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The death of Christ as an historical event

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on Jesus Christ
General Audience, Wednesday 28 September 1988 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. We profess our belief in the central truth of Jesus Christ's messianic mission: he is the Redeemer of the world through his death on the cross. We profess it in the words of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, according to which Jesus Christ "for our sake was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried." In professing this faith we commemorate Christ's death as an historical event, which, like his life, is made known to us by sure and authoritative historical sources. On the basis of these sources we can and we desire to know and understand the historical circumstances of that death, which we believe to have been "the price" of human redemption in all ages.

2. First of all, what were the circumstances that led to the death of Jesus of Nazareth? How does one explain the fact that he was handed over to death by the representatives of his nation, who delivered him to the Roman procurator, whose name, recorded by the Gospels, is mentioned in the creeds of the faith? For the present let us seek to recall the circumstances which, humanly speaking, explain the death of Jesus. The evangelist Mark, describing Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate, notes that he was delivered by the chief priests "out of envy," and that Pilate was aware of the fact: "For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up" (Mk 15:10). We may ask: why this envy? We can find its roots in their resentment not only for what Jesus taught, but also for the manner in which he did so. If as Mark says, he taught "as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Mk 1:22), this must have made him appear to the latter as a threat to their prestige.

3. We know that there was conflict already at the beginning of Jesus' teaching in his native town. Speaking in the synagogue, the thirty-year-old Nazarene indicated that he was the one in whom Isaiah's announcement of the Messiah was fulfilled. This caused a sense of wonder in his hearers, and later provoked them to wrath. They wished to throw him down headlong from the brow of the hill "on which their city was built...but passing through the midst of them he went away" (Lk 4:29-30).

4. This incident was only the beginning; it was the first signal of subsequent hostility. Let us recall the principal examples. When Jesus claimed to have the power to forgive sins, the scribes regarded this as blasphemy, because only God has such power (cf. Mk 2:6). When he worked miracles on the sabbath day, asserting that "the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath" (Mt 12:8), the reaction was similar. Already from that time their intention to kill Jesus was evident (cf. Mk 3:6). "They sought to kill him...because he not only broke the sabbath, but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God" (Jn 5:18). What else could be the meaning of the words, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am" (Jn 8:58)? His hearers knew very well the meaning of that "I Am." Therefore Jesus again ran the risk of being stoned. This time, however, Jesus "hid himself, and went out of the temple" (Jn 8:59).

5. The fact that eventually brought things to a head and led to the decision to kill Jesus was the raising of Lazarus from the dead in Bethany. John's Gospel informs us that at the subsequent meeting of the Sanhedrin it was stated: "This man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." In view of these forecasts and fears Caiaphas, the high priest, said to them, "It is evident that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation should not perish" (Jn 11:47-50). The evangelist adds, "He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God, who are scattered abroad." And he concludes, "So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death" (Jn 11:51-53).

In this way John informs us of the twofold aspect of the position adopted by Caiaphas. From the human point of view, which could be more accurately described as opportunist, it was an attempt to justify the elimination of a man regarded as politically dangerous, without caring about his innocence. From a higher point of view, made his own and noted by the evangelist, Caiaphas' words, independently of his intention, had a truly prophetic content regarding the mystery of Christ's death according to God's salvific plan.

6. Here let us consider the human development of the events. In that meeting of the Sanhedrin a decision was taken to kill Jesus of Nazareth. They took advantage of his presence in Jerusalem during the paschal feasts.

Judas, one of the Twelve, betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, by indicating the place where he could be arrested. They seized Jesus and brought him before the Sanhedrin. To the vital question of the high priest, "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God," Jesus replied, "You have said so" (Mt 25:63-64; cf. Mk 14:62; Lk 22:70). In this statement the Sanhedrin saw an evident blasphemy, and decreed that Jesus was "guilty of death" (Mk 14:64).

7. The Sanhedrin, however, could not carry out the sentence without the consent of the Roman procurator. Pilate was personally convinced that Jesus was innocent, and indicated that several times. After having opposed an uncertain resistance to the pressures of the Sanhedrin, he at last gave in for fear of risking the disapproval of Caesar. He did this all the more so because the crowd also, urged on by those in favor of Jesus' elimination, now cried out for his crucifixion. "Crucify him!" Thus Jesus was condemned to death by crucifixion.

