January 1998

Wednesday 14 January 1998 - Jesus' "hour" is time of human salvation

1. The celebration of the Jubilee will invite us to focus our attention on the hour of salvation. Many times on various occasions, Jesus uses the word “hour” to indicate the moment determined by the Father for the fulfilment of the work of salvation. He speaks of it from the start of his public life, at the wedding feast of Cana, when he receives a request from his mother on behalf of the bride and groom who are in difficulty because of the lack of wine. To indicate the reason why he is opposed to answering the request, Jesus says to his mother: “My hour has not yet come” (
Jn 2,4). This certainly means the hour for the first manifestation of Jesus’ messianic power. It is a particularly important hour, as the Gospel account informs us at its conclusion, where the miracle is presented as “the beginning” or the “start” of his signs (cf. Jn 2,11). But on the horizon appears the hour of Jesus’ passion and glorification (cf. Jn 7,30 Jn 8,20 Jn 12,23-27 Jn 13,1 Jn 17,1 Jn 19,27), when he will complete the work of human Redemption. By working this “sign” through the efficacious intercession of Mary, Jesus manifests himself as the messianic Saviour. While he goes to meet the wedding couple, it is really he himself who is beginning his work as the Bridegroom, inaugurating the wedding feast which is an image of God’s kingdom (cf. Mt 22,2).

2. With Jesus the hour has come for a new relationship with God, the hour for a new form of worship: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (Jn 4,23). The basis for this universal worship is the fact that, by becoming incarnate, the Son has enabled men and women to share in his filial worship of the Father. The “hour” is also the time when the work of the Son is made manifest: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (Jn 5,25-26). The great hour in world history occurs when the Son gives his life, making his saving voice heard to those who are under the power of sin. It is the hour of Redemption.

3. All of Jesus’ earthly life is directed to this hour. At an agonizing moment shortly before his passion, Jesus says: “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’. No, for this purpose I have come to this hour” (Jn 12,27). With these words Jesus reveals the inner drama that is oppressing his soul in view of his approaching sacrifice. He has the possibility of asking the Father that this terrible trial might pass. On the other hand, he does not wish to flee from this painful destiny: “For this purpose I have come”. He has come to offer the sacrifice that will bring salvation to humanity.

4. This crucial hour is willed and determined by the Father. Before the hour chosen by the divine plan, his enemies have no power over Jesus. Many attempts were made to stop Jesus or to kill him. In relating one of these attempts, John’s Gospel highlights the impotence of his adversaries: “They sought to arrest him; but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come” (Jn 7,30). When the hour comes, it also appears as the hour of his enemies. ”This is your hour, and the power of darkness”, Jesus says to “the chief priests and captains of the temple and elders, who had come out against him” (Lc 22,52-53). In this dark hour it seems that no one can stop the raging power of evil. Nevertheless, this hour also remains under the Father’s power. He will allow Jesus’ enemies to capture him. Their work is mysteriously included in the plan established by God for the salvation of all.

5. More than the hour of his enemies, the hour of his passion is thus Christ’s hour, the hour when his mission is fulfilled. John’s Gospel lets us perceive Jesus’ state of mind at the beginning of the Last Supper: “When Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13,1). It is thus the hour of love, which wants to go “to the end”, that is, to the supreme gift. In his sacrifice Christ reveals perfect love to us: he could not have loved us more deeply! This decisive hour is both the hour of passion and the hour of glorification. According to John’s Gospel, it is the hour when the Son of man is “lifted up from the earth” (Jn 12,32). The lifting up on the Cross is the lifting up to heavenly glory. Then the phase of the new relationship with humanity will begin, particularly with the disciples, as Jesus himself announces: “I have said this to you in figures; the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but tell you plainly of the Father” (Jn 16,25). The supreme hour is ultimately the moment when the Son returns to the Father. It clarifies the meaning of his sacrifice and sheds full light on the value of this sacrifice for humanity, redeemed and called to be united with the Son in his return to the Father.

