VATICAN CITY, 2 APRIL 2010 (ZENIT)
Here is the homily
delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa,
preacher of the Pontifical Household, at the celebration of the
Lord's passion in St. Peter's Basilica. The liturgy was presided
over by Benedict XVI.
* * *
"We have a great High Priest who has passed through the
heavens, Jesus, the Son of God": Thus begins the passage from
the Letter to the Hebrews that we heard in the second reading.
In the Year for Priests, the liturgy for Good Friday enables us
to go back to the historical source of the Christian priesthood.
It is the source of both the realizations of the priesthood: the
ministerial, of bishops and presbyters, and the universal of all
the faithful. This one also, in fact, is founded on the
sacrifice of Christ that, Revelation says, "loves us and has
freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom,
priests to his God and Father" (Revelation 1:5-6). Hence, it is
of vital importance to understand the nature of the sacrifice
and of the priesthood of Christ because it is from them that
priests and laity, in a different way, must bear the stamp and
seek to live the exigencies.
The Letter to the Hebrews explains in what the novelty and
uniqueness of Christ's priesthood consists, not only in regard
to the priesthood of the old Covenant, but as the history of
religions teaches us today, in regard to every priestly
institution also outside of the Bible. "But when Christ appeared
as a high priest of the good things that have come [...] he
entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood
of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal
redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the
blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer
sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more
shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit
offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience
from dead works to serve the living God" (Hebrews 9:11-14).
Every other priest offers something outside of himself, Christ
offered himself; every other priest offers victims, Christ
offered himself victim! Saint Augustine enclosed in a famous
formula this new kind of priesthood in which priest and victim
are the same thing: "Ideo sacerdos, quia sacrificium": priest
* * *
In 1972 a famous French thinker launched the thesis according
to which "violence is the heart and secret spirit of the
sacred." In fact, at the origin and center of every religion
there is sacrifice, and sacrifice entails destruction and death.
The newspaper "Le Monde" greeted the affirmation, saying that it
made of that year "a year to mark with an asterisk in the annals
of humanity." However, before this date, that scholar had come
close again to Christianity and at Easter of 1959 he made public
his "conversion," declaring himself a believer and returning to
This enabled him not to pause, in his subsequent studies, on the
analysis of the mechanism of violence, but to point out also how
to come out of it. Many, unfortunately, continue to quote René
Girard as the one who denounced the alliance between the sacred
and violence, but they do not speak of the Girard who pointed
out in the paschal mystery of Christ the total and definitive
break of such an alliance. According to him, Jesus unmasks and
breaks the mechanism of the scapegoat that makes violence
sacred, making himself, the victim of all violence.
The process that leads to the birth of religion is reversed, in
regard to the explanation that Freud had given. In Christ, it is
God who makes himself victim, not the victim (in Freud, the
primordial father) that, once sacrificed, is successively raised
to divine dignity (the Father of the Heavens). It is no longer
man that offers sacrifices to God, but God who "sacrifices"
himself for man, consigning for him to death his Only-begotten
Son (cf. John 3:16). Sacrifice no longer serves to "placate" the
divinity, but rather to placate man and to make him desist from
his hostility toward God and his neighbor.
Christ did not come with another's blood but with his own. He
did not put his sins on the shoulders of others
men or animals
he put others' sins on his own shoulders: "He himself bore our
sins in his body on the tree" (1 Peter 2:24).
Can one, then, continue to speak of sacrifice in regard to the
death of Christ and hence of the Mass? For a long time the
scholar mentioned rejected this concept, holding it too marked
by the idea of violence, but then ended by admitting the
possibility, on condition of seeing, in that of Christ, a new
kind of sacrifice, and of seeing in this change of meaning "the
central fact in the religious history of humanity."
* * *
Seen in this light, the sacrifice of Christ contains a
formidable message for today's world. It cries out to the world
that violence is an archaic residue, a regression to primitive
stages and surmounted by human history and
if it is a question of believers
a culpable and scandalous delay in becoming aware of the leap in
quality operated by Christ.
It reminds also that violence is losing. In almost all ancient
myths the victim is the defeated and the executioner the
victor. Jesus changed the sign of victory. He inaugurated a
new kind of victory that does not consist in making victims, but
in making himself victim. "Victor quia victima!" victor because
victim, thus Augustine describes the Jesus of the cross.
The modern value of the defense of victims, of the weak and of
threatened life is born on the terrain of Christianity, it is a
later fruit of the revolution carried out by Christ. We have the
counter-proof. As soon as the Christian vision is abandoned (as
Nietzsche did) to bring the pagan back to life, this conquest is
lost and one turns to exalt "the strong, the powerful, to its
most exalted point, the superman," and the Christian is
described as "a morality of slaves," fruit of the mean
resentment of the weak against the strong.