8. Historical responsibility for Christ's crucifixion rests with those mentioned in the Gospels, at least in part, by name. Jesus himself said so when he told Pilate during the trial, "He who delivered me to you has the greater sin" (Jn 19:11). Another passage also says, "The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born" (Mk 14:21; Mt 26:24; Lk 22:22). Jesus alluded to various persons who, in different ways would be responsible for his death: Judas, the representatives of the Sanhedrin, Pilate and the others. In his discourse after Pentecost, Simon Peter will also charge the leaders of the Sanhedrin with the killing of Jesus: "You crucified and killed him by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23).

9. However, this accusation cannot be extended beyond the circle of people really responsible. We read in a document of the Second Vatican Council: "True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all Jews without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today" (NA 4).

As for the consciences of those individuals who were responsible, we must remember Christ's words on the cross: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34). There is an echo of these words in another of Peter's discourses after Pentecost: "And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers" (Acts 3:17). What a sense of reserve before the mystery of the human conscience, even in the case of the greatest crime committed in history, the killing of Christ!

10. Following the example of Jesus and Peter, even though it is difficult to deny the responsibility of those who deliberately brought about the death of Christ, we too shall view things in the light of God's eternal plan. God asked from his beloved Son the offering of himself as a victim for the sins of all humanity. In this higher perspective we realize that, because of our sins, we are all responsible for Christ's death on the cross: all of us, to the extent that through sin we have contributed to causing Christ's death for us as a victim of expiation. In this sense also we can understand Jesus' words, "The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day" (Mt 17:22).

11. The cross of Christ is thus for all a realistic reminder of the fact expressed by the Apostle John in the words: "The blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1 Jn 1:7-8). Christ's cross is a call to each one of us that is both merciful and demanding. It is a call to recognize and confess our guilt and to live in the truth."


After the Catechesis, Pope John Paul II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai pellegrini di lingua inglese

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I EXTEND A CORDIAL WELCOME to the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors. In particular I greet the members of the Choir of the Cathedral of Saint Raymond Nonnatus, in Joliet. I encourage you to continue to praise God with your song and music, and above all with renewed faith and Christian love for all those in need.

May God bless all of you present here.

Ad un gruppo di visitatori giapponesi

DO IL BENVENUTO ai componenti della “Missione buddista in Europa per la pace” di Risshokosei-kai.

Siete venuti in Europa per promuovere la pace e la comunicazione amichevole.

Io pure vi benedico volentieri, affinché questa vostra finalità si realizzi sia in Oriente che in Occidente, ed estendo il mio saluto a tutti i vostri cari.

Ai numerosissimi pellegrini di lingua tedesca

Liebe Brüder und Schwestern!

INDEM ICH, LIEBE BRÜDER und Schwestern, euch diese tröstliche Glaubenswahrheit erneut in Erinnerung rufe und eurer Betrachtung empfehle, grüße ich euch alle sehr herzlich zu der heutigen Audienz: alle genannten und ungenannten Gruppen, die Familien, die Priester und Ordensleute.

Mit besonderer Freude grüße ich alle Teilnehmer an der diesjährigen Pilgerfahrt ”Rom im Rollstuhl“ aus der Schweiz. Den Veranstaltern bekunde ich meine Anerkennung und meinen Dank für diese lobenswerte Initiative christlicher Nächstenliebe, die sich schon seit mehreren Jahren jährlich wiederholt. Die Kranken und Behinderten ermutige ich in ihrer Treue zu Christus und der Kirche, in der sie gerade in ihrem Leid Trest und Geborgenheit finden. Gott segne und behüte euch und alle die euch hilfsbereit zur Seite stehen!