To the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors the Holy Father said:

I warmly greet the group of Diocesan Pilgrimage Co-ordinators from the United States meeting in Rome. May your preparations for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 have as their principal aim the spiritual renewal of the pilgrims you assist. I welcome the members of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League, and I express the hope that your visit will help to strengthen the co-operation of recent years.

Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims, especially those from Denmark, Japan and the United States, I invoke the abundant blessings of almighty God.

Peace Appeal

2 Hatred continues to bathe the beloved African land in blood. In Algeria there are constant massacres that involve even women, children and the elderly. In Rwanda five missionaries belonging to the Congregation of the Daughters of the Resurrection, as well as two lay co-workers, were killed in the Diocese of Nyundo. Two other women religious were seriously wounded.

All our hearts are filled with dismay and sadness at these tragic incidents, which cannot fail to rouse the conscience of all humanity.

We offer our prayers for the victims of these ferocious massacres.

I extend my solidarity and spiritual closeness to all who are afflicted and in sorrow, as I express my heartfelt desire for the quick recovery of the wounded.

May the sacrifice of so many defenceless people lead to sentiments of amendment, forgiveness and, ultimately, peace.

Wednesday 28 January 1998 - Church in Cuba has persevered in faith

1. The day before yesterday I returned from Cuba where, accepting the invitations of the Bishops and of the President of the Republic himself, I made an unforgettable Pastoral Visit. The Lord wanted the Pope to visit that land and bring comfort to the Church which lives there and proclaims the Gospel. I first of all thank him and my gratitude is then extended to the whole People of God in whom, during those days, I found constant spiritual support.

I particularly thank the President of the Republic of Cuba, Dr Fidel Castro Ruz, and all the other authorities who made my apostolic pilgrimage possible. With great affection I thank the Bishops of the island, starting with the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and the priests, religious and all the faithful who offered me a moving welcome.

Indeed, from the moment I arrived I was surrounded by a great popular demonstration, which impressed even those who, like me, are familiar with the enthusiasm of Latin Americans. It was the expression of a long expectation, a meeting desired for quite some time by a people who thereby became as it were reconciled with their own history and vocation. My Pastoral Visit was a great event of spiritual, cultural and social reconciliation, which will not fail to have a beneficial effect on other levels also.

In Havana's imposing José Martí Revolution Plaza, I saw an enormous picture depicting Christ, with the words: "Jesus Christ, I trust in you!". I gave thanks to God, because, precisely in that square named after the "revolution", there was a place for the One who brought the genuine revolution into the world, that of the love of God who frees man from evil and injustice and gives him peace and fullness of life.

2. I went to the land of Cuba, which Christopher Colombus described as "the most beautiful ever seen by human eyes", primarily to pay homage to that Church and to strengthen her on her way. This Church has known some very difficult times but has persevered in faith, hope and charity. I wanted to visit her to share her deeply religious spirit, her joys and her suffering; and to give an impetus to her evangelizing work.

I went as a pilgrim of peace to make the Church's eternal message resound: Christ is the Redeemer of man and the Gospel is the guarantee of the authentic development of society.

The first Mass I had the joy of celebrating on Cuban soil, in the city of Santa Clara, was a thanksgiving to God for the gift of the family, and it was linked in spirit to the great world meeting for families held last October in Rio de Janeiro. I wanted to show my solidarity with Cuban families as they face the problems raised by contemporary society.

3. In Camagüey I was able to speak to young people, fully aware that being young Catholics in Cuba was and is a challenge. Their presence in the Cuban Christian community is very important in relation to great events and to everyday life. My gratitude goes to the young catechists, missonaries and those working for Caritas and other social projects.

The meeting with young Cubans was an unforgettable celebration of hope, during which I urged them to open their hearts and their whole lives to Christ, defeating moral relativism and its consequences. I again express to them my encouragement and all my affection.

