Wednesday 10 March 1999 - Jesus' relationship with the Father, which reveals the mystery of the Trinity


1. Jesus, as we saw in our last catechesis, enjoys a very special relationship with "his" Father through his words and actions. John's Gospel stresses that what he communicates to men is the fruit of this intimate and extraordinary union: "The Father and I are one" (
Jn 10,30). And again: "All that the Father has is mine" (Jn 16,15). There is a reciprocity between the Father and the Son in what they know of each other (cf. Jn 10,15), in what they are (cf. Jn 14,10), in what they do (cf. Jn 5,19 Jn 10,38) and in what they possess: "Everything of mine is yours, and everything of yours is mine" (Jn 17,10). It is a reciprocal exchange which finds full expression in the glory Jesus receives from the Father in the supreme mystery of his Death and Resurrection, after he himself had given it to the Father during his earthly life: "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.... I glorified you on earth ... and now Father, glorify me in your own presence ..." (Jn 1,1 Jn 1,4f.).

This essential union with the Father not only accompanies Jesus' activity, but defines his whole being. "The Incarnation of God's Son reveals that God is the eternal Father and that the Son is consubstantial with the Father, which means that, in the Father and with the Father, the Son is one and the same God" (CEC 262). The Evangelist John stresses that it is precisely to this divine claim that the religious leaders of the people react, for they cannot tolerate him calling God his Father and therefore making himself equal to God (Jn 5,18 cf. Jn 10,33 Jn 19,7).

2. In virtue of this consonance in being and acting, Jesus reveals the Father in words and deeds: "No one has ever seen God: the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known" (Jn 1,18). As we are told in the account of the Synoptic Gospels (cf. Mc 1,11 Mt 3,17 Lc 3,22), the fact that Christ is the "beloved" one is proclaimed at his Baptism. The Evangelist John refers this back to its Trinitarian root, that is, to the mysterious existence of the Word "with" the Father (Jn 1,1), who generates him from all eternity.

Starting with the Son, New Testament reflection and the theology based on it have plumbed the mystery of God's "fatherhood". It is the Father who is the absolute principle in Trinitarian life, the one who has no origin and from whom the divine life flows. The unity of the three Persons is a sharing in the one divine essence, but in the dynamism of reciprocal relations that have their source and foundation in the Father. "It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds" (Fourth Lateran Council: DS 804).

3. The Apostle John offers us a key to this mystery which infinitely surpasses our understanding, when in his First Letter he proclaims: "God is love" (1Jn 4,8). This summit of revelation indicates that God is agape, that is, the gratuitous and total gift of self which Christ proved to us, especially by his death on the Cross. The Father's infinite love for the world is revealed in Christ's sacrifice (cf. Jn 3,16 Rm 5,8). The capacity to love infinitely, to give oneself without reserve or measure, belongs to God. By virtue of his being Love, even before his free creation of the world he is Father in the divine life itself: a loving Father who generates the beloved Son and gives rise with him to the Holy Spirit, the Person- Love, the reciprocal bond of communion.

On this basis the Christian faith understands the equality of the three Divine Persons: the Son and the Spirit are equal to the Father, not as autonomous principles, as though they were three gods, but because they receive the whole divine life from the Father, and are distinct from him and from one another only in the diversity of their relations (cf. CEC 254).

A great mystery, a mystery of love, an ineffable mystery, before which words must give way to the silence of wonder and worship. A divine mystery that challenges and involves us, because a share in the Trinitarian life was given to us through grace, through the redemptive Incarnation of the Word and the gift of the Holy Spirit: "Anyone who loves me will be true to my word, and my Father will love him; we will come to him and make our dwelling-place with him" (Jn 14,23).

4. For us believers, the reciprocity between the Father and the Son thus becomes a principle of new life which enables us to participate in the very fullness of the divine life: "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God" (1Jn 4,15). The dynamism of Trinitarian life is lived by creatures in such a way that everything is directed to the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses: "The whole Christian life is a communion with each of the Divine Persons, without in any way separating them. Everyone who glorifies the Father does so through the Son in the Holy Spirit" (CEC 259).

