The Church's Next Challenge

VATICAN CITY—After a busy, exhausting Jubilee year, Pope John Paul II plans to take a rest, and invites the whole Church to relax a bit, too, right?

Not at all.

“What we have done this year cannot justify a sense of complacency,” writes the Holy Father in a Jan. 6 apostolic letter at the end of the Jubilee Year, “and still less should it lead us to relax our commitment. On the contrary, the experiences we have had should inspire in us a new energy, and impel us to invest in concrete initiatives the enthusiasm which we have felt.”

Thus did the Pope signal the direction he wished the Church to take now that the immense project of the Jubilee Year is complete. Wasting no time, John Paul signed the 82-page apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium), at the conclusion of Mass in St. Peter's Square on Jan. 6.

The theme of the letter is taken from the words of Christ to Peter (Luke 5:4): Duc in altum! (Put out into the deep!). Those words have traditionally been understood in the Church as an exhortation to pastoral zeal—going out into the deep waters of the world in order to make a great catch of souls.

John Paul has repeatedly stated that his mission as Pope was to lead the Church into the third millennium.

That mission now accomplished, he insists that it is not a time for rest. In his view, the Second Vatican Council, which he refers to again as “the great grace bestowed on the Church in the 20th century,” began a 35-year period of preparation for the millennium which culminated in the Great Jubilee. Now it is time to embark, with “trusting optimism,” on the evangelization of the new millennium, relying not on any “magic formula” but only on the person of Christ, and “the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Pontifical Committee of the Great Jubilee, proposed reading Novo Millennio Ineunte as a sort of “triptych.” In the central panel is the face of Christ, in which the Church in invited to the “contemplation of the mystery of Jesus Christ, Son of God and only savior of the world.”

In the first of the lateral panels, “one reads the events that have characterized the Jubilee. It is not a running commentary, but a reflection according the rhythm of the liturgical year on moments in the life of the Church.” In the other lateral panel, “a program is proposed referring to the life of the Church which opens for us ‘a future of hope.’

“It is not a nostalgic reading that the Pope proposes to us,” the cardinal points out. “To the contrary, the revisiting of the important events of the Jubilee becomes a project for the next millennium which is now opens itself before us.”

“It is an intense and demanding program that is proposed by the Pope. The same duties that the Church always presents to believers are presented again, with the same audacity: holiness and mission.”

The letter, rendered in a marvelous English translation, is one of the most personal documents John Paul has written to date, and is divided into four chapters.

It begins with a review of the Jubilee Year just ended, then proceeds to a profound contemplation of the “face of Jesus.” The final two chapters are devoted to suggestions for pastoral priorities, the first encouraging the local dioceses to recommit themselves to the pursuit of holiness, the second stressing a rediscovery of the spirit of communion informed by love.

Written largely in the first person, the letter begins with John Paul's own experience of the Holy Year, and concludes with a summons evocative of the epistles of the elderly apostle John, who urged his disciples to return to the basics: “let us love one another” (1 John 4:7).

Pope's Eye View

“I have been impressed this year by the crowds of people which have filled St. Peter's Square at the many celebrations,” writes John Paul, indicating that he had been watching from his window.

“I have often stopped to look at the long queues of pilgrims waiting patiently to go through the Holy Door. In each of them I tried to imagine the story of a life, made up of joys, worries, sufferings; the story of someone whom Christ had met and who, in dialogue with him, was setting out again on a journey of hope.”

While reviewing his impressions of the major events of the year—“It will not be possible to forget the Mass at Tor Vergata,” he wrote of World Youth Day—the Holy Father underscored that the true story of the Jubilee is known to Providence alone. “We have only been able to observe the outer face of this unique event. Who can measure the marvels of the grace wrought in human hearts? It is better to be silent and adore, trusting humbly in the mysterious workings of God.”

Before encouraging a renewal of pastoral activity, John Paul cautions against the temptation of “doing for the sake of doing,” insisting instead on trying “to be” before trying “to do.”

There follows a chapter on contemplating the “face of Jesus,” in which the Holy Father re-reads the testimony of the Gospels about the person of Christ. Clearly the fruit of his own prayer, the chapter invites the Church not to forget her contemplative vocation in a rush to engage in apostolic works.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux is quoted in the chapter, calling to mind that it was John Paul who proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church—she who was known as Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.

Staying Open to Christ

The remaining two chapters give practical suggestions for areas in which pastoral planning might be reinvigorated in light of the Jubilee. Not as detailed as, for example, the suggestions in Ecclesia in America, the suggestions focus on the primacy of the pursuit of holiness.

The letter asks for rereading and rediscovery of “The Universal Call to Holiness” as taught in Chapter 5 of the Council's document on the Church, Lumen Gentium. This requires above all prayer, and so Novo Millennio Ineunte calls for training in prayer, the centrality of Sunday Mass, and a recommitment to confession. In particular, the Holy Father himself has decided to dedicate his Wednesday audience talks to a commentary on the Psalms, the Church's ‘prayerbook.’

“I am also asking for a renewed pastoral courage in ensuring that the day-to-day teaching of Christian communities persuasively and effectively presents the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” he writes.

“The Jubilee Year, which has been particularly marked by a return to the sacrament of penance, has given us an encouraging message, which should not be ignored: If many people, and among them also many young people, have benefited from approaching this sacrament, it is probably necessary that pastors should arm themselves with more confidence, creativity and perseverance in presenting it and leading people to appreciate it. Dear brothers in the priesthood, we must not give in to passing crises!”

The final chapter is dedicated to doing all things together in love.

John Paul calls for collaboration between clergy and laity that is not only consultative, but also informed by a true experience of communion in the Spirit. From this should flow charity to the whole world.

As a concrete expression of that charity, the Holy Father announced that the surplus left over from Jubilee funds after all expenses have been met will be put in to a special endowment to fund charitable works in Rome.

“Not a single lira will remain in Vatican coffers,” said Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, secretary of the Central Committee of the Great Jubilee.

Duc in altum!” concludes the Holy Father. “A new millennium is opening before the Church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ.”

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims during his Angelus address August 30, 2020.

Pope Francis: The Path to Holiness Requires Spiritual Combat

Reflecting on Sunday’s Gospel, the pope said that “living a Christian life is not made up of dreams or beautiful aspirations, but of concrete commitments, in order to open ourselves ever more to God's will and to love for our brothers and sisters.”