"Blessed Are the Meek, For They Shall Inherit the Land"
VATICAN CITY, 18 MARCH 2007 (ZENIT)
Here is a translation of the
Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa
in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The
Pontifical Household preacher delivered the reflection in the Mater
Redemptoris Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.
* * *
1. Who are the meek?
The beatitude on which we wish to meditate today lends itself to an
important observation. It says: "Blessed are the meek for they shall
inherit the land." Now, in another passage of the same Gospel, Jesus
exclaims: "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Matthew
11:29). We conclude from this that the beatitudes are not a nice ethical
program traced by the master for his followers; they are a self-portrait
of Jesus! Jesus is the one who is truly poor, meek, pure of heart,
persecuted for the sake of justice.
Here is the limitation of Gandhi's interpretation of the Sermon on the
Mount, which he so much admired. For Gandhi the whole sermon might have
just as well been considered apart from the historical person of Christ.
"It does not matter to me," he once said, "if someone demonstrated that
the man Jesus never lived and that what we read in the Gospels is
nothing more than a production of the author's imagination. The Sermon
on the Mount will always remain true in my eyes."
On the contrary, it is the person and life of Christ that make of the
beatitudes and the whole Sermon on the Mount something more than a
beautiful ethical utopia; they make of them an historical reality, from
which everyone can draw strength through mystical union with the person
of the Savior. They do not merely belong to the order of duties but to
the order of grace.
To see who the meek whom Jesus proclaims "blessed" are, it would be
helpful to briefly review the various terms with which the word "meek"
("praeis") is rendered in modern translations: "meek" ("miti") and
"mild" ("mansueti"). The latter is also the word used in the Spanish
translations, "los mansos," the mild. In French the word is translated
with "doux," literally "the sweet," those who have the virtue of
sweetness. (There is no specific word in French for "meekness"; in the "Dictionnaire
de spiritualité," this virtue is treated in the entry "douceur," that
In German, different translations alternate. Luther translated the term
with "Sanftmütigen," that is, "meek," "sweet"; in the ecumenical
translation of the Bible, the "Einheits Bibel," the meek are those who
do not act violently
"die Keine Gewalt anwenden
thus the non-violent; some authors accentuate the objective and
sociological dimension and translate "praeis" with "machtlosen," "the
weak," "those without power." English usually renders "praeis" with "the
gentle," introducing the nuance of niceness and courtesy into the
Each of these translations highlights a true but partial component of
the beatitude. If we want to get an idea of the original richness of the
Gospel term it is necessary to keep all the elements together and to not
isolate any. Two regular associations, in the Bible and in ancient
Christian exhortation, help us to grasp the "full meaning" of meekness:
one is the linking of meekness and humility and the other is the linking
of meekness and patience; the one highlights the interior dispositions
from which meekness flows, the other the attitudes that meekness causes
us to have toward our neighbor: affability, sweetness, kindness. These
are the same traits that the Apostle emphasizes when speaking about
charity: "Charity is patient, it is kind, it is not disrespectful, it is
not angry." (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).
2. Jesus, the meek
If the beatitudes are a self-portrait of Christ, the first thing to do
in commenting on them is to see how they were lived by him. The Gospels
are from beginning to end a demonstration of the meekness of Christ in
its dual aspect of humility and patience. Jesus himself, we pointed out,
proposes himself as the model of meekness. Matthew applies to Jesus the
saying of the Servant of God in Isaiah: "He will no wrangle or cry out,
he will not break a bruised reed nor quench a smoldering wick" (cf. Mark
12:19-20). His entrance into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey is seen
as an example of a "meek" king who refuses all ideas of violence and war
(cf. Matthew 21:4).
The maximum proof of Christ's meekness is in his passion. There is no
wrath, there are no threats: "When he was reviled he did not revile in
return, when he suffered, he did not threaten" (1 Peter 2:23). This
trait of the person of Christ was so stamped in the memory of his
disciples that Paul, wanting to swear by something dear and sacred in
his second letter to the Corinthians writes: "I entreat you by the
meekness ("prautes") and the gentleness ("epiekeia") of Christ" (2
But Jesus did much more than give us an example of heroic meekness and
patience; he made of meekness and nonviolence the true sign of
greatness. This will no longer mean holding oneself alone above, above
the crowd, but to humble oneself to serve and elevate others. On the
cross, St. Augustine says, the true victory does not consist in making
victims of others but in making oneself a victim: "Victor quia victima."