The Son has become "the first-born among many brethren" (Rm 8,29); through his death the Father communicated new life to us (1P 1,3 cf. also Rm 8,32 Ep 1,3), so that we might call upon him in the Holy Spirit with the same term that Jesus used: Abba (Rm 8,15 Ga 4,6). St Paul explains this mystery further, saying that "The Father ... has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son" (Col 1,12-13). And this is how Revelation describes the eschatological destiny of whoever fights and conquers the power of evil with Christ: "He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne" (Ap 3,21). Christ's promise opens to us the wondrous prospect of sharing in his heavenly intimacy with the Father.

I extend a special greeting to the Marist Brothers and to the priests taking part in the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the Pontifical North American College. May you rediscover each day in your lives the loving presence of the Blessed Trinity. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from England, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Singapore, Japan and the United States of America, I invoke the joy and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday 17 March 1999

1. At the dramatic moment when he was preparing to face death, Jesus ends his great farewell discourse (cf.
Jn 13ff.) with a wonderful prayer to the Father. It can be considered a spiritual testament in which Jesus returns to the Father's hands the mandate he had received: to make his love known to the world, through the gift of eternal life (cf. Jn 17,2). The life he offers is significantly explained as a gift of knowledge. "This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (Jn 17,3).

Knowledge, in the biblical language of the Old and New Testaments, is not only intellectual, but usually implies a living experience which involves the whole human person including his capacity to love. This knowledge leads to an "encounter" with God, as part of that process which the Eastern theological tradition likes to call "divinization" and which takes place through the interior, transforming action of God's Spirit (cf. St Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio Catech., 37: PG 45, 98B). We already touched on these topics in the catechesis for the year of the Holy Spirit. Returning now to the words of Jesus just quoted, we want to reflect on what it means to have a living knowledge of God the Father.

2. God can be known as father at various levels, depending on the perspective from which we look at him and the aspect of the mystery considered. There is a natural knowledge of God which is based on creation: this leads us to recognize him as the origin and transcendent cause of the world and of man, and in this sense to perceive his fatherhood. This knowledge is deepened in the progressive light of Revelation, that is, on the basis of God's words and his interventions in salvation history (cf. CEC 287).

In the Old Testament, knowing God as father means returning to the origins of the people of the covenant: "Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?" (Dt 32,6). The reference to God as father guarantees and maintains the unity of those who belong to the same family: "Have we not all the one Father? Has not the one God created us?" (Ml 2,10). God is recognized as father even when he rebukes the son for his own good: "For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights" (Pr 3,12). Obviously, a father can always be called upon in times of discouragement: "I called out: O Lord, you are my father, you are my champion and my saviour; do not abandon me in time of trouble, in the midst of storms and dangers" (Si 51,10). In all these forms, the values experienced in human fatherhood are applied preeminently to God. We immediately realize that it is impossible to know the full meaning of this fatherhood except to the extent that God himself reveals it.

3. In the events of salvation history there is a gradual revelation of the Father's initiative: by his interior action he opens the hearts of believers to accepting the incarnate Son. By knowing Jesus, they will also be able to know him, the Father. This is what Jesus himself teaches in reply to Thomas: "If you had known me, you would have known my Father (Jn 14,7 cf. vv. Jn 14,7-10).

Thus it is necessary to believe in Jesus and to see him, the light of the world, in order not to remain in the darkness of ignorance (cf. Jn 12,44-46) and to know that his teaching comes from God (cf. Jn 7,17f.). On this condition it is possible to know the Father and to become capable of worshiping him "in spirit and truth" (Jn 4,23). This living knowledge is inseparable from love. It is communicated by Jesus, as he said in his priestly prayer: "O righteous Father? I made known to them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them" (Jn 17,25-26).

"When we pray to the Father, we are in communion with him and with his Son, Jesus Christ. Then we know and recognize him with an ever new sense of wonder" (CEC 2781). Knowing the Father, then, means finding in him the source of our being and our unity as members of one family, but it also means being immersed in a "supernatural" life, the very life of God.

4. The message of the Son therefore remains the royal road for knowing the Father and making him known; in fact, as the expressive words of St Irenaeus recall, "knowledge of the Father is the Son" (Adv. Haer., IV 6, 7: , 990B). This possibility is offered to Israel but also to the Gentiles, as Paul emphasizes in the Letter to the Romans: "Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith" (Rm 3,29f.). God is one and he is the Father of all, who is eager to offer everyone the salvation brought by the Son: this is what John's Gospel calls the gift of eternal life. This gift must be accepted and communicated on the surge of that gratitude which led Paul to say in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians: "We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth" (2Th 2,13).

