John Paul II on the Millennium and God as Father
by Fr Thomas McGovern
In anticipation of the Jubilee 2000, John Paul II has indicated that the year 1999 should be 'a journey to the Father'. 'The whole of the Christian life', he tells us, 'is like a great pilgrimage to the house of the Father, whose unconditional love for every human creature, especially for the "prodigal son", we discover anew each day.'In his very first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, he asked the question, What should we do now so that the new advent of the Church, in the shadow of the new millennium, might 'bring us closer to him whom Scripture calls "Everlasting Father", Pater futuri saeculi?' He dealt with some aspects of the question in this encyclical, but the following year he developed a fuller response in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia , on the theme of the mercy of God. Explaining the purpose of this document, the Holy Father said he felt impelled 'in these crucial and difficult times to draw attention once again to the countenance of the "Father of mercies and God of all comfort" (2 Cor 1:3)'. He saw it, in fact, as a necessary completion of Redemptor Hominis, in the sense that openness to Christ 'can only be achieved through an ever more mature reference to the Father and his love'.
As we celebrate this third year of preparation dedicated to the Father, it may be instructive to review some aspects of John Paul II's teaching on the fatherhood of God, as a means to deepening our awareness of the doctrine of divine filiation, and its centrality in the life of the Christian.
Christ it is who reveals the face of the Father, since no one else has ever seen God (cf. Jn 1:18). God becomes visible in the Incarnate Word, particularly in his mercy. And it is especially today, the Holy Father maintains, at a time when science and technology seem to allow man to dominate the earth, that the mercy of God needs to filter through into human hearts. This is so because the present threats to man's future far surpass anything experienced in the past; they menace, above all, his existence and his dignity.  It is a time to have recourse to the mercy of God in union with Christ.
Christ eloquently reveals God as a Father 'rich in mercy' (Eph 2:4), a doctrine which is at the very core of the messianic mission. Complementary elements of this teaching come through in his parables about the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) and the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37), and also, by contrast, in the parable of the ungrateful servant (Mt 18:23-35).
While the idea of God as Father is essentially a New Testament concept, there are several allusions to it in the Old Testament. To make the implications of this truth more intelligible to the early Christians, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews refers back to the Old Covenant (cf. Heb 1:4-14), quoting, among others, the passage from the second psalm, 'You are my son, today I have begotten you' (Ps 2:7), with a similar text from the Book of Samuel: 'I will be his father and he shall be my son' (2 Sam 7:14). These are messianic prophecies referring to David and his descendant, which have their authentic and definitive meaning revealed in the New Testament. They speak about the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, of the divine paternity within the mystery of the Blessed Trinity.
In the Old Testament God is revealed as the Father of his people, Israel (cf. Ex 4:22-23), a fatherhood which is rooted in the mystery of creation (cf. Is 63:16; 64:8), but a fatherhood which goes beyond the special bond with the chosen people (cf. Ps 26:10; Ps 102:13; Prov 3:12; Wis 2:18). This fatherhood is manifested above all in merciful love (cf. Jer 31:9; Wis 11:23-26) which, as John Paul II points out, is also enriched by allusions to maternal affection in the prophet Isaiah (cf. Is 49:14-15; 54:10).
The Father and the Prodigal Son
In the fullness of time Jesus' revelation of God's fatherhood in relation to men is explicated in several passages of the New Testament. However, the richness and the depth of this fatherhood is revealed in a paradigmatic way in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32). The full implications of this teaching are developed by John Paul II in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia  and in his document on the sacrament of confession, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia. After squandering all his material wealth, a deep conversion is brought about in the heart of the younger son, not so much because of the loss of his inheritance, but primarily because of the sense of lost dignity as the son of his father's house. It is at this point that he makes the decision to return home even though he recognizes he has no right to be accepted back as a son because of the shame and indignity he has brought on the family name. He is thus ready to undergo the humiliation and shame of being just a hired servant in order to be accepted back within the household, and he realizes that, in justice, that is all that he is entitled to. He did not dare to expect more.
