Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
1. The season of Advent, which begins this week and which
opens the Church's liturgical year, has a threefold meaning
for Christians. It invites us to reflect on the past, as we follow
the history of salvation from humanity's creation and fall,
through God's covenant with the Chosen People, to the birth
of Jesus the Messiah. It encourages us to prepare in the
present, as we ready ourselves to encounter Jesus in the
sacraments and receive the Christ Child at Christmas. And it
calls us to look to the future, in anticipation of the Lord's
Second Coming at the end of time. It's a season of prayer,
hope and self-examination. It's also a time of great joy. As
Karol Wojtyla preached even before his election as pope, "Let
us go with joy to meet Christ: This describes the atmosphere
of the mystery of the Incarnation and of Christmas, and also
that of the period of waiting for him, which the Church enters
on the First Sunday of Advent."
2. This "Advent joy" has marked every moment of John Paul
II's pontificate. From his very first encyclical, "Redeemer of
Man" (Redemptor Hominis), and repeatedly in the years since,
he has urged us to "be not afraid." He has encouraged us to
live the period leading up to the Great Jubilee 2000 as a new
Advent, ". . .[f]or Advent prepares us to meet the One who was,
who is and who is to come." It is this Advent spirit which
separates Catholics fundamentally from the fear which
seems to grip so much of the world as we approach the new
millennium. It is this Advent spirit which the Holy Father
invites each of us to welcome into our lives.
3. And yet, how do we do that? How do we lay claim to a joy
that seems so often contradicted by the sorrows and
confusions of daily life? The answer is, we can't lay claim to
this joy — not without a radical conversion of heart. This is
only possible through faith in Jesus Christ. But because of
Christ's coming, it is within our grasp. Therefore, what I want
to suggest is that today, right now, is exactly the "acceptable
time" to receive the joy of the Great Jubilee. The way is open,
and the moment is at hand. But the cost of passage is
conversion, a change in the direction of our lives at their root.
We need to see with new eyes, illumined by a new light. We
need to turn away from our selfishness, our pride, our
distractions and false freedoms, and toward the real
freedom, the freedom only found in Jesus Christ. Advent
1998 brings us to the threshold of a new millennium. The
Holy Father describes it as a "threshold of hope." The
liturgical year we begin (1999) — designated by John Paul II
as the year of reconciliation with the Father, bearing fruit in the
virtue of charity or love — is God's invitation to the conversion
we need, and the final step toward the Jubilee. So let us turn
to what crossing that threshold requires.
II. THE RECOVERY OF CONSCIENCE
"I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight
the way of the Lord' . . . " — (John 1:23).
4. A central irony of our age, particularly in the developed
countries, and most especially in the United States as we
close "the American century," is this: Many of us have more
power, luxuries, opportunities and liberties than at any
previous time in history. Yet we are not happy, and we have
no peace. The 20th century has seen more bloodshed than
all others combined. War continues. Crime continues.
Oppression of the poor continues. Suicide, divorce, abortion
and family breakdown rates have climbed steadily throughout
the developed nations. And even the very success of the U.S.
economy has brought about a permanent culture of
apprehension — a society where both parents frequently
must have jobs outside the home; a society of more work and
more pressure, often driven by the excessive consumption of
goods, which is fueled by the relentless marketing of
products, which creates more consumer debt, which
generates the need for longer work hours, in order to make
more money. And so the cycle goes, cutting through
marriages and families like a hurricane.
5. In the midst of our prosperity, at the heart of modern
society, is a drift toward reducing the human person to a
purely economic animal; a coarsening of our attitudes toward
the sanctity of human life; and a growing sense of
powerlessness fueled by the size and seriousness of the
problems we face. At the same time, science has appeared
to undermine the supernatural claims of religious faith, while
weakening our notions of truth and sin. This led Pope Pius XII
more than 40 years ago to describe the paramount sin of this
century as "the loss of the sense of sin." Thus, while we
sense that something is gravely wrong with modern life, we
no longer seem to possess the vocabulary to describe and
6. This results in two predictable temptations. The first is
collective: We seek structural solutions for structures of sin.
Herein lie the roots of the great totalitarian projects of our era:
National Socialism, Marxism-Leninism, and others. The
second is individual: We absolve ourselves from
responsibility for problems which we feel we cannot control,
and withdraw into self-absorption. This individualism is the
engine of today's consumerist materialism, the "atheism with
a happy face" which dominates the developed world and
buries moral issues and yearnings under a landslide of
goods and services. The first temptation involves pride: the
idea that we can, by our own ingenuity, remedy the effects of
sin. The second implies despair: the abdication of work for
the common good out of unwarranted fear, futility and
7. Both of these temptations have led, in our day, to the
destruction of human freedom and happiness. The first
crushes the individual in the name of the greater good,
replacing community with the machinery of social control. The
second fragments community in the name of individual
sovereignty. It then isolates and reduces individuals to the
sum of their appetites, replacing true freedom with an idolatry
of distractions which masquerade as meaningful choices.