I extend a particular welcome to the Swedish Women’s Educational Association. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from England, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Korea, Canada and the United States of America, I invoke the joy and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday 24 March 1999 - God the Father's providential love

1. Continuing our meditation on God the Father, today we would like to reflect on his generous and providential love. "The witness of Scripture is unanimous that the solicitude of divine providence is concrete and immediate; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history" (
CEC 303). We can begin with a text from the Book of Wisdom, in which divine Providence is seen guiding a boat in the middle of the sea: "It is your Providence, O Father, that steers its course, because you have given it a path in the sea, and a safe way through the waves, showing that you can save from every danger, so that even if a man lacks skill, he may put to sea" (Sg 14,3-4).

In a psalm we find another image of the sea, ploughed by ships and teeming with animals large and small, which recalls the nourishment that God provides for all living things: "These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things" (Ps 104,27-28).

2. The image of the ship in the middle of the sea well describes our situation before our providential Father. He, as Jesus says, "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Mt 5,45). However, in the light of this message of the Father's providential love, we naturally wonder how suffering can be explained. And it is necessary to recognize that the problem of suffering is an enigma which perplexes human reason. Divine Revelation helps us understand that it is not willed by God, since it entered the world because of human sin (cf. Gn 3,16-19). "Almighty God ..., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself" (St Augustine, Enchiridion de fide, spe et caritate, 11, 3: PL 40, 236). In this regard, the reassuring words that Joseph spoke to his brothers, who had sold him and later depended on his power, are significant: "It was not you who sent me here but God.... As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Gn 45,8 Gn 50,20).

God's plans do not coincide with those of man; they are infinitely better, but often incomprehensible to the human mind. The Book of Proverbs says: "A man's steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can man understand his way?" (Pr 20,24). In the New Testament, Paul will announce this consoling principle: "In everything God works for good with those who love him" (Rm 8,28).

3. What should be our attitude to God's providential and far-sighted action? We certainly should not wait passively for what he sends us, but cooperate with him in bringing to completion the work he has begun in us. We must be eager to seek first the things of heaven. These must come first, as Jesus said: "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Mt 6,33). Other matters must not be the object of excessive concern, because our heavenly Father knows our needs; this is what Jesus teaches us when he asks his disciples for "childlike abandonment to the providence of our heavenly Father who takes care of his children's smallest needs" (CEC 305): "Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them" (Lc 12,29f.).

We are therefore called to cooperate with God in an attitude of great trust. Jesus teaches us to ask the heavenly Father for our daily bread (cf. Mt 6,11 Lc 11,3). If we receive it with gratitude, we will also spontaneously remember that nothing belongs to us, and that we must be ready to give: "Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again" (Lc 6,30).

4. The certainty that God loves us makes us trust in his fatherly providence even in life's most difficult moments. This complete trust in God, the providential Father, even in the midst of adversity, is admirably expressed by St Teresa of Jesus: "Let nothing trouble you; let nothing frighten you. Everything passes. God never changes. Patience obtains all. Whoever has God wants for nothing. God alone is enough" (Poems, 30).

Scripture offers us an eloquent example of total trust in God when it tells how Abraham reached the decision to sacrifice his son Isaac. In reality, God did not want the death of the son, but the faith of the father. And Abraham demonstrates it completely, for when Isaac asks him where the lamb is for the burnt offering, he dares to answer: "God will provide" (Gn 22,8). And then he immediately experiences the benevolent Providence of God, who saves the young boy and rewards his faith, filling him with blessings.

Such texts must be interpreted, then, in the light of Revelation as a whole, which reaches its fullness in Jesus Christ. He teaches us to place great confidence in God even in the most difficult moments: nailed to the Cross, Jesus abandons himself totally to the Father: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Lc 23,46). With this attitude he raises to a sublime level what Job had summed up in his famous words: "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Jb 1,21). Even what is humanly a misfortune can be part of that great plan of infinite love in which the Father provides for our salvation.

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

I warmly welcome the many English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present, especially those from England, Denmark, Tanzania, Japan and the United States of America. Upon you and your families, I invoke the abundant blessings of Almighty God.

After greeting the various language groups, the Holy Father said:

We would now like to offer a special prayer to the Father of Mercy to grant the gift of peace which Kosovo and Europe, in particular, so greatly need today.

