What follows is the translation made available by ZENIT of the important speech given by the Holy at the Seminary of the Diocese of Rome on Febuary 14th (pointed out by Rorate Caeli). The Holy Father argues against historical critics who have tried to discredit the idea of Peter as the first bishop of Rome: “Saint Peter writes from Rome. It is important that we already have the Bishop of Rome, we have the beginning of the succession, we have already the beginning of the concrete primacy located in Rome, not only consigned by the Lord, but located here, in this city, in this capital of the world.”
The reflection draws from 1 Peter 1:3-5: “Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
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Dear Brothers in the Episcopate and Priesthood,
It is a great joy for me to be with you every year, to see so many young men who walk toward the priesthood, who are attentive to the voice of the Lord, who wish to follow this voice and seek the way to serve the Lord in this our time.
We heard three verses of the First Letter of Saint Peter (cf. 1:3-5). Before going into this text, it seems important to me to be attentive to the fact that it is Peter who is speaking. The first two words of the Letter are “Petrus apostolus” (cf. v. 1): he speaks, and he speaks to the Churches in Asia and calls the faithful “chosen and exiles of the Dispersion” (ibidem). Let us reflect a bit on this. Peter speaks, and he speaks – as we hear at the end of the Letter – of Rome, which he calls “Babylon” (cf. 5:13). Peter speaks: it is almost a first encyclical, with which the first Apostle, vicar of Christ, speaks to the Church of all times.
Peter, apostle. Hence, he speaks who has found Christ Jesus the Messiah of God, who has spoken as the first in the name of the future Church: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (cf. Matthew 16:16). He is speaking who has introduced us to this faith. He speaks to whom the Lord said: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (cf. Matthew 16:19), to whom he entrusted his flock after the Resurrection, saying to him three times: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep” (cf. John 21:15-17). Speaking also is the man who fell, who denied Jesus and who had the grace to see Jesus’ glance, to be touched in his heart and to have found forgiveness and a renewal of his mission. However, it is important that this man, full of passion, of desire for God, of desire for the kingdom of God, for the Messiah, that this man who found Jesus, the Lord and the Messiah, is also the man who sinned, who fell, and yet he remained under the eyes of the Lord and thus remains responsible for the Church of God, he remains entrusted by Christ to be the bearer of his love.
Peter the apostle is speaking, but the exegetes tell us: it is not possible that this Letter is of Peter, because the Greek is so good that it cannot be the Greek of a fisherman of the Lake of Galilee. And not only the language, the structure of the language is optimal, but also the thought is now quite mature, there are already concrete formulas in which the faith and the reflection of the Church is condensed. Hence, they say: it is already a state of development that cannot be Peter’s. How to respond? There are two important positions: first, Peter himself – namely the Letter – which gives us a key because at the end of the writing he says: “I have written to you through Silvanus – by Silvanus.” This through [by] can mean several things: it can mean that he [Silvanus] transports, transmits; it can mean that he helped in the writing; it can mean that he was really the practical writer. In any case, we can conclude that the Letter itself tells us that Peter was not alone in writing this Letter, but expresses the faith of a Church that is already on the path of faith, an ever more mature faith. He does not write by himself, an isolated individual, he writes with the help of the Church, of the persons who help to deepen the faith, to enter into the profundity of its thought, of its reasonableness, of its profundity. And this is very important: Peter does not speak as an individual, he speaks ex persona Ecclesiae, he speaks as man of the Church, certainly as a person, with his personal responsibility, but also as a person who speaks in the name of the Church: not just his private ideas, not as a genius of the 19th century who wished to express only personal, original ideas, which no one was able to express before. No. He does not speak as an individualistic genius, but speaks in fact in the communion of the Church. In Revelation, in the initial vision of Christ, it is said that the voice of Christ is the sound of many waters (cf. Revelation 1:15). This means that the voice of Christ gathers all the waters of the world, he bears in himself all the living waters that give life to the world; he is Person, but in fact this is the greatness of the Lord, who bears in himself the whole river of the Old Testament, in fact of the wisdom of the peoples. And what is said here about the Lord is true, in another way, also for the apostle, who does not wish to say his own word, but really bears in himself the waters of the faith, the waters of the whole Church, and thus, in fact, of fertility, of fecundity and precisely because of this, he is a personal witness that opens to the Lord, and so becomes open and wide. Therefore, this is important.
Then it also seems important to me that in the conclusion of the Letter Silvanus and Mark are named, two persons who also belong to Saint Paul’s friendships. Thus, through this conclusion, the worlds of Saint Peter and Saint Paul go together: it is not an exclusively Petrine theology against a Pauline theology, but it is a theology of the Church, of the faith of the Church, in which there is diversity – certainly – of temperament, of thought, of style — in speaking between Paul and Peter. It is good that these diversities exist, also today, diverse charisms, diverse temperaments; however, they are not conflicting and are united in the common faith.
