St. John Paul II’s Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast
by Pope John Paul II
These remarks were read on behalf of the Holy Father at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 5, 2000
“Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega;
all time belongs to him and all the ages;
to him be glory and power through every age for ever. Amen.”
1. With this ancient invocation to the Lord of History, I greet all of you and thank you for the gracious invitation extended to me through Senator Connie Mack to address the Fiftieth National Prayer Breakfast sponsored by the Congress of the United States. Although it is not possible for me to be present in person, I am grateful for this opportunity to share some thoughts with you through my representative in the United States, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo.
We are now at the dawn of the new millennium, when Christians throughout the world are celebrating the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 — the 2000th anniversary of Christ’s taking flesh and dwelling among us, the central event of history and the key to the meaning of human existence. This great anniversary invites believers everywhere to rejoice in the grace poured out upon mankind in the fullness of time, and encourages us to look to the future with renewed hope in the power of the Spirit to make all things new.
An evocative part of the Jubilee celebrations in the City of Rome involved the ceremonial opening of a Holy Door in each of the four Major Basilicas. This ritual symbolizes the passage which believers are called to make, through faith in Christ, from sin to grace, from spiritual death to salvation. Two weeks ago, leaders from Christian denominations worldwide joined me in opening the Holy Door at the Basilica of Saint Paul, and together we crossed its threshold. That was an eloquent sign of our commitment to ensure that, in the millennium just beginning, Christians will give ever fuller expression to that unity which is Christ’s gift to his Church, so that together we may cross the threshold of hope in openness to the future which God in his providence holds out to us.
2. The beginning of a millennium evokes reflection on the passage of time, especially when we are convinced that humanity is at a crossroads and must make important decisions regarding the epoch that is opening up before us. This is a time to reaffirm our belief that the God who created the universe and fashioned human beings in his own image and likeness continues to guide and sustain human history. The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 obliges us Christians to renew our faith in Christ, the key, the center and the goal of all history, the new Adam who reveals man to himself, unlocks the mystery of his origin and goal, and sheds light on the path that leads to humanity’s true destiny.
This great vision of faith has an authentically public dimension: for the deeper understanding of the truth about human nature and human fulfillment given to us by faith naturally inspires efforts to build a better and more humane world. The century just ended has shown clearly that immense suffering results when economic and political systems do not respect the full truth about man, his spiritual nature, and his quest for the transcendent in his search for truth and freedom. Where this kind of vision is lacking, Scripture tells us, “the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). Is not the quest for a social order in which all members of the human family can flourish and live in a manner worthy of their innate dignity the great moral challenge of this new millennium? As believers, we are convinced that the light of faith is an indispensable source of vision and strength in our efforts to meet this challenge. And the light of faith, in leading us to acknowledge the truth of God’s word, helps us to know the liberating and transforming power of this truth, and inspires us to place all our talents, our intellectual resources, our persuasive abilities, our experience and our skill at the service of God, our neighbor and the common good of the human family.
3. This great project – the building of a world more worthy of the human person, a society which can foster a renaissance of the human spirit – calls also for that sense of moral responsibility which flows from commitment to truth: “walking the path of truth”, as the Apostle John puts it (3 Jn 3). And such a moral responsibility, by its very nature, cannot be reduced to a purely private matter. The light of Christ should illumine every thought, word and action of believers; there is no area of personal or social life which it is not meant to penetrate, enliven and make fruitful. The spread of a purely utilitarian approach to the great moral issues of public life points to the urgent need for a rigorous and reasoned public discourse about the moral norms that are the foundation of any just society. A living relationship with the truth, Scripture teaches, is the very source and condition of authentic and lasting freedom (cf. Jn 8:32).
Your nation was built as an experiment in ordered freedom, an experiment in which the exercise of individual freedom would contribute to the common good. The American separation of Church and State as institutions was accompanied from the beginning of your Republic by the conviction that strong religious faith, and the public expression of religiously-informed judgments, contribute significantly to the moral health of the body politic. Within the fabric of your national life a particular moral authority has been entrusted to you who are invested with political responsibility as representatives of the American people. In the great Western democratic tradition, men and women in political life are servants of the polis in its fullest sense — as a moral and civil commonwealth. They are not mere brokers of power in a political process taking place in a vacuum, cut off from private and public morality. Leadership in a true democracy involves much more than simply the mastering of techniques of political “management”: your vocation as “representatives” calls for vision, wisdom, a spirit of contemplation, and a passion for justice and truth.
4. Looking back on my own lifetime, I am convinced that the epoch-making changes taking place and the challenges appearing at the dawn of this new millennium call for just such a “prophetic” function on the part of religious believers in public life. And, may I say, this is particularly true of you who represent the American people, with their rich heritage of commitment to freedom and equality under the law, their spirit of independence and commitment to the common good, their self-reliance and generosity in sharing their God-given gifts. In the century just ended, this heritage became synonymous with freedom itself for people throughout the world, as they sought to cast off the shackles of totalitarianism and to live in freedom. As one who is personally grateful for what America did for the world in the darkest days of the twentieth century, allow me to ask: Will America continue to inspire people to build a truly better world, a world in which freedom is ordered to truth and goodness? Or will America offer the example of a pseudo-freedom which, detached from the moral norms that give life direction and fruitfulness, turns in practice into a narrow and ultimately inhuman self-enslavement, one which smothers people’s spirits and dissolves the foundations of social life? These questions pose themselves in a particularly sharp way when we confront the urgent issue of protecting every human being’s inalienable right to life from conception until natural death. This is the great civil rights issue of our time, and the world looks to the United States for leadership in cherishing every human life and in providing legal protection for all the members of the human community, but especially those who are weakest and most vulnerable.
5. For religious believers who bear political responsibility, our times offer a daunting yet exhilarating challenge. I would go so far as to say that their task is to save democracy from self-destruction. Democracy is our best opportunity to promote the values that will make the world a better place for everyone, but a society which exalts individual choice as the ultimate source of truth undermines the very foundations of democracy. If there is no objective moral order which everyone must respect, and if each individual is expected to supply his or her own truth and ethic of life, there remains only the path of contractual mechanisms as the way of organizing our living together in society. In such a society the strong will prevail and the weak will be swept aside. As I have written elsewhere, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political action, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism” (Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, No. 46).
Faith compels Christians in the public arena in your country to promote a new political culture of service, based on the vision of life and civilization that has sustained the American people in the positive character and outlook that has nourished their optimism, their hope, their willingness to be generous in the service of others, and will protect them from the cynicism which dissipates the very energies needed for building the future. Today this optimism is being tested, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ remains the sturdy foundation of hope for the future.
I am convinced that, precisely at this crossroads in history, the Christian message of truth and justice, and of our universal brotherhood as God’s beloved children, has the power to emerge once again as the “good news” for our times, a compelling invitation to real hope. It will do so if “the power of God leading to salvation” (cf. Rom 1:16) is seen in the transformed lives of those who profess the Gospel as the pole-star of their lives and the deepest source of their commitment to others. To build a future of hope is, to use a favorite expression of the late Pope Paul VI, to build a “civilization of love”. Love, as Scripture teaches, casts out fear: fear of the future, fear of the other, fear that there is not enough room at the banquet of life for the least of our brothers and sisters. Love does not tear down but is rather the virtue that “builds up”. And this is my prayer for you: that as men and women involved in public life, you will truly be builders of a civilization of love, of a society which, precisely because it embodies the highest values of truth, justice and freedom for all, is also a sign of the presence of God’s Kingdom and its peace.
May God grant you this in your personal lives, in your families and in the country you are privileged to serve!
From the Vatican, January 29, 2000