The Ten Commandments and the Declaration
On each of his visits to the United States throughout his pontificate, Pope John Paul II has expressed his admiration for the principles of America's founding documents, and called the nation to return to the moral political vision of 1776.
"To celebrate the origin of the United States is to stress those moral and spiritual principles, those ethical concerns that influenced your Founding Fathers and have been incorporated into the experience of America," he said during an 1987 address at the White House.
He also quoted Pope Paul VI's words to America during the 1976 bicentennial year of the Declaration of Independence: "We earnestly hope that this commemoration of your bicentennial will constitute a rededication to those sound moral principles formulated by your Founding Fathers and enshrined forever in your history."
In St. Louis last Jan. 27, the Holy Father returned to this theme in his homily on a reading of Isaiah (35:1–6, 10).The Pope's homily:
We are here together in this striking cathedral basilica to worship God and to let our prayer rise up to him like incense
In singing God's praises, we remember and acknowledge God's dominion over creation and over our lives.
Our prayer this evening reminds us that our true mother tongue is the praise of God, the language of heaven, our true home. …
As we look at the century we are leaving behind, we see that human pride and the power of sin have made it difficult for many people to speak their mother tongue.
In order to be able to sing God's praises we must relearn the language of humility and trust, the language of moral integrity and of sincere commitment to all that is truly good in the sight of the Lord.
We have just heard a moving reading in which the prophet Isaiah envisions a people returning from exile, overwhelmed and discouraged.
We too sometimes experience the parched desert-land: our hands feeble, our knees weak, our hearts frightened. How often the praise of God dies on our lips and a song of lament comes instead! The prophet's message is a call for trust, a call to courage, a call to hope for salvation from the Lord. How compelling, for all of us today, his exhortation: “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God … he comes to save you” (Isaiah 35:3–4)! …
America first proclaimed its independence on the basis of self-evident moral truths. America will remain a beacon of freedom for the world as long as it stands by those moral truths which are the very heart of its historical experience.
Duties of Powerful Nations
“O God, let all the nations praise you!” (Psalm 67:4)
At the end of this century — at once marked by unprecedented progress and by a tragic toll of human suffering — radical changes in world politics leave America with a heightened responsibility to be for the world an example of a genuinely free, democratic, just and humane society. There is a lesson for every powerful nation in the Canticle from the Book of Revelation which we have recited.
It actually refers to the song of freedom which Moses sang after he had led the people through the Red Sea, saving them from the wrath of the Pharaoh. The whole of salvation history has to be read in the perspective of that Exodus: God reveals himself in his actions to defend the humble of the earth and free the oppressed.
In the same way, in her Magnificat canticle, Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer, gives us the key to understanding God's intervention in human history when she says: the Lord “has scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts … and exalted the lowly” (Luke 1:51–52). From salvation history we learn that power is responsibility: It is service, not privilege. Its exercise is morally justifiable when it is used for the good of all, when it is sensitive to the needs of the poor and defenseless.
Another Charter of Freedom
There is another lesson here: God has given us a moral law to guide us and protect us from falling back into the slavery of sin and falsehood. We are not alone with our responsibility for the great gift of freedom.
The Ten Commandments are the charter of true freedom, for individuals as well as for society as a whole.
America first proclaimed its independence on the basis of self-evident moral truths.
America will remain a beacon of freedom for the world as long as it stands by those moral truths which are the very heart of its historical experience. And so America: If you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. If you want life, embrace the truth — the truth revealed by God.
In this way the praise of God, the language of Heaven, will be ever on this people's lips: “The Lord is God, the mighty. … Come then, let us bow down and worship.” Amen.
- July 4-10, 1999