7th DAY OF NOVENDIALI
JOHN PAUL II
HOMILY OF CARD. NASRALLAH PIERRE SFEIR
St Peter's Basilica
First of all, I believe it is essential to address warm thanks to the Members of the College of Cardinals for having arranged the celebration of a Divine Liturgy for the Eastern Churches, in the context of the Novendiali, for the repose of the Roman Pontiff's soul. These Masses are being celebrated in this Basilica of St Peter's, the place where Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, used to celebrate the common Father of the faithful. It was also from here that he addressed his luminous teaching to the Church throughout the world.
From the very beginning of his Pontificate, Pope John Paul lI fully complied with Christ's injunction to Peter, "Strengthen your brethren". He thereby showed his awareness that this order was addressed to him personally, as a Successor of Peter, as it had been addressed to his Predecessors throughout the 2,000 years of the Church's history.
He did his utmost in his quarter-of-a-century Pontificate to obey this order, seeing as brethren not only those bound to him in the Catholic Church by the priesthood and the Episcopate, but also all who believe in Christ, even if they are not fully united with the Catholic Church.
Moreover, he considered that every human being must be accepted as a brother or sister.
I therefore limit my words to describing briefly and clearly all that our late lamented Pontiff did to strengthen in the faith his brethren of the Eastern Churches.
As Successor of Peter, his concern was for the whole Church, that of the West and that of the East, the Church rooted in every land, established beneath every sky.
He spared no efforts to consolidate relations with those Oriental Churches that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church.
At the beginning of each year, the beloved Pontiff would give instructions for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity found him totally available, encouraging and supportive. From the outset of his Petrine ministry, he made a series of journeys that enabled him to open himself to all his brethren with extreme simplicity and affection.
He retained the openness of his Predecessor, Pope Paul VI, who met the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. He exchanged visits with various Orthodox Patriarchs and offered them hospitality at the Vatican on several occasions.
His Encyclical Ut Unum Sint lives on as a shining achievement; it was promulgated on 25 May 1995. In it John Paul II treated the problems of ecumenism, and the Document is an eloquent witness of his concern for Christian unity.
He never ceased to foster dialogue with the Christians of different denominations, showing total respect for them all, both Orthodox and Protestant, and considering both as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Do we not read in his Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, "The Catholic Church embraces with hope the commitment to ecumenism as a duty of the Christian conscience enlightened by faith and guided by love" (n. 8)?
With this affirmation, John Paul II was referring to the Second Vatican Council, in which he played an important role, and in particular, to the Document of this Council on the restoration of unity (Unitatis Redintegratio), which he cited in this same Encyclical: "To the extent that these elements are found in other Christian Communities, the one Church of Christ is effectively present in them" (ibid., n. 11).
Yes, John Paul II worked hard for ecumenism and was just as concerned for the Eastern Catholic Churches. He equipped them with a Code of Canon Law in line with the Latin Code that had been compiled a few years earlier. He recently chose to entrust the Congregation for the Oriental Churches to one of the most distinguished Prelates of these Churches so that he might look after their affairs.
He also followed closely and with fatherly solicitude the problems that those Churches, in one of the most complicated geographical and historical contexts, are obliged to face. His Visits to their countries: Lebanon, Syria, the Balkans, India, Palestine, Israel, etc., clearly show the weight of his concern and his desire to see them prosper in the faith and preserve their ancient traditions as Mother Churches.
The late Pontiff established better relations with the Arab world and especially with Islam. In his Apostolic Exhortation "A New Hope for Lebanon", he wrote: "Open to dialogue and collaboration with the Muslims of Lebanon, the Catholic Church also wants to be open to dialogue and collaboration with the Muslims in other Arab countries, one of which is Lebanon" (n. 93).
The courageous positions he took to promote peace in the Gulf and in Iraq are the reason why we are reflecting on them in this meditation. He had the disappointment, however, of not being able to visit Iraq in order to follow in Abraham's footsteps in Mesopotamia.
Lastly, John Paul II did not want to ignore the faithful of non-Christian religions. He twice invited them to Assisi where he wanted to pray with them in the ways prescribed by the sacred books proper to each one.
He was in the habit of addressing Messages to them, through the Roman Dicasteries that take care of relations with non-Christian believers, on the occasion of some of their specifically important religious feasts.
Moreover, desiring to make contact with the Islamic world, he went to meet the Muslims in their own countries, such as Morocco, Turkey and various African countries.
His openness to non-Christian religions did not prevent him from addressing severe admonishments to them whenever, in one or other of those countries, human rights were totally ignored. Nor did he agree to establish diplomatic relations with countries that deny Christians the right to exist or the right to express their faith in the religious practices dictated by their conscience and enlightened by their faith.
He took all these courageous stances, not out of contempt but rather with a spirit of rectitude and loyalty.
At the moment when the whole world was present in St Peter's, not only the Catholic faithful but also the faithful of other religions as well as almost all the Heads of State, we all prayed in our own way that the Lord would grant his beloved Pontiff John Paul II the peace of the Just.
We can now pray that the Good Shepherd who called him to the Petrine service will reward him, calling him home to his House. Our prayers also intend to obtain as soon as possible recognition on earth of the holiness that he already enjoys in Heaven.