On Death and Life

"Man Needs Eternity -- and Every Other Hope, for Him, Is All Too Brief"

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 2, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

After celebrating the Solemnity of All Saints, the Church today invites us to commemorate all the faithful departed, to turn our gaze to so many faces that have gone before us and that have completed their earthly journey. In today's Audience, then, I would like to offer a few simple thoughts on the reality of death, which for us as Christians is illumined by Christ's resurrection, in order to renew our faith in eternal life.

As I said at yesterday's Angelus, during these days we visit the cemetery to pray for our dear departed ones; we go to visit them, as it were, in order to express our affection for them once more, to feel them still close to us; and in so doing, we also remember an article of the Creed: In the communion of saints there is a close bond between us who still journey on this earth and so many brothers and sisters who have already reached eternity.

Man has always been concerned for his loved ones who have died, and he has sought to give them a kind of second life through his attention, care and affection. In a certain way, we want to hold on to their experience of life; and paradoxically, we discover how they lived, what they loved, what they feared, what they hoped in and what they hated precisely at their graves, which we crowd with mementos. They are, as it were, a mirror of their world.

Why is this? Because -- although death is often treated as an almost prohibited subject of discussion in our society, and there is a continual attempt to remove the mere thought of death from our minds -- it regards us all, it regards men of every time and in every place. And before this mystery we all, even unconsciously, seek something that invites us to hope, a sign that brings us consolation, that opens a horizon before us, that offers us a future. The road of death, in reality, is a way of hope -- and to visit our cemeteries, and to read the inscriptions on graves, is to make a journey marked by hope in eternity. 

But we ask ourselves: Why do we experience fear in the face of death? Why has humanity, to a large extent, never resigned itself to believing that beyond death there is only nothingness?  I would say that there are a variety of reasons: We fear death because we fear emptiness; we fear departing for something unfamiliar to us, for something unknown to us. And then, there is in us a sense of refusal, for we cannot accept that all the beauty and greatness realized during a lifetime is suddenly blotted out, that it is cast into the abyss of nothingness. Above all, we feel that love requires and asks for eternity -- and it is impossible to accept that love is destroyed by death in a single moment.

Again, we fear death because -- when we find ourselves approaching the end of life -- we perceive that there will be a judgment of our actions, of how we led our lives, especially of those shadowy points that we often skillfully know how to remove -- or attempt to remove -- from our consciences. I would say that the question of judgment is what often underlies the care men of all times have for the departed, and the attention a man gives to persons who were significant to him and who are no longer beside him on the journey of earthly life. In a certain sense, the acts of affection and love that surround the departed loved one are a way of protecting him -- in the belief that these acts are not without effect on judgment. We can see this in the majority of cultures, which make up human history.

Today the world has become, at least apparently, much more rational -- or better, there is a widespread tendency to think that every reality has to be confronted with the criteria of experimental science, and that we must respond even to the great question of death not so much with faith, but by departing from experiential, empirical knowledge. We do not sufficiently realize, however, that this way ends in falling into forms of spiritism in the attempt to have some contact with the world beyond death, imagining as it were that there exists a reality that in the end is a copy of the present one.

Dear friends, the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of the faithful departed tell us that only he who is able to recognize a great hope in death is able also to live a life that springs from hope. If we reduce man exclusively to his horizontal dimension, to what can be perceived empirically, life itself loses its profound meaning. Man needs eternity -- and every other hope, for him, is all too brief, is all too limited. Man is explainable only if there is a Love that overcomes all isolation -- even that of death -- in a totality that transcends even space and time. Man is explainable -- he finds his deepest meaning -- only if God is. And we know that God has gone forth from the distance and has made Himself close; He has entered into our lives and He tells us: "I am the Resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die" (John 11:25-26).

Let us think for a moment of the scene at Calvary and let us listen once again to the words that Jesus addressed on the Cross to the robber crucified at his right: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Let us think of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, when -- after having travelled a stretch of road with the Risen Jesus -- they recognize Him and quickly set out toward Jerusalem to announce the Lord's resurrection (cf. Luke 24:13-35). The Master's words come to mind with renewed clarity: "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?" (John 14:1-2).

God has truly appeared; He has become accessible; He has so loved the world "that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16), and in the supreme act of love -- in the Cross -- plunging into the abyss of death, He conquered it, He rose and He opened the doors of eternity also to us. Christ sustains us through the night of death, which He himself traversed: He is the Good Shepherd, in whose guidance we can trust without any fear, since He knows well the road, even in obscurity.

Each Sunday, in reciting the Creed, we reaffirm this truth. And in visiting cemeteries to pray with affection and love for our dear departed ones, we are invited once again to renew with courage and with strength our faith in eternal life; indeed, we are invited to live out this great hope and to give witness to it in the world: Nothingness is not behind this present moment. And it is precisely faith in eternal life that gives the Christian the courage to love our world even more intensely, and to work to build a future for it, to give it a true and lasting hope. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

[The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today, the day after the Solemnity of All Saints, the Church invites us to pray for the faithful departed. This yearly commemoration, often marked by visits to the cemetery, is an occasion to ponder the mystery of death and to renew our faith in the promise of eternal life held out to us by Christ's resurrection. As human beings, we have a natural fear of death and we rebel against its apparent finality. Faith teaches us that the fear of death is lightened by a great hope, the hope of eternity, which gives our lives their fullest meaning. The God who is love offers us the promise of eternal life through the death and resurrection of his Son. In Christ, death no longer appears as an abyss of emptiness, but rather a path to life which will never end. Christ is the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in him will never die. Each Sunday, in reciting the Creed, we reaffirm our faith in this mystery. As we remember our dear departed ones, united with them in the communion of the saints, may our faith inspire us to follow Christ more closely and to work in this world to build a future of hope.

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I offer a warm welcome to the priests from the United States taking part in the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. My greeting also goes to the pilgrimage group from Saint Paul's High School in Tokyo, Japan. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today's Audience, especially those from Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Japan and the United States, I invoke God's blessings of joy and peace!

© Copyright 2011 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Lastly, I desire to greet young people, the sick and newlyweds. The day after tomorrow we will celebrate the liturgical memorial of St. Charles Borromeo, distinguished bishop of the Diocese of Milan, who, animated by the ardent love of Christ, was an untiring teacher and guide for his brothers. May his example help you, dear young people, to allow yourselves to be led by Christ in your choices, so that you may fearlessly follow Him; may he encourage you, dear sick, to offer your sufferings for the Pastors of the Church and the salvation of souls; and may he support you, dear newlyweds, in the generous service of life.

[The Holy Father then made this appeal:]

This Nov. 3 and 4 -- tomorrow and the day after tomorrow -- the Heads of State and Government for the G-20 will meet in Cannes to examine the main problems connected with the global economy. It is my hope that the meeting might help to overcome the difficulties that, on a global level, are blocking the promotion of an integral and authentically human development.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]