But Christ is using the parable to illustrate how God's fatherly affection for us outstrips anything that human experience can teach us. We are told that as soon as the father of the prodigal saw him in the distance returning home, 'he had compassion, ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him' (Lk 15:20). This moving expression of deep affection by the father for the son who has tarnished the dignity of the home is an analogy of the immense fatherly love that God has for each one of his children. As John Paul II points out, 'The father had certainly not forgotten his son, indeed he had kept unchanged his affection and esteem for him. So he had always waited for him, and now he embraces him, and he gives orders for a great feast to celebrate the return of him who "was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found".'  Even when we compromise our baptismal identity as children of God through sin, if we are humble and contrite we can recover that paternal affection which reconstitutes us as his children once more. There is, we are told, more joy in heaven over the repentance of one sinner than over the ninety nine who have remained faithful (cf. Lk 15:7). The joyful experience of God's forgiveness in the sacrament of Reconciliation, perhaps more than anything else, makes us profoundly aware of our divine filiation, of the consoling truth that God is our Father. The love of God as Father goes beyond mere justice and is transformed into mercy.
Because of original sin there is, of course, a constant tension between the claims of loyalty to God as our Father, and the pull of our passions. So the prodigal son is
The Father's Love for Mankind in the Paschal Mystery
We were created in the image and likeness of God and destined from 'the beginning' for grace and glory. As a consequence of the Fall, the original divine plan was frustrated, but God as Creator and Father did not withdraw his commitment to humankind. God's love for man, 'the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake', found its fullest expression in the Incarnation and Redemption. As St Paul reminds us, he did not spare his own Son in this quest to recover man's love once more (cf. 2 Cor 5:21; Rom 8:32). In a way that nothing else could, Christ's passion and death on Calvary reveal to us the mystery of the Father's faithful love for mankind. The Father 'so loved the world' and man, to whom he committed its future development, that 'he gave his only Son' so that all who believed in him might not perish but have eternal life (cf. Jn 3:16). As John Paul II reminds us:
Christ's Revelation of the Father
The revelation of God as Father was one of the main objectives of the incarnation of the Word. At the Last Supper, Christ frequently insists on the special bonding which exists between himself and the Father (cf. Jn 17:10), a bonding that he prays will be an example for his present and future disciples (cf. Jn 17:21-23). But Jesus had already given public expression to this intimacy with his Father. 'I and the Father are one' (Jn 10:30), he said, a statement which caused the Jews to react by taking up stones with the intention of killing him, but he escaped from their hands (cf. Jn 10:39). Eventually they would crucify him for making the same claim. 'If you are the Son of God', they mocked him, 'come down from the cross' (Mt 27:40). His cry on the cross, 'My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?' (Mk 15:34), even though it reveals a deep sense of abandonment, is at the same time an expression of the intimate union of the Son with the Father.
As we read the Gospels we learn how Jesus' whole life was lived in reference to his Father's will. At the beginning of his public ministry he affirmed this clearly: 'My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work' (Jn 4:37). All of Jesus' human life, his activity, his earthly existence, is completely directed to the Father: 'I always do what pleases him' (Jn 8:29). Christ had come to fulfill the will of the Father, and so he could say in the Cenacle the night before he died, 'I have accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do' (Jn 17:4).
After listening intently to what Jesus was saying about his Father at the Last Supper, Philip, obviously captivated by the panorama opened before him, says what to him seems to be the obvious next stage: 'Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.' But Christ counters with a comment which to Philip might at first hearing have seemed strange: 'Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father' (Jn 14:6-10). The whole of the New Testament is suffused with this Gospel truth: Jesus is the way to the Father.
Adoption as Children of God
One of the effects of the sacrament of Baptism is that through it we become 'a new creature', an adopted child of God.  Our adoption as children of God is the key to our Christian identity. This is no mere metaphorical description of our condition. St Peter makes the striking affirmation that through incorporation in Christ we become divinae consortes naturae (2 Pet 1:4), nothing less than sharers in the divine nature. We who have been made ex nihilo are not only redeemed and forgiven our sins, but are raised up to the exceptional dignity of being adoptive children of God. Truly, then, has it been said that the Christian who is unaware that he is a child of God is ignorant of the deepest truth about his existence. 
To appreciate the significance of what being adopted children of God means, we need to consider more deeply what Christ has revealed to us about his Father. Jesus, through his life and teaching, but above all through his Passion and Death, opens up to us the heart of the Father and shows us his merciful love, 'a revelation which constituted the central content of the messianic mission of the Son of God'. Thus John Paul II can say: 'Everything that forms the "vision" of Christ in the Church's living faith and teaching brings us nearer to the "vision of the Father" in the holiness of his mercy'.
