Continuing his series of reflections on man's yearning for redemption, at the general audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday, 19 October Pope John Paul delivered the following message based on the reading from the Book of Sirach (18:6-11).
1. "What is man, of what worth is he? the good, the evil in him, what are these?" (Sir 18:6).
The questions posed in the Book of Sirach, which we have just heard, questions which are echoed by all the biblical Wisdom literature that likewise reflected upon man's birth, death and frailty, these questions characterize a level of human experience that is absolutely common to all men. These questions are in the heart of every man, as the poetic genius of every era and every people well shows, which almost like a prophecy of mankind continually reproposes the "serious question" that makes man truly such.
They express the urgent need to find the why of his existence, of his every moment, of his outstanding and decisive stages, as well as his most common moments.
In such questions the profound reasonableness of human existence is attested, since man's intellect and will are stimulated to search freely for the solution that can offer full meaning to life. These questions, therefore, constitute the greatest expression of man's nature: consequently, the answer to them measures the depth of his commitment with his own existence.
2. Particularly, when the "why of things" is investigated integrally with the search for the ultimate and exhaustive answer, then human reason reaches its apex and opens itself to religiousness. As a matter of fact, religiousness represents the loftiest expression of the human person, because it is the culmination of his rational nature. It springs from man's profound aspiration for truth and is at the basis of the free and personal search he makes for the divine.
In this perspective we grasp the importance of the conciliar teaching which, concerning religious freedom, states: "This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society" (Dignitatis Humanae. 1).
The religious attitude of the human spirit is posed as a kind of capacity connatural with our very being. For this reason, questions and answers on the ultimate meaning of things can never be removed from man's heart.
As much as one may persist in denying them or contradicting them in his own life, man nevertheless does not succeed in silencing them. Every man—the most shallow or the most learned, the most convinced advocate or the most relentless opponent of religion—in order to live must give, and in fact does give, an answer to this radical question.
The existence and the universality of the question about the meaning of life find the most sensational confirmation in the fact that whoever denies it is forced to affirm it in the very instant in which he denies it! Here is the most solid proof of the metaphysical foundation of man's religious sense. And this is in perfect harmony with what we have just said about religiousness being the culmination of rationality.
The religious sense in man does not in itself depend on his will, but it is the initiative of the One who created him. The discovery of the religious sense is, therefore, the first conclusion that man reaches if he seriously faces the experience of structural powerlessness that characterizes him.
3. Religious tradition calls the answer to the ultimate and exhaustive question about existence "God". The Bible, in which the universal presence of man's religious sense is documented in very different and dramatic ways, points out such a fundamental answer in the living and true God. Nevertheless, in times of temptation and sin, Israel fashions an idol, a false and lifeless god.
So it is for the man of every era, even ours. He can answer the question about his ultimate destiny by acknowledging the existence of God, or by substituting a caricature of his own invention, an idol such as, for example, money, profit, or pleasure.
For this reason Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, harshly warns: "They claimed to be wise, but turned into fools instead; they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images representing mortal man, birds, beasts, and snakes" (Rm 1:22-23). Is there not contained in this judgment of Paul's the sense of the inevitability of the religious question in man?
As the voice of God, the light of his countenance impressed on our mind, the energetic inclination of the religious sense is on the alert in every man's soul. Whether he satisfies this inclination in the acknowledgement of the One on whom his whole frail and splendid being depends, or whether he tries to escape its grasp by following varied and partial reasons for his existence, the inclination of his religious sense will always be at the root of his human being, created in God in his own image and likeness. Indeed, God alone can fully quench the thirst of the human spirit, which instinctively reaches out for the Infinite Good.
We who believe in Christ and who in this extraordinary Holy Year of the Redemption wish to bear the glorious name of Christian with honour, pray that every man follow the fundamental direction in which his religious sense leads his mind.
L'Osservatore Romano October 24, 1983