In a Sistine Chapel homily, given to the cardinals who had elected him pope the evening before, the new bishop of Rome, reflecting on the dialogue between Jesus and Peter at Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13-25), challenged those who had just laid a great cross on his shoulders to deepen their own commitment to Christ crucified:
“…The same Peter who has confessed Jesus Christ says to him, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. I will follow you, but let us not speak of the Cross. This has nothing to do with it. I will follow you with other possibilities, without the Cross.
“When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross and when we confess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord: we are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.
“I would like that everyone … should have the courage, truly the courage, to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Cross of the Lord; to build up the Church upon the blood of the Lord that was shed upon the Cross; and to confess the only glory—Christ crucified. And in this way the Church will move forward.”
That challenge to the cardinal-electors applies to every Catholic, as Preface I of the Passion of the Lord reminds us:
“For through the saving Passion of your Son,
the whole world has received a heart
to confess the infinite power of your majesty,
since by the wondrous power of the Cross
your judgment on the world is now revealed
and the authority of Christ crucified.”
Easter is the axial point of history: the moment when God demonstrates that his creative purposes have been vindicated—redeemed—such that the entire cosmic drama of creation, redemption and sanctification will be brought to its proper conclusion in the New Jerusalem, at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. No Easter, no Easter faith; no Easter, no Church; at Easter, history and the cosmos are re-ordered to the trajectory intended for them “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1). Still, the Church remembers throughout Lent that there is no Easter without Good Friday. Good Friday is not an accidental prelude to Easter; Good Friday is the essential, divinely-ordered gateway to Easter.
This has always been hard to accept, as we see from the dialogue at Caesarea Philippi to which Pope Francis referred in his post-election homily. We would have arranged things differently; we would have chosen another kind of Messiah—that theme runs like a bright thread throughout Lent, in the readings from the Old and New Testaments that the Church assigns to the liturgy during the Forty Days, so that the Church can ponder again the full panorama of salvation history. And as the Holy Father suggested in the Sistine Chapel, the temptation to deny the Cross is perennial; moreover, it is at the root of the Church’s failure to be the credible witness it must be, if the world is to be offered friendship with Jesus Christ.
There is much that needs reforming in the Church; and true reform, as I describe it in “Evangelical Catholicism” (Basic Books) is always Christ-centered and mission-oriented. True reform gives fresh expression to the truth of Christ crucified; true reform equips the Church for the more effective proclamation of Christ crucified. That expression and proclamation ought to be done with joy, for we are living on the far side of Easter. But Easter can never be emptied of the Passion and Death of the Lord; Easter faith must be faith built on an embrace of the Cross.
So in venerating the Cross on Good Friday, in the first Holy Week of a pontificate of reform and renewal, let the entire Church remember the truths expressed in what we may imagine as the first papal encyclical:
“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. … He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2: 21, 24).
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. Mr. Weigel’s syndicated Catholic press column, “The Catholic Difference,” is the most widely circulated Catholic press column in the country, reaching a combined readership of some two million persons each week.