From the perspective of his loving providence, Christ tells his listeners, 'do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on ... your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well' (Mt 6:25-33). His interest in every aspect of our lives is so complete even the very hairs of our head are numbered (cf. Mt 10:30).
On several different occasions Christ claimed an identity of nature with his Father, while affirming a filial relationship with him. We learn how to live the life of adopted children of God by following the example of his natural Son, Christ, who invited us to follow him closely, because he is 'the way, the truth and the life' (Jn 14:6). We need to reflect on the relationship he had with the Father in order to throw light on how we are to behave as children of God. To follow Christ closely, to become identified with him, is the way to intimacy with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The more Christ-like we are, the more we will become part of God's household (cf. Eph 2:19) and acquire the spiritual physiognomy of the children of God.
Jesus' self revelation as the Son of God is given profound expression in the term Abba which is preserved in the Greek text of Mark's gospel (14:36). It indicates the unique relationship between himself and the Father. As John Paul II points out: 'The word abba is taken from the vocabulary of family life and speaks of the personal communion between father and son, between the son who loves the father and is in turn loved by him. Only one who regarded himself as Son of God in the proper sense could have spoken thus of him and to him as Father: "Abba", or "my Father", "Daddy", "Papá".' A text of Jeremiah speaks of God waiting to be called Father: 'I thought you would call me, "my Father"' (Jer 3:19), a prophecy which would be fulfilled in the Abba of Jesus. It is surely significant that this familiar address, 'Abba, Father' found expression during Jesus' prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, as a deep sense of desolation invaded his soul: 'Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what you wilt' (Mk 14:36). While it was during his public life that he would reveal this intimate relationship of filiation, yet, as a twelve year old in the Temple, he would already say to Mary and Joseph, who had come in search of him, 'Did you not know that I had to be in my Father's house?' (Lk 2:45). Several times he addresses his Father during the priestly prayer at the Last Supper (cf. Jn 17). His very last words on this earth were, 'Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit' (Lk 23:46).
The Our Father
An important stage in Christ's revelation of his Father was his response to the disciple's request to teach them to pray (cf. Lk 11:1). The Gospels show us that Jesus' prayer to his Father was the life of his soul (Mk 1:35; Lk 5:15-16; Mt 14:23), and was always part of every event or decision of major importance in his life. They were to begin with the words 'Our Father' (Mt 6:13-15). He was not only Jesus' Father; he was also Father for each one of them. Here Jesus opened up to the apostles the great discovery of their divine filiation, the fact that they too were sons of God. As John affirmed in the Prologue to his gospel, all who opened their hearts to receive the Word made flesh were given the power to become children of God (cf. Jn 1:12).
Yet it is interesting to note, as John Paul II points out, that in no passage of the Gospels does Jesus recommend to his disciples to pray using the word Abba.  He always draws the distinction between 'my Father' and 'your Father' (cf Jn 20:17) to distinguish the fact that, while he was by nature the Son of God, we were so only by adoption. This is because 'no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him' (Mt 11:27; Lk 10:22). As St Paul reminds us, 'God sent forth his Son ... so that we might receive adoption as sons' (Gal 4:4-5).
Nevertheless, as the Apostle teaches, he is still Abba for us: 'Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba, Father"!' (Gal 4:6). And in the Letter to the Romans he reaffirms this idea: 'For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, "Abba, Father!" it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God' (Rom 8:15-17). While the relationship is different, we are still praying to the same Father, with the right to use the address "Abba". St Thomas sums up by saying that our adoption, although it is common to the Trinity as a whole, is nevertheless appropriated to the Father as its author, to the Son as its exemplar, and to the Holy Spirit as the one who imprints on us the likeness to this exemplar.
Who is the Father?, John Paul II asks. In the first place God's fatherhood pertains to the fundamental mystery of God's inner life, to the Trinitarian mystery: 'The Father is he who eternally generates the Word, the Son who is consubstantial with him.'  St Paul falls down in adoration and wonder 'before the Father from whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named' (Eph 3:15), 'the one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all' (Eph 4:6).
The Prologue of St John's Gospel (Jn 1:1-18) is a unique affirmation of the divine sonship of Jesus. It is a synthesis of the belief of the apostolic Church, of that first generation of disciples who, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, would be responsible for transmitting the full revelation of Christ (cf. Jn 14:26). John Paul II says that the Prologue 'is the key text that gives full expression to the truth about the divine sonship of Christ'.  It expresses the fulfillment in Christ of everything that was said in the Old Testament through biblical allusions to the concepts of 'Wisdom' (Wis 9:9-10; 18:14-15) and 'Word' (Prov 8:22-27).  The Father is the origin of his being :'I live because of the Father' (Jn 6:57).
