Mr President of the Federal Republic,
Mr Minister President,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Brother Bishops and Priests,
I am glad to be here today to meet all of you who work in so many ways for the Church and for society. This gives me a welcome opportunity personally to thank you most sincerely for your commitment and your witness as “powerful heralds of the faith in things to be hoped for” (Lumen Gentium, 35 – validi praecones fidei sperandarum rerum); this is how the Second Vatican Council describes people like you who do dedicated work for the present and the future from a faith perspective. In your fields of activity you readily stand up for your faith and for the Church, something that, as we know, is not at all easy at the present time.
For some decades now we have been experiencing a decline in religious practice and we have been seeing substantial numbers of the baptized drifting away from church life. This prompts the question: should the Church not change? Must she not adapt her offices and structures to the present day, in order to reach the searching and doubting people of today?
Blessed Mother Teresa was once asked what in her opinion was the first thing that would have to change in the Church. Her answer was: you and I.
Two things are clear from this brief story. On the one hand Mother Teresa wants to tell her interviewer: the Church is not just other people, not just the hierarchy, the Pope and the bishops: we are all the Church, we the baptized. And on the other hand her starting-point is this: yes, there are grounds for change. There is a need for change. Every Christian and the whole community of the faithful are called to constant change.
What should this change look like in practice? Are we talking about the kind of renewal that a householder might carry out when reordering or repainting his home? Or are we talking about a corrective, designed to bring us back on course and help us to make our way more swiftly and more directly? Certainly these and other elements play a part and we cannot go into all these matters here. But the fundamental motive for change is the apostolic mission of the disciples and the Church herself.
The Church, in other words, must constantly rededicate herself to her mission. The three Synoptic Gospels highlight various aspects of the missionary task. The mission is built first of all upon personal experience: “You are witnesses” (Lk 24:48); it finds expression in relationships: “Make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19); and it spreads a universal message: “Preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). Through the demands and constraints of the world, however, this witness is constantly obscured, the relationships are alienated and the message is relativized. If the Church, in Pope Paul VI’s words, is now struggling “to model itself on Christ's ideal”, this “can only result in its acting and thinking quite differently from the world around it, which it is nevertheless striving to influence” (Ecclesiam Suam, 58). In order to accomplish her mission, she will need again and again to set herself apart from her surroundings, to become in a certain sense “unworldly”.
The Church’s mission has its origins in the mystery of the triune God, in the mystery of his creative love. And love is not just somehow within God, it is God, he himself is love by nature. And divine love does not want to exist only for itself, by nature it wants to pour itself out. It has come down to humanity, to us, in a particular way through the incarnation and self-offering of God’s Son: by virtue of the fact that Christ, the Son of God, as it were stepped outside the framework of his divinity, took flesh and became man, not merely to confirm the world in its worldliness and to be its companion, leaving it to carry on just as it is, but in order to change it. The Christ event includes the inconceivable fact of what the Church Fathers call a sacrum commercium, an exchange between God and man. The Fathers explain it in this way: we have nothing to give God, we have only our sin to place before him. And this he receives and makes his own, while in return he gives us himself and his glory: a truly unequal exchange, which is brought to completion in the life and passion of Christ. He becomes, as it were, a “sinner”, he takes sin upon himself, takes what is ours and gives us what is his. But as the Church continued to reflect upon and live the faith, it became clear that we not only give him our sin, but that he has empowered us, from deep within he gives us the power, to offer him something positive as well: our love – to offer him humanity in the positive sense. Clearly, it is only through God’s generosity that man, the beggar, who receives a wealth of divine gifts, is yet able to offer something to God as well; that God makes it possible for us to accept his gift, by making us capable of becoming givers ourselves in his regard.
The Church owes her whole being to this unequal exchange. She has nothing of her own to offer to him who founded her, such that she might say: here is something wonderful that we did! Her raison d’être consists in being a tool of redemption, in letting herself be saturated by God’s word and in bringing the world into loving unity with God. The Church is immersed in the Redeemer’s outreach to men. When she is truly herself, she is always on the move, she constantly has to place herself at the service of the mission that she has received from the Lord. And therefore she must always open up afresh to the cares of the world, to which she herself belongs, and give herself over to them, in order to make present and continue the holy exchange that began with the Incarnation.
