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Francis on the Chair of Peter

On this Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Pope Francis held his first consistory to appoint nineteen Cardinals. A historic feature of the event was the presence of Pope Emeritus Benedict at the liturgical ceremony in Saint Peter's Basilica. As a number of writers have speculated: in the Basilica were not only the present Pope, but a former and, perhaps, a future Pope. Be that as it may, there is only one Chair and one Successor of Peter called to "confirm his brothers and sisters in the faith."

In his homily Pope Francis struck a chord particularly dear to him:

“Jesus was walking…”. This is something striking about the Gospels: Jesus is often walking and he teaches his disciples along the way. This is important. Jesus did not come to teach a philosophy, an ideology… but rather “a way”, a journey to be undertaken with him, and we learn the way as we go, by walking. Yes, dear brothers, this is our joy: to walk with Jesus. And this is not easy, or comfortable, because the way that Jesus chooses is the way of the Cross.


About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Now that the possibility of a Pope's resignation is established, presumably we could see more than one Pope Emeritus in the line-up?

If "Pope" means "father", maybe we should call Benedict "Grandpa".

How about calling the resigned/retired guys Emeritus Bishop of Rome?

I think there is a danger in people thinking that there can be more than one pope at a time, active or retired.

No more situations of the early 15th century:  Urban VI, Clement VII and Alexander V.


...the way that Jesus chooses is the way of the Cross.

I don't wish to dispute with Pope Francis on a matter where wisdom, holiness, and authority give all the advantage to him; and it may just be a matter of words. But did Jesus actually choose the Cross?

He certainly knew what lay ahead for him and accepted it, as faithful Son accepting the inscrutable will of the Father. But in the Garden, he prayed for a reprieve before his "not my will but yours be done."

I incline to the belief that the Cross was our choice for him; that but for us, there would still have been an Incarnation, but no Crucifixion.

It is easy enough to choose the Cross for others. But having made that choice so lightly for him, we often find it almost unbearable to make a tithe of it for ourselves, though all who have so chosen tell us, as Francis does, that it is the way of joy. How maddening and absurd it is to be a human being. But I don't know anything else.

I'm glad it's not just me who was struck by the words, "the way that Jesus chooses is the way of the Cross."  This seems to shrink the significance of all that Jesus taught and did to just the event of his death.  Not everyone believes Jesus simply came here to die - here's a bit from an article by Richard Leonard SJ  ( ...

God did not need the blood of Jesus. Jesus did not just come ‘to die’ but God used his death to announce the end to death. This is the domain of ‘offer it up’ theology: it was good enough for Jesus to suffer; it is good enough for you. While I am aware of St Paul in Romans, St Clement of Alexandria, St Anselm of Canterbury and later John Calvin’s work on atonement theory and satisfaction theology, I cannot baldly accept that the perfect God of love set [us] up for a fall in the Fall, then got so angry with us that only the grisly death of his perfect son was going to repair the breach between us. This is not the only way into the mystery of Holy Week. For most of Christian history the question that has vexed many believers seems to be, ‘Why did Jesus die?’ I think it is the wrong question. The right one is ‘Why was Jesus killed?’ And that puts the last days of Jesus’ suffering and death in an entirely new perspective. Jesus did not simply and only come to die. Rather, Jesus came to live. As a result of the courageous and radical way he lived his life, and the saving love he embodied for all humanity, he threatened the political, social and religious authorities of his day so much that they executed him. But God had the last word on Good Friday: Easter Sunday.

Jesus might not have chosen the Cross (He resisted it), but He accepted His Father's requirement that he accept it.

So what explains His Father's requirement that Jesus accept it?

Maybe God didn't requaire it.  Maybe it was just a construct by the writers of the gospels who were faced with explaining Jesus' murder.

How did this view develop? Just as we do when we face tragedy, especially innocent suffering, so the early followers of Jesus tried to make sense of his horrible death. They asked: Why? They sought insight from their Jewish practices like Temple sacrifices and from their Scriptures. Certain rites and passages (the suffering servant in Isaiah, psalms of lament, wisdom literature on the suffering righteous person) seemed to fit the terrible end of Jesus' life and so offered an answer to the why question. Understandably, these powerful images colored the entire story, including the meaning of Jesus' birth and life Throughout the centuries, Christian theology and piety have developed these interpretations of Jesus' execution. At times God has even been described as demanding Jesus' suffering and death as a means of atonement—to satisfy and appease an angry God.