Nietzsche, we know, was opposed to this vision, calling it "slave
morality," suggested by a natural "resentment" of the weak toward the
strong. According to him, in preaching humility and meekness, making
oneself small, turning the other cheek, Christianity introduced a type
of cancer into humanity which destroyed its élan and mortified life. In
the introduction to "Thus Spake Zarathustra," Nietzsche's sister
summarized the philosopher's thought in this way: "He believes that, on
account of the resentment of a weak and falsified Christianity, all that
was beautiful, strong, superior, powerful
like the virtues that come from strength
was proscribed and banned and thus the forces that promote and exalt
life were diminished. But now a new table of values must be given to
humanity, that is, the man who is strong, powerful, magnificent to
excess, the 'superman,' which is presented to us with great passion as
the goal of our life, our will, our hope."
For some time we have been witnessing this attempt to absolve Nietzsche
from every accusation, to domesticate and, in the end, Christianize him.
It is said that at bottom he was not against Christ, but against
Christians who made self-denial an end in itself, despising life and
acting cruelly toward the body. Everyone has apparently betrayed
Nietzsche's true thought, starting with Hitler. In reality, he would
have been the prophet of a new era, the precursor of postmodernity.
One might say that there has been a lone voice to oppose himself to this
tendency, the French thinker René Girard. According to him, all of these
efforts have done an injustice, above all to Nietzsche himself. With a
perspicacity unique for his time, Girard got to the heart of the matter.
With Nietzsche we are faced with two absolute alternatives: paganism or
Paganism exalts the sacrifice of the weak for the benefit of the strong
and the advancement of life; Christianity exalts the sacrifice of the
strong for the benefit of the weak. It is hard not to see an objective
connection between Nietzsche's proposal and Hitler's program of
eliminating whole groups of human beings for the advancement of
civilization and the purity of the race.
Nietzsche does not just target Christianity, but Christ. "Dionysus
against the Crucified: this is the antithesis," he exclaimed in one
Girard shows that one of the greatest boasts of modern society
concern for victims, taking the side of the weak and oppressed, the
defense of the life that is threatened
is in truth a direct product of the revolution brought by the Gospel.
However, by a paradoxical play of imitative rivalries, these values have
been claimed by other movements as their own achievement and this
precisely in opposition to Christianity.
In the previous meditation I spoke about the social relevance of the
beatitudes. The beatitude of the meek is perhaps the clearest example,
but what is said of it is valid for all the beatitudes. They are the
manifesto of the new greatness, the way of Christ to self-realization,
It is not true that the Gospel kills the desire to do great things and
to esteem. Jesus says: "If someone wants to be first, he must become the
least of all and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35). The desire to be first
is thus legitimate, indeed it is recommended; it is only that the way to
first place has changed: It is not reached by raising ourselves up above
others, squashing them perhaps if they are in our way, but by lowering
ourselves to raise up others together with us.
3. Meekness and tolerance
The beatitude of the weak has come to be extraordinarily relevant in the
debate about religion and violence that was ignited following the events
of 9/11. It reminds us Christians, above all, that the Gospel leaves no
room for doubt. There are no exhortations to nonviolence mixed with
contrary exhortations. Christians may, at certain times, distance
themselves from it, but the Gospel is clear and the Church can return to
it always and be inspired, knowing that it will find nothing else there
but moral perfection.
The Gospel says that "he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark
16:16), but condemned in heaven, not on earth, by God not by men. "When
they persecute you in one city," Jesus says, "flee to another" (Matthew
10:23); he does not say: "Fight back." Once two of his disciples, James
and John, who were not welcomed in a certain Samaritan village, said to
Jesus: "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven upon them to
consume them?" Jesus, it is written, "turned and reproved them." Many
manuscripts also report the tenor of the reproof: "You do not know of
which spirit you are. The Son of Man did not come to lose the souls of
men but to save them" (cf. Luke 9:53-55).
The famous "compelle intrare," "constrain them to enter," with which St.
Augustine, even if with a heavy heart , justifies his approval of the
imperial laws against the Donatists, and which will be used afterward to
justify the coercion of heretics, stems from an obvious forcing of the
Gospel text, fruit of a mechanical literal reading of the Bible.
