Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Only Christ Can Fulfill Man's Hopes

by Pope Saint John Paul II


General Audience on November 8, 1995.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican Press, November 15, 1995

Your Eminences,

Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood,

Distinguished Heads of Mission of the Diplomatic Corps,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. I greet you with great "joy and hope". You have gathered here this evening to commemorate the imminent 30th anniversary of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, opening as it were in this hall the International Congress which will be taking place in the next few days at Loreto, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in collaboration with the Apostolic Administration of the Holy House of Loreto, represented here by dear Archbishop Pasquale macchi, Pontifical Delegate for the Shrine of Loreto.

I cordially thank Cardinals Eduardo Pironio and Roger Etchegaray for the encouraging reflections introducing this solemn commemoration, as they put particular stress on the timeliness of Gaudium et spes in promoting the Catholic laity's participation in the life of the Church during the past 30 years and in giving a Gospel direction to temporal affairs.

2. For my part, I would now like to reflect on some themes of Gaudium et spes, to highlight its historical value and at the same time to underscore the continuing importance of this document for humanity's future.

In fact, I must confess that Gaudium et spes is particularly dear to me, not only for the themes it develops, but also because of my direct involvement in its drafting. In fact, as the young Archbishop of Krakow, I was a member of the subcommission responsible for studying "the signs of the times" and, from November 1964, I was asked to be part of the central subcommission in charge of drafting the text. It is precisely my intimate knowledge of the origin of Gaudium et spes that has enabled me fully to appreciate its prophetic value and to make wide use of its content in my Magisterium, starting with my first Encyclical, Redemptor hominis. In it I took up the legacy of the conciliar Constitution and wished to confirm that the nature and destiny of humanity and of the world can be definitively revealed only in the light of the crucified and risen Christ.

3. This is definitely the great message which Gaudium et spes addressed not only "to all the sons of the Church ... but the whole of humanity as well" (n. 2) as a message of life and hope. It is the message which makes the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World--the last of the documents promulgated by the Second Vatican Council and the most extensive of all--somehow the apex of the Council's journey. With this document the Bishops of the whole world, gathered around the Successor of Peter, intended to express the Church's loving solidarity with the men and women of this century scarred by two terrible conflicts and affected by a deep crisis of the spiritual and moral values inherited from Tradition.

Throughout the 2,000-year old history of the Church, an Ecumenical Council had never addressed its pastoral concern for the temporal affairs of humanity with such deep commitment. Precisely from this springs the particular interest which this Constitution has aroused since its first appearance. On the other hand, far from being restricted to historical and sociological considerations, the Council Fathers dealt extensively, in a theological perspective, with the fundamental questions which have always troubled the human heart: "What is man? What is the meaning of suffering, evil, death, which despite all progress have not been eliminated?" (n. 10). Thus plumbing the "mystery of man" in the light of God's Word, they also forcefully engaged the Christian community in making a specific contribution to "humanizing" the whole family of men (n. 40).

4. Today we reread these pages in the context of a decidedly different world. How many changes--political, social, cultural--have taken place since that 7 December 1965! The cold war is over, science and technology have achieved unheard-of progress: from flights in space to landing on the moon, from heart transplants to genetic engineering, from telecommunications to the most advanced telecommunication technologies. In addition to the factors of change associated with urbanization and industrialization, the enormous growth of the mass media increasingly influences people's daily lives in every corner of the earth.

In view of so many new elements in comparison with the situation in the '60's, one might well ask what remains of the historical perspective adopted by Gaudium et spes. In reality, if one goes to the heart of the problems, a basic question, which the Constitution asked then, has retained its incisiveness and is even more timely: do all the transformations that have come about in the contemporary age contribute to humanity's true good (cf. n. 6)? In particular, is a "better material world without a parallel spiritual advancement" possible (n. 4)? It is therefore legitimate, on the threshold of the third millennium, to go back and reflect on the analysis and guidance offered by Gaudium et spes, to reassess their value and to understand their wisdom. Allow me to recall some of the document's most significant themes.

