Happy Easter to you all! It is truly fitting and proper to extend this greeting to all of you here present, for this is the greatest feast in the year for all Christians, and we Catholics celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus for eight straight days till next Sunday, while the Easter season continues for fifty days up to the solemnity of Pentecost.
The resurrection of Christ is the foundation and cornerstone of our faith and we do well to listen to the words of Jesus as they were recorded by those that encountered him after his rising from the dead.
According to the account of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said: “Hail!... Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
The first words of the Risen one to his followers were “Hail!”. In the Greek original the word used is hairete, which was the usual greeting people used during those times and its true meaning is to rejoice. Hence the Lord says here to his disciples and therefore to us – rejoice with me! The motive is more than obvious, he is alive again and those that believe in him have all the reason in the world to rejoice profoundly in his presence. The Lord extends his greeting of joy and peace to one and all and this is what we should always feel when we come to church to pray to and worship God. The peace and joy of our risen Lord are also meant to be carried within us when we leave the church and continue on with our every day lives, for it is what gives us spiritual strength, constant hope and courage to confront the daily challenges of our existence.
Jesus continues after this initial greeting with “Do not be afraid”. The Lord does not wish to frighten anyone. He is risen from the dead, he is alive and well and spiritually in our midst. What great comfort, what joy we feel knowing that the cross did not have the last word in his life, but that he has won the battle over sin and death for us and that now we can have a share in his eternal life! There is no more reason for fear or any doubts regarding God and his promises to us. We need not be afraid of life or death anymore!
The Lord Jesus then commands his disciples: “…go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” The Lord wants us to share the good news with others that he is alive. The women become the first evangelizers for the apostles, who are no longer considered disciples but brethren, brothers and friends. He appeared to them in Galilee and this confirmed them in their faith, for they came to the realization that Jesus of Nazareth indeed is the Son of God, the promised One, the Messiah. And from that time onwards it has been the duty of the successors of the apostles and indeed all followers of Christ to spread the word and to witness with their lives that Jesus has risen from the dead, that he is alive, so that all generations may come to believe in him.
We know that Peter was the first amongst the chosen apostles of Christ and he was given the duty of shepherding God’s flock, the community of faithful, who were later on to be called the Church. From the times of the Apostles onwards, the successors of Peter as the bishop of Rome have been known as the Pope. The papacy has been in existence for two thousand years and is the longest continuous monarchy on earth to this very day. Our current Pope, Benedict XVI, is the 265th Pope and Bishop of Rome.
As the first bishop of the Catholic Church the Pope is also referred to as the Vicar of Christ. His first and foremost duty is to defend the faith and teachings of the Catholic Church as passed down from the apostles. His mission is that of being a shepherd and teacher to all those who believe in Jesus Christ, firstly to those of the Roman Catholic Church, and also to other Christians even though unfortunately, not all are in union with the Church of Rome. One cannot deny that the teachings of the Church also have an impact on other non Christian religious communities and world affairs as well. All is seen and interpreted as being a contribution towards the common good of mankind, to harmony and peace, to the building up of society based upon eternal principles of ethics as revealed and taught by God.
The Pope is also the head of the Holy See and Vatican City State, which is the smallest state in the world, encompassing a mere 0.44 hectares of territory, yet with an influence that reaches out to every corner of the globe. The Holy Father is the spiritual head of 1.1 billion Catholics of both Eastern and Western rites throughout the world.
Pope Benedict is considered one of the greatest living theologians in the world today and from the beginning of his Pontificate, he has been concerned with the theme of faith and reason. For him, it could be said that he does not see faith and reason as enemies, but as allies. He does not see faith as being on the margins of society or as a problem, but as something that contributes towards pluralism and peace.
Another one of the Pope’s primary concerns is the respect for religious freedom throughout the world. One could say that religious liberty is the mother of all liberties and it is exactly this basic human right that is under much threat in many parts of the world today. The Holy Father has spoken often on this topic with all his authority, to reconfirm this fundamental right that contributes to the peaceful coexistence of nations throughout the world.
Ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue are other issues very dear to the Pope as he has shown in many of his trips abroad, during which he has encountered the representatives of other Christian denominations and non-Christian religions.
On the day of his election to the papacy, on April 19th 2005, he presented and described himself as “A simple worker in the vineyard of the Lord”. Pope Benedict sees his role as primarily spiritual, since he is the bishop of Rome and visible head of the Church. This is why as leader of the faithful he considers himself as a fellow-worker, a collaborator, an assistant or co-operator of the Lord, in the vineyard of the world. Upon his election he did not change his Episcopal motto, but only reconfirmed it: Cooperatores veritatis - fellow workers of the truth (3 Jn 1:8). The truth as revealed to us by God through his Son Jesus Christ.
At this time, I believe it is appropriate to listen to an excerpt from the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi Message given in the Vatican just yesterday on Easter Sunday. "In your resurrection, O Christ, let heaven and earth rejoice." To this summons to praise, which arises today from the heart of the Church, the "heavens" respond fully: the hosts of angels, saints and blessed souls join with one voice in our exultant song. In heaven all is peace and gladness. But alas, it is not so on earth! Here, in this world of ours, the Easter alleluia still contrasts with the cries and laments that arise from so many painful situations: deprivation, hunger, disease, war, violence. Yet it was for this that Christ died and rose again! He died on account of sin, including ours today, he rose for the redemption of history, including our own. So my message today is intended for everyone, and, as a prophetic proclamation, it is intended especially for peoples and communities who are undergoing a time of suffering, that the Risen Christ may open up for them the path of freedom, justice and peace.” (Urbi et Orbi Message, 24.4.2011).
During the Easter Vigil last Saturday evening, the Holy Father’s great faith resonated in the homily he gave with the following words: “Yes, we believe in God, the Creator of heaven and earth. And we celebrate the God who was made man, who suffered, died, was buried and rose again. We celebrate the definitive victory of the Creator and of his creation. We celebrate this day as the origin and the goal of our existence. We celebrate it because now, thanks to the risen Lord, it is definitively established that reason is stronger than unreason, truth stronger than lies, love stronger than death.” (Benedict XVI, Homily, Easter Vigil, 23.4.2011).
Dear brothers and sisters! As we celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ and mark the sixth anniversary of election of Pope Benedict XVI, let us offer up our prayers for the Holy Father’s mission in the world. May he always remain faithful to Christ the Lord and his teachings. May he guide the Church on earth to Christ and be a living example to all Christians and indeed to all believers of all faiths, of the true worship of God, which is always done in spirit and in truth, acknowledging God as our common Father and loving and respecting one another out of our love for God.