Remembering this week's deadly terror attack in Brussels, the papal preacher centered his Good Friday reflection on mercy's role in saving the world.
“The opposite of mercy is not justice but vengeance,” said Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, in his sermon for the Celebration of Our Lord's Passion in St. Peter's Basilica March 25.
“The hate and the brutality of the terrorist attacks this week in Brussels help us to understand the divine power of Christ’s last words: 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'”
His remarks come days after more than 30 people were killed and scores were injured by Islamic State suicide bombers at a Brussels airport and metro on March 22.
“In forgiving sinners God is renouncing not justice but vengeance; he does not desire the death of a sinner but wants the sinner to convert and live,” he added.
Fr. Cantalamessa called for the need to “demythologize vengeance,” observing how it pervades many of the stories “seen on screen and video games” in which the “good hero” seeks revenge.
“It has become a pervasive mythic theme that infects everything and everybody, starting with children,” he said.
Outside these fictional contexts, this “mythic theme” of vengeance accounts for much of the world's suffering, “whether in personal relationships or between states and nations.”
Fr. Cantalamessa made this reflection to the congregation gathered in Saint Peter’s Basilica following the chanting in Latin of the account of Christ’s Passion and Death according to St. John. Pope Francis presided over the celebration, leading the faithful in the Veneration of the Cross, during which those present were invited to approach a wooden crucifix and kiss the feet of Jesus.
In his lengthy homily, the papal preacher also placed special emphasis on the role of mercy in saving marriage and the family, which is “the most precious and fragile thing in the world at this time.”
Here he observed the similarity between marriage and “God's relationship with humanity.”
“In the very beginning,” he said, “there was love, not mercy. Mercy comes in only after humanity’s sin.”
“So too in marriage, in the beginning there is not mercy but love. People do not get married because of mercy but because of love.”
After this initial period, challenges and routine “quenches all joy” in the family, he observed.
“What can save a marriage from going downhill without any hope of coming back up again is mercy, understood in the biblical sense.”
In this context, marriage is “not just reciprocal forgiveness but spouses acting with “compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience.”
“Mercy adds agape to eros, it adds the love that gives of oneself and has compassion to the love of need and desire.”
“Shouldn’t a husband and wife, then, take pity on each other? And those of us who live in community, shouldn’t we take pity on one another instead of judging one another?”
Fr. Cantalamessa centered his sermon on Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, in which he speaks of becoming “reconciled with God.”
St. Paul is not referring to the “historical reconciliation between God and humanity,” or “the sacramental reconciliation that takes place in Baptism and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” Fr. Cantalamessa said. The passage “refers to an existential and personal reconciliation that needs to be implemented in the present,” he said, noting that it is addressed to the baptized Christians of Corinth, and also “to us here and now.”
Reflecting on the “existential and psychological dimension” of reconciliation with God, Fr. Cantalamessa acknowledged the “distorted image” of God which alienates people “from religion and faith.”
“People unconsciously link God’s will to everything that is unpleasant and painful, to what can be seen as somehow destroying individual freedom and development,” he said.
“It is somewhat as though God were the enemy of every celebration, joy, and pleasure — a severe inquisitor-God.”
A remnant of the pagan view of God, this is an image of an all-powerful being who asserts control over individuals, with an emphasis on the impossibility of making reparation for the “transgression of his law,” he said. Such a perception causes “fear” and “resentment” toward God. “It is a vestige of the pagan idea of God that has never been entirely eradicated, and perhaps cannot be eradicated, from the human heart,” he said: that “God is the one who intervenes with divine punishment to reestablish the order disrupted by evil.”
In contrast, God's mercy “has never been disregarded,” he said.
“The Year of Mercy is a golden opportunity to restore the true image of the biblical God who not only has mercy but is mercy.”
Reflecting on the Apostle John's statement “God is love,” Fr. Cantalamessa observed that God's love within the Trinity is without mercy. This is because the love of the Father and the Son is a “necessity even though it occurs with the utmost freedom; the Son needs to be loved and to love in order to be the Son.”
“The sin of human beings does not change the nature of this love but causes it to make a qualitative leap: mercy as a gift now becomes mercy as forgiveness.”
Fr. Cantalamessa turned his reflection to the relationship between justice and his mercy, citing Paul's letter to the Romans which speaks of all sinners being justified by God's grace through “redemption which is in Christ Jesus.”
“God shows his righteousness and justice by having mercy! This is the great revelation.”
“He is in fact love and mercy, so for that reason he is just to himself — he truly demonstrates who he is — when he has mercy.”
An incorrect notion of God's “righteousness” can cause fear rather than encouragement, he said.
However, “the righteousness of God is that by which God makes those who believe in his Son Jesus acceptable to him. It does not enact justice but makes people just,” Fr. Cantalamessa explained in reference to the writings of St. Augustine.
He went on to state that the 16th century figure Martin Luther is credited for reintroducing this understanding of God's righteousness, “at least in Christian preaching,” and cited the upcoming fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation.
Although revisited by St. Augustine, and later Luther, the correct understanding of God's righteousness goes back to Scripture, he said.
“God’s justice not only does not contradict his mercy but consists precisely in mercy!”
Fr. Cantalamessa examined the “radical change in the fate of humanity” that was brought about by the Cross.
He quoted Benedict XVI's book Jesus of Nazareth, saying: “That which is wrong, the reality of evil, cannot simply be ignored; it cannot just be left to stand. It must be dealt with; it must be overcome. Only this counts as a true mercy.”
“And the fact that God now confronts evil himself because men are incapable of doing so — therein lies the ‘unconditional’ goodness of God.”
The papal preacher added that “God was not satisfied with merely forgiving people’s sins; he did infinitely more than that: he took those sins upon himself, he shouldered them himself.”
That the Son of God “became sin for us,” as St. Paul writes, is “a shocking statement,” Fr. Cantalamessa said.
However, “it was not death, then, but love that saved us!”
“The death of Christ needed to demonstrate to everyone the supreme proof of God’s mercy toward sinners,” he said.
He recalled the two thieves with whom Christ was crucified, which shows how God “wants to remain a friend to sinners right up to the end, so he dies like them and with them.”
Fr. Cantalamessa concluded his sermon, calling for the removal of “any desire for vengeance from the hearts of individuals, families, and nations, and make us fall in love with mercy.”
“Let the Holy Father’s intention in proclaiming this Year of Mercy be met with a concrete response in our lives, and let everyone experience the joy of being reconciled with you in the depth of the heart.”