I would also like to say one thing: Saint Peter writes from Rome. It is important that we already have the Bishop of Rome, we have the beginning of the succession, we have already the beginning of the concrete primacy located in Rome, not only consigned by the Lord, but located here, in this city, in this capital of the world. How did Peter come to Rome? This is a serious question. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that, after his escape from Herod’s prison, he went to another place (cf. 12:17) – eis eteron topon – it is not known to which other place; some say Antioch, some say Rome. In any case, in this chapter, it is also said that, before escaping he entrusted the Judeo-Christian Church, the Church of Jerusalem, to James and, though entrusting it to James, he still remained Primate of the universal Church, of the Church of the pagans, but also of the Judeo-Christian Church. And here in Rome he found a large Judeo-Christian community. The liturgists tell us that in the Roman Canon there are traces of the typically Judeo-Christian language; thus we see that both parts of the Church were in Rome: the Judeo-Christian and the pagan-Christian, united, expression of the universal Church. And certainly for Peter the passage from Jerusalem to Rome is the passage to the universality of the Church, the passage of the Church of the pagans and of all times, to the Church which is also always of the Jews. And I think that, going to Rome, Saint Peter not only thought of this passage: Jerusalem/Rome, Judeo-Christian Church/universal Church. He certainly also remembered the last words Jesus addressed to him, reported by Saint John: “At the end, you will go where you do not wish to go. You will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you” (cf. John 21:18). It is a prophecy of the crucifixion. The philologists show us that it is a precise, technical expression, this “stretching out the hands,” for the crucifixion. Saint Peter knew that his end would be martyrdom, that it would be the cross. And thus, he would be in the complete following of Christ. Hence, by going to Rome he was certainly going also to martyrdom: martyrdom awaited him in Babylon. Therefore, the primacy has this content of universality, but also a martyrological content. From the beginning, Rome was also a place of martyrdom. Going to Rome, Peter accepts again this word of the Lord: go to the Cross, and he also invites us to accept the martyrological aspect of Christianity, which can have many different forms. And the cross can have many different forms, but no one can be a Christian without following the Crucified One, without also accepting the martyrological moment.
After these words on the sender, a brief word also on the persons to whom it is written. I have already said that Saint Peter describes those to whom he writes with the words “eklektois parepidemois,” “to the chosen that are dispersed exiles” (cf. 1 Peter 1:1). We have again this paradox of glory and cross: chosen but dispersed and exiles. Chosen: this was Israel’s title of glory: we are the chosen, God has chosen us little people not because we are great – says Deuteronomy – but because He loves us (cf. 7:7-8). We are chosen: Saint Peter now transfers this to all the baptized, and the content itself of the first chapters of his First Letter is that the baptized enter in the privileges of Israel, they are the new Israel. Chosen: it seems to me worthwhile to reflect on this word. We are chosen. God has always known us, before our birth, our conception. God willed me to be a Christian, a Catholic; He willed me to be a priest. God has thought of me, has sought me among millions, among so many. He has seen me and chosen me, not for my merits, of which there were none, but because of his goodness; He wanted me to be bearer of his election, which is always also a mission, above all a mission, and responsibility for the others. Chosen: we must be grateful and joyful for this fact. God has thought of me, has chosen me as a Catholic, as bearer of his Gospel, as priest. It seems to me worthwhile to reflect several times on this, and to re-enter again in this fact of his election: He has chosen me, He has willed me. Now I respond.
Perhaps today we are tempted to say: you do not want to be joyful for being chosen, it would be triumphalism. It would be triumphalism if we thought that God chose me because I am so great. This would really be mistaken triumphalism. However, to be happy because God has willed me is not triumphalism, but gratitude, and I think that we must learn this joy again: God willed that I be born so, in a Catholic family, that I know Jesus from the beginning. What a gift to be willed by God, so that I have been able to know his face, I have been able to know Jesus Christ, the human face of God, the human history of God in this world! To be joyful because he chose me to be Catholic, to be in this Church of his, where subsistit Ecclesia unica; we must be joyful because God has given us this grace, this beauty of knowing the fullness of the truth of God, the joy of his love.
Chosen: it is at the same time a word of privilege and of humility. But “chosen” is – as I said – accompanied by “parapidemois,” dispersed, exiles. As Christians we are dispersed and exiles; we see that today Christians are the most persecuted group in the world because they do not conform, because they are a stimulus against the tendencies of egoism, materialism, of all these things.
We Christians are certainly not only exiles; we are also Christian nations, we are proud of having contributed to the formation of a culture, there is a healthy patriotism, a healthy joy of belonging to a nation that has a great history of culture, of faith. Yet, as Christians, we are always exiles – the fate of Abraham, described in the Letter to the Hebrews. As Christians we are in fact today always exiles. In work places Christians are a minority, they are in a situation of exile; it is a wonder that one can still believe and live like this today. This also belongs to our life: it is a way of being with Christ Crucified, this being exiles, not living in the way that everyone lives, but living – or at least trying to live – according to his Word, in great difference from what everyone says. And this is in fact characteristic of Christians. All say: “but everyone does so, why not I?” No, not I, because I want to live according to God. Saint Augustine said once: “Christians are those that do not have their roots down here as do the trees, but they have their roots above, and they live not in the natural gravitation towards below.” Let us pray to the Lord that He help us to accept this mission of living as dispersed persons, as a minority, in a certain sense; of living as exiles and yet of being responsible for others and, precisely in this way, giving strength to the good of our world.
