ROME – In a deliberately provocative turn of phrase, the Preacher of the Papal Household on Good Friday told worshippers in St. Peter’s Basilica, including Pope Francis, that the love revealed by Christ on the Cross wasn’t just about sacrifice and self-giving – it was also erotic.
“God not only exercises ‘charity’ in loving us, he also desires us,” said Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, delivering the traditional Good Friday meditation.
“Throughout the Bible, he reveals himself as a loving and jealous spouse,” Cantalamessa said. His love is also ‘erotic’ in the noble sense of that word.”
Cantalamessa said the understanding of love today has suffered a “tragic drift,” which is forever contradicted by Christ on the Cross. Love, he said, is no longer “a gift of self, but only the possession – often violent and tyrannical – of the other.”
By way of contrast, he said, God’s love is always both eros and agape – both desire for the other, but also a willingness to sacrifice for them.
“It is not a question of renouncing the joys of love, attraction, and eros, but of knowing how to unite eros and agape in the desire for another, the ability to give oneself to the other, recalling what St. Paul refers to as a saying of Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’,” he said.
Now 83, Cantalamessa has served as the Preacher of the Papal Household for 38 years, having been appointed to the post by St. Pope John Paul II in 1980. Since 1753, it’s been reserved by papal edict to the Capuchins, the fourth largest men’s religious order in the Catholic Church after the Jesuits, Salesians and Franciscans.
(As a footnote, the name “Cantalamessa” in Italian literally means, “sing the Mass.”)
Cantalamessa’s comments on the erotic element of God’s love came in his homily during the Good Friday service, in the context of reflections on young people in a year in which Pope Francis has called a summit of Catholic prelates from around the world, known as a Synod of Bishops, to Rome in October.
A recent March 19-24 gathering of more 300 youth in Rome, buoyed by the participation of 15,000 more young people via Facebook, was intended to provide input to that synod.
Speaking about the upcoming summit, Cantalamessa expressed hope that, “in all the speeches about young people and to young people,” rather than focusing primarily on what youth can offer others, the accent will be instead on what Jesus offers them.
“It is appropriate during this year that we make an effort to discover together with young people what Christ expects from them, what they can offer the Church and society,” he said. “The most important thing, however, is something else: It is to help young people understand what Jesus has to offer them.”
The Capuchin preacher urged youth to take the evangelist St. John as a role model, since, according to tradition, he was quite young when he took up the call to follow Jesus. In particular, he pointed to John’s counsel to “not love the world or the things in the world.”
“The world that we must not love and to which we should not be conformed, as we know, is not the world created and loved by God or the people in the world whom we must always go out to meet, especially the poor and those at the lowest level of society,” he said.
“‘Blending in’ with this world of suffering and marginalization is, paradoxically, the best way of ‘separating’ ourselves from the world, because it means going in the direction from which the world flees as much as it can,” Cantalamessa said.
“It means separating ourselves from the very principle that rules the world, self-centeredness,” he said.
It’s that self-centeredness from which Cantalmessa urged youth to flee, however counter-cultural doing so may be. To drive the point home, he cited the American-born poet T.S. Eliot: “In a world of fugitives, the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away.”
Later tonight, Pope Francis will preside over the annual Via Crucis process at Rome’s Colosseum, recalling the steps of Christ on his way to the Cross, and which this year also has a focus on youth.
On Saturday, the pontiff will lead an Easter Vigil Mass beginning at 8:30 p.m. Rome time. On Sunday, he’ll celebrate a Mass for Easter morning in St. Peter’s Square, then deliver his traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing, “to the city and the world,” at noon. Generally, popes use those addresses to deliver a sort of 360-degree review of the global situation, often indicating their most pressing diplomatic and political priorities.