Thirty-five years ago, on May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot as he made his way through St. Peter’s Square in the pope-mobile, responding to the warm greetings of the faithful and pilgrims before the general audience. At 5:19pm, the pope was the victim of an assassination attempt perpetrated by a young Turkish man named Mehmet Ali Agca.
During the general audience, the Holy Father had intended to speak to the faithful about a theme very dear to him and to the Church: that of work and workers, on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the publication of “Rerum Novarum” — the great encyclical of Pope Leo XIII. He also intended to make two important announcements on his initiatives to defend and protect marriage and family life.
May 13, 2016 marks the 35th anniversary of the assassination attempt against Pope St. John Paul II. The pope attributed his survival to the direct intervention of the Mother of God. Indeed, one of the would-be assassin’s bullets is poignantly now enshrined in Our Lady’s crown in Fatima.
This year also commemorates the 125th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.
The official text Pope John Paul II was to deliver that day has for some time been available on the Vatican’s official website in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, but not in English.
Wishing to commemorate these two anniversaries, Aleteia offers this English translation of the catechesis John Paul II never delivered that fateful day, and the two important announcements he would have made at the end of the general audience.
1. In recent weeks, during our meetings at the Wednesday general audiences, I have given a series of reflections based on the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.
Today, beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, I want to begin a series of reflections on another theme, in order worthily to emphasize a date which deserves to be written in golden letters in the history of the modern Church: May 15, 1891. It has in fact been 90 years since my predecessor, Leo XIII, published the foundational social encyclical Rerum Novarum, which was not only a vigorous and heartfelt condemnation of the “unmerited misery” in which workers then lived, after the first period of implementation of the industrial machine in the field of enterprise, but especially laid the foundations for a just solution to the serious problems of human coexistence which fall under the name of “social issues.”
2. Why, after so many years, does the Church still recall the encyclical Rerum Novarum?
There are many reasons. First, Rerum Novarum constitutes, and is, “the Magna Carta of Christian of Christian social activity,” as Pius XII called it (Pius XII, Radio Message for the 50th anniversary of Rerum Novarum: Addresses and Radio Messages, III  911); and Paul VI added that his “message continues to inspire action aimed at justice” (cf. Paul VI, Octogesima Adveniens, 1) in the Church and the modern world. It is also an irrefutable demonstration of the Church’s anxious and eager attention to the world of work.
The voice of Leo XIII rose courageously in defense of the oppressed, the poor, the humble, and the exploited. It was but the echo of the voice of Him who had proclaimed blessed the poor and those who hunger for justice. The Pope, following the impulse and invitation “of the responsibility of his Apostolic Ministry” (cf. Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 2), spoke: not only did he have the right, but also and above all, the duty to do so. What justifies the intervention of the Church and her Supreme Pastor in social matters, in fact, is always the mission received by Christ to save man in his full dignity.
3. The Church by her vocation is called to be everywhere the faithful guardian of human dignity, the mother of the oppressed and marginalized, the Church of the weak and the poor. She wants to live all the truth contained in the Gospel Beatitudes, especially the first, “blessed are the poor in spirit”; she wants to teach and practice it just as her Divine Founder did, who came to do and to teach. (cf. Acts 1:1).
As I observed last year in my address to workers in São Paulo, Brazil, “when the Church proclaims the Gospel, without abandoning her specific task of evangelization, she seeks to ensure that all aspects of social life in which injustice is manifest undergo a transformation towards justice” (John Paul II, Allocution to workers in the city of São Paulo, 3; July 3, 1980). The Church is aware of her lofty mission: that is why she is a part of the history of peoples, in their institutions, their culture, their problems, and their needs. She wants to show solidarity with her children and with all mankind, sharing in difficulties and anxieties, and making her own the legitimate demands of those who suffer or are victims of injustice. Strengthened by the eternal words of the Gospel, she denounces all that offends man in his dignity as being the “image of God” (Gen 1:27) and in his fundamental, universal, inviolable and inalienable rights; all that hinders growth according to God’s plan. This is part of her prophetic service.
4. Quite rightly did Pius XI state that Rerum Novarum has presented to all mankind a magnificent social ideal, drawing it from the ever living and vital fountains of the Gospel! (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 16).
In the footsteps of the foundational leonine document, my venerable predecessors have not failed, on numerous occasions, to reaffirm this right and this duty of the Church to give moral directives in a field, such as the socio-economic, which has direct ties to the religious and supernatural end of her own mission. The Second Vatican Council took up this teaching by underlining that “the whole Church must work vigorously in order that men may become capable of rectifying the distortion of the temporal order and directing it to God through Christ” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 7).
Thus emerges the first great teaching of the celebration of this 90th anniversary: that of reaffirming the Church’s right and competence to “to exercise her role freely among men, and to pass moral judgment also in those matters which regard the public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it” (Gaudium et Spes, 76): that of making local Churches, priests, men and women religious, and the laity increasingly aware of their right-duty to do all they can for the good of every man, and of being at all times the defenders and builders of true justice in the world.
5. Looking with a serene gaze on the historical and social events that followed in the world of work since that distant May of 1891, we must recognize with satisfaction that great strides have been made and major changes have occurred to make the lives of the working classes more consonant with their dignity.
