As we commemorate the 17th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I think again of the reflection Pope St John Paul II wrote shortly afterward on the occasion of the World Day of Peace. It was one of the very first things I posted on my website, doxaweb.com, after I launched it in 2001.
Forgiveness is in no way opposed to justice, as if to forgive meant to overlook the need to right the wrong done. It is rather the fullness of justice, leading to that tranquility of order which is much more than a fragile and temporary cessation of hostilities, involving as it does the deepest healing of the wounds which fester in human hearts. Justice and forgiveness are both essential to such healing….
No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness: I shall not tire of repeating this warning to those who, for one reason or another, nourish feelings of hatred, a desire for revenge or the will to destroy.
On this World Day of Peace, may a more intense prayer rise from the hearts of all believers for the victims of terrorism, for their families so tragically stricken, for all the peoples who continue to be hurt and convulsed by terrorism and war. May the light of our prayer extend even to those who gravely offend God and man by these pitiless acts, that they may look into their hearts, see the evil of what they do, abandon all violent intentions, and seek forgiveness. In these troubled times, may the whole human family find true and lasting peace, born of the marriage of justice and mercy!
Pope Saint John Paul II
Message for World Day of Peace 2002
The moral life proposed in the Gospel is connected to a promise. What is the character of this promise? In paragraph 12 of Veritatis Splendor, Pope Saint John Paul II takes up this very question.
12. Only God can answer the question about the good, because he is the Good. But God has already given an answer to this question: he did so by creating man and ordering him with wisdom and love to his final end, through the law which is inscribed in his heart (cf. Rom 2:15), the “natural law.” The latter “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation.”19 He also did so in the history of Israel, particularly in the “ten words,” the commandments of Sinai, whereby he brought into existence the people of the Covenant (cf. Ex 24) and called them to be his “own possession among all peoples,” “a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6), which would radiate his holiness to all peoples (cf. Wis 18:4; Ez 20:41). The gift of the Decalogue was a promise and sign of the New Covenant, in which the law would be written in a new and definitive way upon the human heart (cf. Jer 31:31-34), replacing the law of sin which had disfigured that heart (cf. Jer 17:1). In those days, “a new heart” would be given, for in it would dwell “a new spirit,” the Spirit of God (cf. Ez 36:24-28).20There are several senses — even several stages — in man’s relationship with goodness. It begins at creation, when man is fashioned in the image of Goodness itself. This is what Saint Paul is referring to in Romans when he writes about the law of God inscribed in the human heart. From the very beginning, the moral life is not “out there,” but is instead intimately connected to our very identity and the shape of our existence. The Pope lifts a beautiful description of this natural law from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Natural law is “nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided.”
But there is more. Not only are the requirements of goodness woven into our very existence as human beings; additionally, Goodness Himself comes in pursuit of us and reveals Himself to us in the course of human history. Goodness wants to be in continuous relationship with us, and thus extends to us a covenant. In the history of Israel, this initiative appears in a particular way when God reveals the Decalogue (ten commandments) to Moses. These commandments are the terms of the relationship… the way in which we can remain in relationship with the good. They are not arbitrary conditions on the part of God, but simply a fleshing out into words of the law written on our hearts at creation. In the Decalogue, God says to us, in effect: Here is who I am; here is who you are, both personally and corporately; and here is how you and I can remain in communion with each other.
And there is still more. Through the New Covenant, the requirements of this relationship will be written anew and definitively upon the human heart. The Pope quotes several passages in the Old Testament that prefigure this development, particularly from the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Consequently, after making the important clarification: “There is only one who is good,” Jesus tells the young man: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). In this way, a close connection is made between eternal life and obedience to God’s commandments: God’s commandments show man the path of life and they lead to it. From the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue. Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the way and condition of salvation. The commandments are linked to a promise. In the Old Covenant the object of the promise was the possession of a land where the people would be able to live in freedom and in accordance with righteousness (cf. Dt 6:20-25). In the New Covenant the object of the promise is the “Kingdom of Heaven”, as Jesus declares at the beginning of the “Sermon on the Mount” — a sermon which contains the fullest and most complete formulation of the New Law (cf. Mt 5-7), clearly linked to the Decalogue entrusted by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. This same reality of the Kingdom is referred to in the expression “eternal life,” which is a participation in the very life of God. It is attained in its perfection only after death, but in faith it is even now a light of truth, a source of meaning for life, an inchoate share in the full following of Christ. Indeed, Jesus says to his disciples after speaking to the rich young man: “Every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29).
Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant, does not abolish the commandments, but confirms them and proposes them anew. The Pope notices that the commandments are connected to a promise. While many today may think of the commandments primarily as a series of prohibitions, or perhaps even warnings, the essence of the commandments is that they are linked to a promise: the promise of life.
