A Lenten message from the past

Back on Nov. 24, 1986 St. John Paul II gave a homily in Christchurch, New Zealand which speaks to us today in our divided United States. Although given on the Feast of Christ the King, the message also is a good Lenten meditation.

The Polish pontiff recalled Jesus’ command to us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Be perfect just as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:44, 48). He then said, “Today in Christchurch [We could say, today in the USA], Jesus puts these words, this challenge to you and to me. The standard that is set before us is not merely to give to each one his due. The standard for the followers of Jesus Christ is ‘to be perfect’ as God Himself is perfect.”

The perfection Jesus commands us to seek is not one of “crossing all the ‘t’s’ and dotting all the ‘i’s.’” It is a call to imitate God the Father’s merciful love. If we had more of that in the United States, we’d have a lot less rancor and we’d be able to get a lot more done, in all the levels of government, as well as within the Church and amongst the churches and other ecclesial communities.

St. John Paul reminded his congregation that day of the progress that had been made over history in terms of justice. “In the Ancient Near East, codes of retaliation were developed to protect people against injustice by guaranteeing retribution to those who had been wronged. The Jewish law refined these norms in order to protect against excessive vindictiveness in redressing injustices.” In other words, the ancient Jewish dictum of “an eye for an eye,” which seems terribly harsh to us, was progress over “a life for an eye.”

With the New Testament we move into a focus on mercy. The Holy Father preached, “Christ takes these very laws and goes beyond them. He challenges His hearers and all of us to seek a deeper and richer justice by becoming perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, by making His justice, His mercy, His righteousness the measure and the standard of our own.”

St. John Paul spoke to the New Zealanders about the coexistence of “two main cultures” in their society: the Polynesian and the European. “You can show in this land how these two cultures can work together with other cultures. Yours is the noble task of understanding and evaluating all the many elements of your civilization. You face the challenge of ensuring that your separate cultures continue to exist together and that they complement each other.” These words are truly food for thought for us here in America, as we are called to live in a more diverse country than New Zealand.

The pope’s next words are true for us, too. “All of you are invited to share this land in peace and in mutual respect. You do this by recognizing the common bond of being members of one human family, called to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. When you build a just society upon the foundation of mutual respect and fraternal love, then, justice is shown to be the path to peace.”

The pontiff immediately admitted, “This is not, however, easily achieved. It requires that you be open to the Holy Spirit ‘poured on you from above.’ It means that you ‘give to anyone who asks’ and ‘do not turn away’ from those in need. What a wonderful perspective this is! If, however, there are attitudes among you of racial and cultural superiority, exploitation or discrimination, such attitudes will obstruct justice. They will destroy harmony and peace. For true peace begins in the human heart, and it takes root when the heart has been cleansed and renewed by the mercy of God.”

Having lived under Nazism and Communism and (a few years after this homily was preached) later to be one of the principal voices calling for mercy and reconciliation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, St. John Paul knew what can build or destroy harmony in a society.

Although he was speaking on a societal or national level, the Holy Father then immediately brought it to the personal level (since societies are made up of people) and said, “The Sacrament of Penance is the privileged means for this cleansing and renewal to take place. It is truly the Sacrament of peace. In our contemporary world, we can easily be deceived by an illusion of sinlessness, by the loss of a sense of sin which runs directly contrary to the Gospel. St. John counters this error very openly when he says: ‘If we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth’ (1 Jn 1:8).”

After discussing Jesus’ “gentleness and mercy” in the Sacrament, the pope brought it back to the societal level. “He who ‘reconciled all to the Father’ is brother and Lord of all. He calls us to replace hostilities with friendship. He calls us to have sensitive respect for each other’s customs and practices. Instead of misunderstanding, mistrust and even hatred — which in the past may have divided peoples and poisoned societies — He asks us to forgive as our Heavenly Father has forgiven us. With strong faith in the Lord, and through the practice of God’s justice towards one another, we can travel together along the path that leads to peace.”

He added, “Justice between individuals, and in all the interlocking relationships of modern society, is an indispensable requirement for achieving peaceful harmony.” In other words, we need reconciliation on the individual and on the societal level for there to be true peace. 

St. John Paul then issued a challenge. “Peace in the world can never be won so long as injustice controls the relationships among peoples. Let us respond to Christ’s call to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect so that we may truly be ‘children of our Father in Heaven.’ Let us help each other for we are fellow pilgrims on the path of justice. Let us walk that ‘extra mile’ with one another and ‘give to anyone who asks,’ so that he or she may not be turned away, but may find in each of us a true brother or sister. So will it be that the justice we practice with one another will become the path to the peace we all yearn for.”

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