On Easter Sunday 2013, after the Mass of the Resurrection, Pope Francis delivered the first Urbi et Orbi ("To the City and the World") message of his pontificate. As has become customary, much of the Urbi et Orbi message focused on the need for peace in various conflicts around the world, and Pope Francis specifically mentioned Israel/Palestine, Iraq, and Syria; Mali, Nigeria, the Congo, and the Central African Republic; and the Korean peninsula.
The heart of his message, however, concerned the source of true peace—the risen Christ:
And so we ask the risen Jesus, who turns death into life, to change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace. Yes, Christ is our peace, and through him we implore peace for all the world.
There can be no peace without Christ, because only Christ offers us freedom from the effects of our fallen nature. But that freedom cannot cannot bring peace to the world, unless and until we personally embrace Christ and allow Him to transform our lives. Calling to mind the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, which we read in the Scripture readings for Lent, Pope Francis reminds us that the greatest deserts are not outside of ourselves but in our own souls:
Dear brothers and sisters, Christ died and rose once for all, and for everyone, but the power of the Resurrection, this passover from slavery to evil to the freedom of goodness, must be accomplished in every age, in our concrete existence, in our everyday lives. How many deserts, even today, do human beings need to cross! Above all, the desert within, when we have no love for God or neighbour, when we fail to realize that we are guardians of all that the Creator has given us and continues to give us. God’s mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones (cf. Ez 37:1-14).
"The freedom of goodness" is a telling phrase, and one that Pope Francis had used in an expanded form just moments before:
This is what Easter is: it is the exodus, the passage of human beings from slavery to sin and evil to the freedom of love and goodness.
The modern world regards freedom as the lack of external restraints, confusing liberty with libertinism. Morality, like law, is seen as imposed from outside, as preventing us from living our lives the way we decide to live them, keeping us from becoming who we truly are. Like children, we modern men (yes, even Christians) spend our lives shouting, "You can't tell me what to do!"
Yet such freedom is not true freedom, but a lie. True freedom is exactly what Pope Francis is referring to, the "freedom of love and goodness"—that is, the freedom that comes from embracing restraint, clutching tight the Cross of Christ, living our lives for others and in conformity with Christ.
True freedom can be understood only by practicing it. "[W]hen we have no love for God or neighbour," true freedom looks like slavery, subsuming our own desires to the worship of God and conformity to His laws, and to the needs of those people around us—family, friends, coworkers, neighbors.
When we practice it, however—when we truly love God and our neighbor, and when we voluntarily restrain our passions to conform to God's law—then, and only then, can we understand why this is indeed true freedom, and why the mere lack of external restraints can lead to slavery. Then, and only then, can we truly understand the love of God, poured out for us most dramatically on Easter Sunday:
What does it mean that Jesus is risen? It means that the love of God is stronger than evil and death itself; it means that the love of God can transform our lives and let those desert places in our hearts bloom. The love God can do this!
You can read the entire Urbi et Orbi message of Pope Francis for Easter 2013 at the Vatican's website.
(Pope Francis greets the faithful before his first Urbi et Orbi blessing after Easter Mass on March 31, 2013. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.)