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Rights of Conscience Must Be Defended

by Pope Saint John Paul II


Homily given by Pope John Paul II on May 22, 1995 at a Mass celebrated in front of a chapel dedicated to St. Jan Sarkander and located at the edge of Skoczow, Poland.

Publisher & Date

Vatican, May 22, 1995

1. Praised by Jesus Christ! Dear Brothers and Sisters! Here are St. Paul's words from the Second Letter to the Corinthians: "We always carry in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (cf. 2 Cor 4:10).

These words of St. Paul have a universal meaning. They refer to all people, because all have been redeemed by Christ; in all of them he continues his Agony, his Death and his Resurrection. These words refer in particular to all the baptized, that is, those who through Baptism have been buried into Christ's death in order to share sacramentally in his Resurrection (cf. Rom 6:3-4).

Today however these words refer particularly to St. Jan Sarkander. Yesterday I was able to celebrate the solemn act of his canonization at Olomouc in Moravia. He was raised to the honor of the altars together with St. Zdislava, whose name is often chosen for their sons and daughters by parents in Poland too.

Today I am at Skoczow, in the land of Silesia, in the territory of the new Diocese of Bielsko-Zywiec. It was here in Skoczow that St. Jan Sarkander, priest and martyr, was born. His life was linked with Cieszyn in Silesia and with nearby Olomouc in Moravia. Therefore we venerate him as the patron of Silesia and Moravia. He died a martyr's death as parish priest in Holeszow, in the difficult post-Reformation period, when societies were governed by the inhuman principle: "cuius regio eius religio". By virtue of this principle, rulers forcibly imposed their own religious convictions on their subjects, violating the basic rights of conscience. Jan Sarkander experienced the practical effect of this principle from his earliest years. He experienced it particularly on the day he was enabled to offer his life for Christ. He remains a special witness to that difficult period for the Church and for the world.

Today Jan Sarkander stands before us as a new saint, a martyr, whom the Church enrolls in her Martyrology. He is enrolled in a particular way by the Church in Bohemia and Moravia, and the Church in Poland. Here again is one of those of whom today's liturgy speaks in the words of St. Paul: "We always carry in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (cf. 2 Cor 4:10).

I greet Silesia with particular emotion

2. At this solemn liturgy which I am celebrating today, the day after St. Jan Sarkander's canonization, I wish to greet everyone present, and especially you, his compatriots. Although almost 400 years separate us from his time, the fact remains that he was a son of this land of Silesia, and that here, after his death by martyrdom, he was surrounded with special veneration, particularly at Skoczow.

As I see all of you gathered here, I look once again as Bishop of Rome to this beautiful land of Silesia, which I was able to visit many times in my youth, and later as priest and Bishop, and especially as Metropolitan of Krakow. Today I greet this land with particular emotion, because the history of my own family is also written here, particularly that of my father and my elder brother.

In greeting this land, I also greet the Church, first of all in your person, Bishop Tadeusz, the first Pastor of the Diocese of Bielsko-Zywiec, and in the person of your Auxiliary, Bishop Janusz. I am happy to be able to visit the Diocese of Bielsko-Zywiec so soon after its erection and on such an extraordinary occasion. From here I greet all of Poland and the whole Church in Poland. I greet the Cardinal Primate, and the other Cardinals, the Metropolitans--particularly the Metropolitans of Krakow, Wroclaw, Katowice and Czestochowa, and all the Bishops of the Polish Dioceses. I greet the Cardinal of Prague and the Metropolitan of Olomouc. I have to add that, even if I am in Skoczow today, I am still their guest and have to return to them. I am gladly going back to them this evening. I extend a welcome to all the Bishops of the whole region of Moravia, Bohemia and Slovakia, and all the other guests who have come here today. We cannot forget, dear Brothers, that long ago in the 10th century, precisely through the Moravian Gate, the Gospel was brought to the Polish lands: this was the way St. Adalbert, Bishop of Prague, came to us. He, together with St. Stanislaus, Bishop of Krakow, is the principal patron of Poland: both of them, Bishops and martyrs, share this protection with Our Lady of Jasna Gora, Queen of Poland.

I extend my greetings to Mr. Lech Walesa, President of the Republic of Poland, who is present here, and to the Prime Minister, to the representatives of the Government and to the representatives of the provincial and municipal authorities of Bielsko-Biala and Skoczow.

Lastly, I greet all of you, my compatriots, and express my joy that, after a four-year separation, divine Providence has again allowed me to come among you in our beloved homeland.