Over the years on this site we have had several long and insightful discussions regarding redemption or atonement in and through Christ. and it is fitting we continue to do so since this theme takes us to the heart of "the mystery of faith."

However widespread, it is an most inadequate theological perspective that sees the Cross of Christ as humanity's forced payment of a debt to an angry God. Saint Anslem was not well served by over-simplified presentations of his "atonement theology." Reading his "Cur Deus Homo?" one sees that the epithets he consistently employs are the "merciful" Father and the "free-will" of the Son.

Jesus does give glory to God by freely undergoing his passion and death ("not my will but your will be done"), But it is humanity, we ourselves who are the direct beneficiaries, because "dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life."

I have often, here and elsewhere, commented upon the conjunction of fear of death and sinful action and recommended the analysis of Ernest Becker in his Denial of Death. I've also extolled the insights of Andre Dubus in his essay "On Charon's Wharf" (in Broken Vessels). What both suggest is that fear of death permeates our lives: not merely understood as the termination of life, but as all those situations of threat, disappointment, diminishment that squeeze life out of us and often turn us into death-dealers.

As Pope Francis stated in his homily yesterday (quoted by David Gibson in the post above): "Jesus did not come to teach us good manners, how to behave well at the table! To do that, he would not have had to come down from heaven and die on the Cross. Christ came to save us, to show us the way, the only way out of the quicksand of sin, and this way of holiness is mercy, that mercy which he has shown, and daily continues to show, to us."

The death of Jesus descends to the root of sin, and does not deal merely with sin's surface symptoms. By his willing undergoing of death, he transforms death into the Way of life that we celebrate as Eucharist.

The historical Jesus probably did freely choose to proceed with his public ministry, when he could have turned back after John the Baptist was executed and gone home to live a quiet life. Instead, the historical Jesus evidently chose to proceed with his public ministry, knowing full well that he was courting death. In short, his decision to proceed was heroic.

Decades after his death, his followers constructed a highly embellished account of his death. With 20/20 hindsight, they understood that he in effect chose to die by crucifixion.

I would suggest that Pope Francis's words about Jesus's choosing the way of the cross should be understood as basically encouraging people to be heroic in the choices they make, if they can be.

The challenge the disciples of Jesus faced and how they met it is beautifully illustrated by St. Luke’s narrative of the encounter with the risen Lord of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, which always rewards re-reading (Lk 24:13-35).  They express astonishment that the stranger they meet seems not to know what has been happening in Jerusalem. They tell him of it: “All that had to do with Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet powerful in word and deed in the eyes of God and all the people; how our chief priests and leaders delivered him up to be condemened to death and crucified him. We were hoping that he was the one who would set Israel free.” There is great pathos in that statement: We were hoping, had been hoping, no longer hoped, even after some women were reporting that they had seen an angel who declared him to be alive. Their hope that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah had been shattered by his brutal fate, and so they were leaving Jerusalem.

The stranger then rebukes them of their reluctance to believe “‘all that the prophets have announced! Did not the Messiah have to undergo all this so as to enter into his glory?’ Beginning then with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted for them every passage of Scripture which referred to him.”
That was the task the earliest Christians had to undertake: to find in their Scriptures some explanation of how the inglorious end of the career of Jesus of Nazareth, so far from disproving the messianic hopes placed in him, was in fact the means by which they were realized and vindicated. The resurrection cast its light back over those Scriptures and permitted them even to say, with Peter on the first Pentecost, that “He was delivered up by the set purpose and plan of God... who freed him from death’s bitter pangs and raised him up again, for it was impossible that death sheep keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:23-24).

Theories of atonement ever since have struggled to understand how and why it is that salvation came through death and resurrection, to grasp why “the Messiah had to undergo all that in order to enter into his glory.” The terms of the discussion are dictated to Christians by their own Scriptures and the conviction they generate that even the evil of the cross was not so great that Jesus and his Father could not bring transcendent good out of it. St. Augustine tried to make sense out of it by noting that in New Testament writings the same verb is used of a single event: Judas handed Jesus over; the Father did not spare his Son but handed him over; and Jesus himself, St. Paul said, “loved me and handed himself over for me.” What was an unjust execution was transformed by Christ’s loving obedience into the sacrifice that reconciles us to God.

