Benedict XVI's Homily at Synod's Inaugural Mass
"When God Speaks, He Always Seeks a Response"
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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 6, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is an unofficial Vatican translation of the homily Benedict XVI delivered Sunday at the inaugural Mass of the 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, held at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. The synod will be held at the Vatican through Oct. 26. The theme is "The Word of God in the Life and the Mission of the Church."
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Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood,
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
The first reading, taken from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, like the page from the Gospel according to Matthew, proposed a suggestive allegorical image of the Sacred Scripture to our liturgical assembly: the image of the vineyard, which we have already heard about during the past Sundays. The initial pericope of the Evangelical story refers to the “canticle of the vineyard” that we find in Isaiah. This is a canticle placed in the autumnal context of harvest: a small masterpiece of Jewish poetry, which must have been very familiar to those who listened to Jesus and from which, as from other references by the Prophets (Cf. Hos 10:1; Jr 2:21; Ez 17:3-10; 19:10-14; Psa 79:9-17), we learn that the vineyard was Israel. To His vineyard, to His chosen people, God maintained the same care as that of a faithful husband for his wife (Cf. Ez 16:1-14, Eph 5:25-33).
The image of the vineyard, together with the one of marriage, therefore describes the divine project of salvation, and is seen as a moving allegory of the Covenant of God with His people. In the Gospel, Jesus takes up the canticle of Isaiah, but adapts it to those listening to Him and to the new hour of the history of salvation. The accent is no longer placed on the vineyard but on the tenants, to whom the “servants” of the owner ask for the rent in his name. The servants are mistreated though and even killed. How can we not think of the events of the chosen people and to the fate awaiting the prophets sent by God? At the end, the owner of the vineyard makes a last attempt: he sends his son, convinced that they will at least listen to him. However the contrary occurs: the tenants kill him because he is the son, the heir, convinced that they can then easily come into possession of the vineyard. Therefore, faced with a jump in quality with respect to the accusation of violating social justice, which emerges from the canticle of Isaiah. Here we can clearly see how contempt for the order given by the owner is changed into scorn for him: this is not simple disobedience to a divine precept, this is the true and actual rejection of God: there appears the mystery of the Cross.
What is denounced in the evangelical page calls upon our way of thinking and acting. It speaks not only of the “hour” of Christ, of the mystery of the Cross in that moment, but also of the presence of the Cross at all times. In a special way, it calls upon the people who have received the proclamation of the Gospel. If we look at history, we are forced to notice the frequent coldness and rebellion of incoherent Christians. Because of this, God, while never shirking in his promise of salvation, often had to turn towards punishment. In this context, it becomes spontaneous to return to the first proclamation of the Gospel, from which the initial flourishing Christian communities emerged, which then disappeared and are only remembered today in history books. Could this same thing not happen in our day and age? Today, nations once rich in faith and vocations are losing their own identity, under the harmful and destructive influence of a certain modern culture. There are those that, having decided that “God is dead”, declare themselves “god”, believing themselves to be the only creator of their own fate, the absolute owner of the world.
Ridding himself of God and not awaiting His salvation, Man believes he can do as he likes and be the only judge of himself and his actions. But is man truly more happy if he removes God from his life, if he declares God “dead”? When men proclaim themselves absolute owners of themselves and the only masters of creation, are they really going to be able to construct a society where freedom, justice and peace reign? Is it not more likely - as demonstrated by news headlines every day - that the arbitrary rule of power, selfish interests, injustice and exploitation, and violence in all its forms will extend their grip? Man’s final destination, in the end, is to find himself more alone and society more divided and confused.
But there is a promise in the words of Jesus: the vineyard will not be destroyed. While the landowner abandons the unfaithful tenants to their fate, he does not abandon his vineyard and he entrusts it to his faithful tenants. What this demonstrates is that, if in some areas faith weakens to the point of vanishing, there will always be other peoples ready to embrace it. This is why Jesus, as he quotes Psalm 117 : “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (v. 22), assures us that his death will not represent the defeat of God. Having been killed, he will not remain in the tomb, but rather that which appears to be a total defeat will mark the start of a definitive victory. His dreadful passion and death on the cross will be followed by the glory of the Resurrection. The vineyard will therefore continue to produce grapes and will be leased by the landowner “to other tenants who will deliver the produce to him at the proper time” (Mt 21:41).