This time I have not come to Warsaw or Krakow, but to Skoczow. Maybe I should continue to do so: not go to the center, but somewhere closer to the mountains, closer to the sea.

3. Jesus says in today's Gospel: If they persecuted me, they will persecute you",-"if they kept my word, they will keep yours also... Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master"' (Jn 15:20).

Jan Sarkander of Skoczow knew these words; he had read them many times and perhaps knew them by heart. They accompanied his life from his earliest youth and on the path of his priestly vocation, as a parish priest. They surely re-echoed in his mind with particular force when he faced martyrdom and had to give his life for his flock, like Christ.

The martyrdom--a tormented human body, the body of a priest--a parish priest, tried, tortured and humbled unto death.

Dear brothers and sisters, the witness of the martyrs is always a challenge for us; it confronts us, it compels us to reflect. One can feel either admiration or hatred for someone who prefers to give his life rather than betray the voice of his own conscience, but certainly one cannot remain indifferent. The martyrs have so many things to tell us; first and foremost, they challenge us about the state of our conscience, they challenge everyone about fidelity to their own conscience.

Our consciences must be based on truth

Conscience...the Second Vatican Council calls conscience "man's most secret core, and his sanctuary" and explains: "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that" (Gaudium et spes, n. 16).

As we see from this quotation, conscience is a vitally important issue for every individual. It is our inner guide and also the judge of our actions. How important it is therefore for our conscience to be upright, to make judgements based on truth, to call good good and evil evil, to know how-in the Apostle's words- to "prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12:2).

Today our homeland is facing many difficult social, economic and political problems. They must be solved with wisdom and perseverance. The most important of all, however, remains the problem of a just moral order. This order is the foundation of every individual's life and of the life of every society. For this reason, today Poland urgently and primarily needs men and women of conscience!

To be a person of conscience means first of all, obeying one's own conscience in every situation and not silencing its inner voice, even if it is sometimes severe and demanding. It means working for what is good and increasing it within and around oneself, and never giving into evil, in the spirit of St. Paul's words: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:21). To be a person of conscience means being demanding with oneself, getting up again after falling, being ever converted anew. To be a person of conscience means working to build up the kingdom of God--the kingdom of truth and life, of justice, love and peace--in our families, in the communities in which we live and throughout our homeland. It also means courageouslyu assuming responsibility for public affairs; it means being concerned for the common good and not closing our eyes to the misery and needs of our neighbor, in a spirit of Gospel solidarity: "Bear one another's burdens" (Gal 6:2). I remember saying these words in Gdansk during my visit to Zaspa in 1987.

Our 20th century has been a period in which human consciences have been particularly violated. In the name of totalitarian ideologies, millions of people were forced to act against their deepest convictions. Central and Eastern Europe has had unusually painful experiences in this respect. We recall this period when consciences were suppressed, when human dignity was despised, when so many innocent people suffered for deciding to remain faithful to their convictions. We recall the outstanding role taken in those difficult times by the Church in defending the rights of conscience, and not only for the benefit of believers.

In those years we often asked ourselves: Can history swim against the tide of conscience? At what price can it do so? I ask again: at what price?... This price is unfortunately the deep wounds in the nation's moral fiber, open wounds which still need a long time to heal.

Those times, times of great trial for conscience must be remembered, since for us they are an ever timely warning and exhortation to vigilance: that Polish consciences may not yield to demoralization, that they may not surrender to the trends of moral permissiveness, that they may discover the liberating nature of the teaching of the Gospel and the commandments of God, that in making decisions they may be mindful of Christ's warning: "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?" (Mk 8:36-37).

Despite appearances, the rights of conscience must be defended today as well. In the name of tolerance, a powerful intolerance, perhaps an ever more powerful intolerance, is actually spreading in public life and in the mass media. Believers are painfully aware of it. They notice the increasing tendency to marginalize them from the life of society: what is most sacred to them is sometimes mocked and ridiculed. These forms of recurring discrimination arouse great concern and should be a cause for much reflection.

Brothers and sisters! The time of trial for Polish consciences continues! You must be strong in faith!

Today, as you struggle for a new form of life in society and in the State, do not forget that this life depends first of all on how man will be, on how his conscience will be. Therefore we cry out in prayer:

"Come, Holy Spirit... Come, Light of men's hearts. Wash clean the sinful soul, rain down your grace on the parched soul... Warm the ice-cold heart, and give direction to the wayward". Come, Light of consciences!

