Introduction — Fr. Alex Roche
In June of 2017 Pope Francis visited the small village of Bozzolo in the Diocese of Cremona, located in northern Italy’s Po Valley. The images of a Roman Pontiff visiting the little town of 5,000 provided a snapshot into a papacy that has often pivoted away from the halls of power and towards the piazza. As striking as it was to see people gathered around athletic fields and private balconies to greet their pope, the primary purpose of Francis’s trip was to pray at the tomb of the town’s most famous resident, don Primo Mazzolari.
Primo Mazzolari was one of the pillars of public life in mid-twentieth century Italy: a strong political voice, a theological visionary, and a gifted pastor. As a result of his vocal opposition to Benito Mussolini and the later Nazi occupation of his homeland, he was the victim of persecution and a failed assassination attempt. Due to his early support for concepts like ecumenism and religious liberty, he was investigated by the Holy Office. Mazzolari helped hide and evacuate Jewish residents from his community, spoke openly about his friendship with a local Wesleyan pastor, devoted his life to the service of the poor in his parish, and gave witness to theological concepts that would only later be championed by the Second Vatican Council. Despite the controversy he courted during life, Mazzolari has basked in the near universal praise of his countrymen since his death in 1959. He was given the honorary title of partigiano as a man who stood up for the liberty of his people, was beautifully eulogized by Saints John XXIII and Paul VI, and was named Servant of God by the Diocese of Cremona, a necessary step towards canonization. It is easy to see why Pope Francis would be drawn to visit the tomb of such a man.
Part of Father Primo’s enduring legacy lies in a homily he offered on Holy Thursday in 1958, the year before his death. His sermon, Nostro Fratello Giuda, stands out as perhaps the most well-known, if controversial, reflection on the holy day given in the past 100 years. It is a stunning reflection on the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot—the traitor, the apostate apostle, the…friend…of Jesus.
At the heart of the homily are the words of Christ upon Judas’s arrival at the Garden in Gethsemane as recounted in Matthew 36:50, “Friend, do what you have come for.”
Even after his betrayal, Christ expresses love, mercy, and even friendship towards his betrayer. What follows is an invitation to examine the inner life of Judas, ourselves, and Christ himself in this moment of darkness. Mazzolari, following the lead of his Savior, offers his own friendship to Judas, praying for him that, even in the brief moment before his own death, Judas may have been able to allow the mercy and friendship of Christ penetrate his wounded heart. There are certainly elements within this homily that should bring to mind the famous proposition forwarded by Hans Urs von Balthasar in Dare We Hope? nearly thirty years later, as he prays desperately for the salvation of the man Dante places in the lowest circle of Hell. Reflections on von Balthasar and our role in praying for the salvation of an infamous sinner like Judas are well-trod territory, however, especially on the internet, so perhaps it would be more beneficial to draw our intention to another aspect of the sermon: empathy.
Above all, Mazzolari is inviting Catholics to empathize with Judas. To place ourselves at the center of this story. To reflect on the ways in which we have betrayed Christ in our own lives and the pain out of which that betrayal emanates and to which it inevitably returns. To recognize the emptiness of thirty pieces of silver to man who has forsaken his own conscience. To truly grasp why the death of Christ on the Cross should be the subject of our imitation while the death of Judas on a tree the subject of our pity.
Below is my English translation of the homily in its entirety. (I invite anyone intrigued by the thought of Don Primo Mazzolari to take a look at the homily and listen to it themselves in the original Italian.) As we enter into the Sacred Paschal Triduum with the betrayal of one of Jesus’ closest companions, we are reminded that a simple condemnation of Judas is of little spiritual value. What we are invited to is to enter into the story at an intimate level, to examine how we ourselves have imitated Judas’ betrayal, and to allow the mercy and forgiveness of Christ to draw us into a deeper friendship with Him.
