Here is a translation of the Holy Father’s address to participants of the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
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I joyfully receive the Pontifical Council for the Laity, who are meeting in their Plenary Assembly, and thank the Cardinal President for the words he addressed to me.
The time since your last Plenary has been for you a period of activity and fulfillment of apostolic initiatives. In this you have adopted the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium as a programmatic text and as a compass to direct your reflections and your actions. The year which began recently will mark an important anniversary: the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. In this regard, I know that you are appropriately preparing a commemorative act in publishing the Decree on the lay apostolate Apostolicam actuositatem. I encourage this initiative, which does not only look at the past, but the present and the future of the Church.
The theme you have chosen for this Plenary Assembly, “Encountering God in the heart of the city”, follows the path of the invitation of Evangelii gaudium to enter into the “challenge of the urban cultures”. (nn.71-75). The phenomenon of urbanization has now assumed a global dimension: more than half of the men and women of the planet live in the city. And the urban context has a strong impact on the mentality, culture, lifestyles, interpersonal relations, and the religiosity of people. In this context, so different and complex, the Church is no longer the only “promoter of sense” and Christians are absorbing “the languages, symbols, messages and paradigms that offer new approaches to life, often at odds with the Gospel” (ibid.,73). The cities present great opportunities and great risks: they can be magnificent spaces of freedom and human fulfillment, but terrible spaces of dehumanization and of unhappiness. It seems that every city, even ones that appear more prosperous and ordered, have the capacity of generating within itself a dark “anti-city”. It seems that along with citizens exist also non-citizens: invisible people, poor of means and human warmth; that live in “non-places”, living “non-relationships”. These are individuals who no one looks at, gives them attention, or have an interest in.
But in front of this sad scenario we should always remind ourselves that God has not abandoned the city. The theme of your Plenary wants to precisely underline that it is possible to meet God in the heart of the city. This is very beautiful. Yes, God continues to be present even in our cities that are frantic and distracted! And so it is necessary to never abandon one’s self to pessimism and defeatism, but to have a gaze of faith on the cities, a contemplative gaze “which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares” (ibid. 71). And God is never absent from the city because He is never absent from the heart of man! In fact, “God’s presence accompanies the sincere efforts of individuals and groups to find encouragement and meaning in their lives” (ibid.). The Church wants to be at the service of this sincere search that is in so many hearts and that makes them open to God. The lay faithful, above all, are called to go out without fear to meet the men and women in the city: in daily activities, at work, as single people or as families, together with the parish or in ecclesial movements they belong to, and break the wall of anonymity and indifference that often reigns in the city. It is about finding the courage to make the first step of approaching others, to be apostles of the neighborhood.
By becoming joyful announcers of the Gospel to their fellow citizens, the lay faithful discovers that there are many hearts that the Holy Spirit has already prepared to receive their witness, their closeness and their attention. In the city there is often more fertile ground of apostolate than what many imagine. It is important therefore to care for the formation of the laity: to educate them to have that gaze of faith, full of hope, who know how to see the city with the eyes of God, to encourage them to live the Gospel, knowing that every life lived in a Christian way always has a strong social impact. At the same time, it is necessary to nourish in them the desire of witness, so that they can give the gift of faith they have received to others with love, accompanying with affection their brothers and sisters who make the first steps in the life of faith. In one word: the laity are called to live a humble leadership in the Church and to become a leaven of Christian life for the whole city.
It is important that, in this renewed missionary impulse towards the city, the lay faithful, in communion with their Pastors, are able to bring the heart of the Gospel, not their “appendices”. Even the then Archbishop Montini, to the people involved in the great citizen mission of Milan, spoke of the “search of the essential”, and invited us to be “essentials”, that is, true, genuine, and to live from that which truly counts (cfr Discorsi e scritti milanesi 1954-1963, Istituto Paolo VI, Brescia-Roma, 1997-1998, p. 1483). Only then can the liberating message of the love of God and the salvation that Christ offers can be proposed in its strength, beauty and simplicity.
I entrust your work and your projects to the maternal protection of the Virgin Mary, a pilgrim together with Her Son in the announcement of the Gospel, from village to village, from city to city, and I wholeheartedly impart to all of you and your loved ones my Blessing. Do not forget, please, to pray for me.[Translation for Junno Arocho Esteves]