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Church of San Pietro della Jenca in L'Aquila (Abruzzi region)
Wednesday, 18 May 2005


"Levavi oculos ad montes... I lift up my eyes to the mountains: from where shall come my help? My help shall come from the Lord who made heaven and earth" (Ps 122[121]: 1-2).

The inspired words of the Psalm, rich in poetry and spirituality, seem to me the most fitting to express the close connection between the mountains and the search of human beings of all epochs for something greater, something that surpasses them, something transcendent.

At the same time, the Psalmist's words also suggest to us an interpretation and an understanding of the strong, evocative fascination that mountain peaks never failed to exercise on John Paul II.

If we could juxtapose, as if on a topographic map, all the well-known names of mountains in Holy Scripture and link them accordingly to all their spiritual "patrons", that is, to those biblical figures who are in some way connected with their summits, we would be able to make an unusual and especially significant pilgrimage through the various phases of salvation history. And among them all, Jesus of Nazareth would dominate; indeed, the Gospels often say of him that "he went up on the mountain by himself to pray".

Although we cannot do this, the mere thought of it enables us to see how this "map" turns out to be not only "physical" but also spiritual, theological and even eschatological: ready to flash before us a glimpse of distant peaks, towering for ever in the skies of eternity and the infinite.

Let us attempt, therefore, only as the crow flies, to visualize the scenery of the map mentioned above.

We will find Abraham, accompanied by his son Isaac on his dramatic pilgrimage to Mount Moriah; Noah, on Mount Ararat where the Ark came to rest; Moses on Sinai; Aaron, who died on the peak of Mount Hor; and many others, not forgetting the mountains of the beloved in the Song of Songs.

We also know well that Jesus lived much of his life against a backdrop of mountains. The Gospels frequently speak of Jesus "going out to the mountain".

Before choosing the Twelve, he spent the night alone on the mountain (Lk 6: 12-13). And after the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus dismissed the crowd and "went up on the mountain by himself to pray, remaining there alone as evening drew on" (Mt 14: 23-24).

Jesus even gave one discourse, perhaps his most famous, conventionally known as "the Sermon on the Mount" (Mt 5-7), precisely on the mountain of the Beatitudes. François Mauriac, commenting on this Magna Carta of Christianity, said: "Those who have never read the Sermon on the Mount cannot grasp what Christianity is all about".

At the same time, we must mention Mount Tabor, the mountain of the Transfiguration (cf. Lk 9: 28-29), and the mountain that was featured in the last week of Christ's earthly life, most of which he lived against the background of mountain scenery: the Mount of Olives.

Lastly, there is one other mountain among the many others that we are unable to list, a paschal mountain: the mountain in Galilee whose name is not given in the Gospels; it was there that the last solemn apparition of the Risen and Glorified Christ occurred. Indeed, at the end of his Gospel, Matthew recalls that "the eleven disciples made their way to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had summoned them" (Mt 28: 16), and it was there, on that mountain, that the epilogue of the earthly life of the Risen One was played out.

So far, the Biblical and Gospel references (cf. G. Ravasi, I monti di Dio, ed. Ancora) have helped us to focus our reflection clearly on the event that is taking place today.

However, before entering into the lofty and memorable significance of this day, I would like first to mention one other point: the presence of the mountain in the iconography of all times.

It suffices, to give just one example, to mention Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks. John Ruskin, the art critic, observes in his vast work on modern painting that "there has always been an idea of holiness" in art, "connected with rocky solitude, for it was on mountain peaks that the divinity would speak most intimately to human beings, and it was always to the mountains that the saints withdrew for meditation and special communion with God".

Moreover, there is no need to teach this to you who know it well, given the history of St Celestine V and the important role he played in his unusual spiritual journey in your fascinating Abruzzi Mountains.

So it is that the mountain, even before any consideration of its physical height, is a spiritual symbol.

I would like to interpret in this dimension the naming of this beautiful peak of yours - and the path that leads to it - after John Paul II.

A distinguished ecclesiastical personage, today a Bishop (Alberto Careggio, Bishop of Ventimiglia-San Remo), who for many years had the good fortune to accompany John Paul II on his hikes and climbs in the mountains as his Alpine guide, coined a beautiful, original definition of John Paul II when he described him as "the theologian of the mountain" (cf. Sui monti con Giovanni Paolo II, G. Galazka, Libreria Ed. Vaticana, 2002, p. 15).

Like Elijah, who encountered God in the gentle, refreshing breeze on Mount Horeb, and Moses, who prayed on the mountain to encourage his people in their struggle to breach their way to freedom, so also Karol Wojty³a had a very special relationship with mountains.

It dates back to the years of his youth when, as a newly-ordained priest, he would accompany university students to Tatra, the beloved mountain range in his Homeland. Even when everything seemed to prevent it - in the first place his health - this relationship never ceased.

We know practically everything there is to know about John Paul II's Journeys: the number of his Speeches (3,288 in Italy and abroad), the number of kilometres he travelled (247,613 in 104 International Journeys and 146 in Italy); this would amount to spending about three years outside the Vatican.

If, however, we try to ask how often the Pope went to the mountains, how many times, so to speak, he secretly left the Apostolic Palaces or the Pontifical Villa at Castel Gandolfo, we are given a vague answer: "several times" (ibid.). It is right that this should be so.

Someone, for example, has endeavoured to count all the excursions John Paul II is supposed to have made to the Abruzzi Mountains and their number is impressive; the newspapers have published it in the past few days, precisely in reference to today's event. Although the Pope carried this secret with him to heaven, there is certainly "someone" who would be able to tell us one day, having faithfully accompanied him for the more than 26 years of his Pontificate in these most intimate and private moments.

What interests us is the contemplative gaze of Pope Wojty³a, who among other things sang of the mountains in sublimely poetic tones, seeking in them beauty and power, deep silence and voices of mystery.

In one of his Addresses there is a passage that I find striking: "Looking at the mountaintops one has the impression that the earth is pointing upwards, almost as if it were straining to touch heaven: men and women feel in a certain way that their yearning for the transcendent and the infinite is expressed in this reaching upwards".

And further: "The contemporary man or woman who seems at times to be addressing only earthly things with a materialistic vision of life, must once again be able to look upwards, to the peaks of grace and glory, for which he or she was created and to which the goodness and greatness of God is beckoning" (Address at the Glacier of Brenva, Mont Blanc, 8 September 1986).

It seems to me that John Paul II's words contain the important message that the Great Polish Pope has desired to bequeath to us through his boundless love for the mountains, closely related to love for "his Master", of whom he also spoke to us in his Testament.

Just as a mountain peak always impels us to raise our eyes, to reach up towards the heights of heaven, the life and teaching of John Paul II likewise continue to be for us, as it were, a sign pointing to heaven, a reference to the infinite majesty and divine transcendence of Christ, as opposed to the flat and mediocre horizons by which we are all too often surrounded.

What John Paul II said and did through his presence in these mountains he will continue to do also with this peak, which from today is named after him, "Cima Giovanni Paolo II" (John Paul II Peak), and will lift him far beyond its altitude of 2,424 metres in this splendid massif of the Gran Sasso. It will do so thanks to the love of these magnificent Abruzzi people and to their understandable pride at having received and perceived Pope Wojty³a as "their own". This is why you planned this day, in view of his 85th birthday.

I end with the very words that John Paul II spoke on Campo Imperatore, right underneath the Gran Sasso, certain that this peak will point out "the way of contemplation, not only as an excellent way to experience the Mystery, but also as a condition for humanizing our life and mutual relations".