IN CELEBRATION OF THE LORD’S PASSION, PRESIDED OVER BY THE HOLY FATHER FRANCIS
IN ST. PETER’S BASILICA
“First born among many brothers”
On 3 October last, at the tomb of St Francis in Asses, the Holy Father signed his encyclical on the Fratres omnes fraternity. In a short time, her writing has awakened in many hearts the aspiration for this universal value, highlighted the many wounds against her in today’s world, indicated ways to reach true and just human fraternity, and exhorted all—people and institutions—to work for it.
The encyclical is ideally aimed at a very wide audience, inside and outside the Church: in practice, to all humanity. It covers many areas of life: from the private to the public, from the religious to the social and the political.
Given its universal horizon, it rightly avoids restricting discourse to what is unique and exclusive to Christians. However, towards the end of the encyclical, there is a paragraph where the evangelical foundation of fraternity is summed up in a few words, but vibrant. Says:
“Others drink from other sources. For us, this source of human dignity and fraternity is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. From him arises, for Christian thought and for the action of the Church, the primacy that is given to the relationship, to the encounter with the sacred mystery of the other, to universal communion with all humanity as a vocation of all” (FO 277).
The mystery of the cross we are celebrating forces us to focus on this Christological foundation of fraternity, which was inaugurated precisely in the death of Christ.
In the New Testament, “brother” (adelphos) means, in the primary sense, the person born of the same father and mother. The members of the same people and nation are referred to as “brothers”. Thus Paul says that he is willing to become anathema, separated from Christ, for the benefit of his brethren according to the flesh, who are the Israelites (cf. Rom 9.3).
It is clear that, in these contexts, as in other cases, “brothers” indicates men and women, brothers and sisters. In this widening of the horizon, every human person is called a brother, because he is such. Brother is what the Bible calls the “neighbor.” “Who doesn’t love his brother…” (1 Jn 2.9) means: who does not love his neighbor.
When Jesus says, “All that ye have done to one of these younger brethren of mine, you have done it to me” (Mt 25:40), means every human person in need of help. But along with all these meanings, in the New Testament the word “brother” increasingly indicates a particular category of people.
Brothers among themselves are the disciples of Jesus, those who welcome his teachings. “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? […] Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is for my brother, sister, and mother” (Mt 12:48-50). In this line, Easter marks a new and decisive stage. Thanks to her, Christ becomes “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom 8.29).
The disciples become brothers in a new and very profound sense: they share not only the teaching of Jesus, but also his Spirit, his new life as a risen one. Significantly, it is only after his resurrection that Jesus calls his disciples “brothers”:
“Go to my brethren,” he says to Mary Magdalene, “and say, ‘I raise up my Father and your Father, my God, and your God'” (Jn 20:17). In this same sense, the Letter to the Hebrews writes: “Whoever sanctifies and those who are sanctified all come from the same origin; for this reason [Christ] is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb 2.11).
After Easter, this is the most common use of the term brother; indicates to the brother of the faith, a member of the Christian community. Brothers “blood” also in this case, but of the blood of Christ! This makes Christ’s fraternity unique and transcendent, compared to any other type of fraternity, and is due to the fact that Christ is also God.
This new fraternity does not replace other types of fraternity based on family, nation, or race, but crowns them. All human beings are brothers as creatures of God and Father himself. To this the Christian faith adds a decisive second reason. We are brothers not only as a creation, but also as a redemption; not only because we all have the same Father, but because we all have the same brother, Christ, “firstborn among many brothers”.
In light of all this, we must now make some current reflections. Fraternity is built, exactly, as peace is built, that is, starting closely, for us, not with great schemes, with ambitious and abstract goals. This means that universal fraternity begins for us with fraternity in the Catholic Church.
I also set aside, for once, the second circle that is fraternity among all believers in Christ, that is, ecumenism. The Catholic fraternity is hurt! Christ’s robe has been torn apart by the divisions between the Churches; but—worse—each piece of the robe is often divided, in turn, into other pieces.
I speak, of course, of the human element of it, because the true robe of Christ, his mystical body animated by the Holy Spirit, no one can ever hurt her. In the eyes of God, the Church is “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic” and will remain as such until the end of the world.
This, however, does not excuse our divisions, but makes them more guilty and must push us harder for us to heal them. What is the most common cause of divisions among Catholics? It is not dogma, it is not the sacraments and ministries: all the things that by God’s singular grace we keep whole and unanimous.
It is the political choice, when it takes advantage over the religious and ecclesial and defends an ideology, completely forgetting the meaning and duty of obedience in the Church. This, in many parts of the world, is the true factor of division, even if it is silent or dismissingly denied. This is a sin, in the strictest sense of the term. It means that “the kingdom of this world” has become more important, in one’s heart, than the Kingdom of God. I believe that we are all called to make a serious examination of our consciences on this matter and to become. This is, par excellence, the work of the one whose name is “diabolos”, that is, the divider, the enemy that sows tares, as Jesus defines it in his parable (Cf. Mt 13:25).
We must learn from the gospel and the example of Jesus. There was a strong political polarization around him. There were four parties: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians and the Zelotas. Jesus did not align himself with any of them and resisted vigorously the attempt to drag him to one side or the other. The early Christian community faithfully followed him in this election.
This is an example, especially for shepherds who must be shepherds throughout the flock, not a single part of it. Therefore, they are the first to have to take a serious examination of conscience and wonder where they are taking their flock: whether by their side, or beside Jesus.
The Second Vatican Council entrusts in particular to the laity the task of implementing, in the various historical situations, the social, economic and political teachings of the Gospel. These can translate into even different options, when they are respectful of others and peaceful.
If there is a special charism or gift that the Catholic Church is called to cultivate for all Christian Churches, it is precisely unity. The Holy Father’s recent trip to Iraq has made us feel first-hand what it means for those who are oppressed or have survived wars and persecutions to feel part of a universal body, with someone who can make the rest of the world hear their cry and relive hope.
Once again Christ’s command has been fulfilled to Peter: “Confirm thy brethren” (Lk 22:32). To him who died on the cross “to gather the scattered children of God” (Jn 11:52) we raise, on this day, “with a contrite heart and a humiliated spirit”, the prayer that the Church addresses to him in every Mass before Communion:
“Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your apostles, ‘Peace I leave you, my peace I give you,’ do not look at our sins, but the faith of your Church, and according to your word grant peace and unity, you who live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.”
Vatican City, St. Peter’s Basilica,
Friday, April 2, 2021. Good Friday.
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Gentileness of the Holy See Press Office.