Notice also the sovereign freedom of Christ in all this:  Christ handed himself over, and this out of love for me, St. Paul says. If that is said in one of the earliest writings in the New Testament, the same is emphasized in one of the latest.  Notice how in the Fourth Gospel, Christ’s hour of glory begins when he is raised on the cross and the Passion-narrative emphasizes how the one judged is the one judging, illustrating what Christ has already said: “The Father loves me for this: that I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down freely. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (Jn 10:17-18). Here is how one commentator interprets these verses:

Finally, the evangelist makes it unmistakably plain that for the Good Shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep is not an inescapable submission to some power or authority that is out of control in God’s universe, but a voluntary self-offering in loving fulfilment of the Father’s will, in order that the life laid down might be taken up again in a new fulness and victory. The story of the “passion” in John is not an account of what men did to Jesus, but rather the story of what he did for them. Paradoxically, it can be put in the form that where he was most passive (in yielding himself up to death) there he was most active (in bringing eternal life). That Jesus himself initiated the particular chain of events that resulted in his hanging on a cross the redaders of the gospel could learn from any one of the synoptics; John makes it clear that not only at the moment of the initiation of these events, but all the way through, even when he hung upon the cross, Jesus was active and in complete control. John would not deny the witness of the synoptics and the writer of Acts that Jesus was crucified according to the determinate purpose of God; he would hardly contest a claim that the cross was for Jesus an inescapable destiny; but he is even more concerned himself to witness to the truth that all through the events of the passion, crucifixion and death of Jesus, the true agent, the true actor remained Jesus himself. His active will turned what might otherwise be a blind fate or an ineluctable destiny into a self-offering and a self-sacrifice. And it all finds its origina and its enactment in the love of the Father for the world which the Son, sharing the Father’s love, came to save. Such a figure, such a person is the one who claims to be the Good Shelpherd” (John Marsh, Saint John, p. 399_)

Here is Augustine:

7. "In this was manifested the love of God in us" (1 Jn 4;9). Here we have an exhortation that we love God. Could we love him unless he loved us first? If we were slow to love, let us not be slow to love in return. He loved us first, in a way that we do not love ourselves. He loved the wicked, but did away with their wickedness. He loved the wicked but did not gather them for wickedness. He loved the sick, but he visited them in order to heal them. “God is love. In this was manifested the love of God in us, that God sent His only-begotten Son into the world, that we may live through Him." As the Lord Himself says: "Greater love than this no one can have: that a man lay down his life for his friends.” This was how Christ’s love for us was proved: that he died for us. How is the Father’s love for us proved? In that “he sent his only Son” to die for us, as the apostle Paul says: “Who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for our sake, how has he not with him also freely given us all things” (Rom 8:32). So the Father handed Christ over; Judas handed him over. Doesn’t it seem as if the thing done is of the same sort? Judas is a hander-over [traditor]. Is God the Father also one? “God forbid!” you say! But I’m not the one saying it, but the apostle: “He did not spare his own Son but handed him over for our sake.” And the Father handed him over, and he handed himself over. The same Apostle says: “He loved me and handed himself over for me” (Gal 2:20). If the Father handed the Son over, and the Son handed himself over, what did Judas do? There was a handing-over by the Father, a handing-ver by the Son,  a handing over by Judas. The thing done was the same, but what distinguishes the Father handing over the Son, the Son handing over hmself, and Judas handing over his Master? This: that the Father and the Son did it out of love, but Judas out of betrayal. You see that it’s not what a person does that’s to be considered; but with what mind and will he does it. We find God the Father in the same deed in which we find Judas; the Father we bless, Judas we detest. Why do we bless the Father and detest Judas? We bless charity, we detest iniquity. How great a good was conferred upon mankind by the handing over of Christ! Did Judas have this in mind whebn he handed him over? God had in mind the salvation by which we have been redeemed; Judas had in mind the price for which he sold the Lord. The different intention makes the things done different. Though the thing is one, if we measure things by the different intentions, we find one thing to be loved, the other to be condemned, one to be glorified, the other to be detested. So great is the force of charity. See how it alone discriminates, it alone distinguishes the deeds of men. (Augustine, On the First Epistle of John, Tr. 7, 7)

Thanks, Fr. I and K.  I know I'm in the minority in how I feel about this and I'm not sure why it seems so important to me.  I do think that Jesus' execution was pretty inevitable, given the time/place and the brave way he chose to live his life.  And it was necessary he die in order to be resurrected.  But I don't see why his manner of death - the whole sacrifice/atonement thing - is necessary or even believeable.  Why is God mad at us for the fall, when given evolurion and genetics, it's fairly certain there never was a perfection from which to fall?  And even if there was, God couldn't see this coming?  Jesus was plan B?  And if so, how does his brutal muder make everything ok?  To me, atonement theory just reeks of reverse engineering and damage control.  But that's just me.

