John Paul II and The Advent of The New Millennium
By Avery Dulles S.J.

The year 2000 may mark a new phase in that special presence of the Lord which began in the cave at Bethlehem.

AVERY DULLES, S.J., Fordham University's McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, is a prolific author. His most recent book is The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith (1994). The essay published here A originally delivered at Fordham University on Nov. 16 as the Eighth Annual Fall McGinley Lecture. Used by permission of America

THE CHURCH CELEBRATES different aspects of its relationship to God by recalling different events in the history of salvation. Every Sunday, for example, is a little Easter, a remembrance of the Resurrection, and every Friday a recollection of the Passion. On a larger scale, the liturgical year is arranged so as to provide occasions to ponder v various phases of God 's redemptive work, such as the birth of Christ, his suffering and death. his resurrection and ascension. We have now entered the season of Advent in which we seek to dispose ourselves to receive I more abundantly the graces connected with the Nativity, which we await at Christmastide and also to prepare ourselves to meet the Lord as judge and savior at the end of time. Advent is a season of selfexamination, hope, expectation and intense prayer. If our preparation is successful, each Christmas can be for us a new Bethlehem.

Beyond the rhythms of the liturgical year, the church designates holy years to commemorate major anniversaries of great events concerning our redemption. The bimillennium of the birth of Christ, which is now less than five years away, will be a particularly solemn jubilee. Because the birth of Christ was itself an outward event, the celebration of the jubilee, according to the present pope, should be outwardly manifested (see the apostolic letter Tertio millennio adveniente, Nov. 19, 1994).

When John Paul II was elected pope, his friend and mentor, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski of Warsaw, told him: "If the Lord has called you, you must lead the church into the third millennium." The Pope has taken this mandate to heart. His first encyclical, published early in 1979, began with a statement that the church is already in a season of Advent, preparing for the great jubilee of the year 2000 (Redemptor hominis, March 4, 1979, No. 1). More recently: he has spoken of the preparations for this celebration as "a hermeneutical key for my pontificate."


In his writings on the subject, John Paul II situates the coming jubilee within the framework of an imposing theology of history. The e Christian faith, he points out. is eminently historical Time has a beginning, a middle and an end and is at all points related to the eternity of God. St. Paul speaks of the coming of Christ as the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), because at that moment eternity actually enters time, and God becomes an actor on the s stage of human history (Tertio millennio adveniente, No. 9). Christ, the Lord of time. to whom all ages belong. plunges into the midst of time and becomes, in the words of Vatican 11,, "the focal point and goal of all human history ("Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. No. 10, quoted in Tertio millennio adveniente, No. 59). Because Christ remains present through his Spirit. especially in the church, all of us since Pentecost live in what Scripture calls the last days, the final hour (Acts 2:17: Heb. 1:7: 1Jn. 2:18). It is theologically correct to make a sharp distinction between the periods before and since the coming of Christ, B.C. and A.D.

Pope John Paul II calls upon the faithful to prepare
soberly for "that new springtime of Christian life
which will be revealed if Christians are docile
to the action of the Holy Spirit"

This does not mean, however, that the end of history is imminent. The Holy Father is very careful to avoid the excesses of millenarianism. Before the year 1000 a few preachers appear to have predicted that the reign of the Antichrist was about to begin, though there is no evidence of the widespread terror depicted by certain anticlerical French historians. Aware that we live today in a highly charged atmosphere in which the flames of mass hysteria can easily be ignited by fanciful speculations. the Pope provides no basis for either utopian prognostications or dire apocalyptic premonitions. Instead he calls upon the faithful to prepare soberly for "that new springtime of Christian life which will be revealed if Christians are docile to the action of the Holy Spirit" (Tertio millennio adveniente, No. 18). "As the second millennium after Christ's coming draws to an end," he declares. "an overall view of the human race shows that this mission [entrusted by Christ to the church] is still only beginning and that we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service (encyclical Redemptoris missio, Dec. 7, 1990. No. 1).