Unfortunately, however, the same culture of today that condemns
violence, on the other hand, favors and exalts it. Garments are
torn in face of certain events of blood, but not being aware
that the terrain is prepared for them with that which is shown
in the next page of the newspaper or in the successive
palimpsest of the television network. The pleasure with which
one indulges in the description of violence and the competition
of the one who is first and the most crude in describing it do
no more than favor it. The result is not a catharsis of evil,
but an incitement to it. It is disturbing that violence and
blood have become one of the ingredients of greatest claim in
films and video-games, that one is attracted to it and enjoys
The same scholar recalled above has unveiled the matrix that
sparks the mechanism of violence: mimicry, that innate human
inclination to consider desirable the things that others desire
and, hence, to repeat the things that they see others do. The
"heard" psychology is that which leads to the choice of the
"scapegoat" to find, in the struggle against a common enemy
in general, the weakest element, the different one
a proper artificial and momentous cohesion.
We have an example in the recurrent violence of youth in the
stadium, in the bullying in schools and in certain square
manifestations that leave behind destruction and debris. A
generation of youth that has had the very rare privilege of not
knowing a real war and of never having been called to arms,
amuses itself (because it is about a game, even if stupid and at
times tragic) to invent little wars, driven by the same instinct
that moved the primordial horde.
* * *
However there is a yet more grave and widespread violence
than that of youth in stadiums and squares. I am not speaking
here of violence against children, of which unfortunately also
elements of the clergy are stained; of that there is sufficient
talk outside of here. I am speaking of violence to women. This
is an occasion to make persons and institutions that fight
against it understand that Christ is their best ally.
It is a violence all the more grave in as much as it is often
carried out in the shelter of domestic walls, unknown to all,
when it is not actually justified with pseudo-religious and
cultural prejudices. The victims find themselves desperately
alone and defenseless. Only today, thanks to the support and
encouragement of so many associations and institutions, some
find the strength to come out in the open and denounce the
Much of this violence has a sexual background. It is the male
who thinks he can demonstrate his virility by inflicting himself
on the woman, without realizing that he is only demonstrating
his insecurity and baseness. Also in confrontations with the
woman who has made a mistake, what a contrast between the
conduct of Christ and that still going on in certain
environments! Fanaticism calls for stoning; Christ responds to
the men who have presented an adulteress to him saying: "Let him
who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at
her" (John 8:7). Adultery is a sin that is always committed by
two, but for which only one has always been (and, in some parts
of the world, still is) punished.
Violence against woman is never so odious as when it nestles
where mutual respect and love should reign, in the relationship
between husband and wife. It is true that violence is not always
and wholly on the part of one, that one can be violent also with
the tongue and not only with the hands, but no one can deny that
in the vast majority of cases the victim is the woman.
There are families where the man still believes himself
authorized to raise his voice and hands on the women of the
house. Wife and children at times live under the constant threat
of "Daddy's anger." To such as these it is necessary to say
courteously: dear men colleagues, by creating you male, God did
not intend to give you the right to be angry and to bang your
fist on the table for the least thing. The word addressed to Eve
after the fault: "He (the man) shall rule over you" (Genesis
3:16), was a bitter forecast, not an authorization.
John Paul II inaugurated the practice of the request for
forgiveness for collective wrongs. One of these, among the most
just and necessary, is the forgiveness that half of humanity
must ask of the other half, men to women. It must not be generic
or abstract. It must lead, especially in one who professes
himself a Christian, to concrete gestures of conversion, to
words of apology and reconciliation within families and in
* * *
The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that we heard
continues saying: "In the days of his flesh, with loud cries and
with tears he offered prayers and supplications to Him who could
save him from death." Jesus felt in all its crudity the
situation of the victims, the suffocated cries and silent tears.
Truly, "we do not have a high priest who cannot suffer with us
in our weaknesses." In every victim of violence Christ relives
mysteriously his earthly experience. Also in regard to every one
of these he says: "you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
By a rare coincidence, this year our Easter falls on the same
week of the Jewish Passover which is the ancestor and matrix
within which it was formed. This pushes us to direct a thought
to our Jewish brothers. They know from experience what it means
to be victims of collective violence and also because of this
they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms. I received
in this week the letter of a Jewish friend and, with his
permission, I share here a part of it.
He said: "I am following with indignation the violent and
concentric attacks against the Church, the Pope and all the
faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing
from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt
remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.
Therefore I desire to express to you personally, to the Pope and
to the whole Church my solidarity as Jew of dialogue and of all
those that in the Jewish world (and there are many) share these
sentiments of brotherhood. Our Passover and yours undoubtedly
have different elements, but we both live with Messianic hope
that surely will reunite us in the love of our common Father. I
wish you and all Catholics a Good Easter."
And also we Catholics wish our Jewish brothers a Good Passover.
We do so with the words of their ancient teacher Gamaliel,
entered in the Jewish Passover Seder and from there passed into
the most ancient Christian liturgy:
"He made us pass
From slavery to liberty,
From sadness to joy,
From mourning to celebration,
From darkness to light,
From servitude to redemption
Because of this before him we say: Alleluia."
* * *
 St. Augustine, Confessions, 10, 43.
 Cf. R. Girard, La Violence et le Sacré, Grasset, Paris,
 Cf. R. Girard, Il sacrificio, Milano 2004, pp. 73 f.
 St. Augustine, Confessions, 10, 43.
 Pesachim, X, 5 e Meliton of Sardi, Easter Homily, 68 (SCh
123, p. 98).