We are at the final moments of the XXVII Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, a historical moment marking the end of the Dicastery’s current configuration.1 It is not easy to conclude such a significant event of this magnitude. However, I think the remarks of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Father of the Church, can help us to conclude. In his letter to the Christians of Magnesia he wrote: “It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality.”2 As he journeyed to Rome, where he eventually suffered martyrdom, the saint Bishop wrote to the faithful of the city, “Only request in my behalf both inward and outward strength, that I may not only speak, but [truly] will; and that I may not merely be called a Christian, but really be found to be one.”3 We must note what the Bishop writes and prays that Christians not only bear the name of a Christian, but be one truthfully. St. Ignatius does not ask this in order to be a good Bishop, but to invite the faithful to fulfill their Christian vocations. He highlights the great Christian duty and importance of remaining faithful to the Christian identity which derives from the sacrament of Baptism.
Today, we live in a ‘liquid world’ where people create ‘liquid identities,’ with a ‘do it yourself’ attitude; which are inconsistent, selective, which result from arbitrary choices made out of convenience. At the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the term Christian identity has been the base of our service to the Catholic laity throughout the world. During our Plenary Assembly this year, we have tried to motivate each other - Bishops, priests, and lay people - in order to ensure that our Christian identities do not fail or fade in the midst of the many challenges our world faces today. We don’t want to just bear the name of Christians, but be Christians in practice.
Every baptized Christian faces fundamental challenges for every day. St. John Paul II has said of this “I know who I am”; and then: “I assume the responsibility of what I am”... Therefore, the first question that each of us must ask oneself is, Who am I?, to become more aware that as a person, and even more so as a baptized Christian, you are a disciple and a missionary of Christ. The second reason is so that one takes responsibility for who they are. This means being able to say: “I am a Christian, I want to be faithful and I am faithful to my Christian truth...”
2. From the very start of his Pontificate in homilies and morning celebrations at Casa Santa Marta, Pope Francis has outlined the various types of Christians, or rather ‘pseudo-Christians’ that exist in our time. The Holy Father has talked about these “not too much” Christians; “part-time” Christians, those who are Christians in only certain moments of life; “satellite” Christians, those who admire Jesus from a distance for they do not want to meddle too much with him; “in the couch” Christians, who ‘in slippers’ accept the Gospel to the extent that it suits them and does not disrupt their lives; “pastry” Christians, who would like a ‘sweetened’ Christianity, without the cross, forgetting that Jesus said you are not honey, but the “salt of the earth”! There are also, as Pope Bergoglio lists, “living room” Christians, those who are educated, enjoy intellectual debates, but do not know how to be children of the Church with an apostolic zeal; “lip service” Christians; “from the balcony” Christians, who do not get their hands dirty but instead live their lives from ‘the balcony.’ There are, therefore, many “invisible” Christians, who are fully endorsed by the worldliness that threatens every person in the Church.
The presentation of these categories of Christians provide an interesting opportunity for Christians to examine their conscience. Which category of Christians do I belong to? What kind of Christians does Pope Francis expect for the Church of our times, he who has a soul of a shepherd who knows his sheep? I think the Holy Father requires that Christians always be “on the journey,” to not stand still, and to always carry in their hearts the idea that there is “always more” to do in order to be true disciples and missionaries of Christ; be men and women who are not afraid to take risks, get their hands dirty, make mistakes, and know how to move forward.4 As the Holy Father recently said, “We need lay people with a vision of the future, who are not enclosed in the petty things of life.”5.
3. Often Pope Francis says that Christians should be ‘decentralized,’ yet what does this mean in practice? It means that the center of our existence should not focus on ourselves, which can sometimes be inflated by individualism and egocentrism, but should focus on the person of Christ. Only when we put Him at the center of our lives can we truly be Christians. How important it is that the person of Christ and His words motivate our choices! This is necessary to preserve the healthy restlessness in our hearts that constantly drives us to find the way to the Lord. We remember the words of St. Augustine: “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” 6
Another important aspect for our Christian lives is to know to always return to the first love that was spoken of in the book of the Apocalypse.7 Those who are married can find it easy to understand what it means to rediscover the beauty and freshness that is found in first love in the midst of the grayness of every day married life. Today, one of the biggest threats to Christian life is the constant routine, déjà-vu, and the inability to be amazed. The Polish poet Jan Twardowski has titled one of his poems: “Learn to be amazed in the Church”. We have to awaken our capacity to be surprised in the Church and the beauty of being Christians. Prior to World Youth day in Cologne in 2005, a journalist asked Pope Benedict XVI: “Holy Father, what is the specific message that you want to convey to the youth who come to Cologne from around the world? What is the most important thing you want to convey to them?” Then the Pope replied simply, “I want to make them understand how beautiful it is to be a Christian!” And that we - as members and consultants- have tried to do this in the years of working together: to believe more deeply that being a Christian is beautiful.
