The National Catholic Review
May 2 1998 - 12:00am | Carlo Maria Martini
From May 2, 1998
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In speaking to you in my capacity as the Archbishop of Milan and as a member of a local Christian community, I would like to ask some simple questions: How do we celebrate the end of this millennium? How do we find the right way into the future as we confront fear, curiosity and superficiality? What will the new millennium offer us? The curious and fearful might think that we are near the end of our history, so we need to avoid extremes, celebrating not a simple fact of the calendar but the right way to discern the future.

I was told that some years ago the Mayor of New York City asked his fellow citizens how they would like to celebrate the last few hours of December 1999. For this he summoned a "panel of visionaries" who created a list of imperatives: Think big, think international, think gentle, think safe, think futuristic—but think. Like New Yorks Mayor, I have encouraged the people in the Archdiocese of Milan to think, and what I share with you is, in a sense, the result of this thinking, particularly as we meditated on the 1994 letter by Pope John Paul II, entitled Tertio Millennio Adveniente ("As the Third Millennium Approaches").

What is the Holy Spirit saying to us as we celebrate the end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third? What are we to do as a Christian community? What common human concerns do we have with others on this earth? How should we live through this period of grace? It is good to remember that this grace now offered us was not available to previous generations. My reflections on this letter can be encapsulated in the following three questions: 1) Should we think of this millennium, this period of transition, as a jubilee, or should it be considered the apocalypse? 2) What is essential in our celebration? 3) What does our celebration mean for the local church?

In his letter the Pope reminds us that the 2,000 years that have passed since the birth of Jesus the Christ represent an extraordinary jubilee not only for Christians, but indirectly for the whole of humanity:

The 2,000 years which have passed since the birth of Christ prescinding from the question of its precise chronology) represent an extraordinarily great jubilee, not only for Christians but indirectly for the whole of humanity, given the prominent role played by Christianity during these two millennia. It is significant that the calculation of the passing years begins almost everywhere with the year of Christs coming into the world, which is thus the center of the calendar most widely used today. Is this not another sign of the unparalleled effect of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth on the history of mankind? (No. 15)

In distinguishing between "millennium" and "jubilee," we should recall that we are celebrating the 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus—a real histolical event—and the proclamation of a jubilee is only a way, an instrument, for celebrating this event. We must never forget the significance of the nativity of Jesus and the consequences it has had for humanity. Our celebration is, first of all, a festival for Christians, since the incarnation of the Son of God became an event that divided history between the time before and the time after—in effect, creating the final phase or stage of history. One could even say it is an ecumenical event for all those who think and believe that Christ is the center of history.

The Pope has insisted that this celebration is one for the whole of humanity. We need to acknowledge, of course, that the counting of the years since the nativity of Jesus is a Christian and Western practice. For Jews the year 2000 shall be the year 5760; for Buddhists, the year 2544; for Muslims, the year 1421. As a footnote, I should add that the chronological measure of 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus is probably incorrect because the new millennium, dated from his nativity, has already started; it began probably three or four years ago. In addition, this millennium should not be celebrated in the year 2000, but in the year 2001, as there was no year zero. But we cannot deny that the advent of the year 2000 in our calendar has a certain magic in itself, a kind of aura for all people.

We Live in a New Era.

Even though millions throughout the world do not accept the central place of Christ, they do recognize, nevertheless, that in a certain way a new time in history began with his birth. In short, everyone on this globe has some relationship to Jesus Christ and the implications of his doctrine—about universal peace, forgiveness, love of enemies, solidarity and love for the poor. In this sense, the Pope lightly says that this is an event that in some way concerns everybody.

Let me now ask a pertinent question: Does this event concern even the Jews? I acknowledge, as the French bishops have recently done, the necessity for Christians to show repentance for any harm caused against Jews by Christians. All of us need to stand firm in the future against any form of anti-Semitism. Our celebration, especially in Europe, is an appropriate time to reaffirm our commitment to the conversion of our ways; we need to promote love, friendship and understanding toward the Jewish people.

But in this spirit, why not hope for a common understanding of the universal significance of Jesus of Nazareth—at least as a great Jewish leader and Jewish prophet, a topic of considerable study by some notable Jewish scholars throughout the world? Our common understanding of Jesus should be fostered, so that Christians and Jews can know one another better and live better lives in the year 2000 and beyond. Let us hope, then, that the millennium may bring us to converse about some aspects of the life of Jesus of Nazareth that we mutually acknowledge.

Whether Christian or Jew, this time of transition provides an occasion for reviewing the past and pausing for a moment in the course of our history. The word "jubilee," a word that comes from the Hebrew Bible, indicates a celebration that had to be held every 50 years. A jubilee provided a social occasion to forgive and put things again in order, especially the redistribution of the land and the liberation of slaves. At least in theory, a jubilee, if any were actually celebrated (the Bible is not specific about this), was a religious event to promote justice and solidarity. In the minds of the Jews a jubilee remains a great social ideal and point of reference, based on the belief that God was the real owner of the land and that, to fight against impoverishment, land had to be distributed. In Christian terminology, jubilees were introduced (again) in the 14th century to mark the celebration of the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.

