Father Cantalamessa's Good Friday Homily

In St. Peter’s, Papal Household Preacher Speaks of Peace

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 18, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the homily that the Papal Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, delivered in the presence of John Paul II, during the Good Friday celebration of the Lord’s Passion in St. Peter’s Basilica.

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He is our Peace
Sermon for Good Friday 2003 in St Peter’s Basilica
by the preacher to the Papal Household
Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, Capuchin

«Imagine there’s no heaven / it’s easy if you try. / No hell below us / above us only sky.

Imagine all the people / living for today. / Imagine there’s no countries / it isn’t hard to do. / Nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too.

Imagine all the people / living life in peace. / You may say I’m a dreamer / but I’m not the only one. / I hope some day you’ll join us / and the world will live as one.»[1]

I think it was Plato who coined the maxim: «Philosophers are the teachers of the old; poets are the teachers of the young.» Today the songwriters, not the poets are the teachers of the young; music more than poetry. How many millions of young people there are who draw their vision of life from that of their favorite songwriter, or even of their favorite song. Set to a persuasive tune, the words that I quoted are a kind of gospel, and not only to the young. In these times of delusion and disturbance in which we live, that song has come to be heard again and again over the radio and during peace-rallies.

Nor can we leave it at that without offering a response. Jesus once took his cue from what the children of his time were singing in the squares («We played the pipes for you, and you wouldn’t dance; we sang dirges, and you wouldn’t be mourners») and drew a lesson from it (see Matthew 11:16-17). We need to follow his example.

* * *

The first question to ask is this: why make the effort to «imagine» something that we have had before our eyes right up to yesterday? A world without heaven or hell, with no religion, no loyalties to country, with no possessions, no private property, where people are taught to live only for «today,» or here below — is not this exactly the world that the totalitarian communist regimes set out to achieve? The dream, then, is nothing new; but for those involved in it, it was more a nightmare than a dream.

«No more heaven, no more hell»: neither is it the first time that these words have been heard in our world. «If God exists, man is nothing. God doesn’t exist! Happiness, tears of joy! No more heaven. No more hell! Nothing but the earth,» are words a well-known philosopher and playwright put on the lips of one of his characters at a time when atheistic existentialism was rampant. [2]

But the same author wrote another play, Closed Doors. Three characters — a man and two women — come into a room one after the other, a short time apart. There are no windows, the light is at its brightest and there is no way to switch it off, the room is suffocatingly hot, and the only thing in it is a sofa. The door is closed. There is a little bell there, but it gives no sound. What is it all about? Three dead people, and they are in hell.

They pry into one another’s lives until their souls are stripped bare, all the faults of which each is most ashamed are drawn out into the open and mocked mercilessly by the other two. Then one of them says to the others: «Remember the sulphur, the flames, the gridiron. All nonsense. There is no need of any gridiron; hell is the Others.»[3] They had thought hell abolished; they found it simply shifted to earth.

* * *

The song that I quoted, however, contains a longing for something good and holy which we should not ignore, no matter how mistaken the ways it suggests to achieve it. Let’s listen to another «song» about peace and unity that was written two thousand years ago.

«He is our peace
and has made the two into one
and broken down the barrier that used to keep them apart […],
destroying in his own person the hostility.

This was to create one single New Man in himself out of the two of them
and by restoring peace through the cross
to unite them both in a single Body
and reconcile them with God.

In his own person he killed the hostility.

He came to bring the good news of peace,
peace to you who were far away and peace to you who were near at hand.

Through him both of us have, in the one Spirit,
our way to come to the Father» (Ephesians 2:14-18).

Here too, we are shown a world where all the people are «living life in peace,» where all «live as one,» but achieved in a very different way. «He … has made peace, destroying in himself the enmity.» Destroying enmity, not the enemy; destroying it in himself, not in others!

In that same era there was another great man who declared to the world that peace had come. In the ruins of a mosque in Asia Minor, a copy was found of the famous «Index of Undertakings» of the Emperor Augustus. It celebrates the Pax Romana that he had brought to the world, defining it «parta victoriis pax,» a peace that is the fruit of military victories.[4]

Jesus is not concerned with this kind of peace at all, but reveals another, superior kind. He says, «Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives» (John 14:27). His peace is also the «fruit of victories,» but victories over himself and not over others; spiritual victories, not military ones. The Apocalypse exclaims, «The Lion of the tribe of Judah …. has triumphed,» «vicit leo de tribu Juda» (5:5), but St Augustine explains: «Victor quia Victima,» Victor because victim.[5] Jesus has taught us that there is nothing to kill for but there is something to die for.