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EINEN HERZLICHEN Willkommensgruß richte ich sodann an die Pilgergruppe des Katholischen Siedlungsdienstes, die aus allen deutschen Diözesen unter der Leitung von Bischof Hermann Josef Spital und Weihbischof Wilhelm Wöste nach Rom gekommen ist. Die kirchlichen Siedlungswerke haben in den vergangenen Jahrzehnten vielen Menschen ein würdiges Zuhause und familiengerechtes Heim gegeben. Für diesen anerkennenswerten Dienst an der Familie, der zugleich ein Dienst am Leben und für die Kirche ist, möchte ich Ihnen aufrichtig danken. Ebenso ermutige ich Ihre Verbände auch, die Leistungen für die Weltwohnungshilfe verstärkt fortzusetzen. Ich wünsche Ihren Bemühungen Erfolg und erteile Ihnen und allen hier anwesenden Pilgern deutscher Sprache für Gottes Beistand von Herzen meinen besonderen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai fedeli di lingua spagnola

Amadísimos hermanos y hermanas,

SALUDO AHORA con afecto a todos los peregrinos de lengua española.

En particular, a los Religiosos Terciarios Capuchinos; al numeroso grupo de seminaristas Legionarios de Cristo; y a las Religiosas Mercedarias del Santísimo Sacramento. A todos aliento a una entrega sin reservas a su vocación y ministerio eclesial.

A todas las personas, familias y grupos procedentes de los diversos países de América Latina y de España imparto la Bendición Apostólica.

Ai fedeli di lingua portoghese

Amados irmaos e irmãs de língua portuguesa,

SAUDO CORDIALMENTE quantos me escutam de língua portuguesa, em particular os grupos de visitantes e peregrinos do Brasil, provenientes de várias cidades capitais dos Estados de Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Paraná e Rio Grande do Sul.

Sede bem-vindos! E que leveis desta visita a Roma mais viva a certeza que é apelo: Jesus Cristo morreu por mim, para minha salvação! Que vos iluminem os testemunhos de São Pedro e São Paulo e vos assista a graça de Deus, que imploro para vós e vossas famílias, com a Bênção Apostólica.

Ai fedeli polacchi

WITAM SERDECZNIE wszystkich przybyłych na dzisiejszą audiencję księży biskupów: księdza biskupa Rozwadowskiego, księdza biskupa Szymeckiego, księdza biskupa Szlagę; oraz grupy pielgrzymów: z Krakowa, parafia św. Jana Kantego; z Mogiły-Nowej Huty, z sanktuarium parafii Swiętego Krzyża; z Andrychowa, parafia św. biskupa i męczennika Stanisława; z Warszawy z parafii św. Klemensa, ojcowie redemptoryści; również z Warszawy, z kościoła Ducha Swiętego, ojcowie paulini; z Kielc, z parafii św. Maksymiliana Kolbe; z Radomia z parafii Chrystusa Nauczyciela; z Grzmucina, diecezja sandomiersko-radomska, z parafii św. Maksymiliana Kolbe; z tejże diecezji, ze Searachowich, z parafii Matki Bożej Nieustającej Pomocy; z diecezji, łódzkiej - parafia Matki Bożej Królowej Polski z Włodzimierzowa k. Piotrkowa Trybunalskiego; duszpasterstwo akademickie z Olsztyna; z diecezji chełmińskiej - pielgrzymówz parafii św. Tomasza, Nowe Miasto Lubawskie; studentów z diecezji łomżyńskiej: z archidiecezji poznańskiej pielgrwymkę z parafii krotoszyńskich i dekanatu; również uczestników pieszej pielgrzymki duszpasterstwa księży pallotynów z Warszawy do Częstochowy; przedstawicieli wspólnot katechumenalnych w Polsce; szczegolnie pozdrawiam przyjaciół i dobrodziejów Fundacji Jana Pawła II; prócz tego polskoamerykańską pielgrzymkę z księdzem biskupem Maidą z Green Bay; z kościoła św. Alojzego z Indian Ochard również pielgrzymkę polonijną z Chicago z parafii św. Stanisława biskupa męczennika, ojcowie franciszkanie konwentualni; z Krakowa uczniów i profesorów X Liceum Ogólnokształcącego; członków Towarzystwa Przyjazni Polsko-Włoskiej; studentów i pracownikow naukowych Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego; kolejarzy z Katowic; uczestnikow grup turystycznych PKS, Orbisu, Turysty, Sport-Turysty i mnych, poza tymi pielgrzymów zarówno z kraju, iak i z emigracji . . . Serdecznie pozdrawiam wszystkich obecnych tutaj moich rodaków, życzę błogosławieństwa Bożego dla nich samych, dla tych, których tutaj reprezentują.

