ROME, JAN. 26, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the homily Benedict XVI gave Wednesday evening at Vespers on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The celebration closed the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
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Dear brothers and sisters!
It is with great joy that I address a warm greeting to all of you who are gathered in this basilica on the liturgical fest of the Conversion of St. Paul to conclude the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in this year in which we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Council II, which Blessed John XXIII announced here in this basilica on Jan. 25, 1959. The theme offered for our meditation during the Week of Prayer that we are concluding today is: “We Will All Be Changed By the Victory of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51-58).
The meaning of this mysterious transformation, of which the second short reading this evening speaks, is marvelously shown in the event of St. Paul. Following the extraordinary happening on the road to Damascus, Saul, who distinguished himself by the zeal with which he persecuted the young Church, was transformed into an indefatigable apostle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the event of this extraordinary evangelizer it is clear that such a change is not the result of a long interior reflection nor the fruit of a personal effort. It is first of all the work of the grace of God operating in its inscrutable way. This is why Paul, writing to Corinth some years after his conversion, states, as we heard in the first reading of these vespers: “By the grace of God … I am what I am, and his grace in me has not been ineffective” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Moreover, considering the event of St. Paul we understand that the transformation that he experienced in his existence was not limited to the ethical dimension — as a conversion from immorality to morality — nor to the intellectual dimension — as change in his way of seeing reality — but it is a matter rather of a radical renewal in his own being, similar in many aspects to a rebirth. Such a transformation has its foundation in the participation in the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it is delineated as a gradual journey of conformation to Christ. In light of this awareness, St. Paul, when he will later be called to defend the legitimacy of his apostolic vocation and the Gospel that he proclaimed, will say: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And this life that I live in the body I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).
The personal experience lived by St. Paul allowed him to await with a reasonable hope for the fulfillment of this mystery of transformation, which will affect all those who have believed in Jesus Christ and all humanity and the whole of creation as well. In the second short reading that was proclaimed this evening, St. Paul, after having developed a long argument aimed at reinforcing hope of the resurrection in the faithful, using the traditional images of the contemporary apocalyptic literature, describes in a few lines the great day of the final judgment in which the destiny of humanity is met: “In an instant, the twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet … the dead will rise uncorrupted and we will be transformed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). On that day, all believers will be conformed to Christ and all that is mortal will be transformed by his glory: “It is necessary, in fact,” says St. Paul, “that this corruptible body be clothed in incorruptibility and that this mortal body be clothed in immortality” (15:53). Then the triumph of Christ will finally be complete, because, St. Paul continues, showing how the ancient prophecies of the Scriptures will be realized, death will be definitively vanquished and, with it, sin that brought death into the world and the Law that determines sin without giving the power to overcome it: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Death is the sting of sin and the Law is the power of sin” (15:54-56). St. Paul tells us, thus, that every man, through baptism in the death and resurrection of Christ, participates in the victory of him who first defeated death, opening a path of transformation that is manifested from thence in a newness of life and that will reach its goal in the fullness of time.
It is quite significant that the passage concludes with a thanksgiving: “May thanks be given to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:57). The canticle of victory over death becomes a canticle of gratitude lifted up to the Victor. We too this evening, celebrating the evening praises of God, would like to join our voices, our minds and our hearts to this hymn of thanksgiving for what divine grace has worked in the Apostle of the Gentiles and through the wondrous salvific design of God the Father has accomplished in us through the Lord Jesus Christ. As we lift up our prayer, we are confident that we too will be transformed and conformed to Christ’s image. This is particularly true for the prayer for the unity of Christians. When we in fact implore the gift of unity of Christ’s disciples, we make our own the desire expressed by Jesus Christ in the prayer to the Father on the eve of his passion and death: “that all may be one” (John 17:21). For this reason, the prayer for the unity of Christians is nothing other than a participation in the realization of the divine plan for the Church, and the active commitment to the re-establishment of unity is a duty and a great responsibility for all.
Despite experiencing in our days the painful situation of division, we Christians can and must look to the future with hope insofar as the victory of Christ means the overcoming of all that prevents us from sharing the fullness of life with him and with others. Jesus Christ’s resurrection confirms that the goodness of God defeats evil; love overcomes death. He accompanies us in the struggle against the destructive force of sin that damages humanity and the entire creation of God. The presence of the risen Christ calls all of us Christians to act together in the cause of the good. United to Christ we are called to share his mission, which is that of bringing hope where injustice, hatred and desperation dominate. Our divisions dim the luminousness of our witness to Christ. The goal of complete unity that we await in active hope and that we pray for with confidence, is not a secondary victory but has importance for the good of the human family.
In today’s dominant culture the idea of victory is often associated with an immediate success. In the Christian perspective, however, victory is a long — and in the eyes of us men — not an always linear process of transformation and growth in the good. It happens in God’s timeframes, not ours, and it demands of us a profound faith and patient perseverance. If it is true that the Kingdom of God definitively irrupts in history in the resurrection of Jesus, it is still not fully realized. The final victory will happen only with the Lord’s second coming, which we await with patient hope. Even our expectation of the Church’s visible unity must be patient and confident. Our daily prayer and efforts for the unity of Christians have their meaning only in such a disposition. The attitude of patient waiting does not entail passivity or resignation but a prompt and attentive response to every possibility of communion and fraternity that the Lord grants us.
In this spiritual climate I would like to offer some special greetings, in the first place to Cardinal Monterisi, archpriest of this basilica, to the abbot and the community of Benedictine monks who host us. I greet Cardinal Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and to all the members of this dicastery. I offer my cordial and fraternal greetings to his Eminence the Metropolitan Gennadios, representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Reverend Canon Richardson, personal representative in Rome of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to all the representatives of the various Churches and ecclesial Communities gathered here this evening.
I entrust to the intercession of St. Paul all of those who with their prayer and their work commit themselves to the cause of the unity of Christians. Even if we can at times have the impression that the road toward complete re-establishment of communion is still very long and full of obstacles, I invite everyone to renew their determination to continue, with courage and generosity, the unity willed by God, following St. Paul’s example, who, in the face of difficulties of every sort always maintained firm confidence in God, who brings his work to completion. After all, along this journey there are not lacking positive signs of a rediscovered fraternity and of a shared sense of responsibility before the great problems that afflict humanity. All of this is reason for joy and great hope and must encourage us to continue our commitment to arrive together at the final goal, knowing that our toil is not in vain in the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:58). Amen.