Living as Children of God
The theme proposed by John Paul II for the sixth World Youth Day in 1991 was the theme of divine filiation in a text from St Paul to the Romans: 'You have received a spirit of sonship' (Rom 8:15). In his message in preparation for the World Youth Day he described this Pauline text as one of 'the essential truths of the Gospel teaching', and reflected on its implications for Christian living. These words, he says, 'lead us into the deepest mystery of the Christian vocation: in the divine plan we are called to become sons and daughters of God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit'.
How can we remain indifferent, he asks, to that fact that we, limited creatures, sinners, are destined to exclaim with St John , 'See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are' (1 Jn 3:1). On the contrary, appreciation of this privilege should cause us to grow in amazement at our high calling. 
'What', he asks pointedly, 'does it mean, in the life of the Christian, to be a son or daughter of God?'. His answer is clear and demanding. 'To be sons and daughters of God means ... to receive the Holy Spirit, to let ourselves be guided by him, to be open to his action in our personal history and in the history of the world'. Openness to the Holy Spirit comes as a result of prayer, of listening to his intimations in our soul and responding to the promptings of grace. To guarantee that we are following the suggestions of the Paraclete, and not our personal whims, we need the objective advice of a spiritual guide who can reinforce the action of grace.
The children of God, reborn in Baptism and strengthened by Confirmation, are, John Paul II affirms, among the first to build a new civilization, the civilization of truth and love: 'they are the light of the world and the salt of the earth'(cf. Mt 5:13-16).  'Yes', he continues, 'the Spirit of the sons and daughters of God is the driving force in the history of peoples. In every age, the Spirit raises up new men and women who live in holiness, in truth and in justice. On the threshold of the year 2000, the world ... urgently needs to count on persons who, with the help of the Holy Spirit, are capable of living as true children of God.'  These words call to mind another powerful text of John Paul II: 'There is a need for heralds of the Gospel who are experts in humanity, who have a profound knowledge of the heart of present-day man, participating in his joys and hopes, anguish and sadness, and who are at the same time contemplatives in love with God. For this we need new saints ... We must supplicate the Lord to increase the Church's spirit of holiness and send us new saints to evangelize today's world.' 
St Paul explains that one of the consequences of being raised to the status of children of God is that we receive an inheritance (cf. Gal 4:6-7). This is the gift of eternal life, but it involves, at the same time, a task to be carried out today, 'a design for life that is fascinating'. In summary, John Paul II reminds us, 'holiness is the essential heritage of the children of God. Christ says: "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48).This means doing the will of the Father in every circumstance of life. It is the high road that Jesus has pointed out to us'. While the Holy Father is here speaking to young people, clearly his message applies to all Christians: 'Young people, do not be afraid to be holy! Fly high, be among those whose goals are worthy of sons and daughters of God. Glorify God in your lives' 
The inheritance of the children of God also includes sharing the love of Christ with others ('Love one another, as I have loved you'[Jn 15:12]) - the exercise of the Christian apostolate. Thus 'if we call on God as "Father", we cannot fail to recognize in our neighbor a brother or sister who has a right to our love. This is the great commitment of the children of God: working to build a society in which all peoples will live fraternally together'.  As Vatican II reminds us, every Christian, no matter what the circumstances of their lives, is called to exercise a personal apostolate, drawing people towards Christ and making the Redemption effective. 
Another important part of the inheritance that comes with our divine filiation is a love for the truth that makes us free (cf. Jn 8:32). Not an illusory, superficial freedom which is unrelated to the truth about our nature and destiny, but the freedom of the children of God, Christ's freedom, which is liberation from sin, the root of all human slaveries. 
Exterior freedom, where fundamental rights are guaranteed by just civil laws, is a cause for rejoicing. But this exterior freedom alone, precious and all as it is, is not enough. Unless it is rooted in that interior freedom which is a characteristic of those who live according to the Spirit (cf. Gal 5:16), and who are guided by an upright moral conscience, it remains stunted and underdeveloped. St Paul speaks about the glorious freedom of the children of God (cf. Rom 8:21). When this is lived out in personal and family life, it creates a culture of life and love, and is one of the great benefits Christians have to offer society. 