Rerum Novarum was a leaven and ferment of these fruitful transformations. By means of it, the Roman Pontiff infused into the soul of the working man the feeling and awareness of his human, civil and Christian dignity; it encouraged the emergence of workers’ trade unions in the various countries; it admonished rulers and nations on their duties towards the weak and the poor, inviting States to create humane and intelligent social policy which formally recognizes and respects the right to work and work for all citizens.
6. Rerum Novarum also holds a particular importance for the Church for it constitutes dynamic point of reference of her doctrine and her social action in the modern world.
Over the centuries, from her origins until today, the Church has always met with and addressed the world and its problems, illuminating them in the light of the faith and Christ’s moral teaching. This has encouraged the clarification and emergence, along the arc of history, of a body of principles of Christian social morality, known today as the Social Doctrine of the Church. Pope Leo XIII is credited with having first sought to give them an organic and synthetic character. I am thus beginning, from the Magisterium, the new and delicate task, which is also a considerable undertaking, of developing for a world in continuous change, a teaching capable of responding to modern needs as well as to the rapid and continuous transformations of industrial society, and at the same time I am acting to safeguard the rights both of the human person and of the young nations that are becoming part of the international community.
7.This social teaching — as I showed in Puebla — “is born in the light of the Word of God and the authentic Magisterium, from the presence of Christians within the changing situations in the world, and in touch with the challenges that flow from these” (John Paul II, Allocutio ad Episcopos Americae Latinae, III Coetu Generali ineunte, III, 7, January 28, 1979: Teachings of John Paul II, II  208). Its object is and always remains the sacred dignity of man as the image of God, and the safeguarding of his inalienable rights; its purpose, the realization of justice understood as the promotion and integral liberation of the human person in his earthly and transcendent dimension; its foundation, the truth about human nature itself, the truth apprehended by reason and enlightened by Revelation; its driving force, love as a Gospel precept and norm of action. The forger of an ever-timely and fruitful conception of social life, the Church, in developing over the course of the last century — in collaboration with enlightened priests and laity — her social teaching, which by nature is religious and moral, does not limit herself to offering principles of reflection, guidelines, directives, findings or references, but also presents norms of judgment and directives for action which every Catholic is called make the foundation of his wise experience in order to translate it concretely into forms of action, collaboration and commitment (cf. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 38).
Dynamic and vital, the Social Doctrine, like every living thing, is composed of lasting and supreme elements, and of contingent elements which allow for evolution and development in tune with the urgencies of pressing issues, without diminishing its stability and certainty in principles and basic norms.
8. Recalling the 90th anniversary of the leonine encyclical, following and in harmony with the Magisterium of my predecessors, I therefore wish to reaffirm the importance of social teaching as an integral part of the Christian concept of life.
Regarding this subject, I have not failed in frequent meetings with my brothers in the episcopate to recommend to their pastoral care the need and urgency of increasing awareness among their faithful on Christian social thought, that all the children of the Church may not only be instructed in the doctrine, but also formed in social action.
Brothers and sisters, we shall return again at greater length to the various themes and issues which the anniversary of the encyclical Rerum Novarum evokes. To conclude my reflection today, I wish to respond to the question posed at the beginning. Yes, the encyclical Rerum Novarumis still vital and valid today, and is challenging and effective for the People of God, even though it was released back in 1891. Time has not worn but rather tested and proven it; so much so that Christians sense its fruitfulness and derive from it courage and action for new developments in the social order with which the world of work is concerned. Let us continue, therefore, to live its spirit with enthusiasm and generosity, deepening with active love the paths traced out by the existing social Magisterium and interpreting with creative genius the experiences of new times.
During the general audience the Holy Father would have made two very important announcements regarding new means of study and pastoral guidance on family issues:
Now I wish to announce to you that, in order to meet in a more suitable manner the expectations regarding the problems concerning the family expressed by the episcopate of the whole world, especially at the last Synod of Bishops, I have thought it appropriate to establish the Pontifical Council for the Family, to replace the Committee for the Family, which, as is known, was head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
This new body — which will be presided over by a cardinal, and assisted by a Presiding Council composed of bishops of the various parts of the world — will be responsible for the promotion of the pastoral care of families and the specific apostolate in the field of family life, in accordance with the teachings and guidelines manifested by the competent bodies of the Magisterium, so that Christian families are helped to fulfill the educational, evangelizing and apostolic mission to which they are called.
I have also decided to establish, at the Pontifical Lateran University, which is the University of the pope’s diocese, an International Institute of Studies on Marriage and Family, which will commence its academic activities next October. It means to offer to the whole Church the contribution of theological and pastoral reflection, without which the evangelizing mission of the Church would be lacking an essential aid. It will be the place where the knowledge of the truth about marriage and the family will be deepened, in the light of faith, with the added aid of the various human sciences.
I ask all of you to accompany with your prayers these two initiatives, which are meant to be a new sign of the Church’s care and esteem for the institution of marriage and family, and of the importance She attributes to them both in her own life and in that of society.
Translation by Diane Montagna of Aleteia’s English edition.
Article by DIANE MONTAGNA