4. In the University of Havana and in the presence of President Fidel Castro, I met the representatives of the world of Cuban culture. Over a period of five centuries it has come under various influences: the Hispanic, the African, that of the various groups of immigrants and the properly American. In recent decades, the materialistic, atheistic Marxist ideology has influenced it. However, its features, those known as "cubanía", continue to be deeply marked by Christian inspiration, as is evidenced by the many Catholic figures of culture throughout its history. Outstanding among them is the Servant of God Félix Varela, a priest whose tomb is actually located in the university's Aula Magna. The message of these "fathers of the fatherland" is more timely than ever and points to a synthesis of faith and culture, the way to form free and responsible consciences, capable of dialogue and at the same time of fidelity to the fundamental values of the person and of society.

5. In Santiago de Cuba, the primatial see, my visit became a real pilgrimage: there I knelt before the patroness of the Cuban people, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. I noticed with deep joy and emotion how much Cubans love the Mother of God, and how Our Lady of Charity is truly, over and above every difference, the principal symbol and support of the Cuban people's faith and their struggle for freedom. In this setting of popular piety, I urged them to incarnate the Gospel, the message of authentic liberation, in their daily lives by living as Christians fully involved in society. A hundred years ago, the country's independence was declared at the feet of Our Lady of Charity. With this pilgrimage I have entrusted to her care all Cubans, in their homeland and abroad, so that they may form a truly prosperous and fraternal community more and more enlivened by authentic freedom.

At the Shrine of St Lazarus I met the suffering, to whom I brought the comforting words of Christ. Lastly, in Havana, I was also able to greet a representative group of the clergy, religious and committed laity, whom I encouraged to devote themselves generously to serving the People of God.

4 6. Divine Providence granted that precisely on the Sunday when the liturgy presents the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me ... he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor" (Lc 4,18), the Successor of the Apostle Peter was able to complete a historic stage of the new evangelization in Havana, the Cuban capital. Indeed I had the joy of proclaiming to Cubans the Gospel of hope, the message of love and of freedom in the truth which Christ never ceases to offer the men and women of all times.

How can we not recognize that this visit has an important symbolic value because of the unique position Cuba has occupied this century in world history? From this standpoint, my pilgrimage to Cuba — so long awaited and patiently prepared — marked a very opportune moment for making known the Church's social teaching. At different times I sought to emphasize that the essential elements of the Church's Magisterium on the person and on society also belong to the heritage of the Cuban people, who received them as a legacy from the fathers of the homeland who in turn drew them from the roots of the Gospel and witnessed to them to the point of sacrifice. The Pope's visit was meant in a way to give a voice to the Christian soul of the Cuban people. For Cubans, I am convinced, this Christian soul is their most precious treasure and their most secure guarantee of integral development under the banner of authentic freedom and peace.

I deeply hope that the Church in Cuba may have more and more opportunities for fulfilling her mission.

7. I find it significant that the great final Eucharistic celebration in Revolution Plaza should have taken place on the day of the Conversion of St Paul, as if to indicate that the great Apostle's conversion "is a profound, continual and holy revolution, valid for all ages". Every genuine renewal begins with conversion of heart.

I entrust to Our Lady all the aspirations of the Cuban people and the commitment of the Church, which is continuing her mission in the service of the Gospel with courage and perseverance.

To the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors the Holy Father said:

I warmly greet the English-speaking pilgrims, especially those from Japan, Denmark, Finland and the United States. Upon all of you I invoke the abundant blessings of almighty God.

Wednesday 4 February 1998 - Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many

1. Christ reveals himself throughout his earthly life as the Saviour sent by the Father for the salvation of the world. His very name, “Jesus”, expresses this mission. It actually means: “God saves”. It is a name he was given as a result of heavenly instruction: both Mary and Joseph (
Lc 1,31 Mt 1,21) receive the order to call him by this name. In the message to Joseph the meaning of the name is explained: “for he will save his people from their sins”.