Crystal: You say, "I do think that Jesus' execution was pretty inevitable."

Remember that Achilles' death is inevitable if he returns to the war.

According to his goddess/mother, he could return home and live a long life, or he could return to fight in the war and die.

He chose to return to fight in the war.

He had a choice. He freely chose to return to fight in the war.

By making this choice, he became a hero. His death was heroic.

Flash forward to the anonymous author of the Gospel According to Mark.

In this gospel, the author deliberately portrays Jesus as predicting his own death in Jerusalem three times. Those predictions are most likely non-historical embellishments added by the author.

Drawinf from various sources, the author fashioned a hero story.

Nevertheless, the historical Jesus was probably heroic. Focus on that. That's the admirable part.

For a relevant study, see Dennis R. MacDonald's book THE HOMERIC EPICS AND THE GOSPEL OF MARK (Yale University Press, 2000).

Thanks, Thomas - I'll look for that book.  I do think Jesus was heroic.  It's the idea that his murder was planned by God as some kind of sacrifice that I find hard to believe.

That "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" is part of the very first statement of the Gospel that we possess; it was what was handed on to St. Paul within a few years of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The NT itself offers various attempts at understanding this statement, and there have been many more since. As has been evident in the several threads devoted to the question on this blog, many people were taught a version of the Atonement that holds that God himself was so bound by some necessity that he required the bloody punishment and death of his innocent Son before he could forgive the sins of the human race. I agree with those who think that this view is immoral, but I also believe that it is a travesty of the traditional doctine. As is the idea that "Jesus was plan B." 

It is, of course, possible simply to ignore the NT texts that gave rise to the questions that need to be addressed in any theology of Christ's saving work.  Everyone knows H. Richard Niebuhr's jibe that "“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” For those for whom the terms of that sentence themselves are well-nigh incomprehensible, an English biblical scholar’s spoof may strike closer to home:  “Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to give a course of lecture-sermons on the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, and then becomes the victim of an unfortunate miscarriage of justice" (T. W. Manson).” 

I am so glad that Robert Imbelli referenced "The Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker. I continue to find that a text sucha a helpful one along with Rahner's "On the Theology of Death" in all discussions of how the death of Jesus is "redemptive." 

Fr. K,

But isn't the amazing thing about Jesus not that he died but that he was resurrected? I don't understand so much.  Why is God angry at us - are we not what he made us, didn't he say we were good?   How does killing Jesus save us from our sins or from God's judgement - aren't we still held responsible for what we do here after we're dead?

Crystal:  For St. Paul it was equally amazing that Christ was willing to die for us: "At the appointed time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for us godless men. It is rare that anyone should lay down his life for a just man, though it is barely possible that for a good man someone may have the courage to die. It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:6-8). 

It is part of the founding documents of the Christian faith that Christ's death was not simply a savage injustice perpetrated by others, but that his own love turned an execution into a self-surrender, self-sacrifice. 

God's anger or wrath, as other emotions attributed to him, is not to be understood anthropomorphically.  In any case, no NT text attributes to God punishing anger towards Jesus. The consistent motivation for the incarnation and for the atonement is God's love for us sinners. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (Jn 3:16-17). "God's love was revealed in our midst in this way: he sent his only Son to the world that we might have life through him. Love, then, consists in this: not that we have loved God but that he has loved us and has sent his Son as an offering for our sins" (1 Jn 4:9-10).

Yes, God created us good, but something seems to have happened.  And I don't think that anyone has ever claimed that Christ's saving us from sin means that we cannot sin.

Thanks.  A lot to think about.

 "the way that Jesus chooses is the way of the Cross."  This seems to shrink the significance of all that Jesus taught and did to just the event of his death. 

I'm coming late to this discussion, but isn't it all one teaching? What Jesus taught and did, his way of being, his attitude towards others around him, his lack of defensiveness, his vulnerability, his putting no barriers and no distance to protect himself from others, all found their logical conclusion in the crucifixion. The rest is not insignificant: it's part of the same narrative, a single narrative of love acted out.

It's funny to think of Jesus as God's "plan B"!  As in:

"I'll make those creatures, give them free reign to do as they wish, and if they seriously screw things up, as a last resort I can always incarnate myself and go among them to show them by my example how one goes about fixing the human mess".


"I'll create them free. It's much more fun to have friends who are with Me because they choose to, not because they're designed that way. And if (or rather, when) they turn away from me, I'll use my powers and pop up among them, right in their midst. I'll woo them until they give in. Let's see how long they can resist my love."

