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Dear Brothers and Sisters!
With the celebration of the first vespers we enter into the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. We have the grace of doing so in the Papal Basilica named after the Apostle to the Gentiles, recollected in prayer near his tomb. Because of this, I would like to focus my brief reflection on the perspective of the missionary vocation of the Church. In this line are the third antiphon of the psalm that we prayed and the biblical reading. The first two antiphons are dedicated to St. Peter, the third to St. Paul and it says: "You are the messenger of God, Holy Apostle Paul: you proclaimed the truth in the whole world."
And in the brief reading, which treats of the initial direction of the Letter to the Romans, Paul introduces himself as "called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God" (Romans 1:1). Paul's figure, his person and his ministry, his whole existence and his hard work for the Kingdom of God, are completely dedicated to the service of the Gospel. Perceived in these texts is a sense of movement, where the protagonist is not man, but God, the breath of the Holy Spirit, which drives the Apostle onto the roads of the world to take the Good News to all: the promises of the prophets are fulfilled in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, who died for our sins and rose for our justification. Saul is no longer, Paul is, and what is more, it is Christ who lives in him (cf. Galatians 2:20) and wishes to gather all men. If then the feast of the Holy Patrons of Rome evokes the twofold tension between unity and universality that typifies this Church, the context in which we find ourselves this evening calls us to favor the second, allowing ourselves, so to speak, to be won over by St. Paul and by his extraordinary vocation.
When he was elected Successor of Peter, at the height of the unfolding of the Second Vatican Council, the Servant of God Giovanni Battista Montini chose to bear the name of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Within his program of action of the Council, in 1974 Paul VI convoked and assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the topic of evangelization in the contemporary world, and about a year later he published the apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Nuntiandi," which opens with these words: "There is no doubt that the effort to proclaim the Gospel to the people of today, who are buoyed up by hope but at the same time often oppressed by fear and distress, is a service rendered to the Christian community and also to the whole of humanity" (No. 1). The timeliness of this expression is striking. Perceived in it is all the particular missionary sensibility of Paul VI and, through his voice, the great conciliar yearning to evangelize the contemporary world, a yearning that culminated in the decree "Ad Gentes," but which permeates all the documents of Vatican II and that, even earlier, animated the thought and work of the council fathers, gathered to represent, in a way never before so tangible, the worldwide diffusion reached by the Church.
Words are not adequate to explain how the Venerable John Paul II, in his long pontificate, developed this missionary projection, which -- it is always recalled -- responds to the nature itself of the Church, which with St. Paul can and must always repeat: "For if I preach the Gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16). Pope John Paul II presented "live" the missionary nature of the Church, with the apostolic journeys and with the insistence of his magisterium on the urgency of a "new evangelization": "new" not in the contents, but in the interior impulse, open to the grace of the Holy Spirit who constitutes the force of the new law of the Gospel and who always renews the Church; "new" in the search of ways that correspond to the force of the Holy Spirit and are adapted to the times and the situations; "new" because necessary also in countries which have already received the proclamation of the Gospel. Evident to all is that my predecessor gave an extraordinary impulse to the mission of the Church, not only -- I repeat -- by the distances covered by him, but above all by the genuine missionary spirit that animated him and that he left in legacy at the dawn of the third millennium.
Taking up this legacy, I have been able to affirm, at the beginning of my Petrine ministry, that the Church is young, and open to the future. And I repeat it today, near the sepulcher of St. Paul: The Church is an immense force of renewal in the world, not because of her strength, but because of the force of the Gospel, in which the Holy Spirit of God breathes, the God Creator and Redeemer of the world. The challenges of the present age are certainly beyond human capacities; they are the historical and social challenges, and with greater reason, the spiritual challenges. At times it seems to us pastors of the Church that we are reliving the experience of the Apostles, when thousands of needy persons followed Jesus, and he asked: What can we do for all these people? They then experienced their impotence. But Jesus had in fact demonstrated to them that with faith in God nothing is impossible, and that a few loaves and a few fish, blessed and shared, could satiate all. But it was not -- and is not -- only hunger for material food: There is a more profound hunger, which only God can satiate.
Man of the third millennium also desires an authentic and full life, he has need of truth, of profound liberty, of gratuitous love. Also in the deserts of the secularized world, man's soul thirsts for God, for the living God. Because of this John Paul II wrote: "The mission of Christ the Redeemer, entrusted to the Church, is still very far from its fulfillment," and he added: "a look on the whole of humanity demonstrates that such a mission is still at the beginning and that we must commit ourselves with all our strength to its service" ("Redemptoris Missio," No. 1). There are regions in the world that still wait for a first evangelization; others that received it but need more profound work; others still in which the Gospel put down roots a long time ago, giving place to a true Christian tradition, but where in the last centuries -- with complex dynamics -- the process of secularization has produced a grave crisis of the sense of the Christian faith and of belonging to the Church.
In this perspective, I have decided to create a new organism, in the form of pontifical council, with the specific task of promoting a renewed evangelization in countries where the first proclamation of the faith already resounded, and where Churches are present of ancient foundation, but which are going through a progressive secularization of society and a sort of "eclipse of the sense of God," which constitutes a challenge to find the appropriate means to propose again the perennial truth of the Gospel of Christ.
Dear brothers and sisters, the universal Church faces the challenge of the new evangelization, which asks us also to continue with commitment the search for the full unity among Christians. An eloquent sign of hope in this connection is the custom of the reciprocal visits between the Church of Rome and that of Constantinople on the occasion of the feasts of their respective patron saints.
Because of this, today we welcome with renewed joy and gratitude the delegation sent by Patriarch Bartholomew I, to whom we address the most cordial greeting. May the intercession of Sts. Peter and Paul obtain for the whole Church ardent faith and apostolic courage, to proclaim to the world the truth of which we all have need, the truth that is God, origin and end of the universe and of history, merciful and faithful Father, hope of eternal life. Amen.
[Translation by ZENIT]