Pope’s Message for Lent released

The Holy Father’s Message for Lent was released today.  I was at the Press conference with S.E. Mons. Paul Josef Cordes, President of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum", who made the presentation along with others.

The document was signed on 21 November 2006.  It is very short.  It constitutes quite a break with Messages of the past.  This message is strongly theological, providing starting points.  Messages in the past were strong practical, exploring themes like “Marginalization of the Poor” (1977) and “World Hunger” (1996).  This time he is much more explicitly theocentric, returning to the fundamental building block of Deus caritas est.  Cordes said that he could only speculate why the Holy Father has changed the style of the Lenten message. 

Cordes, in his comments, seemed to desire to bring the discussion away from the theological dimension and right away pass to the concrete exercise of charity.  In a way I had the sense that he wanted to talk about something other than the message.  To accomplish this they enlisted the help of an old Italian priest Fr. Oreste Benzi, founder of the “Pope John XXIII” houses which work for the marginalized.  Benizi gave a sustained fervorino (over a half hour).  His experience working with the very difficult cases life can reveal reminded me that there are those who service the Church at a desk and those who serve at a gutter or a bedside. 

Benizi, clearly a man who has zealous love for the poor pretty bluntly said that there should be no restraints on immigration and everyone should be given a job.  I am not sure how that it is be done… perhaps some "redistribution of wealth"?  Anyway, the guy had real fervor.  One very insightful comment he made concerned the late and the present Holy Father and how they are seen by young people.  Benizi said young people are not just following or “running after” the singer, but also after the song.  This about the reaction that young people are having for Pope Benedict XVI in light of the great popularity of the late Pope John Paul II.   In other words after the great cult of person that surrounded the late Pope people are very much on fire to hear what Pope Benedict has to say.

Back to the Message.

The first paragraph presents the major theme, “They shall look on Him whom they have pierced."  This is strongly reminiscent of the title of a book Joseph Ratzinger published years ago: Behold The Pierced One.  It also calls to mind how the late Holy Father called us to direct our gaze, through Mary with the Rosary, to Christ’s face.

The Pope in the Message returned to the theme he addressed in Deus caritas est, that is, of agape and eros.

He starts with Biblical texts and moves to Patristic texts as well as the Neo-platonic Christian writer Pseudo-Dionysius.   The letter is strongly Patristic.  Cited are St. Maximus Confessor (Ambigua 91, 1956), and St. John Chrysostom (Catecheses 3,14 ff) on how the water and Blood from the side of Christ are symbols of the sacraments of Baptism (water) and Eucharist (Blood).  The Pope quotes a certain N. Cabasilas.  I am not sure who he is right at the moment.

You can read the thing yourself pretty quickly, and I advise you to do so.  I will only point out a couple things I found immediately interesting.

The Pope returned to a Ratzingerian theme of self-sufficiency.  I find this often in the Pope’s writings.  In the Message he wrote:

“Unfortunately, from its very origins, mankind, seduced by the lies of the Evil One, rejected God’s love in the illusion of self-sufficiency that is impossible (cf. Gn 3:1-7).  Turning in on himself, Adam withdrew from that source of life who is God Himself, and became the first of “those who through fear of death were subjected to lifelong bondage” (Heb 2:15).  God, however, did not give up.  On the contrary, man’s “no” was the decisive impulse that moved Him to manifest His love in all of its redeeming strength.”  Also in the message: “We need to respond to such love and dedicate ourselves to communicating it to others.  Christ “draws me to Himself” in order to unite Himself to me, so that I learn to love the brothers with His love.”

The reference to "fear of death" is not only biblical, it is greatly expanded on by St. Augustine of Hippo, whom the Pope has long studied.

Here is a nice point for those who are married.  It reminds me of something I would stress in marriage prep:

“In all truth, only the love that unites the free gift of self with the impassioned desire for reciprocity instills a joy, which lightens the greatest sacrifices.”  In this phrase we have the union of agape (gift of self) and eros (impassioned desire).

"Looking on Him whom they have pierced" will help us to see people with greater respect, recognizing the wounds inflicted on humanity, but also to “alleviate the tragedies of loneliness and abandonment of so many people.”  This redirection of our gaze to the Crucified Christ should bring us to concrete acts of love toward neighbor are, as the Holy Father puts it, “Only in this way shall we be able to participate fully in the joy of Easter.”

