Papal Preacher Confronts the Question, "Who Killed Jesus?"

In Lenten Homily, Father Cantalamessa Looks at the Letter of the Gospel

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 12, 2004 ( The question, “Who killed Jesus?” posed by the media in reaction to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ,” prompted an answer from the Papal Household preacher.

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, who over the next three Fridays will propose reflections on Easter to the Pope and his Roman Curia aides, dedicated his first Lenten homily to a reflection on the historical character of the Gospel accounts of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

“First of all,” he said today, “we must affirm that, whatever explanations are given of the external circumstances and the juridical reasons of the death of Christ, they do not impair in the least the real meaning of his death which depends on what he was thinking, and not on what others were thinking.”

“When he instituted the Eucharist, he made clear in advance the meaning he gave to his death: ‘Take this and eat it, this is my body given up for you,'” the preacher recalled in his homily, delivered in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

“No formula of faith of the New Testament or of the Church says that Jesus died ‘for the sins of the Jews’; all say he ‘died for our sins,’ that is, the sins of all,” he said. “The doctrine of the Church knows only one sin that is transmitted by heredity from father to son, original sin,” the Capuchin explained, reminding his listeners that it is not possible to accuse the Jewish people as a whole of the death of Jesus.

“If the Jews of future generations were held responsible for the death of Christ, for the same reason the Romans of future generations should be held responsible and accused of deicide, insofar as it is certain that, from the juridical point of view, the condemnation of Christ and his execution — the form of crucifixion confirms it — are to be imputed in the last analysis to the Roman authorities,” he continued.

Father Cantalamessa summarized the position of the Catholic Church by quoting from the Second Vatican Council declaration “Nostra Aetate”: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

The preacher continued: “In this there is a certain convergence with the Hebrew tradition of the past itself. One thing emerges from the news of the death of Jesus, present in the Talmud and in other Jewish sources — however belated and historically contradictory: The Jewish tradition has never denied the participation of the authorities of the time in the condemnation of Christ. It has not based its defense on the denial of the fact but rather on denying that the condemnation from the Jewish point of view was unjust and that it constituted an offense.”

“Perhaps, as believers, it is necessary to go beyond the affirmation of the non-culpability of the Jewish people and to see in the unjust suffering endured by them in history something that places them on the side of the suffering Servant of God and, therefore, for us Christians, on the side of Jesus,” the preacher urged.

“Edith Stein had understood in this sense the tragedy that was under way for her and her people in Hitler’s Germany,” he said.

Quoting the Carmelite converted from Judaism who died in a concentration camp, he said: “‘There, under the cross, is understood the destiny of the People of God. Reflect: those who know that this is the cross of Christ have the duty to take it upon themselves, on behalf of all others.'”

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