When one thinks of the threads of continuity across the last three papacies, perhaps one of the most overlooked—yet uniquely influential—is Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap., who has served as Preacher to the Papal Household since his appointment by Pope John Paul II in 1980, and who was appointed to the College of Cardinals in November 2020 by Pope Francis.
The position of Preacher to the Papal Household goes back to the reign of Pope Paul IV, and since 1753 is a position that has been held exclusively by members of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, a Franciscan order that follows a strict observance of the rule of St. Francis. They are known for their plain brown habits and untrimmed beards (the coffee drink cappuccino derives its name from their appearance), and the order has produced many saints and scholars since their founding in 1525.
The papal preacher traditionally gives a sermon to the pope, members of the curia, and religious superiors every Friday during Advent and Lent, with Good Friday being no exception. Earlier today, he spoke up, remarkably, about the growing division within our Church. He said, in part (emphasis mine):
“Fraternity among Catholics is wounded! Divisions between Churches have torn Christ’s tunic to shreds, and worse still, each shredded strip has been cut up into even smaller snippets. I speak of course of the human element of it, because no one will ever be able to tear the true tunic of Christ, his mystical body animated by the Holy Spirit. In God’s eyes, the Church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” and will remain so until the end of the world. This, however, does not excuse our divisions, but makes them more guilty and must push us more forcefully to heal them.
What is the most common cause of the bitter divisions among Catholics? It is not dogma, nor is it the sacraments and ministries, none of the things that by God’s singular grace we fully and universally preserve. The divisions that polarize Catholics stem from political opinions that grow into ideologies after being given priority over religious and ecclesial considerations. In many parts of the world, these divisions are very real, even though they are not openly talked about or are disdainfully denied. This is sin in its primal meaning. The kingdom of this world becomes more important, in the person’s heart than the Kingdom of God.
I believe that we all need to make a serious examination of conscience in this regard and be converted. Fomenting division is the work par excellence of the one whose name is ‘diabolos’ that is, the divider, the enemy who sows weeds, as Jesus referred to him in the parable” (see Mt 13:25).
We live in an odd time. Many Catholic leaders today will insist upon their “orthodoxy” and their “fidelity” to the Catholic faith, and refuse to admit their disloyalty to the pope (or even their obligation to grant assent to his Magisterial teachings). We are living at a time when Catholics who are actively working to undermine Pope Francis point fingers at others and accuse them of schism. Some are even accusing the pope of schism. Unity in the Church seems to be a far-off dream.
It is in this ecclesial climate that the 86-year-old friar—someone who has held this unique role for over four decades—decided to focus his Good Friday homily on the wounded fraternity, the “bitter divisions” among Catholics. And he makes this very clear: this is not about dogma, nor the sacraments, not the practices that have been preserved in the faith thanks to the grace of God. The divisions that are tearing away at the human element of the Church—which, as he describes, are ripping apart Christ’s tunic—are the result of “political opinions that grow into ideologies after being given priority over religious and ecclesial considerations.”
And this has manifested in many ways, including—undeniably—in the US Church. Who is behind this division? The cardinal does not mince words. “Fomenting division is the work par excellence of the one whose name is ‘diabolos’ that is, the divider, the enemy who sows weeds.”
The fact that so many of our Catholic clergy and public figures fall prey to political ideologies, placing party over faith, while still claiming to profess authentic Catholicism has been a tremendous scandal in our Church and a counter-witness to the Gospel in the world. And yet, here we are. Pope Francis wrote in Gaudete et Exultalte, “Spiritual corruption is worse than the fall of a sinner, for it is a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle forms of self-centredness” (165).
The time to set aside ideology is now. Our crucified Christ did not die only to have his disciples rip ourselves apart. As Cardinal Cantalamessa said later in his homily, “If there is a special charism or gift that the Catholic Church is called to cultivate for all the Christian Churches, it is precisely unity.” And of course, the visible source of unity in this Church is none other than the Successor of Peter, Pope Francis.
As we sit with Jesus in the silence of the Tomb, let us contemplate where ideology, personal agendas, and political bias has blocked our own path to unity with our pope and with other Christians. May we be made anew this Easter, seeking the unity that only comes from Jesus Christ.