8. Against these temptations, the Church speaks the simple
truth of human dignity. God created us out of His infinite love,
and endowed men and women with the gift of free will. Man
freely chose to abuse that freedom and reject God's love
through disobedience to God's will — in other words, through
sin. In separating himself from God, man darkened his
reason, weakened his own will and his ability to see the truth,
and inherited "the wages of sin [which] is death" (Rom 6:23).
But again from His infinite love, God sent His only son to
redeem us and restore human dignity. It is now our free
choice to accept that redemption and its implications, or
persist in sin. Explicit in the drama of salvation is the fact that
we are infinitely valuable because of our creation by God; that
we are genuinely free to choose right or wrong; and that our
choices matter. We are responsible for ourselves, and for the
world, as active moral agents.
9. What's right and wrong with the world, therefore, is not
something remote from our daily lives. We are each in part
accountable for it. This is why John Paul II, in his 1984
apostolic exhortation "Reconciliation and Penance"
(Reconciliatio et Paenitentia), writes that ". . . cases of social
sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of
many personal sins." And he notes that ". . . there is no sin,
not even the most intimate and secret one, the most strictly
individual one, that exclusively concerns the person
committing it. With greater or lesser violence, with greater or
lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on the entire
ecclesial body and the whole human family" (16).
10. This is why issues of personal conscience have much
wider impact than an individual's private spiritual health. Just
as we can speak confidently of a "communion of saints," so
too there is a "communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers
itself through sin drags down with itself the Church and, in
some way, the whole world" (RP, 16). Unfortunately, in our
day, conscience is often distorted to serve exactly the false
freedom God designed it to discern and guard against.
Therefore, developing a rightly formed conscience is vital not
only for individuals seeking to do God's will, but for the entire
Church as we approach the Great Jubilee. Right conscience
is the cornerstone of reconciliation, for without it, we cannot
distinguish sin from virtue. And reconciliation — with God and
within God's human family — is the foundation of Jubilee.
11. What then is the human conscience? Vatican II's "Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" (Gaudium et
Spes) defines it "as man's most secret core, and his
sanctuary. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes
in his depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is
made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and one's
12. The Council Fathers add that, "Through loyalty to
conscience, Christians are joined to other men in the search
for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems
that arise both in the life of individuals and from social
relationships. Hence, the more a correct conscience
[emphasis added] prevails, the more do persons and groups
turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the
objective standards of moral conduct" (GS, 16). In its
"Declaration on Religious Liberty" (Dignitatis Humanae), the
council goes on to observe that, "It is through his conscience
that man sees and recognizes the demands of the divine law.
He is bound to follow this conscience faithfully in all his
activity, so that he may come to God, who is his last end.
Therefore he must not be forced to act contrary to his
conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according
to his conscience, especially in religious matters" (3).
13. We are always obligated to follow our consciences. But, if
we're sincere in our Catholic faith, we must also
acknowledge that conscience does not "invent" truth. Rather,
conscience must carefully seek truth out and conform itself to
truth once discovered, no matter how inconvenient.
Conscience is never merely a matter of personal opinion or
private preference. It is not a pious alibi for doing what we
want. It is not comfortable or "tame," any more than Isaiah
and John the Baptizer were tame for the rulers of ancient
Israel. "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make
straight the way of the Lord' . . . " (Jn 1:23). As John spoke to
Israel, so a right conscience speaks to the individual heart.
And always, as the Council Fathers noted in their "Declaration
on Religious Liberty," ". . . [I]n forming their consciences, the
faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain
teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is, by the will
of Christ, the teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim and
teach with authority [emphasis added] the truth which is
Christ and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by her
authority the principles of the moral order which spring from
human nature" (14).
14. Exercising right conscience, therefore, is never a matter
of balancing what the Church teaches against her theological
critics or popular opinion surveys, then doing what we find
more attractive. This is evasion. It is a subtle form of
self-flattery — and we should remember that "If we say we
have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us"
(1 Jn 1:8). Guilt, after all, is a good and healthy thing — and a
gift of God's mercy — when it corresponds to the facts of a
sinful action. Right conscience implies humility before the
truth. It directs us toward God and reminds us of our sins.
And in doing so, it calls us to repentance.