Jesus puts the line in the mouth of a man who had prepared a great feast
and, faced with the refusal of those invited to come, he tells his
servants to go out into the highways and hedges and "force the poor, the
feeble, the blind, and the lame to come" (cf. Luke 14:15-24). It is
clear from the context that "force" does not mean anything other than a
friendly insistence. The poor and the feeble, as all the unfortunate,
might feel embarrassed to come to the house: Wear down their resistance,
says the master, and tell them to not be afraid to come. How often we
ourselves have said in similar circumstances: "I was forced to accept,"
knowing that insistence in these cases is a sign of benevolence and not
In a recent book on Jesus that has had a great deal of attention in
Italy, the following statement is attributed to Jesus: "And those
enemies of mine who did not want me to become their king, bring them
here and kill them before me" (Luke 19:27) and it is concluded that it
is to statements such as this that "supporters of 'holy war' have
recourse." Now it needs to be said that Luke does not attribute these
words to Jesus, but to the king in the parable, and we know that all the
details of the parable are not supposed to be transferred to reality,
and in any case, they are to be transferred from the material to the
4. With meekness and respect
But let us leave aside these considerations of an apologetic sort and
try to see what light the beatitude of the meek can shed on our
Christian life. There is a pastoral application of the beatitude of the
meek that is initiated by the first letter of Peter. It regards dialogue
with the outside world: "Worship the Lord, Christ, in your hearts,
always ready to answer whoever asks you the reason for the hope in you.
But let this be done with meekness ("prautes") and respect" (1 Peter
From ancient times there has been two types of apologetics, one that has
its model in Tertullian, and the other that has its model in Justin; the
one aims at winning, the other at convincing. Justin wrote a "Dialogue
with Trypho the Jew," Tertullian (or his disciple) wrote "Against the
Jews." Both of these styles have had their following in Christian
writing (our Giovanni Papini was certainly closer to Tertullian than to
Justin), but today the first style is preferred of course.
The martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch suggested to the Christians of his
time, in relation to the outside world, this always relevant attitude:
"Faced with their rage, be meek; faced with their arrogance, be
The promise linked to the beatitude of the meek
"they will inherit the land"
is realized on different levels; there is the definitive promised land
of eternal life, but there is also the land which is the hearts of men.
The meek win confidence, they attract souls. The saint of meekness and
sweetness par excellence, St. Francis de Sales, often said: "Be as sweet
as you can and remember that more flies are captured by a drop of honey
than with a barrel of vinegar."
5. Learn from me
We could remain for a long time on these pastoral applications of the
beatitude of the meek but let us pass to a more personal application.
Jesus says: "Learn from me for I am meek." We might object: But Jesus
himself was not always meek! He said, for example, not to oppose the
evil doer and "to him who strikes you on the right cheek, turn and give
him the other" (Matthew 5:39). However, when one the guards strikes him
on the cheek during the trial before the Sanhedrin, it is not written
that he gave him the other cheek, but that with calmness he replied: "If
I said something wrong, show it to me; but if I spoke well, why do you
strike me?" (John 18:23).
This means that not everything in the Sermon on the Mount should be
understood mechanically in a literal way; Jesus, according to his style,
uses hyperbole and images to better imprint the idea on the mind of his
disciples. In the case of turning the other cheek, for example, what is
important is not the gesture of turning the other cheek (which might
sometimes serve more to provoke a person), but not responding to
violence with violence, but to win with calm.
In this sense, his response to the guard is an example of divine
meekness. To measure its range, it is enough to compare it to the
reaction of his apostle Paul (who was himself a saint) in an analogous
situation. When, during Paul's trial before the Sanhedrin, the high
priest Ananias orders Paul to be struck on the mouth, he answers: "God
will strike you, you whitewashed wall!" (Acts 23:2-3).
Another matter should be clarified. In the same Sermon on the Mount
Jesus says: "He who says to his brother: 'Idiot,' will be subject to the
Sanhedrin; and he who says to him: 'Fool,' will suffer the fire of
Gahenna" (Matthew 5:22). Now on many occasions in the Gospel Jesus turns
to the scribes and the Pharisees, calling them "hypocrites," "fools" and
"blind men" (cf. Matthew 23:17). Jesus also reproves the disciples,
calling them "idiots" and "slow of heart" (cf. Luke 24:25).
Here the explanation is likewise simple. We need to distinguish between
injury and correction. Jesus condemns the words said with anger and with
the intention of offending the brother, not those that aim at making one
aware of his error and at correcting. A father who says to his son that
he is undisciplined, disobedient, does not intend to offend him but to
correct him. Moses is called by Scripture "the most mild of all men on
earth" (Numbers 12:3), and yet in Deuteronomy we hear him respond to the
rebellious Israel: "Thus you repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless
people?" (Deuteronomy 12:3).
Let us take are guide here from St. Augustine. "Love and do what you
will," he says. If you love, whether you correct or not, it will be from
love. Love does no evil to one's neighbor. From the root of love, as
from a good tree, only good fruit can grow.
6. The meek of heart
Thus we arrive on the proper terrain of the beatitude of the meek, the
heart. Jesus says: "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart."