2. Christ defines his saving mission as a service whose highest expression will be the sacrifice of his life for mankind: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mc 10,45 Mt 20,28). These words, spoken to counter the disciples’ tendency to seek the first place in the kingdom, are primarily meant to awaken in them a new mentality, which conforms more closely to that of the Teacher. In the Book of Daniel, the figure described as “one like a son of man” is shown surrounded by the glory due to leaders who receive universal veneration: “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Da 7,14). Jesus contrasts this figure with the Son of man who puts himself at the service of all. As a divine person, he would be fully entitled to be served. But in saying he had “come to serve”, he shows a disturbing aspect of God’s behaviour: although he has the right and the power to make himself served, he puts himself “at the service” of his creatures. Jesus expresses this desire to serve in an eloquent and moving way at the Last Supper when he washes his disciples’ feet: a symbolic act which will be impressed as a rule of life on their memory for ever: “You also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13,14).

3. In saying that the Son of man came to give his life as a ransom for many, Jesus is referring to the prophecy of the suffering Servant who “makes himself an offering for sin” (Is 53,10). It is a personal sacrifice, very different from the animal sacrifices used in ancient worship. It is a life given “as a ransom for many”, that is, for the immense multitude of humanity, for “all”. Jesus thus appears as the universal Saviour: all human beings, according to the divine plan, are ransomed, freed and saved by him. Paul says: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rm 3,24). Salvation is a gift that can be received by each one to the extent of his free consent and voluntary co-operation.

4. As universal Saviour, Christ is the only Saviour. Peter affirms this clearly: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Ac 4,12). At the same time, he is also proclaimed the only mediator between God and men, as the First Letter to Timothy affirms: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1Tm 2,5-6). As the God-man, Jesus is the perfect mediator who unites men with God, obtaining for them the goods of salvation and divine life. This is a unique media- tion which excludes any competing or parallel mediation, although it is com- patible with participated forms of mediation (cf. Redemptoris missio RMi 5). Consequently, any other autonomous sources or ways of salvation cannot be admitted apart from Christ. Thus in the great religions, which the Church considers with respect and esteem in the way indicated by the Second Vatican Council, Christians recognize the presence of saving elements, which nevertheless operate in dependence on the influence of Christ’s grace. Therefore these religions can contribute, by virtue of the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit who “blows where he wills” (Jn 3,8), to helping men on their way to eternal happiness, but this role is also the fruit of Christ’s redemptive activity. Thus with regard to other religions, Christ the Saviour is also mysteriously at work. In this task he unites to himself the Church, which is in a way the “sacrament of communion with God and of unity among all men” (Lumen gentium LG 1).

5. I would like to conclude with a wonderful passage from the Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, by St Louis de Montfort, which proclaims the Christological faith of the Church: “Jesus Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of everything.... He is the only teacher from whom we must learn; the only Lord on whom we should depend; the only Head to whom we should be united and the only model that we should imitate. He is the only Physician that can heal us; the only Shepherd that can feed us; the only Way that can lead us; the only Truth that we can believe; the only Life that can animate us. He alone is everything to us and he alone can satisfy all our desires.... Each one of the faithful who is not united to him is like a branch broken from the stem of the vine. It falls and withers and is fit only to be burnt. If we live in Jesus and Jesus lives in us, we need not fear damnation. Neither angels in heaven nor men on earth, nor devils in hell, no creature whatever can harm us, for no creature can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Through him, with him and in him we can do all things and render all honour and glory to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit; we can become perfect and be for our neighbour a fragrance of eternal life” (n. 61).

To the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors the Holy Father said:

I extend a special welcome to the Marist Brothers and I encourage them to continue to give faithful witness to their special charism. I greet the participants in the Gregorian Chant Study Week and the students from Loyola University.

Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors I cordially invoke the blessings of almighty God.

