(MARCH 4, 1979)
VATICAN CITY, SEP 23, 1997 (VIS) - Five months after being elected Pope on October 16, 1978, John Paul II addressed his encyclical letter "Redemptor Hominis" to all believers. In it, the new Pope traced the major objectives of his pontificate: the effort to draw all men to Christ, ecumenism, the need to strengthen the moral dimension of progress and the defense of human rights.
These tasks that the Church must face in order to enter the new millennium are based on a truth expressed at the beginning of the letter: "The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history."
The encyclical is divided into four chapters: "Inheritance," "The Mystery of the Redemption," "Redeemed Man and His Situation in the Modern World," and "The Church's Mission and Man's Destiny." It was signed in Rome on March 4, 1979, and published on the 15th of that same month.
History advances toward the end of the second millennium, which will be the year of a great Jubilee. This date will remind us in a special way of the key truth of faith which Saint John expressed at the beginning of his Gospel: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." With this redeeming act, the history of man reaches its culmination: "Through the Incarnation God gave human life the dimension that he intended man to have from his first beginning."
Starting with this basic premise, John Paul II wished to put into practice the teachings of Vatican Council II (1962-65) and to thus continue the work realized by John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul I.
During the "difficult postconciliar period," Paul VI knew how to show the world the authentic face of the Church and preserve it from the excesses of self-criticism. Thanks to him, "the Church is now more united in the fellowship of service and in the awareness of apostolate."
Pope John XXIII made clear the need to work to reach the unity of all Christians, according to the will that Christ himself expressed in his prayer at the Cenacle: "I pray ... Father ... that they may all be one. ... True ecumenical activity means openness, drawing closer, availability for dialogue, and a shared investigation of the truth in the full evangelical and Christian sense." All of this must be done with perseverance, humility and courage, and without renouncing the divine truth taught by the Church.
In order to draw near to the Father, the Church must continue to walk toward Christ, Redeemer of the world, because there is salvation in no one else but him. The Cross on Calvary shows the eternal paternity of God, who through Christ again approaches humanity, revealing to us his love and mercy.
Man cannot live without love, or he no longer understands himself, his life lacks meaning. For this reason, "Christ the Redeemer 'fully reveals man to himself'." The Church knows that "the Redemption ... has definitively restored his dignity to man and given back meaning to his life in the world." Her fundamental task, especially in our times, is "revealing Christ to the world, helping each person to find himself in Christ." This apostolic mission seems to encounter more opposition in our time than in the past; nonetheless, it is more necessary than ever.
In following Christ, the Church cannot remain unfeeling in the face of what serves the true good of man - both temporal and eternal - nor in the face of what threatens him. Her concern that life in the world be in accordance with the dignity of man is the concern of Christ, the Good Shepherd himself.
Today's man seems to be threatened by the result of the work of his hands and his intellect. He lives with apprehension, fearing that what he produces may turn into an instrument of self-destruction. The reason for this is that the development of technology and civilization "demand a proportional development of morals and ethics. For the present, this last development seems unfortunately to be always left behind."
In fact, "man's situation in the modern world seems indeed to be far removed from the objective demands of the moral order, from the requirements of justice, and even more of social love." It is necessary to remember the sense of dominion over the Earth that the Creator conceded to man as his task. This dominion lies in the priority of ethics over technology, of the person over things, of the spirit over matter.
Man cannot relinquish the place that belongs to him in the world, he cannot become the slave of things, of economic systems, of production, of his own products. A purely materialistic civilization has slavery as its consequence.
Thus, the consumer mentality in force today in developed countries has led to the establishment of economic and political structures which dilapidate material resources at an accelerated pace, threatening the environment. At the same time, they unceasingly make areas of misery spread.
In order to change this situation, bold and creative solutions adjusted to the authentic dignity of man are needed. The principle that must guide the search for effective mechanisms and institutions is solidarity, especially on the level of a wider and more immediate redistribution of riches. But the indispensable transformation of economic structures will not be easy "without the intervention of a true conversion of mind, will and heart."
Another field closely related to the Church's mission in the world is the defense of human rights. Peace is maintained through respect for these rights; war arises when they are violated.
For this reason the Church, along with all men of good will, must continually ask if the Declaration of Human Rights is being respected. The rights of power, which derive from its fundamental duty - to watch over the common good of society - can only be understood from the foundation of respect for human rights.
Among these, the right to religious freedom and freedom of conscience are preeminent. Not to respect them is to commit "a radical injustice with regard to what is ... authentically human." Respect for these rights is an important indicator of the true progress of man in any society.
Eternal life, promised by the Father in Jesus Christ, "is the final fulfillment of man's vocation." The Church, who lives this reality of man, "must concentrate and gather around that Mystery, finding in it the light and the strength that are indispensable for her mission."
In the light of the teachings of Vatican Council II, the Church appears as the one responsible for the correct transmission of divine truth. Therefore, she must adhere faithfully to it when she professes and teaches the faith. Responsibility for this truth also means "loving it and seeking the most exact understanding of it, in order to bring it closer to ourselves and others." In this area, close collaboration on the part of theologians with the Magisterium is indispensable. As servants of the truth, "theologians ... can never lose sight of the meaning of their service in the Church."
The Church's responsibility for divine truth must be shared by all. Theologians and "all men of learning in the Church are today called to unite faith with learning and wisdom, in order to help them to combine with each other." Specialists in diverse disciplines, as members of the People of God, participate in the prophetic mission of Christ at the service of divine truth.
The sacramental life of the Church and of each Christian reaches its fullness in the Eucharist. In this sacrament, by the will of Christ, the mystery of the sacrifice on the Cross, with which he obtained for us from the Father the gifts of the Holy Spirit and of new immortal life in the resurrection, is continually renewed.
In celebrating the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, it is crucial to respect "the full magnitude of the divine mystery ... in which Christ is really present and is received, and the soul is filled with grace." All in the Church, but especially bishops and priests, must be watchful so that this sacrament may be at the center of the life of the People of God.
The Eucharist is closely tied to Penance: "Without this constant ever renewed endeavor for conversion, partaking of the Eucharist would lack its full redeeming effectiveness." Both sacraments are intimately related to life according to the spirit of the Gospel. The Church, continually preparing for the new life of the Lord, must be the Church of the Eucharist and of Penance. "Only when viewed in this spiritual aspect of her life and activity is she seen to be the Church of the divine mission."
The Christian vocation consists of "being a servant" and "being a king." In the light of Christ's teachings, only by "being a servant" can one truly "be a king." At the same time, "'being a servant' demands so much spiritual maturity that it must really be described as 'being a king.'"
This royal service imposes on each one of us, following Christ's example, "the duty to demand of himself exactly what we have been called to." Fidelity to one's vocation is especially important with regard to tasks that require a greater commitment and which have more influence on the lives of our neighbors and of society.
Collaborating with the grace that Christ has won for us, "we are able to attain to 'being kings,' that is to say, we are able to produce a mature humanity in each one of us." This means making full use of the freedom that the Creator has given us: "Christ teaches us that the best use of freedom is charity, which takes concrete form in self-giving and in service."
The Church truly serves mankind when she guards this truth with fervent love, and when she transmits it and gives it concrete form in human life. This confirms that "man is and always becomes the 'way' for the Church's daily life."
In the face of the tasks that the Church has before her and the difficulties she may encounter, intense prayer becomes vital. "Only prayer can prevent all these great succeeding tasks and difficulties from becoming a source of crisis and make them instead the occasion and, as it were, the foundation for ever more mature achievements on the People of God's march towards the Promised Land."