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Pardon me, Your Holiness, but my role (which gives me great honor but also a certain responsibility) is also that of a respectful "provocateur" with regard to questions-even troubling ones-which are also present among Catholics.

I will continue, then, by observing how you have frequently recalled-with an awareness of the symbolic importance of the event-the approach of the third millennium of the Redemption. According to statistical projections, by the year 2000, for the first time in history, Muslims will outnumber Catholics. Already Hindus alone are more numerous than Protestants and Orthodox Greeks and Slavs combined. In your pastoral journeys around the world, you have often visited places where believers in Christ, and Catholics in particular, are a small and even shrinking minority.

How do you feel when faced with this reality, after twenty centuries of evangelization? What divine plan do you see at work here?

I think that such a view of the problem arises from a somewhat simplistic interpretation of the matter. In reality, the essence goes far deeper, as I have already tried to explain in my response to the preceding question. Here statistics are not useful-we are speaking of values which are not quantifiable.

To tell the truth, the sociology of religion-although useful in other areas-does not help much here. As a basis for assessment, the criteria for measurement which it provides do not help when considering people's interior attitude. No statistic aiming at a quantitative measurement of faith (for example, the number of people who participate in religious ceremonies) will get to the heart of the matter. Here numbers alone are not enough.

The question you ask-albeit "provocatively," as you say-amounts to this: let us count the number of Muslims in the world, or the number of Hindus, let us count the number of Catholics, or Christians in general, and we can determine which religion is in the majority, which has a future ahead of it, and which instead seems to belong only to the past, or is undergoing a systematic process of decomposition and decline.

From the point of view of the Gospel the issue is completely different. Christ says: "Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom" (Lk 12:32). I think that in these words Christ best responds to this problem that some find troubling and that is raised in your question. Jesus goes even further when He asks: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (cf. Lk 18:8).

Both this question and the earlier saying about the little flock indicate the profound realism which inspired Jesus in dealing with His apostles. He did not prepare them for easy success. He spoke clearly, He spoke of the persecutions that awaited those who would believe in Him. At the same time, He established a solid foundation for the faith. "The Father was pleased to give the Kingdom" to those twelve men from Galilee, and through them to all humanity. He forewarned them that the mission He sent them on would involve opposition and persecution because He Himself had been persecuted: "If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you." But He hastened to add: "If they kept my word, they will also keep yours" (cf. Jn 15:20).

Since my youth I have felt that the heart of the Gospel is contained in these words. The Gospel is not a promise of easy success. It does not promise a comfortable life to anyone. It makes demands and, at the same time, it is a great promise-the promise of eternal life for man, who is subject to the law of death, and the promise of victory through faith for man, who is subject to many trials and setbacks.

The Gospel contains a fundamental paradox: to find life, one must lose life; to be born, one must die; to save oneself, one must take up the cross. This is the essential truth of the Gospel, which always and everywhere is bound to meet with man's protest.

Always and everywhere the Gospel will be a challenge to human weakness. But precisely in this challenge lies all its power. Man, perhaps, subconsciously waits for such a challenge; indeed, man feels the inner need to transcend himself. Only in transcending himself does man become fully human (cf. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. Brunschvicg, 434: "Apprenez que l'homme passe infiniment l'homme").

This is the most profound truth about man. Christ is the first to know this truth. He truly knows "that which is in every man" (cf. Jn 2:25). With His Gospel He has touched the intimate truth of man. He has touched it first of all with His Cross. Pilate, who, pointing to the Nazarene crowned with thorns after His scourging, said, "Behold, the man!" (Jn 19:5), did not realize that he was proclaiming an essential truth, expressing that which always and everywhere remains the heart of evangelization.