THE CONFERENCE ON THE FACE OF FACES
Forgiveness and communion in John Paul II
The paper presented by the Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University to the tenth edition of the International Congress on the Face of Christ
by Rino Fisichella
Monsignor Rino Fisichella, Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini and the writer Alain Elkann during the works of the X International Congress on the Face of Christ, that took place on 14 and 15 October at the Pontifical Urbanian University in Rome
The figure of John Paul II will long remain as the most significant expression of the life of the Church at the beginning of the third millennium of her history. Merely looking at the statistics that from time to time pass before one’s eyes, one feels enormous wonder at the thought that this man traveled the entire world as no other, did not neglect any part of the earth that he was allowed visit to bring the announcement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all. Millions and millions of believers and non- believers alike hastened to listen to his word and see his face, interpret a gesture of his and, for the most fortunate, exchange a word with him and receive his blessing. For around twenty-seven years he showed the face of a young Church, able to speak a language understandable to our contemporaries, but above all he bore witness to how one can live each stage of life with dignity, despite illness and suffering to give meaning to pain and to death. The images of the start of the pontificate in October of 1978 that show a Pope of only 58 years, sporting, fascinating, strong and stringent at the same time, don’t clash with those that show him almost immobile on a chair – a new gestatorial chair that he had never wanted to have – unable to express himself by word, but charged and with his look always vigilant and attentive. The Church had in John Paul II a witness of audacious, enthusiastic and coherent faith; from the beginning to the end, he made manifest the word of the Lord: «Go and teach all nations... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you» (Mt 28, 19-20).
To understand the teaching of John Paul II in depth, however, one has to return to his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis. There, in fact, are to be found the essential points that constantly inspired his pastoral action which imprinted on his pontificate the force and enthusiasm that distinguished it. The central idea that moved the thought of John Paul II was the profound faith that Christ is the Redeemer of man. His work of salvation stretches from Golgotha to reach all men at all times, without distinction. Just as His sacrifìce on the Cross reached all, so nobody can be excluded from his love. «Man», the Pope wrote «cannot live without love. He remains for himself an incomprehensible being, his life is devoid of sense, if love is not revealed to him, if he doesn’t meet with love, if he doesn’t experience it, if he doesn’t make it his own, if he doesn’t participate in it deeply» (Rh, n. 10). If you will, it is this very love that reveals the dimension of salvation and redemption of man from his guilt. If we open ourselves to the love of Christ, then the greatness that was lost is refound and recovered, the dignity of personal existence and the value of one’s own participation in history. The mission of the Church, then, was interpreted by John Paul II in such a way that each person could direct his own gaze at the countenance of Christ that reveals and expresses the Trinitarian love of God.
Love at the center
Love is the word that keeps the Church alive and that makes its message and its mission permanently challenging in the course of the centuries. Not a love deduced from human experience nor one that is demeaned as intellectual expression, but a true love, concrete, tangible that everyone can verify if he sets himself before the countenance of Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand it was precisely on the subject of the countenance of Christ that John Paul II decided to write one of his better known documents, Novo millennium ineunte, to fortify the Church on its path toward the third millennium: «Our testimony would be insupportably poor, if we first of all were not contemplators of his countenance [...] while we take up again the ordinary path, bringing into the soul the richness of the experiences lived in this most special period, our gaze remains more that ever fixed on the countenance of the Lord» (Nmi, n. 16). This is the mystery that up to today makes every believer responsible for his own baptism and for sharing in the mission of the Church. Love can not only be announced, it must be made visible and tangible in the concreteness of its nature. It is for this reason that the horizon of Revelation must be recovered; otherwise, love will be subject to the ambiguity of the concept and of the interpretations proper to today’s relativism, as Benedict XVI has masterfully taught in his encyclical Deus caritas est.
One isn’t wrong in retaining that to the question: «What is love?», the most direct and universal response one receives is: «To give one’s life for the beloved». A coherent response that while it highlights the drama of its truth, shows the long path we are called on to take in order to verify its coherence. When, in fact, such an expression is uttered, one is faced with altogether particular language, performative utterance, that obliges the sayer to live by what he says, on pain of suffering self-contradiction, incoherence and senselessness in self-expression. One has, however, become so accustomed to understanding love in that meaning that its origin and the profound significance that has been introduced into that term has been forgotten. Loving as the equivalent of «giving one’s life» originates in the revelation of Jesus Christ who offered his life for all men, dying on the cross. Comparison with ancient literature and culture shows how unique and original this conception is. The particular contribution that Christianity has introduced on this subject into all cultures, differentiating itself also from the other religions, has imprinted notable development on the progress of universal civilization. Christian revelation finds its culminanting point in the expression: «God is love» (1 John 4, 8-10). For the first and only time throughout the Bible, the sacred author seems to want to give a definition of God that leaves no space for other subsequent formulas. Others different from this are easily found in the various texts of the New Testament; expressions such as: «I am the light» (John 9, 5),« I am the truth» (John 14, 6),«I am the life» (John 11, 25), bring with them the proper characteristics of God. In this case, though, the sacred author intends to fix his gaze directly on the very nature of God, on his essence, on that which characterizes Him as God. A detailed analysis of the First Epistle of Saint John shows the profound revelatory intent that the expression possesses and the great meaningfulness that is implied there. All the first part of the Epistle seems to lead to this verse and, paradoxical as it might seem, the whole New Testament takes on a new light from this expression: «God is love... and in this lies love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us». Twice in a very brief span (vv. 8-10), the evangelist repeats: «God is love» and sets this as the basis of the personal existence of everyone; he adds in fact: «He who loves is born of God and knows God» (v. 7). The essence of the God of Jesus Christ, then, consists in being love. Whoever opens to Him and allows himself to be shaped, receives new life, that which enables one to be generated by God, entering into relation with Him and living by His same life. This life of communion, however, is not uni-directional from God toward man; the evangelist attests that the love develops in a real form of reciprocity: «God is love and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him» (v. 16). Like saying: whoever is loved by God becomes capable, in his turn, of loving Him and of responding to His love with that seed of new life planted in him through faith.
