(Revelation 1:18)

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 6, 2012 ( Here is a translation of the homily that the preacher of the Pontifical Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, gave during the celebration of the Passion of the Lord today in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Some ancient Fathers of the Church enclosed in an image the whole mystery of the redemption. Imagine, they said, that an epic fight took place in the stadium. A courageous man confronted a cruel tyrant who had the city enslaved and, with enormous effort and suffering, defeated him. You were on the terraces; you did not fight, or make an effort or get wounded. However, if you admire the courageous man, if you rejoice with him over his victory, if you intertwine crowns, arouse and stir the assembly for him, if you kneel joyfully before the triumphant one, kiss his head and shake his right hand; in a word, if you rave so much as to consider his victory yours, I tell you that you will certainly have part of the victor’s prize.

However, there is more: imagine that the victor had himself no need of the prize he had won, but wished more than anything to see his supporter honored and considers as the prize of his combat the crowning of his friend, in that case, perhaps, will that man not obtain the crown also though he has not toiled on been wounded? He certainly will obtain it![1]

It happens thus, say the Fathers, between Christ and us. On the cross, he defeated the ancient enemy. “Our swords – exclaims Saint John Chrysostom – were not bloodied, we were not in agony, we were not wounded, we did not even see the battle and yet we obtain the victory. His was the fight, ours the crown. And because we are also the conquerors, let us imitate what soldiers do in such cases: with joyful voices let us exalt the victory, let us intone hymns of praise to the Lord!”[2] It is not possible to explain better the meaning of the liturgy we are celebrating.

* * *

However, is what we are doing itself an image, a representation of a reality of the past, or is it the reality itself? It is both things! “We – said Saint Augustine to the people – know and believe with very certain faith that Christ died only once for us […]. You know perfectly that all that happened only once, and yet the solemnity renews it periodically […]. Historical truth and liturgical solemnity are not opposed to one another, as if the second is fallacious and the first alone corresponds to the truth. In fact, of what history says occurred only once in reality, the solemnity repeatedly renews the celebration in the hearts of the faithful.”[3]

The liturgy “renews” the event: how many discussions have taken place for the past five centuries on the meaning of this word, especially when it is applied to the sacrifice of the cross and to the Mass! Paul VI used a verb that could smooth the way to an ecumenical agreement on such an argument: the verb “to represent,” understood in the strong sense of re-presenting, namely to render what happened again present and operative.[4]

There is an essential difference between the representation of Christ’s death and that, for example, of the death of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name. No one celebrates as a living person the anniversary of his own death; Christ does because he is risen. Only he can say, as he does in Revelation: “I died, and behold I am alive ever more” (Revelation 1:18). We must be careful on this day, visiting the so-called sepulchers or taking part in processions of the dead Christ, not to merit the reproach that the Risen One addressed to the pious women on Easter morning: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5).

The affirmation of certain Orthodox authors is bold but true. The anamnesis, namely the liturgical memorial, “renders the event truer than when it happened historically the first time.” In other words, it is more true and real for us who relive it “according to the Spirit,” than it was for those who lived it “according to the flesh,” before the Holy Spirit revealed the full meaning to the Church.

We are not only celebrating an anniversary but a mystery. Again, it is Saint Augustine who explains the difference between the two things. In the celebration “by way of anniversary,” nothing else is required – he says – than to “indicate with a religious solemnity the day of the year in which the recollection of the event itself takes place;” in the celebration by way of mystery (“in sacrament”), “not only is an event commemorated but it is also done in a way in which its meaning is understood and it is received devoutly.”[5]

This changes everything. It is not just a question of attending a representation, but of “accepting” the significance, of passing from spectators to actors. It is up to us therefore to choose what part we want to play in the drama, who we wish to be: Peter, Judas, Pilate, the crowd, the Cyrenean, John, Mary … No one can remain neutral; not take a position, means to take a very precise one: Pilate’s who washes his hands or the crowd “standing by, watching” (Luke 23:35).

If when going home this evening, someone asks us “Where are you coming from? Where have you been?” We must also answer, at least in our heart: “on Calvary!”

* * *

However, all this does not happen automatically, just because we have taken part in this liturgy. It is a question of “accepting” the meaning of the mystery. This happens with faith. There is no music where there is no ear to hear it, no matter how loud the orchestra sounds; there is no grace where there is no faith to receive it.