World Day of the Sick: Wednesday 11 February 1998 - Mary is attentive to needs of every person

1. Today, 11 February, a day dedicated to the memory of Our Lady of Lourdes, we are celebrating World Day of the Sick for the sixth time. This year it takes place in the Shrine of Loreto, at the Holy House, where sick people and volunteer workers, faithful and pilgrims from Italy and from other nations have gathered for this special occasion. I would like to address my affectionate thoughts directly to them, linked with us by radio and television. I first greet my representative at the celebration, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State; Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragán, President of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health-Care Workers; and all who have promoted and organized today's event. I greet Archbishop Angelo Comastri, Pontifical Delegate for the Shrine of Loreto, and the prelates who have wished to attend the prayer meeting. I greet the health-care workers and volunteers, especially the members of UNITALSI.

However, my words are addressed with deep affection particularly to the sick. They are truly in the limelight on this Day, which echoes deeply and vividly in my soul. My most cordial greetings to them!

2. Loreto and the sick! How well these words go together! The renowned Marian shrine immediately recalls the mystery of the Incarnation, in which the action of the Spirit was fundamental. Indeed, 1998, the second year of immediate preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, is dedicated precisely to the Holy Spirit.

I would like to make a spiritual pilgrimage to the feet of the Our Lady of Loreto, together with you who have gathered here today in this Paul VI Auditorium for the customary annual meeting of 11 February. In spirit, let us join the sick in Loreto to pray in the Holy House, which calls to mind God's wonderful condescension by which the Word became flesh and dwelt among men.

In the evocative atmosphere of this sacred place, we receive the light and strength of the Spirit, which can transform man's heart into a dwelling-place of hope. In Mary's house, there is room for all her children. In fact, where God dwells, every person can find acceptance, comfort and peace, especially in times of trial. With Mary, "Health of the Sick", there is support for the hesitant, light for the doubting and relief for those burdened by suffering and illness.

Loreto is a house of solidarity and hope, where one can almost feel Mary's maternal concern. Comforted by the assurance of her motherly protection, we are more encouraged to share the suffering of our brothers and sisters, tried in mind and body, to pour on their wounds, after the Good Samaritan's example, the oil of consolation and the wine of hope (cf. Roman Missal, Italian edition, Common Preface VIII).

Likewise at the wedding feast at Cana, the Blessed Virgin is attentive to the needs of every man and woman and is ready to intercede with her Son for all. That is why it is very significant that the World Days of the Sick, year after year, take place in Marian shrines.

3. Dear sick people, today is your Day. I am thinking of those of you who are gathered next to the Holy House, of those who are here in this auditorium, and all the sick who have met at the feet of the Immaculate Virgin near the grotto in Lourdes or at other Marian shrines throughout the world. I am thinking of you, still more numerous, in hospitals, in your homes and in the rooms which are the shrines of your patience and daily prayer. A special place is reserved for you in the ecclesial community. The condition of sickness and the desire to recover your health make you privileged witnesses of faith and hope.

I entrust to the intercession of Mary your longing for healing and I urge you always to illumine and elevate this longing with the theological virtue of hope, Christ's gift. Mary will help you give new meaning to suffering, making it a way of salvation, an occasion of evangelization and redemption. Thus your experience of pain and loneliness, modeled on that of Christ and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, will proclaim the victorious power of the Resurrection.

May Mary obtain for you the gift of trust and may she sustain you on your earthly pilgrimage. Trust is more necessary than ever today, because the experience of modern life is more complex and problematic.

And you, O Blessed Virgin of Loreto, watch over the paths of us all. Guide us to the heavenly homeland where, with you, we will contemplate the glory of your Son, Jesus, for ever.

My affectionate Blessing to all!

To the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors the Holy Father said:

I am happy to greet the students and teachers of the Oslo Handelsgymnasium and the Sotra Vidaregåande Skule from Norway, as well as the students of the Junshin University of Kagoshima in Japan. I welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially the various groups from the United States. Upon you and your families I cordially invoke the blessings of almighty God.

