Natus est hodie Salvator mundi! The mystery of Christmas fills us with wonder that is ever new. In today's liturgy, which makes us contemporaries of the 2,000-year-old event of our salvation, we relive the joy of the shepherds who were the first to receive the proclamation and went to the stable in Bethlehem. In that Child, born of the Virgin, we recognize the Savior of the world. In Him the cry for salvation which is raised by men and women of all times and from every latitude finds a response.
But what is salvation? We must rediscover the rich meaning of this word that is central to the Christian proclamation, that is evoked by the very name of Jesus: God saves. In Him, God comes to snatch us from the destiny of death which weighs on us as a consequence of sin. He comes to deliver us from the many limitations and effects of our precariousness, to introduce us into the intimacy of divine life. He comes to restore meaning and hope to our entire human reality. With Him, the Eternal Word enters into time and time is accepted into eternity. The history of man becomes, in a certain sense, the history of God.
The Word took upon himself our whole human condition, except sin. All things were taken up to be "recapitulated" (cf. Eph 1:10) and "healed" in Him. The saving dimension of the Incarnation is linked to this integral assumption of humanity by the Son of God, to the point that the Fathers, opposing the heresies which tended to diminish the "scandal" of the Incarnation, enunciated the principle: "What is not taken up cannot be saved."
Our reflection this year has a broader dimension because we have just begun the three-year period of preparation for the Great Jubilee. We have entered an Advent of several years that will lead us to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation with particular intensity in the year 2000. Christ's disciples cannot fail to be involved in this journey of faith and renewal of life. This is especially true for those who, like you, work closely with the successor of Peter. The year we have just begun must be a year of growth in love for Christ, to whom we must give an increasingly clear and consistent witness.
I hear Christ's question to Peter: "Do you love me?" (Jn 21:15) echoing intensely within me. It is a question that fills me with a great responsibility. But I would also like to pass it on to you, who help me daily in my concern for the whole Church.
The question about love is at the root of all Christian life. It is the Church herself who feels continually asked by Christ, her Spouse: "Do you love me?" The year now coming to an end has experienced several "highpoints," in which this question resounded. The pastoral visits, which this year too God enable me to make in the exercise of the ministry proper to the successor of Peter, were important moments.
The Cardinal Dean recalled them, mentioning the good fruits that resulted from them. Let us thank the Lord for them together.
An important moment was the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Vita Consecrata, with which I offerd to those called to the life of special consecration the directives for an ever deeper renewal on the path of fidelity and love. However, it should not be forgotten that this apostolic exhortation is the third of a trilogy: in fact, previously there were Christifideles Laici, in which I gathered together the results of the synodal assembly on the laity, and Pastores Dabo Vobis, about the ministerial priesthood.
On the lines of the Council, the identity and mission of these vocations paradigmatic of ecclesial life were examined. Each in its own way expresses the mystery of salvation of the Word incarnate, and with their different and complementary emphases, they reflect as it were the light of Christ that shines on the face of the Church. In the life of laity, Christ is glorified as the foundation from which all created reality draws value and meaning. In the life of consecrated persons, who dedicate themselves to Him with "an undivided heart" in assuming the evangelical counsels, he is contemplated as the eschatological goal to which all tends. In the priestly ministry, placed at the service of the Chirch in the time of the "already but not yet," the face of the Good Shepherd, who never ceases to concern himself with the people redeemed by His blood, is revealed.
I took the opportunity of the 50th anniversary of my priesthood to give special attention to this latter vocation. In the affection shown to me by the whole Church and emphasized by the occasion of my hospitalization, I saw not only consideration for my person, but also the esteem in which the priestly ministry is held by the Christian community. It is a "gift and mystery," a gift to be insistently implored from the Lord, a mystery to be constantly rediscovered anew. All those who have received the grace of the priesthood are made stewards of God's mysteries through the proclamation of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments and the loving guidance of the Christian community. Their special relationship with the Eucharist must spur them to live with particular intensity the gift of self made by Christ on Golgotha, making themselves with Him "bread broken" for their brothers and sisters, and ever remaining, as in the evocative prostration of the day of their ordination, a firm "floor" on which the brothers and sisters can walk towards the Lord.
Fixing her eyes on the mystery of Christ, also this year the Church has continued to walk on the path of ecumenism, with the ardent desire for full unity among all believers. In this spirit, I sought to include in the Sunday Angelus a series of meditations on the riches of the spiritual tradition of the East, which must be increasingly better known and appreciated. We must move towards the third millennium firmly resolved to overcome the causes of division history has brought about. The Church must return to breathing fully with her "two lungs." The Eastern-rite Catholics are a living harbinger of this; they have been the particular focus of my attention in the celebrations for the centenaries of the "unions" of Brest and Uhorod. The appreciated visit of Karekin I, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians was also on these lines.
