By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
South Orange, New Jersey
tOn Good Friday, when Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher of the Papal Household, delivers his annual homily in St. Peter’s Basilica before the pope, he’s likely to reflect on modern martyrdom and the suffering of Christians for the faith, though without addressing the issue of “reciprocity” in Christian-Muslim relations, he said Feb. 21.
tCantalamessa sat down for an interview with NCR on the margins of his Feb. 21 appearance at Seton Hall University.
tWhen Cantalamessa preaches in St. Peter's on April 6, it will mark the 28th time the 72-year-old Italian Capuchin has delivered the Good Friday homily before the pope. The homily is considered a cornerstone of the Catholic year, and is broadcast around the world on television and radio, as well as reprinted in full in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.
tCantalamessa told NCR this his style over the years has been to try to “remain open” to inspiration up to the last minute. He has not yet begun writing a text for this year, he said. Because the homily must be distributed to translators a few days before Good Friday, he said he’ll probably produce a draft in late March. Even so, Cantalamessa said, he reserves the right to amend it on the fly if he feels the Spirit nudging him in a given direction.
tThat reference to the Spirit is not just pious talk for Cantalamessa, who is perhaps the most prominent adherent of the Charismatic movement in global Catholicism. He was first “baptized in the Spirit” during a retreat in northern New Jersey in 1967.
tCantalamessa said that in 28 years, he’s never worried about running out of fresh things to say. The story of the Passion of Christ, he said, is an “inexhaustible” source of spiritual insight.
tIn addition, Cantalamessa said, he also tries to draw inspiration from whatever’s happening at the moment Good Friday rolls around, especially “events that have an impact on the consciousness of the church at the global level.”
t“It’s important that the message not remain merely intellectual, just words on paper,” he said.
tLast year, for example, Cantalamessa grabbed global headlines with his comments on The Da Vinci Code and the “Gospel of Judas,” branding both as just more examples of Jesus being sold out by a wave of what he called “pseudo-historic” works.
tCantalamessa said he worried that a pop culture artifact such as The Da Vinci Code “wasn’t worthy of being mentioned” in the sacred space of a Good Friday service in St. Peter’s Basilica, but in the end he felt he had to say something.
t“Millions took the silence of the church as a kind of embarrassment, as if it didn’t know what to say,” he said. “Many youth didn’t know what to think about it.”
tCantalamessa said that afterwards, senior church leaders thanked him for taking on the Dan Brown novel and the film based on the book, which at the time was set for imminent release. Among other things, he said, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State indicated its approval.
tThis year, Cantalamessa said, he’s thinking about the Beatitudes, especially the line about those who are “persecuted for justice.” This may lead him, he said, to include reflections on modern martyrdom in this year’s Good Friday homily.
tWhile that will include Christians who suffer for the faith today, Cantalamessa said, he wants to steer clear of entering into discussions over “reciprocity” with Muslims, meaning the charge that Islamic states do not provide the same guarantees of religious freedom which Muslim immigrants receive in the West. That, he suggested, would risk converting the Good Friday homily into a political statement.
tOver the years, Cantalamessa said, some of his Good Friday homilies seem to have had a greater resonance than others. Several years ago, for example, he spoke about the “suffering of God the Father” as what he called “a response to objections from atheists about the suffering of innocent people.” His argument was that God does not create evil, which flows instead from human choice, but that as a loving father, God suffers deeply when evil occurs.
t“The Christian God is love, and love by definition is vulnerable,” he said.
t“From the reactions I received, it seemed to be a message that people were expecting to hear, almost without realizing it,” he said. Just recently, Cantalamessa said, he spoke to a group of priests in Detroit who asked him for a reprint of the homily.
tCantalamessa said that he has not noted a significant difference between preparing the Good Friday homily under John Paul II and now under Benedict XVI, in part because then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger helped lead the service in John Paul’s later years when the pope was ailing.
tHe said that John Paul would often comment on his homily after the Good Friday service. Cantalamessa said the late pope had “incredibly humanity.”
tCantalamessa then told a story which he has recounted before, but, he said, it nevertheless speaks volumes about John Paul’s spiritual and pastoral priorities.
tThe first year he delivered the Good Friday homily, he timed his text based on his normal rate of delivery. Just before he began, however, one of the ceremonial officials from the papal household warned him that the echoes in St. Peter’s tend to reverberate, and therefore he should slow down. Cantalamessa said that by the time he was finished, it took him fully ten minutes longer than expected to deliver the homily. He said he was nervous about exceeding his time limit, especially because he could see one of John Paul’s aides repeatedly checking his watch as the homily drug on.
tLater, however, he bumped into the aide while doing other Vatican business, and the aide told him something which put his mind at ease. Apparently, Cantalamessa was not the only one who noticed the aide fretting about the time.
t“The pope called me in the next day,” the aide said to Cantalamessa, “and told me, ‘When a man of God is speaking, you shouldn’t be looking at your watch.’”
tFrom that point forward, Cantalamessa said, time limits were never an issue.