In the course of the various visits that I was able to make as prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, I was always struck by the atmosphere of universality that is breathed in this university, in which young people from practically all the countries of the world are preparing for the service of the Gospel in today’s world. Even today, I see before me in my mind’s eye a community made up of so many young people who show us in a living way the stupendous reality of the Catholic Church. “Catholic”: this definition of the Church, which belongs to the profession of the faith since the most ancient times, bears within itself something of Pentecost. It reminds us that the Church of Jesus Christ has never concerned a single people or a single culture, but that since the beginning it was destined for humanity. The last words that Jesus spoke to his disciples were: “Make disciples of all peoples” (Mt 28:19). And at the moment of Pentecost, the Apostles spoke in all languages, thus manifesting, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the full breadth of their faith.Since then the Church has really grown in all continents. Your presence, dear students, reflects the universal face of the Church. The prophet Zechariah had proclaimed a messianic kingdom that would stretch from sea to sea and would be a kingdom of peace (Zc 9:9f.). And in fact, wherever the Eucharist is celebrated and through the Lord men become one body among themselves, there is present something of that peace which Jesus Christ had promised to give to his disciples. You, dear friends, should be cooperators with this peace that, in a tormented and violent world, it becomes ever more urgent to build and protect. This is why the work of your university is so important, in which you want to learn to know Jesus Christ more closely in order to become his witnesses. The Risen Lord charged his Apostles, and through them the disciples of all times, to bear his word to the ends of the earth and to make men his disciples. Vatican Council II, revisiting a constant tradition in the decree “Ad Gentes,” brought to light the profound reasons for this missionary task and thus assigned it with renewed force to the Church of today.
But does it really still apply? many are asking today inside and outside of the Church. Is mission really still relevant? Would it not be more appropriate for the religions to encounter each other in dialogue and serve together the cause of peace in the world? The counter-question is: can dialogue replace mission? Today many, in effect, are of the opinion that the religions must respect each other and, in dialogue among themselves, become a common force for peace. In this way of thinking, most of the time there is a presupposition that the different religions are variations of a single and identical reality; that “religion” is a common genre that takes on different forms according to the different cultures but nonetheless expresses the same reality. The question of truth, which in the beginning moved Christians more than all the rest, is here put in parentheses. It is presupposed that the authentic truth about God, in the final analysis, is unattainable and that at most the ineffable can be made present with a variety of symbols. This renunciation of the truth seems realistic and useful for peace among religions in the world.
And nonetheless this is lethal to faith. In fact, faith loses its binding character and its seriousness if everything is reduced to symbols that are ultimately interchangeable, capable of pointing only from far away to the inaccessible mystery of the divine. Dear friends, you see that the question of mission places us not only in front of fundamental questions about faith, but also in front of that about what man is. Within the context of a brief address of greeting I evidently cannot attempt to analyze in an exhaustive way this problem that today profoundly concerns all of us. I would like, in any case, at least to point out the direction that our thought should take. I will do this by moving from two different points of departure.
I 1. The common opinion is that religions are so to speak one beside the other, like the continents and individual countries on a map of the world. But this is not precise. The religions are in movement at an historical level, just as peoples and cultures are in movement. There are religions in waiting. The tribal religions are of this kind: they have their historical moment and nonetheless they are waiting for a greater encounter to bring them to fulfillment. As Christians, we are convinced that in silence these are waiting for the encounter with Jesus Christ, the light that comes from him, which alone can lead them completely to their truth. And Christ is waiting for them. The encounter with him is not the bursting in of something extraneous that destroys their culture and history. It is, instead, the entrance into something greater, toward which they are on a journey. This is why the encounter is always, at the same time, purification and maturation. Moreover, the encounter is always reciprocal. Christ is waiting for their history, their wisdom, their vision of things. Today there is another aspect that we see ever more clearly: while in the countries of its grand history Christianity has in many ways grown weary and some branches of the great tree grown from the mustard seed of the Gospel have become dry and are falling to the ground, the encounter between Christ and the religions in waiting unleashes new life. Where before there was only weariness, new dimensions of the faith are manifesting themselves and bringing joy.
2. Religion in itself is not a unitary phenomenon. There are always multiple dimensions to be distinguished within it. On the one hand there is the greatness of reaching out, beyond the world, toward the eternal God. But on the other there are found in it elements unleashed by the history of men and by their practice of religion. In which beautiful and noble things can certainly be found, but also base and destructive ones, where the egoism of man has taken possession of religion and, instead of an opening, has transformed it into something closed off in its own space. This is why religion is never simply a solely positive or solely negative phenomenon: both aspects are mixed in it. At its beginnings, Christian mission perceived in a very strong way above all the negative elements of the pagan religions that it encountered. For this reason, the Christian proclamation was at first extremely critical of religion. It was only by overcoming its traditions, which were in part considered even demonic, that the faith could develop its renewing power. On the basis of elements of this kind, the evangelical theologian Karl Barth put religion and faith in opposition, judging the former in an absolutely negative way as an arbitrary behavior of the man who tries to grasp God on his own account. Dietrich Bonhoeffer took up this outlook, proclaiming himself in favor of a Christianity “without religion.” This is undoubtedly a unilateral vision that cannot be accepted. And yet it is correct to affirm that every religion, in order to remain in the right, at the same time must also be always critical of religion. Clearly this applies, from its origin and on the basis of its nature, to the Christian faith, which on the one hand looks with great respect to the profound anticipation and profound richness of the religions, but on the other views in a critical way that which is negative. It naturally follows that the Christian faith must always develop anew this critical power with respect to its own religious history as well. For us Christians, Jesus Christ is the Logos of God, the light that helps us to distinguish between the nature of religion and its distortion.
Benedict XVI October 21, 2014