When I think about the gospel stories of Jesus' actions and preaching, I wouldn't want to say he could have just as well fast-forwarded to his death and skipped those years.  I don't think it is all one teaching exactly - I mean he wasn't totally consistant always, he did and said some surprising things.  I don't understand why many Christians care more about his death than about any other feature of his life/afterlife.  Love can be shown just as well by living for others as by dying for them - sometimes maybe that takes more courage.


I think it cannot be true that the Father willed the horrendous death of his Son, although I can't say I know a great deal about how things work at that level.

If God created a universe of beauty and splendor, it is also one of unimaginable violence and destruction at every scale from the subatomic to the intergalactic. Unlike some fallen-world advocates, I can't blame forces that have been in play for thirteen billion years on the sins of a creature that struggled onto the scene in the last million years. No, the disruptiveness was baked in from the beginning to allow for continual remaking and renewal without the need for outside intervention or constant tinkering. Any minor god, I suppose, might have made a little world with this thing here and that thing there, as neat and as changeless as your great-grandmother's parlor. But the originator of the universe we actually live in found a way to set it in motion and let it create itself, and even more remarkable, without a plan or purpose, but also neither at random nor determined. Stephen Jay Gould used to say that if we could run the world over from the beginning, or just from the beginning of life on earth, we would never get the same result twice. Everything that exists today is an extreme long shot.

Along with asteroid strikes, earthquakes, hurricanes, disease, famine, and other destructive forces, the world has thrown up human beings. And the creator says, as he always has said, Okay now, that's interesting. Let's see what happens. He might be charged with negligence, I suppose, for not acting to curb our worst excesses. But he's evidently decided to honor the small measure of intelligence and free will we boast of, just as he has always honored the tumbling freedom of the non-human world. And he is, after all, almighty God. If he always intended to send his Son into the world he had made and loves, why would he allow himself to be daunted and deterred by the likes of us?


Claire wrote:

"all found their logical conclusion in the crucifixion. The rest is not insignificant: it's part of the same narrative, a single narrative of love acted out."

Claire, I agree with much of this reflection, but I think one needs to press it further. Perhaps by expanding your "logical" to "theo-logical" as suggested by John 19:30 – "it is consummated." The Cross not only was continuous with the life of teaching, works of mercy, but "recapitulated" it, brought it to a new eucharistic level: "my body for you," revealing Jesus to be more than "prophet," but "Son." Hence the "re-birth" of symbols with which the New Testament abounds: new Adam, new covenant, new creation. All pointing to the salvific newness of the person of Jesus Christ, made fully manifest in his paschal mystery.

I am under the impression that the revelation of Jesus as Son (as opposed to mere prophet) comes from the resurrection rather than from the crucifixion proper. It's the resurrection that signals the re-birth. So I am not quite sure what you mean. I suppose that the crucifixion reveals that Jesus is serious about love, that he truly is ready to lay his life down for us.  Otherwise we would not know for sure and might worry that it's mere words. The crucifixion is the proof that his love is boundless. He loves us as much as himself.

God dying for God' creatures, what a paradox! When man does the same and is willing to die for things he made, we say that he is worshipping idols. When God dies for God's creatures, isn't that a little bit, paradoxically, as if God was worshipping Man?




Maybe Jesus came to demonstrate that life is eternal, that we will all resuurect to glorified bodies as hinted at on Tabor. Perhaps He came to overcome our belief in death and to show how to build the kingdom of God here on earth by creating communities of mutual respect and love, and service to neighbor (as James makes clear, and the t[ractice of early Christians exemplified).


And maybe Jesus suffered because he freely chose to unite fully with humanity, which suffers from the sins each of us commits, and much of hmanity suffers gieviously from the sins committed against them. Perhaps God did not require Jesus' bloody sacrifice, as hinted by God's putting a stop to pagan Abrahma's false notion of God (God requires human scarifice) and replacing that false notion with a truer notion of a merciful God. Perhaps the whole point of Christ's mission really is the Resurrection, not the Crucifixion. Perhaps His resurrection did not require a torturous death, but Jesus chose to suffer the full consequences of sin, joining with the many, many innocent humans who suffer the consequences of sin. "Take this cup from me" can refer to Christ's own decision to suffer, not God the Father's will that He do so.


John, that reading of Genesis 22 strikes me as being, to put it mildly, a stretch.

America Magazine had a blog post last year that I really liked that used the analogy of the Hunger Games to try and explain why Jesus died; how you have to be in the arena to end its evil.

I thought it was a great blog post.

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