ON PENTECOST 2000
Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue
According to the Evangelist Luke, Jesus gave his instructions to the Apostles saying: "So it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this" (24: 46-48). The Gospel adds immediately that Jesus was to send upon the Apostles what the Father had promised, namely, the Holy Spirit (24: 49). It is, therefore, fitting for us Christians to dwell on the theme of "being witnesses" on the occasion of the feast of Pentecost this Jubilee Year. It is a day for Christians to reflect on their duties towards others, i.e., to proclaim Christ, to be his witnesses and to engage in dialogue with all.
Throughout the entire period of remote and immediate preparation for the celebration of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the Church has been incessantly reminding her faithful about the urgency and the permanence of mission. The totality of Christian mission embraces the following elements:
a) mission is already constituted by the simple presence and living witness of the Christian life;
b) it entails the concrete commitment to the service of mankind and all forms of activity for social development and for the struggle against poverty and the structures which produce it;
c) it includes liturgical life, and also prayer and contemplation, eloquent testimonies to a living and liberating relationship with the active and true God who calls all to his kingdom and to his glory;
d) it comprises the dialogue in which Christians meet the followers of other religious traditions in order to walk together towards truth and to work together in projects of common concern;
e) it incorporates announcement and catechesis in which the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and its consequences for life and culture are analyzed (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Dialogue and Mission, 1984, n. 13).
Martyr means one who bears witness
In our pluralistic world, the simple witness of an authentically Christian life becomes the first means of evangelization. In his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Paul VI says: "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses" (Evangelii nuntiandi, n. 41; cf. also Redemptoris missio, n. 42). Moreover there are contexts where the explicit proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is not possible. In such circumstances the witness of a reverent and chaste life, the witness of detachment from riches, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in a word, the witness of sanctity - even if it is given silently - is already a fulfilment of the duty of mission.
Lest it be wrongly presumed that to bear witness, as the first element of evangelization, would mean an attitude of anonymity, ambiguity, mediocrity or passivity, we need to reflect on this theme in the context of the apostolic times. Deriving from the Greek word mártys, which means "one who bears witness", this term came to be applied at the end of the second and at the beginning of the third century to the baptized persons who bore testimony to Christ and his teaching by offering their lives. The Apostles are those who bear witness to Christ, to his passion, death and resurrection, by sacrificing their own life: "... you will be handed over to the Sanhedrin, you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will be brought before governors and kings for my sake, as evidence to them" (Mk 13: 9; cf. Acts 22: 17-21).
Far from implying an attitude of passivity and weakness, to bear witness, therefore, means to participate actively and fully in the life and mission of Christ, taking him as the model. It takes firm faith in Jesus and unshakeable courage to be true witnesses of Christ. Martyrs are those who not only profess their faith in words but confess it, above all, by imitating Jesus, the Lord and Master, in the willing offering of their lives.
Recent history has witnessed many martyrs, as the Holy Father reminded us recently at the ecumenical commemorative ceremony which was held at the Colosseum in Rome to recall various testimonies to Christ in the 20th century. However, it is also true that in normal circumstances, the world in which we live today is not overtly hostile to the right of each individual to freedom of religious belief and practice. This means that for the majority of us it is difficult to imagine being arrested, brought to trial and condemned to death, like a heroic victim, for our religious belief and practice. Are we to conclude then that martyrdom is only an exception in our contemporary world? The truth could be far from this, because the Church needs "witnesses" also in today's world in which evil has become endemic and institutionalized. The world today is dominated by atheism, hedonism, materialism, relativism, indifferentism, etc. All Christians are invited to respond to these and many other challenges, first of all, by being witnesses. In concrete this means to live in simple fidelity to God in the midst of today's materialistic society in which God and his precepts are often ridiculed and marginalized. Alluding to the supreme testimony of love for all in imitation of Christ, Lumen gentium exhorts the disciples of Jesus: ""God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him' (1 Jn 4: 16). God pours out his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (cf. Rom 5: 5). Thus the first and most necessary gift is that charity by which we love God above all things and our neighbour because of God" (n. 42). Witness thus becomes connatural to Christian faith.