John Paul II during the Day of Forgiveness, 12 March 2000
As one notes, the sense of the verb “to give” contains a totality of giving that knows no comparison; the Incarnation of the Son, His earthly activity, the passion and death, all is a gift whereby the Father reveals his way of loving. In short, God knows how to love only in this way: by giving all of Himself, without asking anything in exchange. A modality of unique love that God alone could bring into the world, thus initiating a new expressivity of love among men.
«God is love», however, allows access to a further novelty that constitutes the paradox of the Christian faith. The love of God, in fact, is not an abstract idea, nor a more or less generic feeling; it is embodied in a person who makes it evident in his life and in his death. The love has a countenance: Jesus of Nazareth. It is in virtue of this identification that some expressions of Jesus can be understood which, otherwise, might ring as offensive to men because of the hauteur and pride that they manifest: «The Father loves you, because you love me» (John 16, 27), «A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another» (John 13, 34). Love one another as I have loved you... If these words have been preserved in the course of the centuries and have been accepted as full of meaning it is because everyone sees God Himself in that man; it could not be otherwise.
The death of Jesus, however, acquires its full meaning only if viewed within the argument that deals with the way in which God reveals His love. Out of that context, in fact, it would turn into an act of violence against an innocent; at the most it might stir compassion, but it would never be taken up as a norm for men asking to make sense of the contradiction of death. It is the revelation that presents the passion and death of Jesus as the ultimate form of the love of God in his wish to save humanity. This persists as the irreplaceable paradox of the Christian Revelation against which every thought clashes if it doesn’t accept the logic of love. With reason, John Paul II wrote: «The Son of God crucified is the historic event on which founders every attempt of the mind to build on merely human arguments a sufficient justification for the sense of existence. The true crucial point, that challenges all philosophy, is the death on the Cross of Jesus Christ. Here, in fact, every attempt to reduce the salvific plan of the Father to pure human logic is destined to failure. “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1Cor 1, 20), the Apostle asks with emphasis. For what God wants to achieve the mere learning of the wise man is no longer possible, what is required is a decisive passage toward the acceptance of a radical novelty: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…; God chose what is low and despised in the world and what is nothing, to bring to nothing things that are” (1Cor 1, 27-28). The wisdom of man refuses in its very weakness to see the presupposition of its strength; but Saint Paul doesn’t hesitate to affirm: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2Cor 12, 10). Man is unable to understand how death can be a font of life and of love, but God has chosen precisely what reason considers “madness” and “scandal” to reveal the mystery of His plan of salvation. Speaking the language of the contemporary philosophers, Paul reaches the culmination of his teaching and of the paradox that he wants to express: “God chose what is nothing in the world to bring to nothing things that are (1Cor 1, 28). To express the nature of the gratuitousness of the love revealed on the Cross of Christ, the Apostle doesn’t fear to use the most radical language that the philosophers employed in their reflections on God. Reason cannot empty the mystery of love that the Cross represents, whereas the Cross can give reason the ultimate response that it seeks. Not the wisdom of words, but the Word of Wisdom is what Saint Paul sets as the criterion of truth and, along with it, of salvation» (Fides et ratio, n. 23).
Love as forgiveness and communion
These considerations enable us to return with greater understanding to the teaching of John Paul II when he writes: «The Church, safeguarding the sacrament of Confession, expressly affirms its faith in the mystery of the Redemption as a living and vivifying reality, that corresponds to the inner truth of man, corresponds to human guilt and also to the desires of human conscience» (Rh, n. 20). In other words, the Pope affirms that the mystery of the Redemption of man achieved by the love of the Son of God is made manifest down to our day in the unity of the Eucharistic mystery, the real basis of the life of the Church and efficacious sign of its enduring presence in the history of mankind. The mystery of the Eucharist expresses the love of God and speaks, at the same time, forgiveness and communion. It is interesting, from this perspective, to look at the indivisible unity that binds together the act of forgiveness and the call to a renewed life of communion in the thought of Karol Wojtyla: «The Eucharist is the sacrament in which our new being is expressed more completely, in which Christ Himself, unceasingly and always in a new way, “gives witness” in the Holy Spirit to our spirit that each of us, as participant in the mystery of Redemption, has access to the fruits of the filial reconciliation with God, which He Himself had effected and always effects among us by means of the ministry of the Church» (Rh, n. 20). In an even more explicit way, the Pope expresses the same meaning when in his last encyclical Ecclesia de Eucaristhia he wrote: «Against the seeds of breakup among men, that daily experience shows as deeply ingrained in humanity because of sin, the generating strength of the unity of the body of Christ is opposed. The Eucharist, building the Church, creates community among men precisely because of this» (EdE, n. 24).