Wednesday 31 March 1999 - Liturgy of Holy Week, which commemorates the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ


1. With last Sunday, Palm Sunday, we entered the week which is called "holy" because in it we commemorate the principal events of our redemption. The heart of this week is the Triduum of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord, who, as we read in the Roman Missal, "redeemed mankind and gave perfect glory to God principally through his paschal mystery: by dying he destroyed our death and by rising he restored our life. The Easter Triduum of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ is thus the culmination of the entire liturgical year" (General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, n. 18). In the history of humanity there is no event more significant or of greater value. At the end of Lent, we are thus preparing to live fervently the days most important for our faith, and we intensify our commitment to follow Christ, Redeemer of man, with ever greater fidelity.

2. Holy Week leads us to meditate on the meaning of the Cross, in which "the revelation [of God's] merciful love attains its culmination" (cf. Dives in misericordia
DM 8). The theme of this third year of immediate preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, dedicated to the Father, encourages us most particularly to reflect on this. His infinite mercy has saved us. In order to redeem humanity, he freely gave his Onlybegotten Son. How can we not thank him? History is illumined and guided by the incomparable event of the Redemption: God, rich in mercy, poured out his infinite goodness on every human being through Christ's sacrifice. How can we find an adequate way to express our gratitude? If, on the one hand, the liturgy of these days makes us offer a hymn of thanksgiving to the Lord, conqueror of death, at the same time it asks us to eliminate from our lives all that prevents us from conforming ourselves to him. We contemplate Christ in faith and re-examine the crucial points of the salvation he wrought. We recognize that we are sinners and confess our ingratitude, our infidelity and our indifference to his love. We need his forgiveness to purify us and sustain us in the commitment to interior conversion and a persevering renewal of our spirit.

3. "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!" (Ps 51,1 Ps 51,2 [50]). These words, which we proclaimed on Ash Wednesday, have accompanied us throughout our Lenten journey. They resound in our spirit with unique intensity in the imminence of the holy days, during which the extraordinary gift of the forgiveness of our sins, obtained for us by Jesus on the Cross, is renewed for us. Before the crucified Chist, an eloquent reminder of God's mercy, how can we not repent of our own sins and be converted to love? How can we not concretely repair the damage we have caused others and return goods acquired dishonestly? Forgiveness requires concrete actions: repentance is true and effective only when it is expressed in tangible acts of conversion and the proper reparation.

4. "Lord, in your great love, answer me!". Thus we are prompted to pray by today's liturgy for Wednesday of Holy Week, totally intent on the saving events we will be commemorating in the next few days. Today, as we proclaim Matthew's Gospel about the Passover and Judas' betrayal, we are already thinking of the solemn Mass "in Cena Domini" tomorrow afternoon, which will recall the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist, as well as the "new" commandment of fraternal love which the Lord left us on the eve of his death.

14 This evocative celebration will be preceded tomorrow morning by the Chrism Mass at which the Bishop presides, surrounded by his priests. The sacred oils for Baptism, the Anointing of the Sick and Chrism are blessed. In the evening, then, when the Mass "in Cena Domini" is over, there will be a time of adoration, in response as it were to Jesus' invitation to his disciples on the tragic night of his agony: "remain here, and watch with me" (Mt 26,38).

Good Friday is a day of great emotion, on which the Church will have us listen once again to the account of Christ's Passion. The "veneration" of the Cross will be the centre of the liturgy celebrated on that day, while the ecclesial community prays intensely for the needs of believers and of the whole world.

A moment of deep silence follows. Everything will remain quiet until the night of Holy Saturday. Joy and light will burst into the darkness with the evocative rites of the Easter Vigil and the festive singing of the Alleluia. It will be an encounter in faith with the risen Christ and our Easter joy will be prolonged throughout the 50 days that follow.

5. Dear brothers and sisters, let us prepare ourselves to relive these events with deep fervour together with Mary most holy, present at every moment of her Son's Passion and a witness to his Resurrection. A Polish hymn says: "Blessed Mother, we raise our cry to your heart pierced by the sword of sorrow!". Mary, accept our prayers and the sacrifices of those who are suffering; strengthen our Lenten resolutions and accompany us as we follow Jesus at the time of his ultimate trial. Christ, tortured and crucified, is the source of strength and sign of hope for all believers and for all humanity.

I am pleased to offer a special word of greeting to the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims who are with us today, especially those from England, Australia, Japan and the United States: may the grace and peace of this most holy season be with you and your families always!

