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A Good Friday Gift: Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa’s Treasure Trove of Sermons

- NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER - Father Raymond J. de Souza - APRIL 6, 2023 -

Word on Fire’s publication of a volume containing the papal preacher’s Good Friday sermons from 1980-2022 is a tonic to strengthen one’s faith.

Italian Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa delivers an homily during a Pope's Good Friday Mass for the Passion of the Lord on April 2, 2021 at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. (photo: Andreas Solaro / AFP/Getty)

Many a priest preaches to the congregation. Some preach to the choir. Formally, only one preaches to the pope. The preacher of the papal household delivers the sermon on Good Friday, at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Holy Father’s presence.

Since 1980, that task has fallen to Father (now Cardinal) Raniero Cantalamessa, the Capuchin friar appointed the papal preacher by St. John Paul II. Now 88, he was created a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2020 in recognition of four decades of service. This Good Friday, Cardinal Cantalamessa will preach an astonishing 44th consecutive Good Friday sermon to his third pope.

Cardinal Cantalamessa is a treasure of the Church. His official duties include, in addition to the Good Friday sermon, a series of Friday sermons preached to the Pope and the Roman Curia during Advent and Lent each year. Those now form an enormous corpus of material that, in light of his biblical and patristic scholarly expertise, Cardinal Cantalamessa attempts to shed light on contemporary events in the life of the Church and the world, with a particular genius for engaging the secular philosophies which animate our time.

While there have been dozens of books of Cardinal Cantalamessa’s work, in both Italian and English, Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire has done a signal service in bringing out a volume containing his Good Friday preaching, 1980-2022: The Power of the Cross: Good Friday Sermons from the Papal Preacher.

He is no stranger to an American audience. While he no longer travels as he used to, Cardinal Cantalamessa was for decades frequently in the United States, preaching in the charismatic movement and associated with the biblical renewal centered at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

The range of Cantalamessa’s sources are vast — the Scriptures themselves are the foundation of course, but he takes note of sacred music, art, devotional practices and the liturgy. And he never ceases to point out things that are frequently missed.

For example, in one of his most recent Lent sermons, Cardinal Cantalamessa, preaching on the liturgy, “notes with regret the total absence of the Holy Spirit” in the Roman Canon, or First Eucharistic Prayer. How many faithful Catholics knew that? And why might that be? Cardinal Cantalamessa explains:

“This was a sad consequence of the polemic between East and West. In the past, it prompted us Latins to put the role of the Holy Spirit in brackets in order to attribute all the efficacy to the words of institution, and it prompted the Greeks to put the words of institution in brackets in order to attribute all efficacy to the action of the Holy Spirit. As if the mystery were accomplished by a kind of chemical reaction whose exact moment can be determined.”

In that same Lent sermon last month, Cardinal Cantalamessa adds that “a pearl” of the Roman Canon, preserved in all of the Eucharistic Prayers, is the final doxology: “Through him [Christ], and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, forever and ever.”

Drawing on his patristic expertise, the cardinal provides depth to what many may regard as a mere final salutation:

“This formula expresses a fundamental truth that St. Basil formulated in the first treatise on the Holy Spirit. On the level of the going out of creatures from God, he writes, everything starts from the Father, passes through the Son, and reaches us in the Spirit; in the order of the coming back of creatures to God, everything, inversely, begins with the Holy Spirit, passes through the Son, and returns to the Father. Since the liturgy is the moment par excellence for the return of creatures to God, everything in it must start and take its momentum from Holy Spirit.”

Cardinal Cantalamessa returns to the Holy Spirit often. In his Good Friday sermon for 1985, the Capuchin friar interprets the redemption as the coming of the Spirit, in a bold passage which is typical of his preaching at its best:

“Before this moment, the Spirit had not come into the world. Now that Jesus had died for us, purifying us from our sins, the Spirit was moving over the face of the waters again as at the beginning of creation (Gen 1:2). Having exclaimed ‘It is finished,’ Jesus ‘handed over the spirit’ (Jn 19:30), which means not only that he drew his last breath and died, but also that he unleashed his Spirit, the Holy Spirit! The evangelist intends both. The last breath of Jesus became the first breath of the Church! This was the realization of the work of redemption, its most precious fruit.”

“Redemption is not relegated to the remission of sins; it also positively entails the gift of the new life of the Spirit. In fact, the imparting of new life in the Spirit was the aim of the entire enterprise, and it is only through the Holy Spirit that the remission of sins itself is carried out in the Church. While it is true that the Holy Spirit came upon the Church at Pentecost in a solemn and public way, in his Gospel, John wanted to indicate where the Spirit had come from — that is, he wanted to pinpoint its source in the history of salvation. The source is Christ’s body glorified on the cross.”

The assigned readings for Good Friday are the same every year; St. John’s account of the Passion is read. Sometimes Cardinal Cantalamessa draws directly on John’s Gospel, as above, and other times he varies his starting point.

In his first sermon in 1980, he began with St. Paul’s confession that “Jesus is Lord.” Two years later, he began with St. Peter’s sermon on Pentecost: “You crucified Jesus of Nazareth! God raised him up! Repent!”

Good Friday 2003 was one of his most memorable sermons, just weeks after President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. For months, protests against the war all over the world had played John Lennon’s song Imagine. Father Cantalamessa began his sermon that year quoting the song at length.

In a masterful presentation, he suggested that Lennon’s anthem illustrated the path to totalitarian brutality. Imagine, he argued, gives pop music expression to Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy — “hell is other people.”

The cry for peace is not answered by imagining no God, but rather by the God whose “imagination” — the Son — “is our peace … [who] had broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. … So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (cf. Ephesians 2:14-18).

The great preacher is serious about God, but Cardinal Cantalamessa does not take himself too seriously. For months after the Imagine sermon, he delighted in recounting that, as he left St. Peter’s that day, he was a few paces behind two Italian nuns who did not realize that he was there and could hear their conversation. They had apparently stopped paying attention after the papal preacher’s opening.

“Pray for Padre Raniero!” one said to the other. “Preaching about John Lennon on Good Friday in front of the Holy Father! What has happened to him?”

“He must have lost his faith,” the other replied. “Pray for him!”

Cardinal Cantalamessa has not lost his faith. Rather he has strengthened the faith of so many others for so long, and The Power of the Cross will strengthen others still.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the founding editor of Convivium magazine.


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