The commandments open a doorway for us… revealing new possibilities for grace to inhabit our lives. As the Pope says, they give us an inchoate (“just begun” or “rudimentary”) share in the full following of Christ.
In the Old Testament, the promise was connected to the gift of a land, and in the New, to the gift of a kingdom: the kingdom of God… eternal life. In proposing the way of perfection, Jesus does not ask us to give up our lands without promising us a new land, a new dwelling place: his own heart.
In this post, I’ll continue to examine the opening meditation of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s encyclical letter on the moral life.
“There is only one who is good” (Mt 19:17)
9. Jesus says: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). In the versions of the Evangelists Mark and Luke the question is phrased in this way: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18; cf. Lk 18:19).
Before answering the question, Jesus wishes the young man to have a clear idea of why he asked his question. The “Good Teacher” points out to him — and to all of us — that the answer to the question, “What good must I do to have eternal life?” can only be found by turning one’s mind and heart to the “One” who is good: “No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18; cf. Lk 18:19). Only God can answer the question about what is good, because he is the Good itself.
To ask about the good, in fact, ultimately means to turn towards God, the fullness of goodness. Jesus shows that the young man’s question is really a religious question, and that the goodness that attracts and at the same time obliges man has its source in God, and indeed is God himself. God alone is worthy of being loved “with all one’s heart, and with all one’s soul, and with all one’s mind” (Mt 22:37). He is the source of man’s happiness. Jesus brings the question about morally good action back to its religious foundations, to the acknowledgment of God, who alone is goodness, fullness of life, the final end of human activity, and perfect happiness.
John Paul II makes the connection between morality and faith by noticing that the question about the good is a religious question, ultimately… a question about the source of goodness. This understanding frees the moral life from being simply a series of human strictures about what should be done or not done. Many of us today have the sense that morality is largely about prohibitions, and some are tempted to suspect that these prohibitions arise from the desire of other human beings to oppress or use us. But the Pope notices that Jesus puts the focus on God as the source of the moral life… in a sense, Jesus gets out of the way, as if to say: the moral life is not about what one man wants from another, but about the good that God desires for us. The One who alone is good wants creation to share in His goodness.
10. The Church, instructed by the Teacher’s words, believes that man, made in the image of the Creator, redeemed by the Blood of Christ and made holy by the presence of the Holy Spirit, has as the ultimate purpose of his life to live “for the praise of God’s glory” (cf. Eph 1:12), striving to make each of his actions reflect the splendour of that glory. “Know, then, O beautiful soul, that you are the image of God“, writes Saint Ambrose. “Know that you are the glory of God (1 Cor 11:7). Hear how you are his glory. The Prophet says: Your knowledge has become too wonderful for me (cf. Ps. 138:6, Vulg.). That is to say, in my work your majesty has become more wonderful; in the counsels of men your wisdom is exalted. When I consider myself, such as I am known to you in my secret thoughts and deepest emotions, the mysteries of your knowledge are disclosed to me. Know then, O man, your greatness, and be vigilant.”17
What man is and what he must do becomes clear as soon as God reveals himself. The Decalogue is based on these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex 20:2-3). In the “ten words” of the Covenant with Israel, and in the whole Law, God makes himself known and acknowledged as the One who “alone is good”; the One who despite man’s sin remains the “model” for moral action, in accordance with his command, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2); as the One who, faithful to his love for man, gives him his Law (cf. Ex 19:9-24 and 20:18-21) in order to restore man’s original and peaceful harmony with the Creator and with all creation, and, what is more, to draw him into his divine love: “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev 26:12).
The moral life presents itself as the response due to the many gratuitous initiatives taken by God out of love for man. It is a response of love, according to the statement made in Deuteronomy about the fundamental commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children” (Dt 6:4-7). Thus the moral life, caught up in the gratuitousness of God’s love, is called to reflect his glory: “For the one who loves God it is enough to be pleasing to the One whom he loves: for no greater reward should be sought than that love itself; charity in fact is of God in such a way that God himself is charity.”18
The moral life touches the very core of man’s purpose and destiny: to live for the praise of God’s glory. Our purpose becomes clear when God reveals Himself as the Holy One and invites us into a relationship. The moral life is nothing other than the love by which we respond to this invitation.
