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The Identity of Christ

General Audience — January 7, 1987

—    Authentic catechesis

"Who do you say that I am?" (Mt 16:15).

In beginning the series of reflections on Jesus Christ, which are of fundamental importance for the faith and Christian life, we are faced with the same question which the Master addressed Peter and the disciples who were with him about two thousand years ago. The Gospel of Matthew, who was a witness, relates that in that decisive moment, "When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, 'Who do men say that the Son of Man is?' And they said, 'Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' He said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?'" (Mt 16:13-15).

We know Peter's frank and impetuous response: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16). So that we may be able to formulate it not only in abstract terms, but as the expression of a living experience, the fruit of the gift of the Father (cf. Mt 26:17), each one of us must let himself be touched personally by the question: "And you, who do you say that I am? You who hear me spoken of, answer me. What do I really mean for you?" Peter's divine illumination and response of faith came after a long period of living close to Jesus, hearing his words and observing his life and ministry (cf. Mt 16:21-24).

In our case also, in order to make a more conscious profession of faith in Jesus Christ, we must, like Peter, listen attentively and carefully. We must follow in the school of the first disciples who had become his witnesses and our teachers. At the same time we must accept the experience and testimony of no less than twenty centuries of history marked by the Master's question and enriched by the immense chorus of responses of the faithful of all times and places. Today, while the Spirit, "the Lord and Giver of Life" impels us toward the threshold of the third Christian millennium, we are called to give with renewed joy the response which God inspires and awaits from us, as if for a new birth of Jesus Christ in our history.

Jesus' question about his identity shows the pedagogical shrewdness of one who does not trust hasty responses. He desires an answer matured over a sometimes lengthy period of reflection and prayer, in the attentive and intense hearing of the truth of the Christian faith as professed and practiced by the Church.

We recognize that in the presence of Jesus we cannot be satisfied with a merely human sympathy, however legitimate and valuable. Nor is it sufficient to consider him solely as a personage worthy of historical, theological, spiritual and social interest, or as a source of artistic inspiration. In regard to Christ we frequently see, even among Christians, the shadows of ignorance, or more painfully still, those of misunderstanding, if not of downright unbelief. There is always the risk of appealing to the "Gospel of Jesus" without really knowing its grandeur and all-embracing nature, and without living in accordance with what we profess. How many reduce the Gospel to their own measure and make for themselves a more convenient Jesus. They deny his transcendent divinity, or dismiss his real, historical humanity. They even manipulate the integrity of his message, especially by not bearing in mind the sacrifice of the cross which dominates his life and doctrine, or the Church which he instituted as his "sacrament" in history.

Even these shadows stimulate us to search for the full truth about Jesus. We can take advantage of the many insights which, as once in the case of Peter, the Father has provided down the centuries concerning Jesus in the hearts of so many persons by the power of the Holy Spirit—the insights of witnesses faithful to the point of martyrdom; the insights of so many dedicated scholars seeking to fathom the mystery of Jesus by using intelligence enlightened by faith; the insights which in particular the Magisterium of the Church, guided by the charism of the Holy Spirit, has provided in the dogmatic definitions concerning Jesus Christ.

We recognize that an urge to discover who Jesus really is, is present in the uncertain and anxious search of many of our contemporaries. They are like Nicodemus who went "by night to find Jesus" (cf. Jn 3:2), or like Zacchaeus who climbed a tree to "see Jesus" (cf. Lk 19:4). The desire to help everyone discover Jesus, who came to heal the sick and save sinners (cf. Mk 2:17), urges me to carry out the demanding and moving task of presenting the figure of Jesus to the members of the Church and to every person of good will.

Perhaps you will recall that at the beginning of my pontificate I addressed to all the invitation to "throw open the doors to Christ" (L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, November 2, l978, p. 1). Later, in the Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, as the spokesman of the mind of the bishops of the Fourth Synod, I stated that "the primary and essential object of catechesis is...the 'mystery of Christ.' Catechizing is in a way to lead a person to study this mystery in all its dimensions...to reveal in the Person of Christ the whole of God's eternal design reaching fulfillment in that Person.... Only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity" (CT 5).

In this catechetical series we shall consider four central points: 1) Jesus in his historical reality and in his transcendent messianic character, son of Abraham, Son of Man and Son of God; 2) Jesus in his identity as true God and true man, in profound communion with the Father and animated by the power of the Holy Spirit as he is presented to us in the Gospel; 3) Jesus as seen by the eyes of the Church which with the assistance of the Holy Spirit has elucidated and investigated the data of revelation by giving us, especially in the ecumenical councils, precise formulations of the Christological faith; 4) finally, Jesus in his life and in his works, Jesus in his redemptive passion and in his glorification, Jesus in our midst and within us, in history and in his Church until the end of the world (cf. Mt. 28:20).

1.  Authentic catechesis

It is indeed true that in the Church there are many ways of catechizing the People of God in regard to Jesus. Each one of them, however, if it is to be authentic, must draw its content from the perennial font of Sacred Tradition and of Sacred Scripture. These are interpreted in the light of the teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, of the liturgy, of the faith and piety of the people, in a word, of the living and operative Tradition of the Church under the action of the Holy Spirit, who, according to the Master's promise, "will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come" (Jn 16:13). We recognize this Tradition expressed and synthesized particularly in the teaching of the Sacred Councils, collected in the creeds of the faith and deepened by theological reflection faithful to revelation and the Magisterium of the Church.

What would be the use of a catechesis on Jesus if it did not have the authenticity and completeness of view with which the Church contemplates, prays and announces his mystery? On the other hand, a pedagogical wisdom is required which knows how to take account of the conditions and needs of those to be catechized. As I wrote in the above-quoted Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae: "Whatever be the level of his responsibility in the Church, every catechist must constantly endeavor to transmit by his teaching and behavior the teaching and life of Jesus" (CT 6).

We conclude this introductory reflection by recalling that Jesus, in a particularly difficult moment in the life of his first disciples when the cross appeared imminent and many abandoned him, addressed to those who remained with him another of those questions, so strong, so penetrating and inescapable: "Will you also go away?" Once again it was Peter who replied as the spokesman of his brethren: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life. We have believed and known that you are the Holy One of God" (Jn 6:66-69). May these catechetical reflections make us ever more ready to allow ourselves to be questioned by Jesus, capable of giving the right answer to his questions, and ready to share his life to the best of our ability.