Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, ofm
Custos of the Holy Land
Today we are gathered here on a sad occasion, because the Church has lost its most important member, and I believe that all of us today feel a bit like orphans. This sadness, however, is not absolute: we are convinced that the heavenly Jerusalem has welcomed a new citizen. Right now we are all shocked in this particular moment in the life of the Church. At the same time, however, we also feel joyful, because we are sustained by our certainty that John Paul II lives in the risen Christ, who is our hope and our certainty, because he is risen with Christ. For this reason we are celebrating here, in this Basilica of the Resurrection, the Mass of the Resurrection, because if we are saddened by the Pope’s death, we are at the same time comforted by Christ’s resurrection.
One could say many things about this Pope. He has been a giant in the history of these last thirty years. He has been a man of primacies: his pontificate has been one of the longest in the history of the Church, he has undertaken an incredible number of apostolic journeys, and he has published numerous documents, and elevated a long list of faithful to the glory of sanctity…
John Paul II has been the Pope who vigorously carried on implementing that profound renewal of the Church which was begun during the Second Vatican Council. He has been the defender of the inalienable dignity of the human person against all kinds of tyranny, exploitation and abuse. He has been the defender of the image of God in every human person. In Latin America, in Africa, in his Europe torn apart by conflicts among neighboring peoples, in Asia, and particularly in our Middle East, Pope John Paul II has been the free voice, the voice of authority and strength in support of those who are the weakest, of those who are the last, the poor and the despised. He has offered himself totally to Christ and to His Church, and for this cause he has dedicated all his energies in the coherent proclaiming of the Gospel without any compromise.
He has been, above all, a Pope of prophetic gestures. We are pleased to remember some of these gestures in particular, that is, those which directly regard the Church in the Holy Land.
The first gesture has been the meeting of all the leaders of the world religions in Assisi. The Pope who came from the East had assumed inter-religious dialogue as one of the priorities among the commitments of his papacy. In his numerous journeys he always wanted to meet the local religious leaders of all kinds of faiths, and he insisted in affirming that all religions have the duty to work in order to be builders of Peace.
Who can feel this preoccupation which touches one’s own life more than we do? We who live here in Jerusalem do not only live in a reciprocal collaboration, but we also live together with our Jewish and Muslim friends and with our brothers of the Eastern Churches, with whom we share the Holy Places of our Redemption. We are invited to listen once more to the words of the Pope, on the occasion of his last meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Rome on June 29th, 2004: “Ut unum sint! This is from where our commitment of communion flows, as an answer to the ardent desire of Christ. This is not simply a vague sentiment between those who feel close to one another, but it is an indissoluble bond of faith in God, leading us not towards separation, but towards communion. May our conscience scold us for having omitted concrete actions, for having discarded opportunities, for not having tried all paths leading to unity”.
We are grateful for the presence of our Jewish and Muslim brothers in this celebration, as well as for that of the Christian brothers of other confessions. This presence is a witness of the untiring work of this pontificate in favor of inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue, and of the need for all of us to progress along this journey, which has been authoritatively and courageously indicated by John Paul II, in order to build a mentality of peace and mutual respect. All believers, Jews, Muslims and Christians, have to be, first and foremost, credible witnesses of hope, because they are convinced about the goodness which God bestows upon all human persons. We cannot live without hope. We need to be witnesses and responsible custodians of hope. In this context, Pope John Paul II had a particular attention towards the monotheistic religions.
The first visit of a Pope to the Synagogue of Rome on April 13th, 1986 was an historical event. For us, who live in a Jewish context, this gesture still presents a meaning which would be difficult to overestimate. In fact, with that gesture, John Paul II has inaugurated new relationships of friendship, reciprocal knowledge and respect between the Catholic Church and the Jewish tradition, in which Christianity is strongly rooted, and without which it would not be possible to understand the event of Jesus of Nazareth. On that occasion the Pope thanked the Lord for “the rediscovered sense of brotherhood and the profound mutual understanding between the Church and the Jewish religion”, and he expressed his trust that “the old prejudices would be overcome and that there would be space for an ever greater recognition of that bond and of that common spiritual patrimony which exists between Jews and Christians.” The Pope continued to say: “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way it is ‘intrinsic’ to our religion.”
The Pope has also known how to accomplish prophetic gestures with the Islamic world, as he did, for example, during his visit to the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, on May 6th, 2001, during which he said: “It is important that Muslims and Christians continue to explore together new philosophical and theological questions, in order to obtain a more objective and complete knowledge of the religious beliefs of the other. A better sense of reciprocal understanding will certainly lead, on a practical level, to a new way of presenting our two religions, not in opposition, as has often happened in the past, but in collaboration for the good of the human family.
