Cambridge, MA. I am sure that by now regular readers of In All Things have figured out that I am not particularly well-connected in ecclesial circles, and certainly have no inside scoop on the Vatican. But I can use the internet and read. And so, when I was disheartened by the latest uproar at the Vatican — Father Raniero Cantalamessa’s Good Friday homily, in which he cites a parallel between the current global annoyance and disappointment in the Church hierarchy, and the long history of anti-Semitism — I was curious about what else he might have said in that homily. I found it, easily, and urge you to read it too. I offer here just a few comments.
The homily is a bit heavy on the scholarly side, perhaps would not have gone over well in most parishes, even if the Pope found it profitable. Fr Cantalamessa did not preach on any particular reading, but rather on the overall mystery of Christ’s sacrificial death understood in light of the writings on sacrifice, violence, and religion, with particlar reference to the well-known theorist, René Girard. Girard’s work has been to understand more deeply how Christ, as priest and victim — priest because victim — broke the endless cycle of violence that characterized human existence before Christ.
Fr Cantalamessa (and Professor Girard) are tredding on delicate ground, since it is too much to say that violence, the killing of victims, goes with priesthood in every other religion and that only we have found a way beyond violence. I am not sure what this claim is supposed to mean. Hindus, for instance, have a vigorous priestly ministry even today, and they for the most part turned away from the killing of animals some two thousand years ago, substituting vegetal offerings for animals, and moving from fire and sacrifice to the imagery and language of hospitality and the meal.
But Fr Cantalamessa’s point is not comparative study. Rather, he wishes to stress how Christ, as priest and victim, did away entirely with the logic of violence as intrinsic to the sacred. He reminds us that in Christ violence is coming to an end, and the very logic of human existence is changing.
Fr Cantalamessa then speaks of violence in our world today: petty cruelty in schools, for instance, or violence against children (which, oddly, he says is not his topic). Rather, in the most impressive — and evidently heartfelt — section of the homily, he speaks against violence against women, rape, the punishing of the woman and not the man for adultery, and inexcusable abuse of women in marriages: “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." He concludes this section with words we might all take to heart: "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.” Indeed.
Fr Cantalamessa might well have stopped there, or better, admitted, in today’s world, how violence against women comes in many forms, and that even in the Church the blindness, obtuseness, cowardice and petty cruelties of clericalism have made so many women suffer so much. He could have admitted, when he recalled Pope John Paul’s commitment to repentance in the Church, by the Church, that no one in his audience on Good Friday could excuse himself as entirely innocent of the systemic sinfulness of sexual violence. Such reflection would be appropriate, since on Good Friday we should be more inclined to confess our own sins than the sins of others.
Instead, in a move that is in itself fitting, he shifts our attention by recalling that this week is also the holy week of Passover, when we need to recall the perennial suffering of the Jews, who “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.” He would have done well simply to have moved to the conclusion, the evoking of a prayer of Rabbi Gamaliel which made its way into the Church’s prayer early on, when such interreligious openness was still possible: “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.” (Or even better, he might have opened the door still more widely, by also recollecting the similar prayer in the ancient Indian Brhadaranyaka Upanisad: “Lead Us From the Unreal To the Real, Lead Us From Darkness To Light, Lead Us From Death To Immortality, OM. Let There Be Peace Peace Peace.”)
Instead, it is just before his conclusion that he cites a note from a Jewish friend, who sees in the attacks on the Church during this sexual abuse scandal a parallel to the evil that arises in anti-Semitism, “the use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt.” This has been the source of the latest uproar. It is too bad, since the homily is otherwise certainly worth our attention and reflection, even if not total agreement.
Better if he had at least added a caution: What his Jewish friend said, perhaps inspired by affection for the Church and Fr Cantalamessa, cannot casually or smugly be taken up by Christians, and certainly not by Church leaders tempted to bathe themselves in the aura of the suffering of Jesus and other Jews. People in power should be very cautious in casting themselves as victims, he might have added. There is no good at all in hinting that the current uproar is “the victimization of us by them.” Jesus was the priest who was a victim, but he did not label himself “victim,” or ask for sympathy on that basis. When confronted with unjust power, Jesus remained silent, as the Passion according to St. John, read on Good Friday, reminds us.
But read the homily for yourself, and make up your own mind. One notice I read indicated that Fr Cantalamessa is the only person allowed to preach before the Pope. Bad idea, if true, since every Church leader should listen to many homilies by men and women with different experiences in the Church. But you might imagine: if you were asked to preach before the Pope on Good Friday, what would you say? (I'd like to think I would stick to the readings, and say what I would have said in a regular parish.)
NOTE: This morning (Easter morning) the BBC reports that Fr Cantalamessa has apologized for offending people with his remarks. Good, I suppose. He might have justly added, "Now please read my whole homily."