The Pope evidently looks upon the Blessed Virgin Mary as the primary patroness of this new Advent. the Marian year of 198687, celebrating the 2,000th anniversary of Mary's birth, he issued the encyclical Redemptoris mater (March 25, 1987), in which he described Mary as the "morning star' (Stella matutina), whose appearance, like the dawn, announces the proximity of Christ, the "Sun of Justice" (Sol justitiae), before he rises visibly over the horizon. Throughout the years from 1986 to the end of the century, Mary's presence upon earth is to be gratefully recalled. Just as the Blessed Virgin carried the Christchild in her womb before his birth, so the present millennium, in its final years, bears within itself the seeds of the millennium now waiting to be born.

Already in 1983 John Paul 11 called upon Mary to inspire in the church the same sentiments with which she awaited the birth of the Lord in the lowliness of our human nature (No. 9 of Aperite portas Redemptori, a papal bull issued Feb. 10, 1983). Every Christian is invited to look forward to this great jubilee with the deep faith, humility and confidence in God that characterized the Virgin Mother in her days of expectancy.

Occasionally, but less frequently, John Paul II speaks in this connection of John the Baptist, who can also be considered a patron saint for Advent. By giving his life in witness to truth and justice, John became "the forerunner of the Messiah by the manner of his death" (encyclical Veritatis splendor Aug. 6, 1993, No. 91, and see the Roman Missal for Aug. 29 and Mk. 6:1729). While the church does not imitate the sternness of this holy prophet, it seeks as he did, to move all who practice injustice to repentance and conversion. Christians now hear a fresh summons to prepare the way of the Lord, pointing anew to Jesus as "the one who was to come" (cf. Lk. 7:20), "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (Jn. I :29).


I have already referred to the coming anniversary as a jubilee. We are all familiar with the custom of silver, golden and diamond jubilee anniversaries of weddings and ordinations. These are times of gratitude for the favors of past years, occasions for rededication and renewal of trust.

John Paul 11 points out that the custom of jubilees is a very ancient one, going back to Old Testament times. According to the law of Moses, as we find it in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, every seventh year was dedicated in a special way to God, and every 50th year was a major jubilee celebration. During sabbatical and jubilee years the earth was to be left fallow. slaves were to be liberated and debts forgiven.

The prescriptions for the jubilee year represented hopes and ideals rather than actual facts, but they were valid insofar as they foreshadowed the work accomplished in an eminent way by Christ the redeemer (Tertio millennio adveniente, No. 13). According to Luke's Gospel, Jesus began his public ministry at Nazareth by announcing the fulfillment in his person of the prescriptions of the jubilee as set forth in Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord '(Lk. 4:1819).

This quotation from Isaiah, which Jesus applies to himself, suggests appropriate ways of celebrating the coming' jubilee. The year 2000 should be seen as a season of the Lord's favor, in which the presence of the Holy Spirit will be more deeply experienced, impelling Christians to preach the Gospel with new power, giving hope of liberation to the marginalized and the oppressed. According to John Paul II, the great jubilee of the year 2000 "contains a message of liberation by the power of the Spirit, who alone can help individuals and communities to free themselves from the old and new determinisms, by guiding them with the 'law of the Spirit, which gives life in Christ Jesus,' thereby discovering accomplishing the full measure of man's true freedom" (encyclical Dominum et vivificantem, May 18, 1986, No. 60). The relief of poverty, the liberation of captives and the forgiveness of debts are means whereby the basic equality of all human beings is asserted, and whereby the rich are reminded that the earth and its fullness belong, in the final analysis, to God (see Ps. 24:1). In the Catholic tradition jubilee years are times when the church shows particular indulgence in granting the remission of sins and of the punishments due to them.