Wednesday 18 February 1998 - Son of God brings fullness of salvation

1. In the programmatic speech Jesus gave in the synagogue of Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry, he applied to himself the prophecy of Isaiah in which the Messiah appears as the one sent to proclaim "release to the captives" (
Lc 4,18 cf. Is 61,1-2).

Jesus comes to offer us a salvation which, although primarily a liberation from sin, also involves the totality of our being with its deepest needs and aspirations. Christ frees us from this burden and threat and opens the way to the complete fulfilment of our destiny.

2. Sin, Jesus reminds us in the Gospel, puts man in a state of slavery: "Truly, truly I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin" (Jn 8,34).

Jesus' listeners think of freedom primarily in external terms, proudly relying on the privilege of being the people of the Covenant: "We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one" (ibid., Jn 8,33). Jesus is anxious to draw their attention to another more basic freedom, threatened not so much from the outside as from the snares found in the human heart itself. Whoever is oppressed by the dominating, destructive power of sin cannot accept Jesus' message, much less his person, the only source of true freedom: "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (ibid., Jn 8,36). It is only the Son of God who, by communicating his divine life, can make men share in his filial freedom.

3. The liberation offered by Christ removes, in addition to sin, the obstacles preventing friendship and a covenant relationship with God. From this standpoint it is a reconciliation.

Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth: "God ... through Christ reconciled us to himself" (2Co 5,18). This reconciliation is obtained by the sacrifice of the Cross. From it flows that peace which consists in the fundamental agreement of the human will with the divine.

This peace not only affects relations with God, but also concerns relations between human beings. Christ "is our peace", because he unites all who believe in him, reconciling them "to God in one body" (cf. Ep 2,14-16).

4. It is comforting to think that Jesus does not limit himself to freeing the heart from the prison of selfishness, but communicates divine love to each person. At the Last Supper he gives the new commandment which must characterize the community he founded: "Love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 13,34 Jn 15,12). The newness of this precept of love consists in the words: "as I have loved you". The "as" points to the Teacher as the model who must be imitated by his disciples, but at the same time it points to the origin or source of mutual love in him. Christ communicates to his disciples the power to love as he loved, he raises their love to the superior level of his own, and urges them to tear down the barriers that divide people.

His desire to put an end to all discrimination and exclusion can be powerfully seen in the Gospel. He overcomes the obstacles preventing contact with lepers, who are subjected to a painful segregation. He violates the customs and rules which tend to isolate those considered "sinners". He does not accept the prejudices which put women in an inferior position, but accepts them among his followers and has them serve his kingdom.

The disciples must imitate his example. The entry of God's love into human hearts is expressed in a special way in the obligation to love our enemies: "I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Mt 5,44-45).

5. Starting from the heart, the salvation brought by Jesus is extended to the various areas of human life: spiritual and physical, personal and social. By defeating sin with his Crucifixion, Christ inaugurates a movement of integral liberation. In his public life he himself heals the sick, frees people from demons and alleviates every kind of suffering, thereby showing a sign of God's kingdom. He tells the disciples to do the same when they preach the Gospel (cf. Mt 10,8 Lc 9,2 Lc 10,9).

If not by miracles, which depend on divine consent, then certainly by works of fraternal charity and the commitment to promoting justice, Christ's disciples are called to make an active contribution to eliminating the causes of suffering which humiliate and sadden man.

It is, of course, impossible for pain to be entirely overcome in this way. On every human being's path the anguish of death remains. But everything receives new light from the paschal mystery. Suffering endured with love and united to Christ's bears fruits of salvation: it becomes "salvific pain". Even death, if faced with faith, takes on the reassuring aspect of a passage to eternal life, in expectation of the resurrection of the flesh. We can thus understand how rich and deep is the salvation brought by Christ. He came to save not only every person, but also the whole person.