The inheritance of the children of God is thus a sublime gift and a great challenge. By living it consistently and announcing it to others, 'the world will become, more and more, the great family of the sons and daughters of God'. We can, however, have no illusions that we bear this grace in the fragile vessels of clay that we are. Only through the help of a regular sacramental life, and by means of prayer and devotion to our Lady, will we be able to guard and protect this inheritance of the children of God.
In the Book of Revelation we read about the great sign of the 'woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars' (Rev 12:10). In this sign, John Paul II tells us, we can see how man returns to God if we have received the adoption of sons. The return of the children to the Father is linked to a particular drama in history. Opposite the woman clothed with the sun, which is the symbol of the cosmos being transformed into the kingdom of the living God, another symbol appears - that of the Devil of the original drama represented as the dragon. He, the 'father of lies', who was a 'murderer from the beginning' (Jn 8:44), wants to deprive man of his adoptive sonship and to take away the inheritance given to him by the Father in Christ. 'The sign of the woman' in the Book of Revelation points to us because, as adopted children, we participate in the Paschal Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, in which the Mother of Jesus was the first to participate. 
John Paul II encourages us to make this year an opportunity 'for a renewed appreciation and a more intense celebration of the Sacrament of Penance in its most profound meaning'.  This call to conversion, he tells us, 'is particularly important in contemporary society, where the very foundations of an ethically correct vision of human existence often seem to have been lost'.  For priests, their most effective pastoral contribution to the Jubilee will be to catechize people in depth on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, teaching them how to make a sincere examination of conscience, and how to confess their sins in an integral way. The priest can facilitate this process by being more generous in his availability for this sacrament.
In another context John Paul II, reflecting on the fruitfulness of the life of the Curé of Ars, expanded on this aspect of the priestly ministry:
However, John Paul II adds that this trust and privilege imposes a special responsibility on every priest:
Good penitents, he reminds us elsewhere, make the best confessors.
St Cyprian tells us: 'it is not possible to have God as a Father if you do not have the Church as mother'.  In other words, divine filiation is reflected in our love for the Church and our filiation towards the Pope, the common father of all. Disloyalty to Church teaching or the papal magisterium would, then, be a clear sign that we were not living as children of God.
1. Apostolic Letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 49 (10 November 1994).
2. Redemptor Hominis, 7 (published 25 March 1979).
3. Published on 13 November 1980.
4. Dives in Misercordia (=DM), 1.
5. In addition to a consideration of the doctrine in DM, we will also review some of his catechetical addresses on this topic, especially those delivered during the Wednesday audiences in the summer of 1987.
6. Cf. DM, 2.
7. Cf. DM, 4.
8. Cf. ibid., 5-7.
9. Apostolic Exhortation, published 2 December 1984.
10. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 5.
12. Vatican II: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 24.
13. Cf. DM, 7.
14. DM, 13.
15. Cf. Address, 8 July 1987, no. 6.
16. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1265.
17. Blessed Josemaría Escrivá, Friends of God, Dublin , 1981, no. 26.
18. DM, 13.
19. DM, 13.
20. Fernando Ocariz, God as Father, Princeton, NJ, 1994, pp. 17-20.
21. Address, 1 July 1987, no. 3.
22. Cf. ibid., no. 6.
23. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 23, a. 2, ad 3.
24. Address, 23 October 1985, no. 4.
25. Address, 3 June 1987, no. 4.
26. Cf. ibid., no. 6.
27. John Paul II, Message to Youth, 15 August 1990, no. 1.
29. Cf. ibid.
30. Ibid., no.2.
31. Cf. ibid.
33. Address, 11 October 1985, no. 13.
34. John Paul II, Message to Youth, 15 August 1990, no. 3.
35. Ibid., no. 4.
36. Cf. The Decree on the Lay Apostolate, 16 (Apostolicam Actuositatem).
37. Cf. ibid., no. 5.
38. Cf. ibid.
40. Cf. Homily, 15 August 1991, nos. 4-5.
41. Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 50.
43. John Paul II, Gift and Mystery: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of my Priestly Ordination , London, 1996, p.58 (italics in original).
44. Ibid., p.86 (italics in original).
45. Cf. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 31.
46. De catholicae Ecclesiae unitate, 6: PL 4, 502.
First published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, April 1999, pp 8-17
Section Contents Copyright ©;Fr Thomas McGovern 1997-2000
This version: 17th January 2003