In the vision of Pope John Paul, "the Second Vatican Council was a providential event whereby the church began the more immediate preparation for the jubilee of the second millennium." From the point of view of the history of salvation, he writes, that council may be viewed as "the cornerstone of the present century which is now rapidly approaching the third millennium" (apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, Sept. 14, 1995, No. 2). The best preparation for the new millennium, consequently, will be "a renewed commitment to apply, as faithfully as possible, the teachings of Vatican II to the life of every individual and of the whole church" (Tertio millennio adveniente, No. 20). That council is "the great beginning-the Advent as it were-of the journey leading us to the threshold of the third millennium" (encyclical Utunum sins, May 25, 1995, No. 100). The great themes of the council, such as evangelization, religious freedom ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue and openness to the world have set the agenda for our time. The program of evangelization for the final part of the century is set forth in the encyclical Redemptoris missio, which builds upon Paul Vl's magnificent apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi issued in 1975, just 20 years ago. John Paul's encyclical begins with the stirring words:

"The mission of Christ the redeemer, which is entrusted to the church, is still very far from completion.... It is the Spirit who impels us to proclaim the great works of God: 'For if I preach the Gospel, that gives no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel' (I Cor. 9:16)." All four Gospels, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, make it clear that the church received from Christ the mission to preach the Gospel to all nations, to the whole world, to every creature. On the eve of the year 2000 the church must prepare to render an account of its fidelity to this essential charge.

The Pope remarks on variety of factors that make the missionary task especially urgent in our time. New challenges and new opportunities are present. The number of people who do not know and who do not belong to the church has almost doubled are times when the

with a relativistic view of truth. Many people have lost the sense of God and are drawn into a kind of hedonism that renders them almost impervious to the message of the Gospel. In some parts of the world, secular governments, seeking to protect a national or regional religion. erect barriers against Christian proclamation.

Notwithstanding these grave obstacles, the Pope finds grounds to hope for a new springtime of evangelization. Under the dehumamizing pressures of technology and consumerism. many are hungering for spiritual nourishnent. New opportunities for proclamation are offered by the rapidity of travel and the abundance of new media of communication. Certain Gospel ideals and values, such as human dignity, peace, solidarity and freedom, have become part of the patrimony of the whole world. The year 1989 witnessed the collapse of some oppressive regimes that were blocking the spread of the Gospel. Thus the Pope can say: "God is opening before the church the horizons of a humanity more fully prepared for the sowing of the Gospel. I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the church's energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad gentes. No believer in Christ, no institution of the church can avoid this supreme duty:to proclaim Christ to all peoples (Redemptoris missio, No.3).


Another priority of the Second Vatican Council was ecumenism. As the new millennium approaches, the church must interrogate itself on its fidelity to this mandate. Jesus at the Last Supper prayed for his disciples "that they may all be that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (Jn. 17:21). What account can Christian leaders give to their Master if they have allowed the sign of unity to be defaced by conflict and division? The task of evangelization, so urgent in these closing years of the present century, is gravely impeded by the mutual divisions among Christians. In the words of Vatican II "This discord openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the good news to every creature" ("Decree on Ecumenism," No. 1). Reflecting on this text, John Paul II asks: 'When nonbelievers meet missionaries who do not agree among themselves, even though they all appeal to Christ, will they be in a position to receive the true message? (Ut unum sins, No. 98).

The great jubilee of the year 2000 calls for major celebrations on the part of all Christians, whether Catholic, Protestant. or Orthodox. It would be a scandal if the different churches and Christian communities were unable to come together with a greater show of unity than they have displayed in recent centuries. Glancing over past history. John Paul II notes that the millennium that is about to end is the period in which most of the great separations between Christians have occurred (Dominum et vivificantem, No. 62). The final years of the second millennium. he says, demand "thepromotion of fitting ecumenical initiatives so that we can celebrate the Great Jubilee, if not completely united. at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium' (Tertio millennio adveniente, No. 34).

This ecumenical emphasis, always prominent in the teaching of John Paul II. has been intensified in the past year with his apostolic letter Orientale lumen, written to the Catholic Church on relations with the East (May 2, 1995) and with his encyclical letter Ut unum sint (May 25. 1995). In the first of these documents he pleads with a holy impatience for the day when the churches of the East and West may come together at the Lord's table. confessing the one faith in mutual harmony. He expresses the hope that the arrival of the third millennium may be an occasion for the discovery that these two major branches of Christianity have been walking in close company, perhaps even without knowing it.