5. First of all, Gaudium et spes shed light on the perennial human quest for meaning: our origin, the purpose of life, the presence of sin and suffering, the inevitability of death, the mystery of life after death are all unavoidable questions (cf. nn. 4, 10, 21, 41). In every time and place these questions beset the human heart and spur man to seek a full and definitive answer. Gaudium et spes forcefully emphasizes that this answer is found only in Jesus Christ, who is "the key, the center and the purpose of the whole of man's history" (n. 10).

The attention which the conciliar document devotes to the challenge of contemporary atheism (cf. nn. 19-21) is also connected with the problem of meaning. The Council treats it in its typical dialogical style, seeking to distinguish the different expressions of this complex phenomenon but, above all, striving to grasp the reasons that give rise to it. It does so with the courage of the truth in denouncing error, but together with an understanding attitude towards the erring, not hesitating to recognize the guilt of believers themselves in this regard, due to inadequate instruction and above all to inconsistent behavior, which ultimately "conceals rather than reveals the true nature of God and religion" (n. 19).

It was on the basis of this demanding position of Gaudium et spes that Pope Paul VI created a "Secretariat for Non-Believers" in 1965, which was later called the "Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers", and subsequently incorporated into the "Pontifical Council for Culture".

I myself, following in the path of Gaudium et spes, have on various occasions over the years felt it my duty to explain how, despite the disgraceful conflicts of the past, science and faith have no true reason for antagonism but rather draw reciprocal benefit from approaching one another in mutual collaboration (cf. n. 36).

6. I cannot linger here, examining all the truly fundamental themes treated by the Constitution, especially in its first section: human dignity, the human community, human activity in the world. It is enough to stress that the Council casts the light of Revelation on all this and holds Christ up as the meaning and fullness of all creation, the Alpha and the Omega of the world. And in the framework of this global vision, the Council marvelously illustrates the Church's mission, highlighting the help she gives, while not failing to recognize what she receives from the contemporary world (cf. n. 44).

But Gaudium et spes is not limited to basic questions. Wishing to offer a more concrete service to the people of our time, it even descends to the area of the immediate problems which beset them. Among these, the need to promote the dignity and holiness of marriage and family life certainly has particular importance.

In the years following the Council, the further evolution of morality has shown how correct the Church's foresight proved, by clearly focusing the attention of the Christian community and of all humanity on this urgent need. The family today is threatened not only by external factors, such as social mobility and the new characteristics of work organization, but first and foremost by an individualistic culture without solid ethical moorings, which misinterprets the very meaning of conjugal love and, challenging the co-natural need for stability, undermines the family unit's capacity for lasting communion and peace. On many occasions the Church's Magisterium has in past years intervened to reaffirm and explain God's plan for marriage and the family. How can we forget the Post-Synodal Exhortation Familiaris Consortio and the events which marked the recent "Year of the Family"? It is a process of reflection and witness which found a constant and inexhaustible source of inspiration precisely in Gaudium et Spes.

7. In view of the enormous social problems which still torment the world, especially in the South, it is therefore impossible to pass over in silence the reflection devoted by Gaudium et spes to economic and social life. From its introductory exposition it calls attention to the great scandal of the century: "In no other age has mankind enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic well-being; and yet a huge proportion of the people of the world is plagued by hunger and extreme need while countless numbers are totally illiterate" (n. 4).

It was hoped that this bitter observation of 30 years ago would have been superseded by later development, especially after the fall of communism and the end of the cold war had enabled humanity to face the problem of poverty with new energy and a common commitment. We are instead still forced to lament the absurd inequalities today, aggravated by wars among the poor, to whom the world of affluence frequently offers the destructive potential of deadly weapons rather than effective help and solidarity.

8. The problem of poverty and overcoming it by means of a sound economy respectful of the primary value of the person thus leads to a broader discussion of political ethics. Rightly then, after considering the economic context, Gaudium et spes devotes eloquent pages to the basic need to promote a political life inspired by inalienable moral values in nations and between nations (cf. nn. 73-90). The Council's appeal to eliminate the destructive fury of war and to promote peace is more timely than ever. The moving pages in which the Constitution exhorts men, in "the family spirit of the children of God", to put aside "all conflicts between nations and races" (n. 42) and to develop a real "worldwide community" (n. 9) are well known to everyone.