And what is the reward of the moral life? As St. Leo the Great puts it, the reward is knowing the pleasure of the Beloved: For the one who loves God it is enough to be pleasing to the One whom he loves: for no greater reward should be sought than that love itself…. I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis has to say about glory as the experience of knowing God’s pleasure:
I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in his son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is. (from The Weight of Glory)
11. The statement that “There is only one who is good” thus brings us back to the “first tablet” of the commandments, which calls us to acknowledge God as the one Lord of all and to worship him alone for his infinite holiness (cf. Ex 20:2-11). The good is belonging to God, obeying him, walking humbly with him in doing justice and in loving kindness (cf. Mic 6:8). Acknowledging the Lord as God is the very core, the heart of the Law, from which the particular precepts flow and towards which they are ordered. In the morality of the commandments the fact that the people of Israel belongs to the Lord is made evident, because God alone is the One who is good. Such is the witness of Sacred Scripture, imbued in every one of its pages with a lively perception of God’s absolute holiness: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Is 6:3).
But if God alone is the Good, no human effort, not even the most rigorous observance of the commandments, succeeds in “fulfilling” the Law, that is, acknowledging the Lord as God and rendering him the worship due to him alone (cf. Mt 4:10). This “fulfilment” can come only from a gift of God: the offer of a share in the divine Goodness revealed and communicated in Jesus, the one whom the rich young man addresses with the words “Good Teacher” (Mk 10:17; Lk 18:18). What the young man now perhaps only dimly perceives will in the end be fully revealed by Jesus himself in the invitation: “Come, follow me” (Mt 19:21).
Belonging to God, and knowing the divine pleasure, is not something we can achieve by our own efforts, but is a gift of God offered to us, to which we can respond with the yes of our freedom.
In my next post, I’ll reflect on the relationship between life and the commandments: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
Today I’m continuing to unpack the first chapter of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s encyclical letter on the moral life.
“Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt 19:16)
8. The question which the rich young man puts to Jesus of Nazareth is one which rises from the depths of his heart. It is an essential and unavoidable question for the life of every man, for it is about the moral good which must be done, and about eternal life. The young man senses that there is a connection between moral good and the fulfilment of his own destiny. He is a devout Israelite, raised as it were in the shadow of the Law of the Lord. If he asks Jesus this question, we can presume that it is not because he is ignorant of the answer contained in the Law. It is more likely that the attractiveness of the person of Jesus had prompted within him new questions about moral good. He feels the need to draw near to the One who had begun his preaching with this new and decisive proclamation: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).
People today need to turn to Christ once again in order to receive from him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil. Christ is the Teacher, the Risen One who has life in himself and who is always present in his Church and in the world. It is he who opens up to the faithful the book of the Scriptures and, by fully revealing the Father’s will, teaches the truth about moral action. At the source and summit of the economy of salvation, as the Alpha and the Omega of human history (cf. Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), Christ sheds light on man’s condition and his integral vocation. Consequently, “the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly — and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being — must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter him with all his own self; he must ‘appropriate’ and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deeper wonder at himself.”16
If we therefore wish to go to the heart of the Gospel’s moral teaching and grasp its profound and unchanging content, we must carefully inquire into the meaning of the question asked by the rich young man in the Gospel and, even more, the meaning of Jesus’ reply, allowing ourselves to be guided by him. Jesus, as a patient and sensitive teacher, answers the young man by taking him, as it were, by the hand, and leading him step by step to the full truth.
The Pope’s vision of the moral life is a radical one — meaning that it goes to the root of the situation. It involves examining our inmost being — our heart — under the light of Christ. The quote from Redemptoris Hominis says it with lyrical force:
…the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly… must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter him with all his own self; he must ‘appropriate’ and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself.
Like a good surgeon, the Pope is not satisfied with band-aid solutions or mere pain killers. Open-heart surgery is the only satisfactory solution in the case of the heart of fallen man. In matters of life and death, glossing over the problem is a fatal mistake. Instead, we have to summon up all of our courage and trust, and lay everything bare before the divine physician. We have to face the truth about ourselves and our condition, and it is a confrontation that can stimulate panic in us if we do not entrust ourselves to the mercy of God.
Notice that the moral life begins by engaging our freedom. Christ isn’t going to force Himself upon us. We have to draw near to Christ, to willingly lay our lives before Him. Only then does He reveal us to ourselves and lead us into the paschal mystery of His dying and rising.
Given the fallen state which we have inherited, a mere self-evaluation of our moral life will never suffice. A simple checklist of our own weaknesses and failures, considered from a merely human point-of-view, will not give us an accurate picture of the situation, or provide the strength to overcome our failings. Instead, we must place ourselves before Christ, who reveals the Father’s will, offers us authentic self-knowledge, and extends to us a participation in the saving grace of His own death and resurrection. It’s not an easy process, but it is a simple one, and it is the only one that saves.
In my next post, I’ll begin reflecting on Christ’s response to the young man: “There is only one who is good.”