Dear brothers and sisters! It is with great joy that I extend my warm greetings to all of you who have gathered in this basilica for the liturgical Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, concluding the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, in this year when we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, that the Blessed John XXIII announced in this very basilica on January 25, 1959. The theme offered for our meditation in the Week of prayer which we conclude today, is: “All shall be changed by the victory of Jesus Christ our Lord” (cf. 1 Cor 15.51-58).
The meaning of this mysterious transformation, which our second short reading this evening speaks about, is admirably shown in the personal story of St. Paul. Following the extraordinary event happened on the road to Damascus, Saul, who was distinguished for the zeal with which he persecuted the early Church, was transformed into a tireless apostle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the story of this extraordinary evangelist, it is clear that this transformation is not the result of a long inner reflection and not even the result of personal effort. It is first and foremost by the grace of God who has acted according to his inscrutable ways. This is why Paul, writing to the Corinthian community a few years after his conversion, says, as we heard in the first reading for these Vespers: “By the grace of God, however, that is what I am, and his grace toward me did not been in vain “(1 Cor 15:10). Moreover, considering carefully the story of St. Paul, we understand how the transformation he experienced in his life is not limited to an ethical level – such as conversion from immorality to morality – or the intellectual level – such as a change in our way of understanding reality – but it is rather a radical renewal of our being, similar in many respects to a rebirth. This transformation has its basis in our participation in the mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and presents itself as a gradual process of being conformed to Him. In light of this awareness, St. Paul, when he later will be called to defend the legitimacy of his apostolic vocation and the gospel preached by him, will say: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.“(Gal 2.20).
St. Paul’s personal experience enables him to wait with grounded hope for the fulfillment of this mystery of transformation, which will come to all those who believed in Jesus Christ but also all of humanity and all of creation. In the second short reading that was proclaimed tonight, St. Paul, after a lengthy discussion designed to strengthen the faithful in the hope of the resurrection, he uses traditional images of apocalyptic literature, contemporary to him, and in a few lines describes the great Day of the Last Judgement, on which the destiny of humanity will be accomplished: “In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet sounds… the dead shall be raised imperishable and we shall be changed as well “(1 Cor 15.52). On that day, all believers will be conformed to Christ and all that is corruptible will be transformed by His glory: “our present perishable nature must put on imperishability and this mortal nature must put on immortality” (v. 53) . So the triumph of Christ will be finally complete, because, says St. Paul, showing how the ancient prophecies of Scripture are fulfilled, death will finally be conquered, and with it, the sin which brought it into the world and the Law which empowers sin without giving the strength to overcome it: “Death is swallowed up in victory. / Where, O death, is your victory? / Where, O death is your sting? / The sting of death is sin, and sin gets its power from the Law “(vv. 54-56). St. Paul tells us, therefore, that every man, through baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, shares in the victory of the One who first conquered death, beginning a journey of transformation which shows itself even now in a new life and will culminate at the end of time.
It is very significant that this reading ends with a thanksgiving: “Let us thank God, for giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 57). The song of victory over death is transformed into a song of gratitude to the conquerer. And we too this evening, as we raise our evening praises to God, we want to unite our voices, our minds and hearts to this hymn of thanksgiving for what God’s grace has done through the apostle of the Gentiles and for the wonderful plan of salvation that God the Father does in us through the Lord Jesus Christ. As we lift our prayers to him, we are confident that we will be transformed and conformed to the image of Christ. This is particularly true in our prayer for Christian unity. In fact, when we plead for the gift of unity of the disciples of Christ, we make ours the desire expressed by Jesus Christ on the eve of his passion and death in the prayer to his Father: “May they all be one” (Jn 17.21). For this reason, the prayer for Christian unity is nothing less than our participation in the realization of his divine plan for the Church, and our active commitment to the restoration of unity is both a duty and a great responsibility for all.
these days the painful situation of our divisions, we Christians can and must look to the future with hope, because Christ’s victory means to overcome everything that keeps us from sharing the fullness of life with Him and with others. The resurrection of Jesus Christ confirms that the goodness of God overcomes evil, love overcomes death. He accompanies us in the fight against the destructive power of sin that harms humanity and all of God’s creation. The presence of the risen Christ calls all Christians to act together for the common good. United in Christ, we are called to share his mission, which is to bring hope to the places where there is injustice, hatred and despair. Our divisions diminish our witness to Christ. The goal of full unity, which we await with active hope and for which we pray with confidence, is a secondary victory but important for the good of the human family.
In the dominant culture of today, the idea of victory is often associated with immediate success. For the Christian, however, victory is a long and, in the eyes of men, a not always linear process of transformation and growth in goodness. It is achieved according to God’s timing, not ours, and requires of us a profound faith and patient endurance. Although the Kingdom of God breaks into history with the resurrection of Jesus, it is not yet fully realized. The final victory will only come with the second coming of the Lord, which we await with patient hope. Also our expectation for the visible unity of the Church must be patient and confident. Only in this attitude can our prayers and our daily commitment to Christian unity find their full meaning. The attitude of patient waiting does not mean passivity or resignation, but a response to be ready and alert to every possibility of communion and brotherhood, which the Lord gives us.
In this spiritual atmosphere, I would like to greet in a special way Cardinal Monterisi, Archpriest of this Basilica, the abbot of the Benedictine Community that welcomes us. I greet Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and all the staff of that council. I extend my cordial and fraternal greetings to His Eminence Metropolitan Gennadios, representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and to Rev. Canon Richardson, Personal Representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to Rome, as well as all the representatives of different Churches and Ecclesial Communities, gathered here this evening. Also, I am particularly pleased to welcome members of the Working Group made up of representatives of different Churches and Ecclesial Communities in Poland, who prepared the texts for the Week of Prayer this year, to whom I would like to express my gratitude and My wish that they continue on the path of reconciliation and fruitful collaboration. I also warmly greet members of the Global Christian Forum, who are in Rome these days to reflect on the enlargement of their participation in the ecumenical movement. I also greet the group of students of the Bossey Ecumenical Institute of the world Council of Churches.
I wish to entrust to the intercession of St. Paul all those who, with their prayers and their efforts, work for the cause of Christian unity. Although sometimes we may get the impression that the road towards the full restoration of communion is still very long and full of obstacles, I invite everyone to renew their determination to pursue with courage and generosity, the unity that is the will of God, following the example of St. Paul, who faced with difficulties of all kinds, always maintained full confidence in God who brings his work to fruition. Moreover, we can see positive signs of a renewed sense of brotherhood and a shared responsibility toward the great problems that afflict our world. All this is cause for great hope and joy and should encourage us to continue our commitment to reach the finish line together, knowing that in the Lord we cannot be labouring in vain(cf. 1 Cor 15.58).