If these years, through the various Plenary Assemblies of our Dicastery have helped all of us - laity, priests, bishops - to become more Christian, more faithful to our identities as baptized Christians, then the mission of this Council has been realized, and everything else is secondary.
4. At this point, I want to offer three words that can be used for the journey that awaits us, each accompanied by the figure of a Pontiff.
The first word is faith, which we can associate with Pope Benedict XVI. On his apostolic trip to Portugal, Pope Ratzinger said: “Often we are anxiously preoccupied with the social, cultural and political consequences of the faith, taking for granted that faith is present, which unfortunately is less and less realistic. Perhaps we have placed an excessive trust in ecclesial structures and programs, in the distribution of powers and functions; but what will happen if salt loses its flavor?”8 This highlights the need to take care of our faith as the foundation of our lives. Pope Benedict has taught us that among the various crises that afflict the world today - financial, economic, and others - the most important is the crisis of God, which inevitably leads to a crisis of man (an anthropological crisis) because only in God does the mystery of man find full explanation. In today’s world, Christians are therefore called to be above all, men of God and men of prayer. The Christian of the future will either be contemplative or will not be a Christian at all.
5. The second word is holiness and with this we can think of the figure of St. John Paul II. When Pope Wojtyła traced the way for the church into the third millennium, he reiterated the need to start afresh from Christ and holiness. “Since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God, he wrote in Novo Millennio Ineunte- through the incorporation of Christ and the indwelling of his spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocracy, marked by minimalist ethics and shallow religiosity. To ask catechumens: ‘Do you want to receive Baptism?’ It means at the same time to ask: ‘Do you want to become a saint?’. It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48).
As the II Vatican Council has explained, this ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some extraordinary existence, or only possible for a few “uncommon heroes” of holiness. There are many ways of holiness, pertaining to the vocation of each person. I thank the Lord who has enabled me to beatify and canonize, in recent years, many Christians, and among them many lay people who attained holiness in the most ordinary circumstances of life. It is time to propose to everyone this ‘high standard’ of ordinary Christian living.”9 St. John Paul II invited young people in particular to aim for higher and more demanding goals, for a Christian must be demanding of himself.
Mediocrity, superficiality, and distraction are in fact the greatest that weaken the witness of Christians in the world and deprive it of credibility. A Christian that is mediocre is like a salt without flavor! Therefore it is necessary to keep the desire and flame for holiness alive within us, while remaining aware of our human fragility and weakness. We are sinners, but trusting in the mercy of God, we want to live with Christ in our lives.
6. The third word is joy and with this we think of the current Pontiff, Pope Francis. In Evangelii gaudium, the Holy Father wrote: “may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ”.10 Christians therefore, have said that the joy of Christ lies within them. In this regard, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “If Christ has risen, why are you so sad? You Christians doesn’t look like redeemed people”. How many times in fact do our faces contradict what we are as Christians; how many times our eyes are dull, sad, and unable to transmit the joy and Christian hope. We must therefore show the world our faith, and let’s do it with humble pride, full of gratitude for the extraordinary and amazing gift that we have undeservingly received. But what joy is it? It is not an easy, superficial joy but a joy that will never abandon us even in times of trial, and even when we are forced to evangelize with tears in our eyes.
We therefore keep in our hearts that salutary restlessness that drives us to be increasingly more of what we were baptized, to be as Christians, and therefore to bear witness to our faith with attitudes of gratitude and joy. In the church and in today’s society, there are many prophets of doom, but the world needs profits of hope; a hope that is strong, rooted, and built on rock. As the Holy Father Francis often says, “do not let anyone steal your hope!” And this is also my wish for all of you - members and consultors - as we conclude this last Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.