H.E. Cordes can back strongly to the idea that in this Message it is not being suggest that service of God substitute the service of man.  He tried to emphasize that there is a balance needed between them.  The one should be made more authentic by the other.  This is also a theme of Deus caritas est.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Jim S-B says:

    Father, I believe the N. Cabasilas would be familiar to Orthodox Christians as St. Nicholas Cabasilas, a (I believe)14th century Byzantine lay theologian. I have only read his work in extract for in other publications, he is most well known for is commentary of the Divine Liturgy, where every action within it is likened to some aspects of Christ’s life and work, or the Old Testament antecedents leading up to Him – similar to many medieval Western commentator’s on the Mass. He also published other works, of which I am sad to say, unfamiliar.

  2. John Polhamus says:

    Father, Mons. Cordes’ rather uncomfortable sounding interpretation of the Holy Father’s Lenten message doesn’t really seem to make it clear that the service of God, rather than being a substitute for the service of man, predicates the service of man. According to the law of charity, which is the love of God for the sake of His own goodness, and the love of neighbour as a creation of God, an appropriately geometrical relationship (i.e. triangular in shape!), we cannot truly serve the interest of our neighbour without serving FIRST his spiritual needs. Without the spiritual, all physical service is degraded, wasted, ultimately fruitless because it is merely human. The soul must be fed first, then the body, or else we have accomplished nothing lasting through our service.

    If we cannot serve God, we cannot serve man at all. If we cannot build up the spirit, we cannot build up the body, and it doesn’t work the other way around. With that in mind we owe the same fervor and attention to our worship that the Fr. Benzi’s fervorino accorded to his socially marginalized charges. In fact it is God, through the breakdown of the liturgical tradition during the past forty years, who has been marginalized in his own church. It seems that the politically Socialist curia are going to have some trouble readjusting to that uncomfortable truth, but hopefully Benedict will have a few years to get them used to it again.

  3. Sean says:

    Fr. Benzi sounds like a bagfull of laughs. Tell them to go to mass. When they find the self-discipline to do that they are on the upward path. The ‘marginalised’ contain the most manipulative losers who would soak up everything the world has to offer and still be living on a dunghill. Also, less marshalling of ‘the young people’ please. In the 70s I remember being blandly told that everything was being done for ‘the young people’ but nobody cared for my opinion.

  4. Robert says:

    Last year’s lenten message was also brief and, although it did address social questions, was also primarily theological. It contained a warning about the temptation of being concerned primarily with improving this world without being mindful of the next world, and of replacing “believing” with “doing.” In this respect, perhaps last year’s message can be seen as a bridge to this year’s, a key to understanding the Pope’s motivations for a change in style. Perhaps the Holy Father is returning to a theocentrism that is a surer basis for authentic praxis than busy anthropocentrism. Since Christian theocentrism is “Christocentrism,” no one need fear that human questions are lost in this shift of emphasis–on the contrary, it’s in the God-made-flesh where the answers to these questions are to be found.

  5. John Polhamus says:

    Correction: “Hopefully Benedict will have MORE than a few years to get them used to it again!” (See end of above comment).

  6. Dan Hunter says:

    Father Zuhlsdorf,
    I am again confused at the Church.
    Why is Mons.Cordes praising Warren Buffet and Bill Gates for philanthropic works asocial achievments,when in reality they contribute vast sums of money to kill little baby’s?
    Correct me if I am wrong but did the Mons.actually make laudatory statements of these two horrendous men?
    God bless you.

  7. CDB says:

    What a moving message. I wouldn’t mind hearing my parish priest read it is a substitute for (at least a portion of) his homily, say during the first Sunday of Lent.

  8. Discipulus Romanus says:

    A lot about how God’s love requires us to love our neighbor: not anything on God’s love grequiring us to be faithful to God, and to worship Him in a virtuous manner.


  9. Victor says:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t “loving my neighbour” God’s commandmend to me? Thus, isn’t fulfilling this commandment “being faithful to God” and “worshipping him in a virtuous manner”? What about “You can do nothing without me”?


  10. Richard says:

    St. Nicholas Cabasilas also is well known for his other signifcant work, THE LIFE IN CHRIST. Which is an excellent treatment on the Eucharist. Unusually for Orthodox theologians, he also had a familiarity and sympathy for Aquinas, and it shows in his work.

  11. Dan: You know… during the press conference I read that section over and over again (we were given the texts before). I thought about that point. I read the text again. I determined that it wasn’t a praise of the organizations. Rather, it was a description.