In the concrete history of the Church, however, a contrary tendency is also manifested, namely that the Church becomes self-satisfied, settles down in this world, becomes self-sufficient and adapts herself to the standards of the world. Not infrequently, she gives greater weight to organization and institutionalization than to her vocation to openness towards God, her vocation to opening up the world towards the other.
In order to accomplish her true task adequately, the Church must constantly renew the effort to detach herself from her tendency towards worldliness and once again to become open towards God. In this she follows the words of Jesus: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (Jn 17:16), and in precisely this way he gives himself to the world. One could almost say that history comes to the aid of the Church here through the various periods of secularization, which have contributed significantly to her purification and inner reform.
Secularizing trends – whether by expropriation of Church goods, or elimination of privileges or the like – have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she as it were sets aside her worldly wealth and once again completely embraces her worldly poverty. In this she shares the destiny of the tribe of Levi, which according to the Old Testament account was the only tribe in Israel with no ancestral land of its own, taking as its portion only God himself, his word and his signs. At those moments in history, the Church shared with that tribe the demands of a poverty that was open to the world, in order to be released from her material ties: and in this way her missionary activity regained credibility.
History has shown that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly. Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world. She can live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbour. The missionary task, which is linked to Christian worship and should determine its structure, becomes more clearly visible. The Church opens herself to the world not in order to win men for an institution with its own claims to power, but in order to lead them to themselves by leading them to him of whom each person can say with Saint Augustine: he is closer to me than I am to myself (cf. Confessions, III,6,11). He who is infinitely above me is yet so deeply within me that he is my true interiority. This form of openness to the world on the Church’s part also serves to indicate how the individual Christian can be open to the world in effective and appropriate ways.
It is not a question here of finding a new strategy to relaunch the Church. Rather, it is a question of setting aside mere strategy and seeking total transparency, not bracketing or ignoring anything from the truth of our present situation, but living the faith fully here and now in the utterly sober light of day, appropriating it completely, and stripping away from it anything that only seems to belong to faith, but in truth is mere convention or habit.
To put it another way: for people of every era, and not just our own, the Christian faith is a scandal. That the eternal God should know us and care about us, that the intangible should at a particular moment have become tangible, that he who is immortal should have suffered and died on the Cross, that we who are mortal should be given the promise of resurrection and eternal life – for people of any era, to believe all this is a bold claim.
This scandal, which cannot be eliminated unless one were to eliminate Christianity itself, has unfortunately been overshadowed in recent times by other painful scandals on the part of the preachers of the faith. A dangerous situation arises when these scandals take the place of the primary skandalon of the Cross and in so doing they put it beyond reach, concealing the true demands of the Christian Gospel behind the unworthiness of those who proclaim it.
All the more, then, it is time once again to discover the right form of detachment from the world, to move resolutely away from the Church’s worldliness. This does not, of course, mean withdrawing from the world: quite the contrary. A Church relieved of the burden of worldliness is in a position, not least through her charitable activities, to mediate the life-giving strength of the Christian faith to those in need, to sufferers and to their carers. “For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being” (Deus Caritas Est, 25). At the same time, though, the Church’s charitable activity also needs to be constantly exposed to the demands of due detachment from worldliness, if it is not to wither away at the roots in the face of increasing erosion of its ecclesial character. Only a profound relationship with God makes it possible to reach out fully towards others, just as a lack of outreach towards neighbour impoverishes one’s relationship with God.
Openness to the concerns of the world means, then, for the Church that is detached from worldliness, bearing witness to the primacy of God’s love according to the Gospel through word and deed, here and now, a task which at the same time points beyond the present world because this present life is also bound up with eternal life. As individuals and as the community of the Church, let us live the simplicity of a great love, which is both the simplest and hardest thing on earth, because it demands no more and no less than the gift of oneself.
Dear friends, it remains for me to invoke God’s blessing and the strength of the Holy Spirit upon us all, that we may continually recognize anew and bear fresh witness to God’s love and mercy in our respective fields of activity. Thank you for your attention.