Our Brother Judas
Father Primo Mazzolari, Holy Thursday, 1958
My dear brothers and sisters, it is truly an atmosphere of anguish and of the upper room, outside there is darkness and rain. In our Church, which has become the Upper Room it is not raining and there is no darkness, but there is a loneliness in our hearts the likes of which perhaps the Lord carried in himself. There is a name that returns in many prayers of the Mass that I am celebrating in commemoration of the Last Supper of the Lord, a name that frightens us, the name of Judas, the Traitor.
A group of your children represent the Apostles: there are twelve. They are all innocent, all good kids, they have not yet learned to betray the Lord, and God wants them—not just these, but all his little children—to never learn to betray the Lord. The one who betrays the Lord betrays his own soul, betrays his brothers, betrays his own conscience, his own duty, and becomes miserable.
I often forget about the Lord or, rather, the Lord’s actions in the pain of this betrayal, and that it must have caused his heart limitless pain.
Poor Judas. What was happening in his soul I will never understand. He is one of the most mysterious figures that we find in the Lord’s passion. And we don’t even try to understand him. I’d like to ask you right now to offer a little bit of sympathy for our poor brother Judas. Don’t be ashamed to assume this kinship. I don’t feel ashamed, because I know how many times I myself have betrayed the Lord; and I believe that none of you should be ashamed of him. And by calling him brother, we are assuming the language of the Lord. When he received the kiss of betrayal in Gethsemane, the Lord responded with these words that we should never forget: “Friend, do what you have come for.”
Friend! This word tells us of the infinite fondness of the love of the Lord, and now you see why I call Judas “brother.” In the upper room, he said that he would not call them servants, but friends. The Apostles became the friends of the Lord—whether good or bad, generous or stingy, faithful or lacking in faith—they always remain friends. We may betray Christ’s friendship, but Christ will never betray us, his friends; even when we don’t deserve it, even when we turn against him. Even when we deny him before his eyes and in his heart, we are always friends of the Lord. Judas is a friend of Jesus even at the very moment when—with a kiss—he seals his betrayal of his Master.
I ask you: how in the world could an Apostle of the Lord wind up a traitor? My Friends, do you understand the mystery of evil? Do you know how we become evil?
Remember: not one of us has not found some evil within ourselves at some point. We have watched that evil grow and we didn’t know how to turn away from it because we had become blasphemers, deniers. We often don’t even know why we turn our backs on Christ and the Church. At some point, it all went wrong. Where did it go wrong? What taught us this? What corrupted us? What took our faith? What took our capacity to believe in the good, to love the good, to accept our duty, to approach life as a mission? Look at Judas, our brother! Our brother in this common mystery and in this surprise.
Any one of us could have helped Judas become the traitor. The words of the Gospel don’t explain the mystery of Judas’s sin, but they say that “Satan entered into him” (cf. Lk 22:3, Jn 13:27). Satan took possession of him, and any one of us could have introduced him. How many people cooperate with Satan: destroying the work of God, abandoning consciences, sowing doubt, spreading unbelief, taking away people’s faith in God, denying God. This is the work of evil, the work of Satan. He acted in Judas and now he can act in us if we don’t pay attention. This is why the Lord told his Apostles on the Mount of Olives, “Stay awake and pray that you will not enter into temptation” (cf. Mk 14:38).
And the temptation began with a piece of silver. With the hands that touched that piece of silver. “What did you give me? What did you put into my hands?” These hands counted thirty pieces of silver. But they only counted them after Christ had been arrested and brought before the court. See the trade-off! The friend, the teacher, the one who had chosen him, who had made him an Apostle, the one who made him a child of God; who gave him dignity, freedom, the greatness of the children of God. Behold! Barter! Thirty pieces of silver! A small profit. A conscience isn’t worth much, my dear brothers: just thirty pieces of silver. And sometimes we sell ours for even less than that. Even still, Judas is described as a terrible businessman for this.
