Joseph Ratzinger
Europe: Today and Tomorrow

A homily given in the Cathedral of Bayeux on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, June 6, 2004.

The feast of the Holy Trinity is different from all the other feasts of the liturgical year, such as Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost, when we celebrate the wondrous works of God in history: the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, and consequently the birth of the Church. Today we are not celebrating an event in which “something” of God is made visible; rather, we are celebrating the very mystery of God. We rejoice in God, in the fact that he is the way he is; we thank him for existing; we are grateful that he is what he is and that we can know him and love him and that he knows and loves us and reveals himself to us.

But the existence of God, his being, the fact that he knows us–is that really a cause for joy? Certainly it is not something easy to understand or experience. Many gods in the different religions of peoples throughout the world are terrible, cruel, selfish, an inscrutable mixture of good and evil. The ancient world was characterized by a fear of the gods and a dread of their mysterious power: it was necessary to win the favor of the gods, to act in such a way as to avoid their whims or their bad humor. Part of the Christian mission was a liberating force that was able to drive out a whole world of idols and gods that are now considered empty, illusory appearances. At the same time it proclaimed the God who, in Jesus, became man, the God who is Love and Reason. This God is mightier than all the dark powers that the world can contain: “We know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth-as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’–yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

Even today this is a revolutionary, liberating message with respect to all the ancient traditional religions: No longer is there reason to fear the spirits that surround us on all sides, coming and going ceaselessly, eluding our vain efforts at exorcism. Anyone who “dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty” (Ps 91:1) knows that he is safe, guarded tenderly by the One who welcomes him and offers him refuge. Someone who knows the God of Jesus Christ knows that the other forms of fear in the presence of God have disappeared also, that he has overcome all the forms of harrowing existential anguish that spread through the world in ever new ways.

In view of all the horrors of the world, the same question unceasingly arises: Does God exist? And if he exists, is he truly good? Might he not be instead a mysterious and dangerous reality? In modern times this question is posed differently: the existence of God seems to be a limit to our freedom. He is perceived as a sort of supervisor who pursues us with his glance. In the modern era, the rebellion against God assumes the form of a fear of an omnipresent, all-seeing God. His glance appears as a threat to us; indeed, we prefer not to be seen; we just want to be ourselves and nothing more. Man does not feel free, he does not feel that he is truly himself, until God is set aside. The story of Adam already notes this: he sees God as a competitor. Adam wants to lead his own life, all alone, and tries to hide from God “among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:8). Sartre, too, declared that we must deny God, even if he must exist philosophically, because the concept of God is opposed to man’s freedom and greatness.

But has the world really become brighter, freer, happier after setting God aside? Or has man not been stripped of his own dignity and condemned to an empty freedom that makes cruel and ruthless choices of all sorts? God’s glance frightens us only if we think of him as reducing us to some kind of servitude or slavery; but if we read in it the expression of his love, we discover that he is the fundamental requirement for our very being, that it is he who makes us live. “He who has seen me has seen the Father”, Jesus said to Philip and to us all (Jn 14:9). Jesus’ face is the face of God himself this is what God is like. Jesus suffered for us, and by his death he has given us peace; he reveals to us who God is. His glance, far from being a threat, is a glance that saves us.

Yes, we can rejoice that God exists, that he has revealed himself to mankind, and that he does not leave us alone. How consoling it is to know the telephone number of a friend, to know good people who love us, who are always available and never aloof: at any time we can call them and they can call us. This is precisely what the Incarnation of God in Christ says to us: God has written our names and phone numbers in his address book! He is always listening; we do not need money or technology to call him. Thanks to baptism and confirmation, we are privileged to belong to his family. He is always ready to welcome us: “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).

But the Gospel reading for today adds a particularly important statement: Jesus promises the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:13), whom he calls, several times, the “Paraclete”. What does that mean? In Latin, the word is translated as Consolator, the Comforter. Etymologically, the Latin word means: the one who stays by us when we feel lonely. Thus our solitude ceases to be loneliness. For a human being, solitude is often a place of unhappiness; he needs love, and solitude makes the absence of it conspicuous. Loneliness indicates a lack of love; it is something that threatens our quality of life at the deepest level. Not being loved is at the core of human suffering and personal sadness. The word Consoler tells us precisely that we are not alone, that we can never feel abandoned by Love.