  12. John,

    St. Thomas tells us that the necessities to maintain our physical lives are necessary for salvation because until we have these we can not think about our spiritual needs. The two go hand and hand. I would also recommend that you read some commentaries on the two great commandments. St. John Eudes is particularly eloquent when he points out that our Lord tells us the second is “like onto” the first. We are to love our neighbor as we love God, and with the same love. He has a beautiful Mariologic interpretation of this, stressing that since our Lady obeyed this commandment perfectly, therefore she loves each of us with the same love with which she loves her Son. So in conclusion, first we must take care of their physical needs, then we have some chance of helping their spiritual needs. The two go together as the two great commandments go together, and to attempt to separate them destroys them both.

  13. Ben D. says:

    Sean, what you say may be true for some — or even most — people on the public dole in affluent Western societies, and perhaps Father Benizi’s policy prescriptions aren’t the right answer to Western social ills, but it’s worth remembering that the Church has the whole world to think of. You might read a bit about conditions in Haiti, for example. Possibly the worst of the worst, but it’s a chilling reminder that some people really are trapped in grinding poverty through no fault of their own, as much of a cliche as that sounds.

    Christopher Sarsfield, thanks for saying what I had in mind. Do you remember where St. Thomas says that?

  14. Dan Hunter says:

    Mr Sarsfield,
    We are commanded to love God first and foremost for He is the source and summit of everything good.
    And for His sake to love our brothers.
    There is a vast difference in degree of love.They are not at the same level at all.
    Yes we are commanded to love our brother for this reason and it integral to true love,but God demands the most love,for He is ,”A jealous God”.
    Also if someone was on the point of death,a priest will look to his spiritual welfare before his physical.What does this say for us who know neither the time or the day of our demise?
    God bless you

  15. Christopher Sarsfield says:


    A believe it is in his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. If I remember correctly he is agreeing with Aristotle that before a man can seek wisdom, he must take care of the necessities of life. Thomas applies this to the supernatural order. I do not have my copy on hand, but I will see if I can find the exact place.

  16. Christopher Sarsfield says:


    I too was floored when I first read this. St. John Eudes:

    “The third favor, even greater than the others, is that God commands all to to love each other not only as they love themselves, but as they love Him… Hence our Saviour declares in the holy Gospel that the second commandment, obliging us to love our neighbor, is like unto the first, which enjoins us to love God. The reason is that, in order to love our neighbor as God wills, we must love him in God and for God. This means that we must love our fellow man with the love wherewith God loves him, not for our own interest and satisfaction, but for the love of God, and because God wants us to love him. Now to love God in this way is to love Him in our neighbor, and to love our neighbor with love similar to our love for God. Hence the second commandment is like unto the first.” The Admirable Heart of Mary, Part 8, Chap. 4

    I would though be interested in hearing anything from the Saints or theologians that maintain that the love for God and the love for man “are not on the same level at all.” My reading has been the opposite.

    As to a person on the point of death, the necessities of life will do him no good, therefore a priest should be honest with him. Tell him he does not have long for this life, and ask him if he would like to die believing what Catholics believe.

  17. Rosendo says:

    Regarding St. John Eudes:
    “God commands all to love each other not only as they love themselves, but as they love Him”

    Far from me to object to a saint, but I was under the impression that the New comandment was to love each other as Christ loved us, not as we love Him. Therefore, even under the New Commandment love of God still takes precedence over love of man, except that now it is supernatural love that is required from us; charity, that is. Instead of
    “loving each other (…)as they love Him” I thought it was “loving each other as He loved them”…am I missing something?

  18. RBrown says:

    His experience working with the very difficult cases life can reveal reminded me that there are those who service the Church at a desk and those who serve at a gutter or a bedside.

    Interestingly enough, during his years of scholarship at the Angelicum Fr Garrigou LaGrange also had an apostolate to the poor in Rome.

  19. RBrown says:

    Far from me to object to a saint, but I was under the impression that the New comandment was to love each other as Christ loved us, not as we love Him. Therefore, even under the New Commandment love of God still takes precedence over love of man, except that now it is supernatural love that is required from us; charity, that is. Instead of “loving each other (…)as they love Him” I thought it was “loving each other as He loved them”…am I missing something?
    Comment by Rosendo

    The Incarnation is a mystery, and so loving Christ involves Supernatural Charity, which is a gift from God. Thus we can only love Christ with the Love with which He first loves us–and our love for Him is an imperfect reflection of His perfect love for us.

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