A Christian religious celebration based on a supposed Jewish practice has important social implications. As a result, we need to avoid applying the word "jubilee" as a synonym for a big feast, since repentance, acts of solidarity, concern for the poor and conversion ought to energize each and every jubilee. Above all, Christians believe that during a jubilee they are not celebrating what men and women do or have done, but what God has done for humanity, namely brought about the incarnation of his Son.

Understanding the Apocalypse

This brings me to reflect on the word "apocalyptic" and how it relates to the new millennium. We know that turning points in history have been occasions for some to enter into an apocalyptic mode of thinking. Scholars differ among themselves as to what the word "apocalyptic" means, though most agree that in Greek it refers to a type of revelation, as when one removes a veil from an object.

We have at least a general familiarity with apocalyptic, based on our reading of the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. By apocalyptic is meant a kind of uneasiness with the world, a deep dissatisfaction with the present state of things, as well as a hope that things may change suddenly through a great event—not so much a change brought about by the work of human hands, but through a great intervention of some higher forces. Apocalyptic thinkers anticipate something completely new coming from above that will change the course of history, though they are never sure of what or when this change will actually occur. Such revelation is generally thought to be transmitted by some higher being to a prophet, often communicated in a cryptic language that only some people can understand.

Apocalypticism has to do with hope and fear—hope for the future, fear for the end of history. It has to do with the expectation of the beginning of a new era. And our present age is full of apocalyptic predictions, many of them from the founders of different sects who proclaim the end of the world is near, or not far off. It might surprise you, but I sometimes receive dire letters giving me such predictions. Just think of all those preoccupied by speculations about "the third secret of Fatima"! What does it contain? Many claim that it predicts a great catastrophe. And who can totally refute such thinking, when, in addition to the Book of Revelation, examples of apocalyptic language can be found in other parts of the New Testament.

The first two chapters of Lukes Gospel contain a counting of days that recalls the count of years from the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem up to the restoration of the temple. In Jeremiah 25, we are told the restoration will take place 70 years after its destruction. In Daniel 8 and 9, however, the angel Gabriel announces to Daniel that the temple will be restored after 70 weeks of years, that is, after 490 years. If we count the days from Gabriels annunciation to Zechariah, the real beginning of Lukes Gospel, up to the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple, the number of days is exactly 490. This is Lukes cryptic way of saying the same as Daniel did: We are dealing with the end time; but for Luke the days of Jesus are the final days of history. But note, in Lukes Gospel these days are infused with a Spirit of joy, courage and hope, not with the fear and anxiety of most apocalyptic predictions. Everything in these two chapters is full of joy, full of hope.

Christian apocalyptic predictions are not meant, therefore, to provide us with the exact day and the hour of the end of the world. They intend, rather, to affirm that with Jesus we have entered the final stage of history, the age of our salvation. If one were to ask then, are these hours at the end of the millennium the final days of history, we can only answer yes, since, with the coming of Jesus Christ, these are the final days, the days of our salvation.

For some, changing the calendar year from 1999 to 2000 has little religious significance; but for believers such a change signals a desire to renew hope and courage, according to the apocalyptic dimension of the Gospels. We should not expect some big change in human history as we celebrate the new millennium. The year 2001 will not offer significant differences, other than a chance to seek essentials, to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, to regain an awareness of the great and essential change in human history brought forth by the coming of Jesus Christ. Yes, changes will occur, since we live daily in this change; every prayer well uttered is this change; every act of love is this change—all brought about by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The meaning of things has been changed. Every moment, this present moment, brings with it the presence of a new humanity, and we can look at everything in a different way. We can work for justice and love with a certainty that justice and love shall prevail, assured that it is already in the present order of things. In the kingdom of God, the days of forgiveness and love have begun and this order shall be forever. Gods glory shall be revealed day after day.

Praying in Milan

With the coming of salvation in Christ, a new world economy is possible, based, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, not on competition but on concern for all human beings. It is essential at the eve of the new millennium that we live according to these prospects, conveying them to others for the good of all humanity. First, we need to address those who are searching for meaning in life and would like to be helped in the new millennium. We need to bring to them new openings for this meaning. Second, we need especially to help young people find distinctive points of reference for this new quest for meaning. Third, we need to aid the ordinary Christian in looking to the new millennium not with fear and anxiety but with joy and hope.