The recent encyclical on ecumenism strikes a note of optimism, expressing the Pope's intense desire that the year 2000 may see a significant advance along the path to unity, thus furfilling the call made with such impassioned commitment by the Second Vatican Council. The encyclical contains a detailed exposition of the various means to unity, including theological dialogues and the reception of their results by the respective churches. Mention is also made of the importance of practical cooperation among the churches and the crucial necessity of prayer for unity, since full communion can only be a gift of the Holy Spirit. The new millennium, says the Pope. will be an exceptional occasion, in view of which she [the church] asks the Lord to increase the unity of all Christians until they reach full communion ([Jt unum sins, No. 3).


John Paul II does not restrict the significance of the coming millennium to the religious sphere. In his view, it has a salutary potential for the entire human race, even in secular relationships. The popes of the present century, he observes, have accepted their responsibility to defend the values of peace of justice and the principles of intemational order. Evangelization, if it is to be complete and integral, calls for the safeguarding of human dignity and human rights.

The jubilee, as understood by John Paul II, has secular and social implications that appear prominently in Jesus' proclamation of his mission, as already quoted from Luke's Gospel. "Commitment to justice and peace. says the Pope, "... is a necessary condition for the preparation and celebration of the jubilee" (Tertio millernio adveniente. No. 51). Reflecting on the Old Testament prescriptions regarding debts, he asks whether the jubilee might not be an appropriate time for"reducing substantially. if not canceling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations."

To illustrate how John Paul II weaves together the religious and the secular aspects of the coming jubilee. it mav suffice to recall his address to the United Nations on Oct. 5, 1995. He there commented on the global acceleration of the quest for freedom as one of the outstanding phenomena of our time. The moral dynamics of this universal quest clearly appeared during the nonviolent revolutions of 1989. These uprisings were provoked by the sense of personal dignity that had been ignored and violated by totalitarian regimes. But, as we have reamed in the past few years, freedom calls for discipline. To prevent liberty from deteriorating into license or being abused bv the arrogance of power, it is necessary to develop a shared awareness of universal human rights and the sense of belonging, as it were, to a "family of nations.' The politics of nations, said the Pope, can never ignore the transcendent, spiritual dimension of human existence without detriment to the cause of freedom.

In the conclusion of his United Nations address the Pope called attention to the role of the church in sustaining faith, hope and love in an age when people are tempted to cvnicism. despair and violence. The antidote to the fear that darkens human existence, he said, must be a common effort to build a civilization of loe. founded on the universal alues of peace, solidarity. justice and freedom. "Thus. as we approach the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. the church asks only to be able to propose respectfully this message of salvation and to be able to promote, in charity and service, the solidaritv ot the entire human family. On the ground that each and every person has been created in the "image and likeness of God," the Pope went on to maintain that human beings have within them a capacity for wisdom and virtue and are able with the help of God's grace to build in the next century a civilization worthy of the human person, a true culture of freedom.... In doing so we shall see that the tears of this century have prepared the ground of a new springtime of the human spirit' (Address to the United Nations Oct. 5, 1995, No. 18).

In his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1991). John Paul 11 eloquently explains the role of faith in overcoming the paralyzing effects of fear. "Christ alone," he asserts," can give the assurance of God's love that is needed by those who struggle to regenerate contemporary society. At the end of the second millennium. we needperhaps more than ever, the words of the risen Christ: Be not afraid!"


Echoing the message of John the Baptist, Advent preachers commonly call for a serious examination of conscience and, if need be, for penance and conversion. The joy of any jubilee, according to John Paul II, must be based on the forgiveness of sins, penance and reconciliation. Conscious of the sinfulness of her members. the church does not tire of doing penance. As she presents herself anew to the Lord, she must ask herself how much of Christ's message has been heard and implemented in life (Letter to Women, June 29, 1995, No. 3). In the spirit of John the Baptist the Pope summons the whole church to a collective examination of conscience regarding the mistakes and sins of the past millennium. At the head of the list of sins to be reckoned. the Pope mentions offenses against ecclesial communion. While repenting the misdeeds that have divide Chnstians from one another, th e church should with great insistence invoke the Holy Spirit for the grace of unity.