Ai gruppi di lingua italiana

DESIDERO ORA porgere il mio saluto ai pellegrini di lingua italiana, ed anzitutto ai fedeli della diocesi di Belluno-Feltre, venuti a Roma per ricordare il decimo anniversario della morte del mio predecessore Giovanni Paolo I. Mi compiaccio con loro per questo gesto di affetto e di devozione verso un Pontefice tanto amato da tutta la cristianità, e li esorto a tenere sempre presente il suo messaggio, breve ma essenziale, fondato sulle virtù teologali della fede, speranza e carità, le prime tre di quelle “sette lampade” - come egli le chiamò - che sono le virtù cristiane.

* * *

SALUTO POI il numeroso gruppo dei pellegrini di Patti, venuti per ricambiare la visita da me fatta al santuario di Tindari, durante il recente viaggio apostolico in Calabria ed a Messina. Saluto il loro Vescovo Monsignor Carmelo Ferraro, i sindaci dei comuni del territorio diocesano, gli artisti che hanno voluto donare una loro opera di soggetto mariano. A tutti il mio augurio e la mia Benedizione.

* * *

UNO SPECIALE PENSIERO va ai Padri della Confederazione dell’Oratorio di San Filippo Neri, presenti in Roma per la definitiva approvazione delle nuove Costituzioni. Invoco su di loro una copiosa effusione di doni divini per un rinnovato impegno nella diffusione del prezioso carisma del loro Fondatore, da cui tanto bene può venire anche agli uomini del nostro tempo.

* * *

UN SALUTO, POI, alle Capitolari della Congregazione Missionaria delle Sorelle di Santa Gemma, alle quali rivolgo un augurio per le opere caritative e missionarie svolte secondo lo spirito Passionista. Saluto anche le suore e le novizie delle Francescane dei Sacri Cuori e benedico le loro molteplici opere ed istituti di educazione, di assistenza, di servizio ospedaliero, di aiuto alle parrocchie.

* * *

SONO QUI PRESENTI anche tre pellegrinaggi parrocchiali: i fedeli di Armento, in Diocesi di Tricarico, accompagnati dal parroco, che celebra il 50° anniversario di ordinazione sacerdotale; i fedeli di Galàtone, in diocesi di Nardò, con il loro parroco; ed i fedeli della parrocchia di San Francesco in Cagnano-Varano, diocesi di Manfredonia, i quali stanno per iniziare la costruzione della nuova chiesa parrocchiale. Benedico volentieri la prima pietra che essi collocheranno nelle fondamenta dell’edificio sacro, e tutti esorto a generosa coerenza cristiana perché, grazie anche alla loro testimonianza, il regno di Dio possa crescere nel mondo di oggi.

* * *

SALUTO I SOCI del Lions Club di Catania-Nord; gli operai della fabbrica “Dalmacija”, provenienti da Dugi-Rat, vicino a Split; l’Associazione Nazionale Famiglie dei Caduti e Dispersi in guerra; l’Associazione degli ex-internati della sezione Padova. A tutti raccomando di essere sempre messaggeri di pace, costruttori di amicizia e di solidarietà, mentre invoco il conforto del Signore a sostegno dei buoni propositi di ciascuno.

* * *

RIVOLGO INFINE una parola di incoraggiamento alle socie della “Federazione Italiana Donne nelle Arti e nelle Professioni” del Club di Roma, mentre le esorto ad operare sempre con impegno per l’elevazione culturale della donna, e per la sua affermazione, al di la di ogni discriminazione, in una società più giusta ed umana.

Ai giovani, ai malati e agli sposi novelli

COME DI CONSUETO desidero infine rivolgere un particolare, affettuoso saluto ai giovani, ai malati e agli sposi novelli presenti in questa Udienza.

Voi siete sempre i benvenuti. A tutti auguro ogni bene ed assicuro il mio ricordo nella preghiera. Il Signore conceda a ciascuno di voi quanto gli sta a cuore.

Vi accompagni sempre la mia Benedizione Apostolica.

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