Wednesday 25 February 1998 - Season of Lent as a time of conversion and renewed friendship with Christ


1. Today the liturgy of Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our Lenten journey that will culminate in the principal event of the liturgical year, the Easter Triduum, celebrating Christ's Passion, Death and Resurrection.

Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before undertaking his mission; in the same way we are invited today to enter an important season of reflection and prayer, in order to journey towards Calvary and later to experience the joy of the Resurrection. The beginning of this unique time of penance consists of a symbolic and significant action: the imposition of ashes. By recalling the transitory nature of earthly life it reminds us of the need for generous ascetical effort, which leads to the courageous decision not to do our own will but, following Jesus' example, to do the will of the heavenly Father.

The reception of ashes also emphasizes our condition as creatures who live in total and grateful dependence on the Creator. Indeed, it is God who, by a surprising act of love and mercy, drew man from the dust, endowing him with an immortal soul and calling him to share his own divine life. It will also be God who will raise him up from the dust on the last day and transform his mortal body.

2. The humble act of receiving blessed ashes on the head, strengthened by the invitation that rings out in the liturgy today: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel", counteracts the proud gesture of Adam and Eve who by their disobedience destroyed the bond of friendship with God the Creator. Because of this initial tragedy, we all run the risk, despite Baptism, of yielding to the recurring temptation that spurs human beings to live in arrogant autonomy from God and in perennial antagonism towards their neighbour.

Here then is revealed the meaning and necessity of the Lenten season which, by its call to conversion, leads us through prayer, penance and acts of fraternal solidarity to renew or reinvigorate our friendship with Jesus in faith, to free ourselves from the deceptive promises of earthly happiness and once again to savour the harmony of the interior life in authentic love for Christ.

3. I make my own what St Leo the Great said in one of his Lenten sermons: "Works of virtue do not exist without the trial of tempations; no faith goes unopposed; no struggle is without an enemy, no victory without a battle. We live our lives amid snares and struggles. If we do not want to be deceived, we must be watchful; if we want to win, we must fight" (Sermon XXXIX, 3).

9 Dear brothers and sisters, let us accept this invitation. It demands arduous discipline, especially in today's social context which is frequently marked by easy escape and practical atheism. The Holy Spirit comforts and strengthens us in this struggle. He "helps us in our weakness", as the Apostle Paul assures us, "for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (Rm 8,26).

It is precisely to the Holy Spirit that this second year of immediate preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 is dedicated. I wrote in my Apostolic Letter Tertio millennio adveniente: "Hence it will be important to gain a renewed appreciation of the Spirit as the One who builds the kingdom of God within the course of history and prepares its full manifestation in Jesus Christ, stirring people's hearts and quickening in our world the seeds of the full salvation which will come at the end of time" (TMA 45).

4. Let us then be guided by the Holy Spirit during this favourable season: it is the Spirit himself who, in order to prepare Jesus for his mission, drove him into the wilderness of tempation and then consoled him at the moment of trial, accompanying him from the Garden of Olives to Golgotha. The Holy Spirit is close to us through the grace of the sacraments. Particularly in the sacrament of Reconciliation, he leads us on the way of repentance and the confession of our sins, in the merciful arms of our Father.

I deeply hope that Lent will be a favourable occasion for every Christian to undertake this journey of conversion, for which the sacrament of Penance is the fundamental and indispensable point of reference. This is the condition for achieving a deeper and more intimate experience of the Father's love.

May Mary, the example of docile openness to God's Spirit, accompany us on our Lenten journey. We turn to her today, as we enter, with all believers throughout the world, into the austere and penitential atmosphere of Lent.

To the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors the Holy Father said:

I extend a special welcome to the various ecumenical groups present at this Audience and I encourage you to continue to work for ever closer unity among Christians. I greet the many young people here today, especially the student groups, and in particular the children's choir of St Hallvard in Oslo. Upon all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims, especially those from England, Northern Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Japan and the United States of America, I invoke the strengthening gifts of the Holy Spirit.