As a second sin requiring corporate penance and conversion John Paul II mentions the acquiescence given to intolerance and even to violence used in the service of truth (Tertio tnillennio adveniente, No. 35). He does not indicate in detail what he has in mind, but one can easily imagine that he is thinking of events such as the Crusades. the wars ofreligion and the excesses of the Inquisition. He might also have in mind the churches compromises with the slavery system and with persecutions of the Jews. Vatican II, in his judgment. has made it clear that freedom of conscience demands the renunciation of an undue pressure to obtain acceptance of religious truth (Redmtoris missio, Nos. 7 and 39).

It will be recalled that in 1979 John Paul II ordered a reexamination of the case of Galileo. After more than a decade of study the papal commission reported its finding that Galileo's judges, erroneously belieing that the Copernican theory conflicted with revealed truth. wrongfully forbade Galileo to teach the theory. The Pope in October 1992 delivered an address to the Pontifical Academ of Sciences on the lessons to be deried from the Galileo case. He emphasized the need to distinguish between the proper spheres of theology and science and the responsibilitv of theologians to keep themselves regularly informed of scientific advances.

Under the rubric of past mistakes calling for correction, it is of great interest to note the statements in the Pope s Letter to Women on the eve of the Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing last September. For many centuries. he observed, the dignity of women had been unacknowledged; they had been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This situation was contrary to the teaching and example of Jesus. who always honored the dignity of women. Because such patterns of behaior have been so heavily ingrained in the cultural heritage. it is difficult to assign culpability. but the Pope was prepared to say: "If objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the church, for this I am truly sorry ' (Letter To Women No. 3). He expressed the wish that, as the church moves into the new millennium, this regret might be transformed into a new commitment to recognize what he called 'the feminine genius."

As is evident from these examples, John Paul 11 does not wish the church's examination of conscience to be confined to the past. "On the threshold of the new millennium Christians need to place themselves humbly before the Lord and examine themselves on the responsibility which they too have for the evils of our day" (Tertio millennio adveniente, No. 36). Among the shadows of our age the Pope singles out religious indifference, the loss of the sense of the transcendent, ethical relativism and the crisis of obedience visavis the church's teaching authority. He exhorts Catholics to examine themselves on the fidelity with which they have received the teaching of Vatican II regarding the primacv of the word of God, the value of the liturgy, the ecclesiologv of commumion and openness to dialogue with the world without sacrifice of their courage in witnessing to the truth. In another context the Pope declares that the European nations are today obliged to make a serious examination of conscience with regard to the threat of exaggerated nationalism (Tertio millennio adveniente. No. 27).


In conclusion, I would like to say something about the concrete planning for the coming jubilee year. A schedule has been drawn up on the basis of extensive consultation. including a special consistory of cardinals that met in June 1994. For the period until the end of 1996 John Paul 11 proposes a phase of remote preparation given to inculcating awareness of the situation and instilling the required attitudes. such as hope. prayerfulness and sorrow for the sins and mistakes of the past. During this period. or shortIy thereafter. the Pope expects there to be continental synods for the Americas. Asia and perhaps Oceania. following along the general lines of the synods already held for Europe and Africa.

The synod for the Americas would concentrate on the new evangelization and on issues of justice. especially with regard to international economic relations. The synod for Asia would deal principally with the challenges to evangelization offered by the encounter with local cultures with world religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The synod for Oceania. the Pope indicates, could contribute to the dialogue between Christianity and the aboriginal monotheistic religions found in that part of the world.

John Paul II lays great stress on the importance of regional churches and their own celebrations of jubilees recalling their distinctive histories. Christian history, as he sees it, may be compared to a single river into which man! tributaries pour their waters so as to give joy to the city of God (see Ps. 46:4).