How can we be of assistance to others in a local community, a local church, a diocese? In Milan, to cite a city where I have tried to implement my vision of Christianity, I have tried to address the needs of Christians and nonbelievers alike. For the last few years, I have invited people belonging to every religion—or even to no religion at all—to gather in our cathedral for sessions we organize periodically throughout the year. My only request is that those who attend be willing to think. Normally between 1,000 and 2,000 participate at each session. I said at the outset, "Let us ask some nonbelievers to tell us why they do not believe and let us listen to them." And I provided what might be called a "chair for nonbelievers," so they could speak to us about their experiences, since I believe that there is inside each one of us, whatever our religion, both a believer and a nonbeliever. (Even a bishop, I must confess, feels at times the interior tugs of belief and non-belief.) Thus, I have asked myself, "Why not give an open voice to this inner struggle by listening also to people who are in search of meaning? Cant I be helped by them to understand what is happening within me?"

In due course, I invited a well-known Marxist philosopher to speak about the implications in his own personal life of not believing in God—and I can tell you, it was a moving experience. Very, very interesting. And after that I invited others—psychiatrists, artists, poets and others—to speak about the searching for a meaning in life, with all the doubts and anxieties that it entails. In inviting these speakers, I was not out to convince anyone of the Christian message, nor to give a sermon or an apologetic exhortation. I simply wanted to provide an environment where each person present could think and reflect on the meaning of his or her life.

At the conclusion to each session, I asked some questions that might have occurred to me: What have we heard this evening? What does it mean? What is the question I have to arrive at in order to think more deeply? How can what I have heard make me more self-sufficient? Has my heart learned something new? In order to vary the sessions, we have had different topics for reflection, such as the silence of God in Jewish history, especially during the Holocaust. I remember well an elderly woman who had been in a concentration camp as a young girl: "I entered the concentration camp," she said, "an atheist. I left it an agnostic, convinced that there was a mystery I could not name. But I felt that there was a mystery about human life." You see, life is a process, a search, an inquiry that helps us to think.

An important Italian psychologist once said to me, "I do not believe in God, but I pray twice a day." "Could you tell me what you pray about?" I asked him. "Why dont you pray just once a day?" I remember, too, a conversation with a Japanese Buddhist monk who prays, even though he does not believe in a personal God. To each, I would ask, "What is your prayer?" They all seemed to say, one way or another, that prayer is something deeper, more interior, than trying to achieve a thematic idea of God. Even though they say they do not believe in God, they pray. I found it very moving to listen to these different forms of witness.

The purpose of these sessions was always the same: to help people think and go into the depths of their consciousness. Because of the large attendance, we had to provide a huge screen so that all could participate to the maximum. I interpreted the numbers coming to each session, not as mass concern for things apocalyptic, but as a serious search for meaning common to many people of different religious denominations—and even to many who do not belong to any religion.

I have tried to vary my approach in allowing people to grow in my presence and in the presence of others. One time a group of young people asked me to explain to them how to pray with the Bible, which I did. Approximately 200 of us stayed up the better part of one evening—I remember we were outdoors on a delightful May night sitting on the grass. I explained something about prayer in the Bible. Some of them asked me to give an example of a practical biblical prayer. I did so. As we continued our sessions, we moved into the cathedral, since our numbers had grown to more than 500, then 1,000, then 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, until each month the cathedral was full.

My method was simple: We began with moments of silence, some singing and praying of psalms, followed by a reading from the New Testament and a short introduction to personal prayer. And then no music—just long periods of silence. It was amazing. This went on each month for five years. One year we prayed the psalms of repentance, focusing on the phrase from Psalm 51, "Lord have mercy on me." Word of what we were doing spread even to the prisons, and one young man who was incarcerated wrote me that after learning how to pray he wanted nothing to do with his former life of terrorism. When the cathedral proved too small for the thousands who attended, we spread out into many diocesan churches—some 70 in all. Even in the dead of winter, when unheated churches are like refrigerators, everyone sits quietly and prays. All are absorbed by listening to Gods words.

Prayer Brings Love and Hope

At the end of this millennium, I have seen Gods words make an opening in the hearts of young people. There is no secret in what we do; we provide a time and a place, as St. Ignatius of Loyola did for those who wished to make a retreat with him, for a person to pray the Bible in silence. Young people want to learn to pray, to have meaning in their lives. In a changing world, what lives inside a person will prove victorious. But it is not easy to reach everyone. As I have said, the end of one millennium and the beginning of a new one invite us not to yearn for predictions but to engage in courageous action.

As a bishop I have also realized that it is possible to give a retreat to many thousands of people by means of radio and television. Last year, in honor of the anniversary of the 16th centennial of the death of St. Ambrose, who was Bishop of Milan, I gave just such a retreat to half a million people. I received many letters of gratitude for this spiritual experience; these letters showed me that God is preparing great things for the millennium to come. Above all, I learned that it is possible to teach thousands and thousands to pray together at the same time.

Let me conclude by emphasizing that we have to prepare for the new millennium with courage and hope. Christ has come among us and remained with us; his presence, the strength of the Holy Spirit, is stronger than ever. During two millennia of the history of sanctity and faith, Jesus, our Lord, has shown that he is the lord of history and shall guide the new millennium with a new explosion of love and hope. Let us be with him as he is with us.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini is the retired archbishop of Milan, Italy.

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