Inter-religious dialogue is more effective when it is born out of the experience of ‘living with one another’ everyday in the context of the same community and culture.”
I certainly cannot conclude this brief and inadequate remembrance of John Paul II without mentioning the pilgrimage which he accomplished here in the Holy Land from March 20th to the 26th, on the occasion of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. The gestures which the Pope accomplished during that historic pilgrimage constitute a milestone in the spiritual journey of the Church in its relationship with the Jewish religion and Islam. The historical visits to the Western Wall and to the Mosques are still impressed upon our memory.
During his pilgrimage the Pope said: “For us all of Jerusalem, as its name indicates, is the City of Peace.” In that occasion the Pope raised his voice to invoke the gift of peace, for this city, for the Holy Land, for the Middle East, and for the whole world! The Holy Land, in particular, has always been at the very top of his thoughts and of his concerns. We remember the many Angelus he dedicated to this theme and to his unforgettable Magisterium regarding peace on the occasion of the Messages of the World Day of Peace!
I would like to quote one message which was particularly significant, the one on the year 2002, entitled There is no peace without justice, there is no justice without forgiveness: “While meditating upon the theme of forgiveness, we cannot forget to mention some tragic situations of conflict, which have long been the cause of profound and divisive hatred, with the consequent and uncontrollable spiraling of personal and collective tragedies. I am referring, in particular, to what is happening in the Holy Land, that blessed and sacred place of encounter between God and humanity, the place of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Prince of peace.” Those words are still meaningful today, and it is still so difficult today to forgive one another in our beloved Land as it was then!
It is precisely in this context, torn by hatred and divisions, by longstanding tensions, by enmity, and above all by fear, that the voice of John Paul II always rose up with authority in order to invite all the parties to meet with one another, to overcome the mutual hostilities, but above all to abandon every from of violence, from which can only derive more violence.
There is one episode in that historic pilgrimage of the Jubilee Year which I would like to recount. On the day of his departure the Holy Father, with a decision which nobody had expected, asked to return here, in this basilica, to be able to remain in solitary prayer on the rock of Mount Calvary. This episode has returned to my memory because I believe that it is emblematic of all the pontificate of John Paul II. His was a pontificate lived under the shadow of the Cross. In these last years, when we looked at him, we have felt within us the echo of the prophecy of Isaiah, which we hear every Friday during the Via Crucis: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” This is how John Paul II appeared: an icon of Him who “with His holy Cross has redeemed the world.” But even in his physical weaknesses the Holy Father continued to be in the world a witness of the Resurrection of Christ and of his liberating significance for every human person. It was here, after all, that five years ago the Pope said: “The Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the sign that the Eternal Father is faithful to His promise and can make a new life to be born out of death. The Good News of the Resurrection can never be separated from the mystery of the Cross.”
This faith which the Holy Father proclaimed is our own faith. If we are saddened at this moment because of the death of this eminent figure of the Church of Christ, we are nevertheless serenely convinced that “Christ raised from the dead will never die again; death has no more power over him.” In fact, we know that “He lives, and lives for God” (Rom 3,8.10).
The prophet Isaiah today proclaims: On this mountain the Lord will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. Surely this is our God; we trusted in Him and He saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us be glad in His salvation. The hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain” (Is 25:7,9-10) that is Jerusalem.
Certainly, on this mountain, in Jerusalem, in this place, we have experienced His salvation. Here He has cancelled death for ever and He has wiped away all tears. The angel of the Gospel still proclaims this truth: “Do not be afraid! … He has risen, as He had said … go and proclaim this to all my brothers” (Mt 28:5-10).
John Paul II leaves this legacy to us, inhabitants of the Holy Land: Do not be afraid! These are the words we have proclaimed in the Gospel we just heard. The same words were also the central motif of Magisterium. These words are now being proclaimed to us, who live on this mountain, in Jerusalem, in order to encourage us to act: we are not afraid to rejoice at His salvation and to witness to our brothers and sisters that love which embraces all peoples, which breaks down all barriers, which wins over all hatred and wins over every division.
May the Mother of the Lord, to whom the Pope consecrated his ministry with the motto Totus tuus, welcome her son in the joy of the saints and may she give to the Church a new leader who will know how to guide her along the same paths traced by John Paul II.