In an Easter homily of the 4thcentury, the bishop pronounced these extraordinarily modern, and one could say existentialist, words: “For every man, the beginning of life is when Christ was immolated for him. However, Christ is immolated for him at the moment he recognizes the grace and becomes conscious of the life procured for him by that immolation.”[6]

However, let us stay on the safe side; let us listen to a doctor of the Church. “What I cannot obtain by myself – writes Saint Bernard –, I appropriate (literally, I usurp!) with confidence from the pierced side of the Lord., because he is full of mercy. Hence my merit is the mercy of God. I am certainly not poor in merits, as long as he is rich in mercy. If the mercies of the Lord are many (Psalm 119:156), I will also abound in merits. And what about my own righteousness? O Lord, I will remember only your righteousness. In fact, it is also mine, because you are righteousness for me on behalf of God” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30).[7]

Did this way of conceiving holiness make Saint Bernard, perhaps, less zealous in good works, less committed to the acquisition of virtues? Did perhaps the apostle Paul neglect to mortify his body and reduce it to slavery (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:27), he who, before all and more than all, had made of this appropriation of Christ’s righteousness the purpose of his life and of his preaching (cf. Philippians 3:7-9)?

In Rome, as unfortunately in all big cities, there are so many homeless people, human persons who only have a few rags upon their body and some poor belongings that they carry along in a plastic bag. Let us imagine that one day this voice spreads: on Via Condotti (everyone knows what Via Condotti represents in Rome!) there is the owner of a fashion boutique who, for some unknown reason, whether out of interest or generosity, invites all the homeless of Termini rail way station to come to her shop; she invites them to take off their soiled rags, to have a good shower and then choose the garment they want among those displayed and take it away free of charge.

All say in their heart: “This is a fairy-tale, it never happens!” Very true, but what never happens among men is what can happen every day between men and God, because, before Him, we are those homeless people! This is what happens in a good confession: you take off your dirty rags, your sins, receive the bath of mercy and rise “clothed in the garments of salvation, covered with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10).

The tax collector of the parable went up into the temple to pray; he said simply but from the depth of his heart: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”, and “he went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14), reconciled, made new, innocent. The same could be said of us, if we have his same faith and repentance, when we go home after this liturgy.

* * *

Among the personages of the Passion with whom we can identify, I realize that I have neglected to name one that more than all awaits those who will follow his example: the good thief.

The good thief made a complete confession of sin; he says to his companion who insults Jesus: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40f.). Here the good thief shows himself an excellent theologian. Only God in fact, if he suffers, suffers absolutely as innocent; every other being who suffers should say: “I suffer justly,” because even if he is not responsible for the action imputed to him, he is never altogether without fault. Only the pain of innocent children is similar to God’s and because of this it is so mysterious and so sacred.

How many atrocious crimes in recent times remained anonymous, how many unresolved cases exist! The good thief launches an appeal to those responsible: do like me, come out into the open, confess your fault; you also will experience the joy I had when I heard Jesus’ word: “”today you will be with me in Paradise!” (Luke 23:43). How many confessed offenders can confirm that it was also like this for them: that they passed from hell to heaven the day that they had the courage to repent and confess their fault. I have known some myself. The paradise promised is peace of conscience, the possibility of looking at oneself in the mirror or of looking at one’s children without having to have contempt for oneself.

Do not take your secret to your grave; it would procure for you a far more fearful condemnation than the human. Our people are not merciless with one who has made a mistake but recognizes the evil done, sincerely, not just for some calculation. On the contrary! They are ready to be merciful and to accompany the repentant one on his journey of redemption (which in every case becomes shorter). “God forgives many things, for a good work,” says Lucia to the Unnamed in Manzoni’s novel “The Betrothed”; with greater truth we can say, he forgives many things by one act of repentance. He promised it solemnly: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).

Let us take up now and do what we heard at the beginning, it is our task this day: with joyful voices let us exalt the victory of the cross, intone hymns of praise to the Lord. “O Redemptor, sume carmen temet concinentium”[8]: And you, O our Redeemer, receive the song we raise to you.