Christ's Cross is the sign of our salvation

4. "Stat crux dum volvitur orbis".

On the paths of the human conscience, which are sometimes so difficult and complicated, God has put up a great "road sign" giving definitive meaning and direction to human life. It is the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

No one has plumbed the mystery of Christ's Cross as the martyrs have. In their life the mystery of the Cross and of its power is shown forth in a particularly understandable way to every man. It is not by chance, then, that in venerating the martyr of Skoczow, St. John Sarkander, we gather today beneath the Cross. And this is a special Cross, a witness to the Pope's memorable meeting with the People of God in Silesia in the year 1983. It is an eloquent sign of continuity. Eloquent also is the fact that crosses such as this have become like milestones on the paths of the papal pilgrimages.

Hail, O Cross of Christ!

The Cross of Christ is the sign of our salvation, the sign of our faith and the sign of our hope. St. Paul writes: "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called... the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:23-24).

The Cross reminds us of the price of our salvation. It speaks of what great value man has in God's eyes-every man!-if God loved him even unto the Cross: "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end" (Jn 13:1). How much this "to the end" says to us. God so loves, he loves man "to the end". The Cross of Christ is precisely the proof of this. Can we remain indifferent to such a proof of love?

Dear brothers and sisters! In our Polish land the Cross has had its own history now for over 1,000 years. It is the history of salvation which has been written into the history of the great human community that is our nation. Down the centuries, in periods of very harsh trial, the nation has sought and found the strength to survive and to rise from its historical defeats precisely in the Cross of Christ! It has never been disappointed! The strength and wisdom of the Cross has been strong! Can that be forgotten?

At this point I recall what I said at the Krakow Meadowlands during my first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979. Sixteen years have passed since then and those words become ever more timely. I said at the time: "Can one reject Christ and all that he has brought to human history? He! Certainly one can. Man is free. Man can say 'no' to Christ. But the basic question remains: is it licit to do this? In whose name is this licit? By virtue of what rational argument, what value close to one's will and heart would it be possible to stand before oneself, one's neighbor, one's fellow citizens, one's country, in order to cast off, to say 'no' to all that we have seen for 1,000 years? To all that has created and always constituted the basis of our identity?" (Homily in Krakow, 10 June 1979, n. 2; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 16 July 1979, p. 13).

Today, as Poland lays the foundations for its free and sovereign existence, after experiencing so many years of totalitarianism, these words must be recalled. In their light, 16 years later, a profound examination of conscience must be made: Where are we going? In what direction are consciences heading?

What answer will Poland give to Christ?

Dear brothers and sisters, dear compatriots! At this great turning-point in our country's history, as the future shape of our Republic is being decided, the Pope, your compatriot, tirelessly asks you to welcome anew, with faith and love, this legacy of Christ's Cross. Once again, in a free and mature way, choose the Cross of Christ, as St. Jan Sarkander and so many other saints and martyrs once chose it. Accept responsibility for the presence of the Cross in the life of each and every one of you, in the life of your families and in the life of this great community which is Poland. Defend it! For the Apostle says: "We have this treasure in earthen vessels" (2 Cor 4:7).

Christ is waiting for our answer...

What answer will Poland give Christ today, on the threshold of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000?... Here are the words of a Lenten hymn:

"O Lord, you see that I am not afraid of the Cross
Lord, you see that I am not ashamed of the Cross.
I kiss your Cross, I kneel before it,
For on this Cross I see my God..."
(Polish hymn).

5. "You are God: we praise you; you are the Lord: we acclaim you... The white-robed army of martyrs praises you".

These are words of the hymn Te Deum. We still recall that great Te Deum for the Millennium of Poland's Baptism, which almost 30 years ago resounded in our homeland from east to west, from the Baltic to the Tatra. Today it is heard here in Skoczow. It is heard as a hymn of thanksgiving for the holy martyr Jan Sarkander, who rose to the glory of the altars from this land of Silesia.

And here, in our presence, at the end of this meditation, is the Christ of St. John's Revelation, Christ the Good Shepherd and Christ the Lamb of God, who gave his life for his flock (cf. Rv 7:9-14). That Christ was Jan Sarkander's Master! He taught him to give his life for his flock. And now he receives his faithful disciple into the mystery of the Communion of Saints. He embraces him with the eternal light of communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit-face to face. He leads him to the deepest springs of life. And we, who are sharing in this Eucharist, in this solemn thanksgiving for the gift of his canonization, long to reach those same springs of life, as we look to his example and trust in his intercession.


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