoples is not based simply on human choice, but is an intrinsic part of a plan that is prior to us and constitutes for all of us a duty to be freely accepted" (n. 52). We must seek and welcome this plan that precedes us, this truth of being, so that justice may be born, but we may find it and welcome it only with a heart, a will and a reason purified in the light of God.
To special groups
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I offer a warm welcome to the student groups present today from England, Ireland and the United States. My cordial greeting also goes to the pilgrims from Kenya and Nigeria. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today's Audience, I invoke God's Blessings of joy and peace!
I greet you, dear young people, dear sick people and dear newlyweds, with great affection. In this Season of Advent, the Lord tells us through the words of the Prophet Isaiah: "Turn to me and be saved" (Is 45,22). Dear boys and girls who come from so many schools and parishes in Italy, make room in your hearts for Jesus who comes, to testify to his joy and his peace. Dear sick people, welcome the Lord in your lives to find in the encounter with him comfort and consolation. And you, dear newlyweds, make the Christmas message of love your family's rule of life.
Paul VI Audience Hall23129
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
With the Christmas Novena which we are celebrating in these days the Church invites us to live intensely and profoundly the preparation for the Saviour's Birth, now at hand. The desire we all carry in our hearts is that in the midst of the frenzied activity of our day the forthcoming Feast of Christmas may give us serene and profound joy to make us tangibly feel the goodness of Our Lord and imbue us with new courage.
To understand better the meaning of the Lord's Birth I would like to make a brief allusion to the historical origins of this Solemnity. In fact, at the outset the Liturgical Year of the Church did not develop primarily from Christ's Birth but rather from faith in his Resurrection. Thus Christianity's most ancient Feast is not Christmas but Easter; the Christian faith is founded on Christ's Resurrection, which is at the root of the proclamation of the Gospel and gave birth to the Church. Therefore being Christian means living in a Paschal manner, letting ourselves be involved in the dynamism that originated in Baptism and leads to dying to sin in order to live with God (cf. Rm 6,4).
Hippolytus of Rome, in his commentary on the Book of the Prophet Daniel, written in about a.d. 204, was the first person to say clearly that Jesus was born on 25 December. Moreover, some exegetes note that the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem, instituted by Judas Machabee in 164 b.c., was celebrated on that day. The coincidence of dates would consequently mean that with Jesus, who appeared as God's Light in the darkness, the consecration of the Temple, the Advent of God to this earth, was truly brought about.
For Christianity the Feast of Christmas acquired its definitive form in the fourth century when it replaced the Roman Feast of the Sol invictus, the invincible sun. This highlighted the fact that Christ's Birth was the victory of the true Light over the darkness of evil and sin. However, the special, intense spiritual atmosphere that surrounds Christmas developed in the Middle Ages, thanks to St Francis of Assisi who was profoundly in love with the man Jesus, God-with-us. The Saint's first biographer, Thomas of Celano, recounts in his Vita Secunda that St Francis "Over and above all the other Solemnities, celebrated with ineffable tenderness the Nativity of the Child Jesus, and called "the Feast of Feasts' the day on which God, having become a tiny child, suckled at a human breast" (cf. Fonti Francescane, n. 199, p. 492). This particular devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation gave rise to the famous celebration of Christmas at Greccio. Francis probably drew the inspiration for this from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and from the manger at St Mary Major in Rome. What motivated the Poverello of Assisi was the wish to experience as real, living and actual the humble grandeur of the event of the Child Jesus' Birth, and to communicate the joy of it to all.
In his first biography Thomas of Celano speaks of the night of the nativity scene at Greccio in a lively and moving way, making a crucial contribution to spreading the most beautiful Christmas tradition, that of the crib. Indeed, the night at Greccio restored to Christianity the intensity and beauty of the Feast of Christmas and taught the People of God to perceive its most authentic message, its special warmth, and to love and worship the humanity of Christ. This particular approach to Christmas gave the Christian faith a new dimension. Easter had focused attention on the power of God who triumphs over death, inaugurates new life and teaches us to hope in the world to come. St Francis with his crib highlighted the defenceless love of God, his humanity and his kindness; God manifested himself to humanity in the Incarnation of the Word to teach people a new way of living and loving.
Celano relates that on that Christmas night Francis was granted the grace of a marvellous vision. He saw lying in the manger a tiny Child who was awakened by Francis' presence. And Celano adds: "Nor did this vision differ from the events because, through the work of his grace which acted through his holy servant, Francis, the Child Jesus was revived in the hearts of many who had forgotten him and was deeply impressed upon their loving memory" (cf. Vita Prima, op. cit., n. 86, p. 307). This setting describes in great detail all that Francis' living faith and love for Christ's humanity imparted to the Christian celebration of Christmas: the discovery that God reveals himself in the tender limbs of the Infant Jesus. Thanks to St Francis, the Christian people were able to perceive that at Christmas God truly became the "Emmanuel", the God-with-us from whom no barrier nor any distance can separate us. Thus, in that Child, God became close to each one of us, so close that we are able to speak intimately to him and engage in a trusting relationship of deep affection with him, just as we do with any newborn baby.
In that Child, in fact, God-Love is manifest: God comes without weapons, without force, because he does not want to conquer, so to speak, from the outside, but rather wants to be freely received by the human being. God makes himself a defenceless Child to overcome pride, violence and the human desire to possess. In Jesus God took on this poor, disarming condition to win us with love and lead us to our true identity. We must not forget that the most important title of Jesus Christ is, precisely, that of "Son", Son of God; the divine dignity is indicated with a term that extends the reference to the humble condition of the manger in Bethlehem, although it corresponds uniquely to his divinity, which is the divinity of the "Son".
His condition as a Child also points out to us how we may encounter God and enjoy his presence. It is in the light of Christmas that we may understand Jesus' words: "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven" (Mt 18,3). Those who have not understood the mystery of Christmas, have not understood the crucial element of Christian life. Those who do not welcome Jesus with a child's heart, cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven: this is what Francis wished to remind the Christians of his time and of all times, until today. Let us pray the Father to grant us that simplicity of heart which recognizes the Lord in the Child, just as Francis did in Greccio. Then what Thomas of Celano recounts referring to the experience of the shepherds on the Holy Night (cf. Lc 2,20) with regard to those who were present at the event in Greccio might happen to us: "each one went home full of ineffable joy" (cf. Vita Prima, op. cit., n. 86, p. 479).
This is the wish that I formulate with affection for you, for your families and for all your loved ones. Happy Christmas to you all!
To special groups
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I offer a warm welcome to the English-speaking visitors present at today's Audience, especially the groups from the Philippines and the United States. In these holy days, may you and your families draw ever closer to the Lord and experience his heavenly gifts of love, joy and peace. Merry Christmas!
I would now like to greet the young people, the sick and the newlyweds.A few days before the Solemnity of Christmas may the love that God expressed to humanity in Christ's Birth increase in you, dear young people, the desire to serve the brethren generously. May it be for you, dear sick people, a source of serene comfort. May it inspire you, dear newlyweds, to consolidate your promise of love and reciprocal fidelity.
Paul VI Audience Hall
Audiences 2005-2013 21209