* * *

The Gospel way to peace makes sense not just in the private sphere of faith, but also in the political and social sphere. The world order itself demands today that Christ’s way to peace replace Augustus’. The modern conscience can no longer accept what Virgil put to his fellow citizens as their calling: «Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento,» your task, Rome, is to be ruler of the peoples.[6] Every nation has the right to govern itself.

It is clear to us today that the only way to peace is by destroying enmity, not the enemy (should we destroy half the population of the world dissatisfied with the way things are? And how do we identify the enemy where terrorism is concerned?). Someone once took Abraham Lincoln to task for being too courteous to his enemies, and reminded him that his job as President was to destroy them. Lincoln answered, «Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?»

Will that great President of the United States find someone to take up the tremendous challenge? Enemies are destroyed with armies, but enmity with dialogue. Before putting it to the nations, the Church, led by the Pope, is setting out to apply this program in relations between religions.

* * *

But so far we have taken in only half of the Christian message of peace. One of today’s popular slogans says, «Think globally, act locally.» It applies especially to peace. You can’t “make peace” in the same way you make war. To make war requires long preparations: gathering a large army, planning strategies, making alliances, and then launching a coordinated attack. Those who would start immediately and alone would undoubtedly meet defeat.

The way to make peace is exactly the opposite: scattered we may be but we begin at once, even as the only one, beginning with as little as a simple handshake. Millions of drops of dirty water will never make a clean ocean. Millions of people with no peace in their hearts, or of families without peace in their homes, will never make a humankind at peace. One of the messages of John Paul II for Peace Day, that of 1984, was titled «Peace is born of a new heart.»

What sense wo
uld it make to march through the streets shouting «Peace!» if you do it with threatening fist and breaking windows as you go? It is a praiseworthy thing to hang a peace flag from your own window, but what sense would it make if in your own home your voice is raised, your will is a tyranny imposed, building up walls of hostility or of silence? Would it not be more fitting, in that situation, to take down the peace flag hanging outside and put it up inside your home?

* * *

But for us, gathered here, there is also something to do. Jesus came to announce «peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near at hand.» Peace with those who are «near at hand» is often more difficult than peace with those who are «far away.» Jesus said, «If you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering» (Matthew 5:23-24).

Shortly we will be coming forward to kiss the cross. If we do not want Jesus to look down from his cross and remind us: «Go first and be reconciled with your brother,» our kiss must be intended not only for him, our head, but also for his entire body.

There was a time when, at the end of Lent or at the end of a popular Mission, it was the custom to make a «bonfire of vanities.» A fire was lit around a stake set up in the main square of the town, and all the people tossed into it all instruments of vice and articles of superstition that they had in their homes. They made a bonfire of vanities; let us make a bonfire of hostilities. Let us cast into the arms of the crucified Christ and into the blazing furnace of his heart all hatred, all rancor, resentment, envy and rivalry and every desire for revenge.

«Through him both of us have in the one Spirit the way to come to the Father.» «Both of us» no longer means only Jews and Gentiles, but also Christians and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, clerics and lay people, men and women, black and white. …

* * *

Here we have the Gospel’s answer to the song’s «imagine»: «and the world will live as one.» We know the objection, «Two thousand years have passed since that time, and what has changed?» But let us make no mistake: the world reconciled, made one Christ, already exists. That is the world that God sees when he looks at this tormented planet of ours, for in a single glance God embraces all the past, the present and the future together.

What St Francis of Assisi said of each person is true also of the world: «What a person is before God, that he is and no more.»[7] The world is what it is in God’s eyes, and before God there is, now already, «no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus» (Galatians 3:28).

Let us pray:

«Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles:
‘I leave you peace, my peace I give you.’

Look not on our sins,
look on the faith of your Church
— look at the suffering of your people,
look at the prayers of your Vicar,
look above all at the blood you shed for us on the cross —
and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom
where you live for ever and ever. Amen.»

* * *

[1] John Lennon, «Imagine.»

[2] J.-P. Sartre, The Devil and the Good, X,4 ( ed. Gallimard, Paris 1951, p. 267.

[3] J.-P. Sartre, Closed Doors, sc. 5 (ed. Gallimard, Paris 1947, p. 93).

[4] Monumentum Ancyranum, ed. Th. Mommsen 1883.

[5] St. Augustine, Confessions, X,43.

[6] Vigil, Aeneid, VI, 851.

[7] St. Francis of Assisi, Admonitions, XIX (St. Francis of Assisi, Early Documents, I, New York 1999, p. 135).

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