At the novena of the Immaculate Conception, Basilica of St. Eugene, Rome (Dec. 5, 2004)
At the novena of the
Basilica of St. Eugene, Rome
My dear brothers and sisters.
1. We are preparing for the great solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of our Lady. We are also in the heart of Advent, the liturgical season leading up to Christmas. These two feasts are a source of joy for all Catholic faithful. As the prophet Isaiah says in today’s liturgy: “People of Sion, the Lord will come to save all nations, and your hearts will exult to hear his majestic voice.”
This announcement is intimately linked to God’s coming into the world, through Christ’s incarnation and birth. Jesus indeed is the Savior, God with us, who has taken on our humanity to make us sharers in his divinity. This marvelous interchange was accomplished thanks to that “yes,” the fiat of our Lady when the happy news was announced to her. Her response, prolonged throughout her whole life, has opened up for each of us the gates of divine mercy. Precisely because she had been chosen as the Mother of God, Mary was preserved from all sin—both original sin and personal sin—and was filled with all grace and virtue by decree of almighty God. She is the Immaculate One.
Our Lord came to save all nations and has filled our hearts with joy. Inspired by God, the prophet presents a paradise-like scene: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” In this scene, opposites are deliberately placed together in total harmony, the wolf and the lamb, the calf and the lion, to emphasize the effects, even upon the created world, of the coming of the Son of God to earth.
Unfortunately, if we look at the world that surrounds us, the present situation often seems to contradict these promises. From all sides there arise cries of violence; we see entire nations afflicted by hunger, sickness, war. How is it possible that all this should happen, after Christ has come to us two thousand years ago, to cure our evils? What is wrong with this world of ours? The answer is clear: all this disorder, the effect of sin, comes from man’s bad or incorrect use of freedom.
The kingdom of Christ will not be inaugurated in a clear and definitive way until the Redeemer comes gloriously at the end of time. While awaiting that moment, it is the responsibility of Christians to make him present in the specific historical period in which it has been granted them to live. “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” Jesus said. The kingdom of God is in our midst through grace. It is a kingdom of justice, love and peace, which it is up to us to spread throughout the whole world. “Jesus wants to see us dedicated, faithful, responsive...It is his desire that we be holy, very much his own.”
2. Some years ago, the founder of Opus Dei wrote: “These world crises are crises of saints. —God wants a handful of men ‘of his own’ in every human activity. —And then... ‘pax Christi in regno Christi—the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.’” A crisis of saints: this is the real misfortune of our era and of so many other periods of history. Understand me well: it is not that now there are no saints, but sanctity does not make any noise. It is sin that is more evident, though lacking in all effectiveness and the bearer of so many other evils. Many people who see the world through the eyes of the media are drawn to those who live for material goods and with their backs turned to God, while they show little interest in those who are striving for sanctity. We have to help them to awaken from the sleep in which they are immersed. “Our Lord has entrusted us with the mission of attracting other souls to sanctity, encouraging them to get close to him, to feel united to the Church, to extend the kingdom of God to all hearts.” But we have to begin with ourselves. So often we ourselves doze off and forget, at least in practice, that our definitive goal is eternal life with God.
We should not think, however, that in order to be saints one has to do extraordinary things or behave in a strange way. To be saints, or, better, to strive for sanctity (because one is only a saint when one reaches heaven) means to struggle with joy and optimism every day to direct our life towards God, even in small details. This is the message that Advent has for us, as today’s liturgy recalls in the words of St. John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. . . . The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Some, on hearing this call to repentance and conversion, might think it is directed to those who are not yet Catholics. But that is not the case: we all need to convert, as the Holy Spirit tells us in the Book of Revelation: “Let the...righteous still do right, and the holy be [still more] holy.” We are converted to God each time that we reject a temptation or do a good deed, each time that we forgive offenses or ask God to forgive our sins or faults, each time that we begin to behave once more as true Christians.
Let us read again some words of the Holy Father: “This ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few ‘uncommon heroes’ of holiness. The ways of holiness are many, in accord with the vocation of each individual...The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.”
3. In this context, our heavenly Mother is a shining example for all of us. Our Lady, precisely because she is full of grace, is the happiest person in the world and spreads around her a deep joy. No one who draws close to Mary will be disappointed: he will learn how to love, to serve, to transmit joy to others. But we mustn’t think that Mary had an easy life. Precisely because of the great mission to which she was called, God expected from her a faithful and constant response, at the level of that taught by her Son, as happens in great human adventures in which one cannot let down one’s guard. This privilege moved the Mother of Jesus to strive more eagerly each day to attain holiness. The Second Vatican Council teaches that Mary, in her earthly life, “advanced in her pilgrimage of faith” thanks to her uninterrupted union with Christ in her thoughts, affections, and intentions. Her very generous response increased little by little, at the rhythm of the graces she received from God. She was heroically faithful in great things and in small ones. Let us go to her with special confidence during these days and ask her that we too might think of nothing other than fulfilling “in everything and for everything” the will of our Lord.
We tell her: Mother of ours, you are tota pulchra, all beautiful, with a singular beauty whose depths no one can fathom. You are the only person in whom God has taken total delight. You were filled with perfections and you corresponded to God with all your heart. Help us to learn how to correspond to what God wants from us, to truly strive to be saints. Help us to carry out at your side an unceasing and optimistic apostolate, without human respects, wanting the best for everyone; and help us to take advantage of these conversations filled with charity to speak of our marvelous friendship with Jesus, the friend who never betrays us and never abandons us.
It fills us with joy to think about your life here on earth. Exteriorly it was very much like our own, because we too are busy with so many everyday things: work, family, social and professional relationships. Like you, we too need to take care of domestic chores, and be concerned about the spiritual and material needs of others, especially those closest to us. And above all we need to take care of our personal relationship with God, which should always be our first concern: personal prayer, partaking of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.
“This time of Advent is a time for hope. These great horizons of our Christian vocation, this unity of life built on the presence of God our Father, can and ought to be a daily reality.” Teach us, O Mother, to fulfill all our duties joyfully. Let our daily life be transformed into a unity of life, into a song of praise to your Son, to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. To you we entrust the supplication that the Church places on our lips today: “God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share his wisdom and become one with him.” We ask your help in becoming Christians who are consistent with our vocation, who are not afraid when God calls us. We ask you also for many vocations to the priesthood, provoked at times by our own words, and by our prayer and mortification and the example of our life filled with joy, because we know ourselves to be your children and children of God.