True meekness is decided there. It is from the heart, he says, that
murders, wickedness, calumny come (Mark 7:21-22), as from the boiling
within a volcano come lava, ashes, and fiery stones. The greatest
explosions of violence begin, says St. James, secretly in "the passions
that are stirred up within man" (cf. James 4:1-2). Just as there is an
adultery in the heart, there is also a murder in the heart: "Whoever
hates his own brother," writes John, "is a murderer" (1 John 3:15).
There is not only the violence of hands, there is also that of thoughts.
Inside of us, if we pay attention, there are almost always "trials
behind closed doors" going on. An anonymous monk has written pages of
great penetration on this theme. He speaks as a monk, but what he says
is not just valid for monasteries; he considers the example of inferiors
in a religious community, but it is plain that the problem occurs in
another way also for superiors.
"Observe," he says, "even for just one day, the course of your thoughts:
You will be surprised by the frequency and the vivacity of the internal
criticisms made with imaginary interlocutors. What is their typical
origin? It is this: The unhappiness with superiors who do not care for
us, do not esteem us, do not understand us; they are severe, unjust, or
too stingy with us or with other 'oppressed persons.' We are unhappy
with our brothers, who are 'without understanding, hard-bitten, curt,
confused, or injurious.… Thus in our spirit a tribunal is created in
which we are the prosecutor, judge, and jury; we defend and justify
ourselves; the absent accused is condemned. Perhaps we make plans for
our vindication or revenge."
The desert fathers, not having to fight against external enemies, made
of this interior battle with thoughts (the famous "logismoi") the
benchmark for all spiritual progress. They also worked out a method for
their combat. Our mind, they said, has the capacity to anticipate the
unfolding of a thought, to know, from the beginning, where it will go:
To excuse or condemn a brother, toward our own glory or the glory of
God. "It is the monk's task," said an older monk, "to see his thoughts
from afar" and to bar their way when they go against charity. The
easiest way to do it is say a short prayer or to bless the person that
we are tempted to judge. Afterward, with a calm mind, we can decide how
we should act toward him.
7. Put on the meekness of Christ
One observation before concluding. By their nature the beatitudes are
oriented toward practice; they call for imitation, they accentuate the
work of man. There is the danger that we will become discouraged in
experiencing an incapacity to put them to practice in our own lives, and
by the great distance between the ideal and the practice.
We must recall to mind what was said at the beginning: The beatitudes
are Jesus' self-portrait. He lived them all and did so in the highest
and this is the good news
he did not live them only for himself, but also for all of us. With the
beatitudes we are called not only to imitation, but also to
appropriation. In faith we can draw from the meekness of Christ, just as
we can draw from his purity of heart and every other virtue. We can pray
to have meekness as Augustine prayed to have chastity: "O God, you have
commanded me to be meek; give to me that which you command and command
me to do what you will."
"As the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on the sentiments of mercy,
goodness, humility, mildness ("prautes"), and patience" (Colossians
3:12), writes the Apostle to the Colossians. Mildness and meekness are
like a robe that Christ merited for us and which, in faith, we can put
on, not to be dispensed from pursuing them but to help us in their
practice. Meekness ("prautes") is placed by Paul among the fruits of the
Spirit (Galatians 5:23), that is, among the qualities that the believer
manifests in his life when he receives the Spirit of Christ and makes an
effort to correspond to the Spirit.
We can end reciting together with confidence the beautiful invocation of
the litany of the Sacred Heart: "Jesus meek and humble of heart, make
our hearts like yours" ("Jesu, mitis et humilis corde: fac cor nostrum
secundum cor tutum").
* * *
 Gandhi, "Buddismo, Cristianesimo, Islamismo," Rome, Tascabili
Newton Compton, 1993, p. 53.
 St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 43.
 Introduction to the 1919 edition of "Also sprach Zarathustra."
 Friedrich Nietzsche, "Complete Works," VIII, Frammenti postumi
1888-1889, Milan, Adelphi, 1974, p. 56.
 R. Girard, "Vedo Satana cadere come folgore," Milano, Adelphi, 2001,
 St. Augustine, Epistle 93, 5: "Before I was of the opinion that no
one should be forced into the unity of Christ but that we should only
act with words, fight through discussion, and convince with reason."
 Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce, "Inchiesta su Gesù," Milan,
Mondadori, 2006, p. 52.
 St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Letter to the Ephesians," 10, 2-3.
 St. Augustine, "Commentary on the First Letter of John," 7, 8 (PL
 A monk, "Le porte del silenzio," Milan, Ancora, 1986, p. 17 (Originale:
"Les porte du silence," Geneva, Libraire Claude Martigny).
 "Detti e fatti dei Padri del deserto," edited by C. Campo and P.
Draghi, Milan, Rusconi, 1979, p. 66.
 Cf. St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 29.