Unfortunately ethnic and religious hatred, sparked by tribal and national memories, continues to foment conflicts, genocides and massacres, with the terrible consequences that such painful events bring: starvation, epidemics and the exodus of millions of refugees. It is time that the Council's appeal be heard. Believers have a special responsibility in this, as I have frequently pointed out, even calling together representatives of the various religions.

How can we forget, in this regard, the "World Day of Prayer for Peace" which brought together the main leaders of the world religions in Assisi on 27 October 1986? We were certainly on the wavelength of Gaudium et spes when we prayed and fasted in the town of St. Francis, sustained by our trust that we were thereby contributing to humanizing coexistence among men, still torn by mortal conflicts.

9. These brief observations are enough to underscore the extremely wide horizon in which Gaudium et spes moves. With it the Church truly desired to embrace the world. Looking at men in the light of Christ, she was able to grasp their deep yearning and concrete needs. The result is a sort of "Magna Carta" of human dignity to be safeguarded and promoted.

Seeing things from this point of view, the Council was able to focus on topics and needs which were then to emerge ever more clearly in humanity's awareness. Think, for example, of the very special defense of women's rights and dignity that Gaudium et spes makes (cf. n. 29). From the Council to the present moment, much has been done in this respect, but much still remains to be done in the international community and in individual nations. The Church, for her part, as I have pointed out in numerous interventions--especially in my Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem and in my Letter to Women--feels strongly committed to faithfully following the Council's directives, working for the true well-being of women all over the world.

10. It can clearly be seen, even from this brief outline alone, how the conciliar Constitution has lost nothing of its timeliness. Indeed, one might even ask whether, in view of the serious problems which still cause us anguish, some of its expressions might not be excessively optimistic. In fact, if one reads the text carefully, one realizes that the Council did not in fact hide the problems, but wished to face them with the attitude that the 1985 Synod called "the realism of hope" (Final Report, D 2).

It is a realism that leaves no room for depression nor for paralyzing cynicism, for it knows that the world, in spite of everything, is instilled with that paschal grace which sustains and redeems it. This grace needs active witnesses to be the face of hope for their brothers and sisters: this is what all the children of the Church are called to be.

In particular, Gaudium et spes appealed to the personal witness and enlightened initiative of lay people, men and women, to be committed to playing a greater role in the life of the Church and the world (cf. n. 43). This choice is still one of the greatest needs and, at the same time, one of the greatest hopes of the Church in our time.

In this regard I am pleased to point out how the participation in this Congress of distinguished lay people from every part of the world is in itself a most appropriate way to celebrate the anniversary of a document which had such great significance in the life of the Church during the past 30 years.

11. Dear brothers and sisters, I wished to recall some of the themes of Gaudium et spes, as if to begin the in-depth analysis which will be made in the next few days during the Congress. If I may express a wish, it is that this anniversary will inspire renewed interest in the document and spur the faithful to rediscover it in its entirety and to grasp its profound and ever valid message.

Indeed, anyone who reads this document attentively and calmly cannot fail to conclude that its ultimate message is Christ himself, the Redeemer of man. It is to him the Council points out as "the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the center of mankind, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfillment of all aspirations"(n. 45). Jesus Christ remains present as the Light of the world which enlightens the mystery of man not only for Christians, but also for the entire human family; he reveals man to himself; he calls all to one and the same destiny and, through the Holy Spirit, to "the possibility of being made partners" with his definitive victory over death (n. 22).

It will be impossible to achieve the hopes for a more human world expressed by Gaudium et spes without Christ, without the acceptance of his grace, which invisibly works in the hearts of all men of goodwill (n. 22). May this conviction guide and sustain the Church's journey, especially in our day, marked indeed by shadows and uncertainties, but also by a widespread reawakening of faith and by the desire to build a world of greater brotherhood and solidarity.

May the Virgin Mary, at whose shrine the Congress dedicated to an in-depth study of the themes of Gaudium et spes will be taking place, strengthen the efforts of all those who, in harmony with its message, are committed to witness in the world to the Gospel of love and peace.

My Blessing to all!

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