Moreover, ecumenism must also bear fruit with regard to the divisions that occurred in the West. My recent meeting with the Arcbishop of Canterbury, George Leonard Carey, has enabled me to ascertain the progress made in relations with the Anglican Communion, despite the old and new obstacles that delay full unity. The Holy Spirit urges us to continue on this path, remaining ever faithful, however, to the demands of truth and the logic of Gospel love.
Natus est hodie Salvator mundi! Many of the problems of this difficult "time" for humanity have this year also attracted the Church's vigilant and concerned attention. If Christ is the Savior, the Church, His Mystical Body and Bride, is "the universal sacrament of salvation." As such, she is called to be the Gospel leaven in all walks of human life, contributing to building a more fraternal and united society. This type of presence is expressed in many forms with initiatives taken at the level of both the universal and particular Churches.
I am pleased to remember at this meeting with you the specific witness the Holy See has given in sending delegations to the world summits which addressed problems of great importance for humanity. This year the Holy See made a further contribution to the Seond United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, which took place in June in Istanbul. A similar service, with the firm intention of defending the dignity of every human person and especially the weakest, was also rendered on previous occasions. In particular, I recall the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janerio in June 1992, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in June 1993, the World Conference on the Reduction of Natural Disasters in Yokohama in May 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo the following September, and lastly, the World Conference on Women held in September of last year in Beijing. On each of these occasions the Holy See desired to offer the witness of that "integral salvation" which Christ brought to the human person and which touches every dimension, spiritual and physical, cultural and social: the salvation of "every men and of the whole man," to recall a beautiful expression on Paul VI.
Unfortunately, while the international community reflects on the problems of humanity, frequently facing them after very long delays, in many parts of the world men, women and children suffer unspeakably. Every day we witness the chilling spectacle of individuals and peoples reduced to extreme distress by situations of poverty that contrast violently with the consumerism of affluent regions. The World Food Summit, which took place in November at the Food and Agriculture Organization, called the attention of all to the "scandal" of hunger and malnutrition which still affects one person in five in the world. Speaking at that distinguished summit, I recalled the intolerable contrasts still existing between those who lack everything and those who without restraint squander goods which in the Creator's plan were destined for all humanity. It is necessary and urgent that states strive to pursue economic and food policies based not only on profit, but also on sharing and solidarity. In this perspective, the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum" recently published a document on "Hunger in the World," in which interesting proposals to encourage a more equitable distribution of food resources are made.
Then several populations are afflicted by the tragedy of ethnic and nationalistic conflicts which bring despair and death to countless innocent people. They often capture public opinion and interest fleetingly, before they are abandoned to their fate. Significant progress has been recorded this year, although tension still prevails, in solving the problem of Bosnia-Hercegovina, but in the meantime a tragedy of overwhelming proportions is taking its cource in Central Africa. Once again the Church makes herself the voice of those without a voice, and asks all those who have power and responsibility not to draw back from these critical emergencies.
Your Eminences, venerable brothers in the episcopate and in the priesthood, Religious, dear lay co-workers, here then is an overview, incomplete of course, of many areas of service to which the Apostolic See feels called to be actively and concretely the interpreter of the message of salvation which comes from Christmas.
In the context of this varied commitment, you are giving valuable and irreplaceable service in each of your dicasteries, daily making your knowledge and competence available to the pope and the Church. I cannot, as I would have liked, go into detail to emphasize how the work undertaken by each of you, often unseen, deserves the most heartfelt recognition. But I know that you draw your deepest motivation from God himself, from whose inexhaustible source of grace you nourish your love for the Church. Such motivation is the secret why work in the Curia, despite the inevitable burden of bureaucratic aspects, never loses its Gospel inspiration and great human warmth. Please accept the expression of my appreciation. Thank you! Thank you sincerely!
Natus est hodie Salvator mundi! We visit in spirit the cave in Bethlehem, to adore the Divine Child, to profess that He is our Lord and Savior, to celebrate the mercy of the Father, who "chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him" (Eph 1:4).
May the Blessed Virgin, who bore Him in her womb and contemplated Him as she clasped Him tightly in her arms, grant us a little of her faith, so that Christ's coming does not leave our lives untouched and our hearts cold. May she make us witnesses to charity, so that He can be born in minds afflicted by doubt, in families distressed by poverty, in young people in need of hope.
December 21, 1996
Joannes Paulus II