Christians must have right attitude towards the world
In our increasingly secularized society, in a world which is a complex but diversified reality, accent on "witness" is necessary. Without detracting from the profound theological meaning of martyrdom, a Christian is invited to bear witness today by being a person of charity, mercy, pardon, reconciliation and peace. In his Letter to the Galatians Paul reminds us "... the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control" (5: 22). A disciple of Jesus should never divide any community, should not provoke polemics nor encourage controversies. There should be no antipathy towards anyone; rather a joyful openness.
Triumphalism is to be avoided, and a humble spirit shown. There should be no intolerance, but rather an attitude of compassion and understanding towards all. The Christian is not to be socially alienated but rather is called to share "the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted ..." (Gaudium et spes, n. 1). A disciple of Christ lives the tension of "already" and "not yet" of the kingdom of God.
Jesus himself began preaching the kingdom of God by proclaiming the Beatitudes (Mt 5: 1-12). In imitation of Jesus his disciple is called to have a right attitude towards the world, neither accommodating nor unnecessarily provocative. Without being of the world, a disciple of Jesus is, nonetheless, committed to making the world a better place to live in. "A commitment to peace, justice, human rights and human promotion is also a witness to the Gospel when it is a sign of concern for persons and is directed towards integral human development" (Redemptoris missio, n. 42).
A Christian who wishes to bear witness to Christ is not alone in his earthly journey. Our dialogue with people of other religions has taught us that as Christians we can live our faith with more integrity and can be better witnesses to Christ through collaboration with other believers. Ad gentes, the Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity, exhorts Christians: "Let their lives be such that "observing their good works, [other men] can glorify the Father' (Mt 5: 16); let them be joined to those men by esteem and love and acknowledge themselves to be members of the group of men among whom they live; let them share cultural and social life by the various exchanges and enterprises of human living; let them be familiar with their national and religious traditions, gladly and reverently laying bare the seeds of the Word which lie hidden in them" (n.11; cf. also n. 15). A confrontational and conflictual attitude is not expected of Christians today but rather a spirit of collaboration. In the final message of the Interreligious Assembly, held in October 1999 in the Vatican, the participants, belonging to different religious traditions, declared: "People may be urged to commend their faith to others above all by the way they live, by the quality of their actions and their care for others".
Different ways of bearing witness to Christ
The Holy Spirit inspires, enables and guides every Christian to bear witness as "salt of the earth and light of the world" (Mt 5: 13-14). In a certain sense the taste of salt is alluring and the function of light is indispensable in human life; and yet the usefulness of salt and the necessity of light in daily life are taken for granted. Salt is appreciated in food and light is pleasing to the eyes only if both are present in human life in a just measure and a discreet manner. The simple but firm witness of Francis of Assisi, or in our time, that of Mother Teresa, explains to us what Jesus means when he invites his disciples to be the "salt of the earth and the light of the world". St Francis of Assisi is revered today not only by Christians but also by many followers of other religious traditions.
Mother Teresa was able to touch the hearts of millions of people in our world through the divine power of the message she proclaimed by the witness of her life. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis referred to her as "a messenger of God". The desire spontaneously expressed by leaders of these religions to pray at her funeral is a proof of the extraordinary witness Mother Teresa bore to the paschal mystery.
There are different ways of bearing witness to Christ. One finds a wide spectrum in the list of witnesses - from St Peter the Apostle, St Stephen, the first martyr, to Charles de Foucauld, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa and Graham Staines. The latter was burnt alive with his two young sons in their jeep in India on 23 January 1999. Dr Graham Staines had come to India with his wife and three children to bear witness to Christ by offering his humble service to lepers. Upon hearing the news of the cruel death her husband suffered at the hands of some religious fundamentalists, Mrs Staines said: "I feel extremely sad, but I forgive the killers. God gave Graham and our two sons their allotted span of life. I have no complaints...". She has promised to stay in India with her daughter and carry on the work of her husband among leprosy patients.
The feast of Pentecost is an occasion for Christians who are engaged in the evangelizing mission of the Church through bearing simple witness to renew their promise of fidelity to Christ and be encouraged to journey on to meet the Lord who has promised: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28: 20).