There are some who believe they have made a good deal by selling out Christ, denying Christ, putting themselves on the side of their enemies. They believe they have earned the job, a bit of work, a some esteem, a certain respect, among who enjoy being able to take away the best in the soul and conscience from some of their companions. And for what? Thirty pieces of silver! What does this thirty pieces of silver get you?
At a certain point you see a man, Judas, the next morning, as Christ is about to be condemned and killed. Perhaps he couldn’t imagine that his betrayal would go that far. When he heard about the crucifixion, when he saw Christ beaten to the point of death in Pilate’s atrium, the traitor made a gesture, a powerful gesture. He went to the place where the leaders of the people were still gathered—those who had bought him off, who he allowed to buy him off. He had the money bag in his hand, and he took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them at them. “Take it!” It’s the price of the blood of the Just Man. In a revelation of faith, he realized the gravity of his mistake. The silver was worthless. He had done many calculations about this silver. One piece of silver. Thirty pieces of silver.
What does conscience matter, what does being a Christian matter? What does God matter? You can’t see God, God doesn’t put food on the table, God doesn’t bring pleasure, God doesn’t give meaning to our life. The thirty pieces of silver. And we don’t have the strength to hold them in our hands. And they abandon us. Because without a tranquil conscience, even money becomes a torment.
There was one gesture, a gesture that showed human greatness. He throws it away. Do you think those people understood anything? They collected the coins and said: “Since this is blood money, we will set it aside. We will buy some land and make it a cemetery for foreigners who die during the Passover and other great feasts of our people.”
And then the scene changes: to tomorrow evening, when the cross is uncovered, you will see that there are two gallows, there is the cross of Christ; there is a tree where the traitor hanged himself. Poor Judas. Our poor brother. The greatest sin is not to sell Christ; it is to despair. Peter also denied the Master; and then he looked at him and wept, and the Lord put him back in his proper place: as his vicar. All the Apostles abandoned the Lord and returned, and Christ forgave them and took them back with the same confidence. Don’t you think there would have been room for Judas too, if he had wanted? If he had brought himself to the foot of Calvary, if he had watched Jesus at even a corner or a turn of the road on the Way of the Cross—salvation would have come for him too.
Poor Judas. A cross and a tree of a hanged man. Nails and a rope. Try to compare these two ends. You will say to me: “Death is death.” But I would like to ask you which death you would choose: on the cross like Christ, in the hope of Christ, or hanged, desperate, with nothing in front of you?
Forgive me if this evening—which should have been one of intimacy—I have given you such painful things to consider, but I also love Judas, Judas is my brother. I will pray for him also this evening, because I do not judge, I do not condemn. I should judge myself, I should condemn myself. I cannot help but think that even for Judas the mercy of God, this embrace of love, that word friend, which the Lord said to him as Judas betrayed him with a kiss—I cannot imagine that this word did not make its way into his poor heart. And perhaps the last moment, remembering that word and the acceptance of his kiss, Judas too will have felt that the Lord still loved him and received him there among his own. Perhaps as the first Apostle, entering together along with the two thieves. This is a procession that certainly does not seem to do honor to the Son of God as some think of him, but which shows the greatness of his mercy.
And now, before resuming Mass, I will repeat the gesture of Christ at the Last Supper, washing our children who represent the Apostles of the Lord in our midst, kissing those innocent little feet. Let me think for a moment of the Judas that I have within me, the Judas that perhaps you also have within you. And let me ask Jesus, the Jesus who is in agony, the Jesus who accepts us as we are, let me ask him, as a paschal grace, to call me friend.
Easter is this word spoken to a poor Judas like me, spoken to poor Judas like you. This is the joy: that Christ loves us, that Christ forgives us, that Christ does not want us to despair.
Even when we turn against Him every moment, even when we blaspheme Him, even when we reject the High Priest at the last moment of our lives, remember that for Him we will always be His friends.
Image: Almeida Júnior – Remorso de Judas, 1880. Public Domain.