— — —

1. Nicholas Cabasilas, Vita in Christo, I. 9 (PG 150, 517)

2. Saint John Chrysostom, De coemeterio et de cruce (PG, 49, 596).

3. Saint Augustine, Sermon 220 (PL 38, 1089).

4. Cf. Paul VI, Mysterium fidei (AAS 57, 1965, p. 753 ff).

5. Augustine, Epistle 55, 1, 2 (CSEL 34, 1, p. 170).

6. Paschal Homily of the year 387 (SCh 36, p. 59 f.).

7. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Canticle, 61, 4-5 (PL 183, 1072).

8. Hymn of Palm Sunday and of the Chrism Mass of Maundy Thursday.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
This entry was posted in LITURGY. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Curt Stoller says:

    In this beautiful homily, Father Cantalamessa speaks to how each one of us must choose which part he or she will play in the drama of the crucifixion. And I would like to add a little meditation to this if I may.

    What part are we playing in relation to our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI? Pope Benedict is not just the Bishop of Rome. He is the Vicar of Christ on earth, a man selected by Divine Providence, by the Holy Spirit as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. It is the papacy that distinguishes the Roman Catholic Church from every other church. One would not think so if one lived in the United States.

    Here in the United States, the land that idealizes the anti-hero in books, movies and the mass media, sadly it is the character of Judas who is idolized. I think this is why the old famous rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar was so popular. Because in this story, Judas is the anti-hero.

    Go to a Catholic bookstore and you will find dust on the books by Pope Benedict. There are not even fingerprints on the dust. They are unsold and untouched. Books written against the teachings of the Holy Father, however, are in high demand: books that betray the teachings of the Holy Father.

    Watching the frail Holy Father at Mass, one is struck by the presence of the plain clothes Swiss Guard protecting the Pope. But who is protecting the Holy Father from those seeking to spiritually crucify Him in colleges and universities, in seminaries, monasteries and convents, even in the administrative offices of Dioceses and in parishes and in the Catholic homes of the laity?

    The word “dissent” since the 1960’s has taken on the patina of silver. But it is the silver of the 30 pieces of silver of Judas. How many theologians think that dissent is an absolute requirement in theology? Although dissent has become “acceptable” especially in the United States, let’s call it by its real name: disloyality, betrayal. With each dissent we spiritually crucify the Holy Father and therefore Jesus Himself. Make no mistake about it.

    We are in a crisis worse than the Arian crisis of the early church because today every single doctrine of the Catholic faith is attacked. We think we are so clever, so modern, so critical. It is de rigueuer to attack the Holy Father nowadays. Often it is done out in the open as some quote unquote catholic politicians do. But usually it is done more insidiously and in the dark. Teachings the Holy Father stresses are not stressed in America. Things He speaks of are not spoken of. Prelates, priests and religious and laity who oppose the Holy Father simply ignore Him. For them, he doesn’t even exist. In catechesis and liturgics, his teachings are simply passed over. For many American Catholics, the Holy Father is out of communion with the “true” Christianity. The truth is just the opposite . . . just the opposite. A large number of Catholics are out of communion with the Pope.

    When the various liberation theologies are taught in opposition to the Holy Father: He is crucified. When Catholic politicians refuse to obey Him: He is crucified. When loyal and faithful bishops, priests, religious and laity are attacked by those disloyal to the Holy Father: He is crucified. When academic freedom for theologians is taken as licence for heterodoxy: He is crucified. And when He is crucified, Jesus is crucified!

    One shudders when one thinks of this passage of Holy Scripture: “He who hears you, hears Me and he who despises you despises Me. What part of that don’t we get here in the United States?

    The Holy Father is the physician warning us of the current strains of deadly bacteria and viruses of the soul. He speaks of emerging threats to the soul as the Centers for Disease Control warn us of emerging threats to our bodily health. What would one think of physicians who ignored the CDC? They would be criminally irresponsible to their patients. So what of American Catholics who ignore the Holy Father? His teachings are to help save our souls. He speaks of emerging heresies that threaten the souls of the faithful. Read Him!!!

    The saddest thing is that no one is forced to be a Roman Catholic. No one is forced to be a priest or religious or prelate. Long periods of reflection take place before those in office in the Church take their final vows including the vow of obedience. Then some will turn around and say they were forced and coerced. Their education was paid for by Catholics and then they turn around and attempt to lead the sheep away. We laity are just as bad. We egg on those who seek to betray the Holy Father. Disloyalty is not a virtue in an employee. But what of disloyalty to Jesus as He speaks through the Holy Father?

Comments are closed.