We come finally to the three verses of today. I would only like to stress or, let us say, interpret as well as I can, three words: the word regenerated, the word inheritance, the word custodians of the faith. Regenerated – anaghennesas, says the Greek text – means: to be Christian is not simply a decision of my will, an idea of mine. I see that it is a group that please me, so I become a member of this group, I share their objectives, etc. No: to be Christian is not to enter in a group to do something, it is not just an act of my will, not primarily of my will, of my reason: it is an act of God. Regenerated does not concern only the sphere of the will, of thought, but the sphere of being. I am reborn: this means that to become Christian is first of all passive; I cannot make myself a Christian, but I come to be reborn, I come remade by the Lord in the profundity of my being. And I enter this process of rebirth, I let myself be transformed, renewed, regenerated. This seems very important to me: as a Christian I do not have an idea that I share with some others, and if I no longer like them, I can leave. No: in fact it concerns the depth of my being, that is, to become a Christian begins with an action of God, above all an action of His, and I let myself be formed and transformed.
It seems to me this is matter for reflection, for meditation, precisely in a year in which we reflect on the Sacraments of Christian initiation. To meditate on this passive and active depth of the regenerated being, of the becoming of a whole Christian life, of letting myself be transformed by his Word, for the communion of the Church, for the life of the Church, for the signs with which the Lord works in me, works with me and for me. And to be reborn, to be regenerated, indicates also that I thus enter into a new family: God, my Father, the Church, my Mother, other Christians, my brothers and sisters. Hence, to be regenerated, to let oneself be regenerated also implies letting oneself be inserted willingly in this family, to live for God the Father and from God the Father, to live from communion with Christ his Son, who regenerates me by his Resurrection, as the Letter says (cf. 1 Peter 1:3), to live with the Church letting myself be formed by the Church in so many senses, in so many ways, and to be open to my brothers, to really recognize in others my brothers, who are regenerated with me, transformed, renewed; one bears responsibility for the other. Hence a responsibility of Baptism which is a process of a whole lifetime.
Second word: inheritance. It is a very important word in the Old Testament, where Abraham is told that his seed will inherit the earth, and this was always his promise to his own: You will have the earth, you will be heirs of the earth. In the New Testament, this word becomes a word for us: we are heirs, not of a determined country, but of God’s land, of God’s future. Inheritance is something of the future, and so above all, this word says that as Christians we have the future: the future is ours, the future is God’s. And thus, being Christians, we know that the future is ours and the tree of the Church is not a dying tree, but a tree that always grows again. Therefore, we have reason not to let ourselves be affected –as Pope John said – by the prophets of gloom, who say: well, the Church is a tree that came from the mustard seed, which grew in two millennia, which now has time behind her, and now is the time in which she dies.” No. The Church always renews herself, is always reborn. The future is ours. Of course, there is a false optimism and a false pessimism. A false pessimism that says: the time of Christianity has ended. No: it begins again! The false optimism was that after the Council, when convents were closing, seminaries were closing, and they said: but … nothing is wrong, everything is all right … No! Everything is not all right. There are also grave, dangerous falls, and we must acknowledge them with healthy realism, that this is not right, it is not all right when things are mistaken. But at the same time we must also be certain that if here and there the Church is dying because of men’s sins, because of their unbelief, at the same time she is reborn. The future is truly God’s: this is the great certainty of our life, the great, true optimism that we know. The Church is the tree of God who lives in eternity and bears in herself eternity and the true inheritance: eternal life.
And, finally, custodians of the faith. The text of the New Testament, of the Letter of Saint Peter, uses here a strange word, phrouroumrnoi, which means: there are “the guardians,” and the faith is as “the guardian” that guards the integrity of my being, of my faith. This word interprets above all the “guardians” of the doors of a city, where they are and guard the city, so that it is not invaded by powers of destruction. In this way the faith is “guardian” of my being, of my life, of my inheritance. We must be grateful for this vigilance of the faith that protects us, helps us, guides us, gives us security: God does not let me fall out of his hands. Custodians of the faith: so I end. Speaking of the faith I must always think of that sick Syro-Phoenician woman who, in the midst of the crowds, found access to Jesus, touches him to be cured, and is cured. The Lord says: “Who touched me?” They say to him: “But Lord, everyone touches you, how can you ask, who has touched me?” (cf. Mark 7:24-30). But the Lord knows: there is a way of touching Him, superficial, external, which has really nothing to do with a real encounter with Him. And there is a way of touching Him profoundly. And this woman really touched him: touched Him not only with her hand, but with her heart and thus she received the healing strength of Christ, touching Him really from within, from faith. This is faith: to touch with the hand of faith, to touch Christ with our heart and thus enter into the strength of his life, the healing strength of the Lord. And we pray to the Lord that we will be able to touch Him ever more and so be healed. We pray that He not let us fall, that He hold us always by the hand and so guard us for the true life. Thank you.