                                                                                  April 1999

Wednesday 7 April 1999 - God the Father's love is demanding

1. God the Father's love for us cannot leave us indifferent, but seeks to be reciprocated with a constant commitment to love. This commitment takes on an ever deeper meaning the closer we draw to Jesus, who fully lives in communion with the Father, making himself a model for us.

In the cultural context of the Old Testament, paternal authority is absolute and is used as a term of comparison to describe the authority of God the Creator, who may not be contested. In Isaiah we read: "Woe to him who says to a father, 'What are you begetting?'", or to a woman, "With what are you in travail?". Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker: "Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?" (
Is 45,10f.). A father also has the task of guiding his son and severely reprimanding him, if necessary. The Book of Proverbs recalls that this is also true of God: "The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights" (Pr 3,12 cf. Ps 103,13 [102]). The prophet Malachi, for his part, attests to God's compassionate affection for his children (Ml 3,17), but his is always a demanding love: "Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel" (Ml 4,4).

2. The law God gives his people is not a burden imposed by a tyrannical master, but the expression of that fatherly love which shows the right path for human conduct and the condition for inheriting the divine promises. This is the sense of Deuteronomy's injunction: "You shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land" (Dt 8,5-7). Inasmuch as it ratifies the covenant between God and the children of Israel, the law is dictated by love. But to transgress it is not without consequences, bringing painful results which are nevertheless always governed by the logic of love, because they compel man to take salutary note of a constitutive dimension of his being. "It is in discovering the greatness of God's love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him" (CEC 1432).

If he separates himself from the Creator, man necessarily falls under the power of evil, death and nothingness. On the contrary, obedience to God is the source of life and blessing. This is what the Book of Deuteronomy stresses: "See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it" (Dt 30,15f.).

3. Jesus does not abolish the law in regard to its fundamental values, but perfects it, as he himself says in the Sermon on the Mount: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them" (Mt 5,17).

Jesus identifies the heart of the law with the precept of love and develops its radical demands. Broadening the Old Testament precept, he commands us to love friends and enemies, and explains this extension of the precept by referring to God's fatherhood: "So that you may be sons of the 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 5,43-45 cf. CEC 2784).

A qualitative leap occurs with Jesus: he sums up the law and the prophets in a single norm, as simple in its formulation as difficult in its practice: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them" (Mt 7,12). This is also presented as the way to be perfect as our heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5,48). Whoever acts in this way bears witness before men so that they may give glory to the heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5,16), and is ready to receive the kingdom he has prepared for the just, in accordance with Christ's words at the last judgement: "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Mt 25,34).

4. While he proclaims the Father's love, Jesus never fails to recall that it is a demanding love. This feature of God's face can be seen in all of Jesus' life. His "food" is precisely to do the will of the One who sent him (cf. Jn 4,34). Precisely because he is not seeking his own will, but the will of the Father who sent him into the world, his judgement is just (cf. Jn 5,30). Therefore the Father bears witness to him (cf. Jn 5,37) and so do the Scriptures (cf. Jn 5,39). It is above all the works he does in the Father's name which guarantee that he has been sent by him (cf. Jn 5,36 Jn 10,25 Jn 10,37-38). The greatest of these is the offering of his own life, as the Father commanded him: this gift of self is even the reason why the Father loves him (cf. Jn 10,17-18) and is the sign that he loves the Father (cf. Jn 14,31). If the law of Deuteronomy was already a path and guarantee of life, the law of the New Testament is so in an unprecedented and paradoxical way, expressed in the commandment to love one's brothers and sisters to the point of giving one's life for them (cf. Jn 15,12-13).

The ultimate reason for the "new commandment" of love, as St John Chrysostom recalls, is found in God's love: "You cannot call the God of all kindness your Father if you preserve a cruel and inhuman heart; for in this case you no longer have in you the marks of the heavenly Father's kindness" (Hom. in illud "Angusta est porta": PG 51, 44B). In this perspective there is continuity and transcendence: the law is transformed and deepened as the law of love, the only one worthy of the fatherly face of God.

I extend a special greeting to the newly ordained Deacons from the Pontifical Irish College and the Pontifical Scots College: may God strengthen and guide you in your ministry of grace and hope. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and the United States of America, I invoke the joy and peace of the Risen Saviour.