The image of the vineyard with its moral, doctrinal and spiritual implications, will reappear in the speech at the Last Supper when, taking his leave of the Apostles, the Lord will say: “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-dresser. Every branch in me that bears no fruit he cuts away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes to make it bear even more” (Jn 15:1-2).Setting out from the Easter event, the history of salvation will experience a major turning point, and the protagonists will be those “other tenants” who, planted as the chosen seeds in Christ, the true vine, will bear fruits that are abundant in eternal life (cf Opening Prayer). We too are among these “tenants”, grafted in Christ who Himself wished to become the “true vine”. Let us pray that the Lord, who Himself gives us His blood in the Eucharist, will help us to “bear fruit” for life eternal and for this our time.
The consolatory message we gather from these Biblical texts is the certainty that evil and death will not have the last word, but it will be Christ who wins in the end. Always! The Church will never tire of proclaiming this Good News, as is happening today, in this basilica dedicated to the Apostle to the Gentiles who was the first to spread the Gospel in vast tracts of Asia Minor and Europe. We will renew this message in a meaningful way during the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which has as its theme “The Word of God in the Life and the Mission of the Church”. I would like at this point to greet all of you cordially, Venerable Synodal Fathers, and all of you who are taking part in this meeting as experts, auditors and special guests. Furthermore, I am delighted to welcome the fraternal delegates of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. We should all recognize the great work that has been carried out by the General Secretary and his assistants in these last few months, as well as wishing them all the best for their efforts in the coming weeks.
When God speaks, he always seeks a response; His saving action requires human cooperation; His love awaits correspondence. What should never happen, dear brothers and sisters, is what biblical text narrates when speaking of the vineyard: “He expected it to yield fine grapes: wild grapes were all it yielded” (cf. Is 5:2)
Only the Word of God can change the depth of the heart of man, and so it is important that with it both individual believers and the community enter into an ever-growing intimacy. The Synodal Assembly will direct its attention to this truth which is fundamental to the life and the mission of the Church. Nourishing oneself with the Word of God is for her the first and fundamental responsibility. In effect, if the proclamation of the Gospel constitutes her reason for being and her mission, it is indispensable that the Church know and live that which She proclaims, so that her preaching is credible, despite the weaknesses and poverty of Her members. We know, moreover, that the proclamation of the Word, to the school of Christ, has as its content the Kingdom of God (cf Mk 1:14-15), but the Kingdom of God is the person of Jesus Himself, who with his words and his works offers salvation to men of every age. It is interesting with regard to San Jerome’s consideration: “He who knows not the Scriptures knows not the power of God nor his wisdom. Ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (Prologue to the Commentary on Isaiah: PL 24, 17).
In this Year dedicated to Saint Paul, we will hear the urgent cry of the Apostle of the Gentiles: “I should be in trouble if I failed to do it [preach the Gospel]” (1 Cor 9:16); a cry which becomes for every Christian an insistent invitation to place oneself at the service of Christ. “The harvest is rich” (Mt 9:37), the Divine Teacher repeats even today: many have not met Him yet and are waiting for the first proclamation of his Gospel; others, though having received Christian formation, their enthusiasm has weakened and they maintain only a superficial contact with the Word of God; still others have fallen away from the practice of their faith and are in need of a new evangelization. Nor is there a lack of righteous persons asking essential questions on the meaning of life and death, questions to which only Christ can supply a fulfilling response. It becomes therefore indispensable for Christians on every continent to be ready to respond to whomever asks the reason for the hope that is within them (cf 1Pt 3:15), announcing the Word of God with joy and living the Gospel without compromise.
Venerable and dear Brothers, the Lord will help us to interrogate ourselves, during these next weeks of Synodal works, on how to render ever more effective the proclamation of the Gospel in this our time. We all sense how necessary it is to place the Word of God at the center of our life, to welcome Christ as our only Redeemer, as the Kingdom of God in person, to allow his light to enlighten every sphere of humanity: from the family to school, to culture, to work, to free time and to other sectors of society and of our life. Participating in the celebration of the Eucharist, we are always aware of the close bond which exists between the announcement of the Word of God and the Eucharistic Sacrifice: it is the same Mystery which is offered for our contemplation. This is why, as pointed out by Vatican Council II: “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body.” Rightly the Council concludes: “Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similarly we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God, which “lasts forever’” ("Dei Verbum," 21.26)
May the Lord grant us to draw near with faith to the dual tables of the Word and the Body and Blood of Christ. May the Most Holy Mary, who “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:19) obtain this gift for us. That She may teach us to listen to the Scriptures and to meditate upon them in an interior process of maturity, which never separates intelligence from the heart. May the Saints too come to our aid, in particular the Apostle Paul, who reveals himself evermore as an intrepid witness and herald of the Word of God. Amen!