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ROME – Pope Francis, who was discharged from the hospital six days ago after treatment for a bout of bronchitis, presided over a Passion service on Good Friday despite pulling out of a Via Crucis procession at Rome’s Colosseum later that evening due to cold weather.
In a statement Friday afternoon, the Vatican said that “due to the intense cold in recent days, Pope Francis will follow the Via Crucis this evening from the Casa Santa Marta, uniting himself to the prayer of those who will gather with the Diocese of Rome.”
The Via Crucis is held at 9p.m. at Rome’s Colosseum on Good Friday of Holy Week, making it the pope’s latest commitment during his busiest week of the year.
Pope Francis’s decision to skip this year’s Via Crucis comes after a brief hospital stay last week. He was admitted to Rome’s Gemelli hospital last Wednesday for bronchitis and was discharged Saturday after receiving antibiotic treatment.
In addition to his ongoing knee pain, which has often confined him to a wheelchair or the use of a cane for the past year, the pope also suffers from sciatica, and he had part of one lung removed while he was a young Jesuit after a serious bout of pneumonia, making breathing issues especially alarming for the 86-year-old pontiff.
Yet despite opting out of his Good Friday Via Crucis, marking the first time since his election that he has not presided over the event, Francis was present to preside over a Passion service earlier Friday evening in St. Peter’s Basilica.
After being brought into St. Peter’s Basilica in his wheelchair, a serious and solemn-looking pope sat to one side in front of the main altar and listened to the homily, which on Good Friday is traditionally given by the Preacher for the Papal Household, currently Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, a member of the Capuchin order.
In his homily, Cantalamessa issued a critique of relativism and the Nietzschean concept of “the death of God,” which he said has become prominent “in our de-Christianized Western world.”
While the Christian narrative of God’s death culminates with his resurrection and victory over death, “We cannot pretend to ignore the existence of this different narrative,” Cantalamessa said, saying its “fullest expression” is found in the person of the madman from Nietzsche’s 1887 work, The Gay Science.
According to this perspective of history, man, in God’s absence, is put into his place, Cantalamessa said, but insisted that it won’t take long “to realize that, left alone, man is indeed nothing.”
The Christian response, Cantalamessa said, is, to emphasize that man without God wanders “as if through an infinite nothing.”
Referring to the Nietzschean concept of “beyond good and evil,” in which Nietzsche holds that morality must be jettisoned if humanity is to reach its full potential, Cantalamessa argued that when any sense of good and evil are eliminated, “the will to power” is the only thing that remains.
Without offering specifics, Cantalamessa said “we are dramatically witnessing again where it leads.”
While Nietzsche’s own heart cannot be judged, his writings and their impact can be, Cantalamessa said, saying, “It has been declined in the most diverse ways and names, to the point of becoming a fashion and an atmosphere that reigns in the intellectual circles of the ‘postmodern’ Western world.”
The “common denominator” of it all, he said, “a total relativism in every field – ethics, language, philosophy, art, and, of course, religion.”
In this perspective, “Nothing more is solid; everything is liquid, or even vaporous,” he said, noting that in the time of Romanticism, “people used to bask in melancholy, today in nihilism!”
“As believers, it is our duty to show what there is behind, or underneath, that proclamation, namely the flicker of an ancient flame, the sudden eruption of a volcano that has never been extinguished since the beginning of the world,” he said.
The remedy to the growth and prevalence of relativistic thought is found in Christ, Cantalamessa said, saying, “God knows how proud we are and has come to our help by emptying himself in front of us.”
“The Resurrection of Christ from the dead assures us, however, that if we repent this path does not lead to defeat, but to that ‘apotheosis of life’ sought in vain elsewhere,” he said.
Cantalamessa said he chose to speak of this on Good Friday in order to keep believers “from being drawn into this vortex of nihilism which is the true ‘black hole’ of the spiritual universe.”
“Let us, therefore, continue to repeat, with heartfelt gratitude and more convinced than ever, the words we proclaim at every Mass: We proclaim your death, o Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen