Church leaders need to make a “serious examination of conscience” over their role in stoking political divisions among Catholics, the preacher of the papal household has warned.
“Fraternity among Catholics is wounded,” Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa said during a hard-hitting Good Friday homily. “The divisions that polarise Catholics stem from political options that grow into ideologies taking priority over religious and ecclesial considerations and leading to complete abandon of the value and the duty of obedience in the Church.”
The 84-year-old Franciscan friar is a respected theologian who is called on to give retreats and meditations to Christian communities across the world. He has held his position in the Vatican since 1980 and was created a cardinal by Pope Francis last November.
Cardinal Cantalamessa delivered his homily in the Pope's presence and high ranking prelates from the Roman Curia during a Celebration of the Lord’s Passion in St Peter’s Basilica.
He urged everyone to “make a serious examination of conscience” regarding Church divisions while stressing that “pastors need to be the first” to do so.
“They need to ask themselves where it is that they are leading their flocks – to their position or Jesus,” he said.
The temptation for bishops and priests to become embroiled in partisan political activity exists across the Church. Still, some of the most recent egregious examples have taken place in the United States. In one instance, a priest said it was impossible to be a Catholic and a Democrat, while another carried out “exorcisms” over last November’s presidential election. The United States bishops’ conference leadership has also faced criticism for issuing a statement assailing President Joe Biden for advancing “moral evils” on the day of Biden’s inauguration.
Cardinal Cantalamessa is no stranger to the US. In early 2019, at the suggestion of the Pope, he led a seven-day retreat with the US bishops in the aftermath of the Theodore McCarrick abuse scandal.
During his Good Friday homily, Cantalamessa made it clear that church leaders need to avoid politically polarising interventions, stressing that ordinary believers should take the lead when it comes to politics.
“The Second Vatican Council entrusted especially to laypeople the task of translating the social, economic and political implications of the Gospel into practice in different historical situations, always in a respectful and peaceful way,” he said.
The threat of division from political or ideological forces is nothing new, the cardinal added, pointing out that it was also present during Jesus’ time.
“We need to learn from Jesus’ example and the Gospel,” Cantalamessa explained. “He lived at a time of strong political polarisation. Four parties existed: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the Zealots.”
He went on: “Jesus did not side with any of them and energetically resisted attempts to be pulled towards one or the other. The earliest Christian community faithfully followed him in that choice, setting an example above all for pastors, who need to be shepherds of the entire flock, not only of part of it.”
The cardinal’s remarks echo the Pope’s reported warnings about the “virus of polarisation”. Speaking to officials in the Roman Curia at the end of last year, he said that when the Church is seen as “right versus left, progressive versus traditionalist”, it betrays its true nature. At the same time, his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, offers a roadmap for overcoming divisions based on fraternity. Citing the encyclical, which offers a message for the whole world, Cardinal Cantalamessa stressed that “universal fraternity starts with the Catholic Church”.
Following the Good Friday liturgy, the Pope took part in the Good Friday Stations of the Cross service in St Peter’s, with the meditations and prayers written by children and young people from Rome.
“You know that we children also have crosses to carry,” the opening prayer said. “Crosses that are no lighter or heavier than those of adults, but are still real crosses, crosses that weigh us down even at night. Only you know what they are, and take them seriously.”
The prayers covered including losing a grandparent to Covid-19, feeling lonely due to school closures and witnessing parents argue.