By the gift of the Holy Spirit, God has entered into our loneliness and has shattered it. Indeed, this is genuine consolation; it does not consist merely of words but has the force of an active and effective reality. During the Middle Ages this definition of the Spirit as Consoler led to the Christian duty of entering into the solitude of those who suffer. The first hospices and hospitals were dedicated to the Holy Spirit: thus men undertook the mission of continuing the Spirit’s work; they dedicated themselves to being “consolers”, to entering into the solitude of the sick, the suffering, and the elderly, so as to bring them light.

This is still a serious duty for us today, in our time.

Moreover, the Greek work parakletos can be translated in yet another way: it also means “advocate”. A verse from the Book of Revelation might help us to understand it better: “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Rev 12:10). Someone who does not love God with all his heart does not love man, either. Those who deny God quickly become persons who destroy nature and accuse men, because accusing other men and nature enables them to justify their opposition to God: a God who has made this cannot be good! That is their logic.

The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, is not an accuser; he is an advocate and defender of mankind and creation. God himself takes the side of men and creatures. Within creation, God affirms and defends himself by coming to our defense. God is for us; we see that clearly throughout the earthly life of Jesus: he is the only one who takes our side, becomes one with us even unto death. Saint Paul’s awareness of this prompted an outburst of joy:

If God is for us, who is against us?… Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? … For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:31-39)

This God is for us a cause of joy, and we want to celebrate him. To know him and to acknowledge him is of great importance in our time. We are remembering the terrible days of the Second World War, happy that the dictator Hitler has disappeared along with all his atrocities and that Europe has been able to regain its freedom. But we cannot forget the fact that, even today, the world suffers from atrocious threats and cruelties. To corrupt and exploit the image of God is as dangerous as the denial of God that was part and parcel of the twentieth-century ideologies and of the totalitarian regimes that sprang from them, turning the world into an arid desert, outside and inside, to the very depths of the soul. Precisely at this historical moment, Europe and the world need the presence of God that was revealed in Jesus; they need God to stay close to mankind through the Holy Spirit. It is part of our responsibility as Christians to see to it that God remains in our world, that he is present to it as the one and only force capable of preserving mankind from self-destruction.

God is One and Three: he is not an eternal solitude; rather, he is an eternal love that is based on the reciprocity of the Persons, a love that is the first cause, the origin, and the foundation of all being and of every form of life. Unity engendered by love, trinitarian unity, is a unity infinitely more profound than the unity of a building stone, indivisible as that may be from a material perspective.

This supreme unity is not rigidly static; it is love. The most beautiful artistic depiction of this mystery was left to us by Andrei Rublev in the fifteenth century: the world-renowned icon of the Trinity. Of course, it does not portray the eternal mystery of God in himself, who would dare to do that? It attempts, rather, to represent this mystery as it is reflected in the gift of itself in history, as in the visit of the three men to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18:1-33). Abraham immediately recognized that they were not just like any other men, but that God himself was coming to him through them.

In Rublev’s icon, the mystery of this event is made visible, presented as an event that can be contemplated in its many dimensions: thus the mystery as such is respected. The artistic richness of this icon allows me to underscore another characteristic: the natural surroundings of this event, which express the mystery of the Persons. We are near the oaks of Mamre, which Rublev depicts in stylized form as a single tree representing the tree of life; and this tree of life is none other than the trinitarian love that created the world, sustains it, saves it, and is the source of all life. We see also the tent, the dwelling of Abraham, which recalls the Prologue of John’s Gospel: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).

The body of the incarnate Word of God became itself the tent, the place where God dwells: God becomes our refuge and our dwelling place. Finally, the gift that Abraham offers, “a calf, tender and good”, is replaced, in the icon, with a cup, a symbol of the Eucharist, a sign of the gift in which God gives himself: “Love, sacrifice, and self-immolation preceded the act by which the world was created and are the source of that creation.” [1] The tree, the tent, and the cup: these elements show us the mystery of God, allow us to immerse ourselves in the contemplation of its intimate depths, in his trinitarian love. This is the God that we celebrate. This is the God who gives us joy. He is the true hope of our world. Amen.


[1] P. Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, trans. Steven Bigham (Redondo Beach, Calif.: Oakwood Publications, 1990), 247.