Wednesday 14 April 1999 - Christian response to modern atheism

1. Man's religious orientation stems from his nature as a creature, which spurs him to long for God who created him in his own image and likeness (cf.
Gn 1,26). The Second Vatican Council has taught that "the dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. The invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists, it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his Creator" (Gaudium et spes GS 19).

The way that leads human beings to knowledge of God the Father is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who comes to us in the power of the Holy Spirit. As I emphasized in our previous catecheses, this knowledge is authentic and complete if it is not reduced to a mere intellectual achievement but vitally involves the whole human person. The latter must give a response of faith and love to the Father, in the awareness that before knowing him, we were already known and loved by him (cf. Ga 4,9 1Co 13,12 1Jn 4,19).

Unfortunately, this intimate and vital relationship with God, weakened by the sin of our first parents from the beginning of history, is lived by man in a fragile and contradictory way, beset by doubt and often broken by sin. The contemporary era has known particularly devastating forms of "theoretical" and "practical" atheism (cf. Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, FR 46-47). Secularism proves particularly ruinous with its indifference to ultimate questions and to faith: it in fact expresses a model of man lacking all reference to the transcendent. "Practical" atheism is thus a bitter and concrete reality. While it is true that it primarily appears in economically and technologically more advanced civilizations, its effects also extend to those situations and cultures which are in the process of development.

2. We must be guided by the Word of God in order to interpret this situation in the contemporary world and to answer the serious questions it raises.

Starting with Sacred Scripture, we immediately note that there is no mention of "theoretical" atheism, while there is a concern to reject "practical" atheism. The psalmist calls foolish anyone who says in his heart: "There is no God" (Ps 14,1), and behaves accordingly: "They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good" (ibid. Ps 14,1). Another psalm condemns the wicked man who "boasts, 'He will not avenge it'; 'There is no God'" (Ps 10,4).

Rather than atheism, the Bible speaks of wickedness and idolatry. Whoever prefers a series of human products, falsely considered divine, living and active, to the true God is wicked and idolatrous. Lengthy prophetic reproaches are devoted to the impotence of idols and likewise of those who make them. With dialectical vehemence, the emptiness and worthlessness of man-made idols is countered with the power of God, the Creator and Wonderworker (cf. Is 44,9-20 Jr 10,1-16).

This doctrine is most fully developed in the Book of Wisdom (cf. Sg 13-15) which presents the way, to be recalled later by St Paul (cf. Rm 1,18-23), to the knowledge of God based on created things. Being an "atheist", then, means not knowing the true nature of created reality but absolutizing it, and therefore "idolizing" it, instead of considering it a mark of the Creator and the path that leads to him.

3. Atheism can even become a kind of intolerant ideology, as history shows. The last two centuries have known currents of theoretical atheism which denied God in order to assert the absolute autonomy of man, nature or science. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes: "Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God" (CEC 2126).

This systematic atheism has been widespread for decades, giving the illusion that by eliminating God, man would be freer, both psychologically and socially. The principal objections raised, especially about God the Father, are based on the idea that religion has a compensatory value for people. Having repressed the image of the earthly father, adults are said to project onto God the need for a greater father from whom they must free themselves because he hinders the growth process of human beings.

What is the Church's attitude to these forms of atheism and their ideological justifications? The Church does not scorn serious study of the psychological and sociological elements of the religious phenomenon, but firmly rejects the interpretation of religiosity as a projection of the human psyche or the result of sociological conditioning. In fact, authentic religious experience is not an expression of immaturity but a mature and noble attitude of acceptance of God, which in turn gives meaning to life and implies a responsibility to work for a better world.

4. The Council recognized that, by not always showing the true face of God, believers may have contributed to the rise of atheism (cf. Gaudium et spes GS 19 CEC 2125). In this regard, it is bearing witness to the real face of God that gives the most convincing response to atheism.

This obviously does not exclude, but rather demands a correct presentation of the rational reasons that lead to the recognition of God. Unfortunately, these reasons are often obscured by the influence of sin and of many cultural circumstances. The Gospel message, confirmed by the witness of a sensible charity (cf. Gaudium et spes GS 21), is thus the most effective way for people to understand something of God's goodness and gradually to recognize his merciful face.

I extend a special welcome to Cardinal William Keeler and to the American Catholic and Jewish leaders involved in the Interreligious Information Center in Baltimore. Upon all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims, especially those from England, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, Japan and the United States of America, I invoke the joy and peace of the Risen Saviour.