Each of the years from 1997 to 1999, constituting the period of proximate preparation, has its own theme. The general movement of the triennium will be from Christ, through the Holy Spirit, to God the Father, but each year will also have a Marian dimension. The year 1997 is to be a year of faith, in which Christians will seek to renew, their appreciation of baptism and their relationship to Christ the Son of God. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, will be invoked as a model of faith. In l998 attention will shift to the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit, the sacrament of confirmation and the theological virtue of hope. Notice will be taken of the signs of hope present in the world of our day and of the Virgin Mary. the spouse of the Holy Spirit, as an exemplar of Christian hope. Finally, the year 1999 will focus on God the Father. It will be the occasion for a more intense celebration of the sacrament of penance, for the practice of charity and for the building of a civilization of love. Praise will be directed to Mary, the beloved daughter of the Father, under the aspects of her holiness and her love for God and neighbor.

The climactic year, of course, will be the bimillennium itself. The plan is for the celebration to be conducted simultaneously in the Holy Land, in Rome and in local churches throughout the world. John Paul II hopes for an ecumenical meeting of all Christians, planned in cooperation with representatives of other Christian traditions, with invitations extended to other religious bodies who might wish to acknowledge the joy shared by the disciples of Christ. The Pope speaks of his own intense desire to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land. "It would be very significant," he writes, "if in the year 2000 it were possible to visit the places on the road taken by the people of God of the Old Covenant, starting from the places associated with Abraham and Moses(Tertio millennio adveniente, No.24.). He notes the symbolic potential of places such as Bethlehem. Jerusalem, Mount Sinai and Damascus for furthering dialogue with Jews and Muslims.


It is too early to judge the impact of this elaborate plan of John Paul II, but it would seem that the first reactions have been positive. Committees have been formed in Rome to consider the historical, theological and pastoral dimensions of the program. In many dioceses and councils of churches, plans are being laid for local and regional celebrations. The first soundings seem to indicate that other Christian bodies will gladly cooperate with the Catholic Church to give a positive ecumenical tone to the celebrations that might otherwise occur in competitive and antagonistic ways.

The coming jubilee is surely an occasion for joy and gratitude, but it presents dangers that should not be overlooked. If celebrated without recognition of the need for repentance and renewal, the festivals could take on a triumphalistic tone that would embarrass Christians and repel adherents of other faiths. If the ecumenical and inter- religious dimensions were neglected. the jubilee could lead to tensions and rivalries among religions and especially among Christian bodies. If exclusively religious in its focus the bimillennium could be dismissed as empty pageantry bv those concerned with the future of humanity on earth. Great credit is due to the Holy See and to the present Pope for the care they have taken to avoid these risks. They have called for penance as a preparation for the celebration. thus precluding undue complacency Looking beyond the Catholic community, they have made provision for the participation of all Christian groups in ecumenical services. The sensitivities of the Jewish community and of other religious bodies are lilkewise respected. The emphasis given to peace, solidarity, human rights and economic justice should provide assurance that the focus will not be too narrowly devotional.

More difficult than the preparation of the plan. of course. will be its execution. Total success is not to be expected, since many will fail to hear and heed the call. Yet in many quarters I seem to sense an attitude of eager expectancy. A jubilee of such magnitude presents rare opportunities. critically important for the future of faith and civilization. In contrast to the first millennium. when faith in Christ was confined to a small area of the globe. Christianity is now a worldwide phenomenon having a vital impact on all sectors of human existence. As the largest branch of Christianity, the Catholic Church has special responsibilities for leadership in the coming jubilee. By their manifest devotion to the Incarnate Lord, Catholics can bear witness to the enduring power of the Word made flesh. By their spirit of ecumenism and their openness to dialogue, they can help to bring all communions and all faiths into friendship and cooperation. By their efforts on behalf of justice in the world they can help to build a society of freedom, solidarity and peace.

To the extent that each of us carries out these imperatives the year 2000 may mark a new phase in that special presence of the Lord which began in the cave at Bethlehem. Even this side of the end of history, the Advent prayer of Christians. "Come, Lord Jesus," may yet be answered in striking and surprising ways.

Used with permission of Ameripress, 106 West 56 th St. New York, NY 10019 USA