The Eucharistic life of the believer, thus makes manifest not only the call to participation in the mystery of the God love, but highlights the way in which God loves: it receives the penitent sinner and sets him with new energy in the community life of Trinitarian love. Forgiveness and communion are none other than the two sides of the same coin through which the mercy of the Father is revealed. As one notes, in the end one arrives at declaring the term that becomes the synthesis of Christian love. Mercy, in fact, attests at the same time the ability to forgive, entering into a new intensity of relationship with God and one’s neighbor. If there was no forgiveness we would never have a firm guarantee of knowing how to love and to be loved. Only those who love, in fact, know how to reach forgiveness and only those who forgive attest their ability of knowing how to love. Yet, this again isn’t enough. Christian forgiveness is an active recovery of interrupted relations in order to reconstruct a life of love. Sin, as we know, is a rupturing of the life of communion with God and, therefore, an exiting from the Christian community. It expresses itself as the mistaken choice of conducting one’s own existence apart from God and from the community to which one belongs. It is not by chance that the artistic technique for indicating the sinner is that of showing that he turns his back on the Father and, along with Him, on his brothers. No longer able to look at the countenance of Christ, the sinner reflects only himself, his own life and the inconsistence that marks it.
A supplement of love is necessary to understand homesickness for the house of the Father and to know that far from Him one can live only by expedients in extreme poverty. To be touched by mercy, instead, implies taking cognizance of one’s own sin, of the necessity for forgiveness and of a new life of relations that restores one to the community of believers. The parable of the prodigal son is an important emblem given us for an understanding of the value of forgiveness and the new life of communion that it involves. The father who goes to meet the son who has dissipated the family patrimony doesn’t limit himself to embracing him, making him feel in this way loved; he does much more. He kisses him, puts a ring on his finger and clothes him again with the tunic, reinstating him with full right in his house. The gestures might seem secondary in the economy of the parable, but they are not at all so in fact. They indicate the reinsertion in the life of the family as true son. The father’s kiss attests that his love toward the son has remained, despite everything, intact and, probably because truly overwhelmed by the warmth of the father, the son doesn’t even manage to finish the sentence that he has prepared. The tunic, rather, «the finest garment», is the sign of being guest of honor and, therefore, treated with all due respect; whereas the ring is the expression of the full power that he has in his own house, because the ring is a signet ring.
John Paul II during the Corpus Christi procession
In conclusion, in a period like ours that often seems marked by gestures of hate and lack of forgiveness, the personal witness of John Paul II cannot be passed over in silence. None of us will forget the dramatic images of that 13 May 1981: the pistol pointed by a young Turkish man while the Pope passed smiling to greet the crowd that had come to listen to his Wednesday catechesis in Saint Peter’s Square. The shot was loud, deafening, and was aimed to kill, but didn’t prevent one hearing the word of forgiveness that brought John Paul II back to life. In the struggle between the hatred of death and the love of life, that won, and was the triumph of the Christian faith that knows how to forgive. The first words that the Pope said as soon as he was able to speak were: «I forgive heartfully». Words that were followed by facts: the visit to the jail of Regina Coeli, with John Paul II embracing Ali Agca, were eloquent indications of how real and concrete was the forgiveness. It is no accident that the encyclical was written immediately after those events; it remains the most coherent testimony of how John Paul II lived those moments.
It is paradoxical that in Redemptor hominis the Pope decided to speak of a “right” that the believer possesses before God to be forgiven: «It is the right of a more personal meeting of man with the crucified Christ who forgives, with Christ who says, through the minister of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: “Your sins have been forgiven you”; “Go and from now on don’t sin anymore”. As is evident, this is at one and the same time the right of Christ Himself toward each man redeemed by Him. It is the right of meeting each of us in that key moment of the life of the soul, which is that of conversion and forgiveness» (Rh, n. 20). Yet, the “right” on the part of the believer doesn’t contradict the gratuitousness of the offer nor does the right of Christ limit personal freedom; on the contrary. Precisely because realized in the light of love forgiveness becomes the true sign of the new life that is offered and for which one becomes responsible. Precisely because He has offered Himself for love, Christ has the “right” of not being excluded from our life. To grow in love, therefore, in order to fully understand what the sense of forgiveness, and the life of the community that is made of communion, can mean.