Editor’s Note: The Seven Last Words, taped at EWTN April 11, will be broadcast on Good Friday at 5 p.m. Eastern, hosted by Father Raymond J. de Souza.
On Good Friday, Catholics keep the custom of the Via Crucis, the Stations of the Cross. In 2005, for the Stations at the Colosseum in Rome, a dying St. John Paul II had asked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to compose the meditations. Less than a month before he would be elected as Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger gave pilgrims a severe and sober assessment of the state of the Church. For the ninth station, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote this:
“Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of his Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!”
This past year, the “filth” in the Church has been before our eyes every day. For those of us in Catholic news, it has been sexual abuse all the time, it seems, with scandals recent and historic, at home and abroad — all of it revealing the enduring pain of so many victims and the shared shame of all Catholics.
There is another Good Friday custom, that of the “Seven Last Words,” made most famous in recent times by the Venerable Fulton Sheen, who preached the Seven Last Words every Good Friday for 58 years. The custom of meditating upon the seven times Jesus speaks from the cross is older than that, and the preacher often takes up a particular theme, to be looked at in the light of the seven last phrases of Jesus from the cross.
This Good Friday our theme is: “The Scandals in the Church and the Scandal of the Cross.”
For much of this past year we have been immersed in the legal, sociological, political, cultural, canonical, evangelical, ecclesial and spiritual aspects of the scandals. For a Catholic, though, the most complete way to look at all of this — to look at anything, really, but especially the mystery of sin and iniquity — is to see how it looks at the foot of the cross.
And from the cross the word “scandal” takes on a special meaning. We commonly use “scandal” to describe malfeasance or misconduct of one sort or another, often something immoral or unethical or criminal that was hidden and is now revealed.
But in the sacred Scriptures, it means something different. It means a “stumbling block,” an obstacle in the path. This is how St. Paul puts it to the Corinthians: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).
The cross seems foolish to Gentiles: How can God who has the power to save meet an ignominious death? How can one who is powerful be made so weak? And the cross is a scandal, a stumbling block, for Jews. They were awaiting the Christ of God, the anointed of God, and yet to die on a tree was to be accursed (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). To preach “Christ Crucified” is to preach an oxymoron, that the anointed one is also the cursed one.
And yet, on Good Friday above all, we look upon the Crucified One and understand that with the eyes of faith there lies wisdom, not foolishness, and there lies not a scandal, not a stumbling block on the path, but the One who is the Way, the Truth and — even while dying on the cross — the life.
In these meditations on the Seven Last Words, then, we look upon the scandals in the Church in the light of the words of Jesus, taking each word in turn. I propose that we might, at each word from the cross, look at the scandals from different perspectives — the victims, the priestly perpetrators, the bishops who were negligent or complicit, the Church herself, the good priests and laity who feel shame, the world, and the Lord himself.
On Good Friday, as we accompany Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, walking with the Blessed Mother to the various Stations of the Cross; as we stand at the foot of the cross with her, listening to the Seven Last Words, we wonder: What is Jesus thinking? What is in his mind and heart? We know that, at least at one point, he is praying Psalm 22, which begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Perhaps we might imagine that he also had in mind Psalm 55. The pain of the scandals has come from within the household of faith, not from outside, just as Jesus was betrayed and denied and abandoned by his own apostles.
As Catholics we can lament and protest persecution. But betrayal from within is a different matter. And so the words of Psalm 55 seem fitting as we begin these meditations on the Seven Last Words:
My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; yea, I would wander afar, I would lodge in the wilderness, I would hasten to find me a shelter from the raging wind and tempest.”
Destroy their plans, O Lord, confuse their tongues; for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they go around it on its walls; and mischief and trouble are within it, ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace.
It is not an enemy who taunts me — then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me — then I could hide from him.
But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to hold sweet converse together; within God’s house we walked in fellowship.
Glory be to the Father …