On Death, and Death’s Healing

This evening in St. Peter’s Basilica, during a Holy Saturday liturgy (the Easter Vigil Mass), Pope Benedict XVI gave a profound homily in which he spoke of “the true cure for death.” What is it? It involves being clothed in “robes of glory.” How? In baptism…

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome


A Profound Easter Vigil Sermon

pope with candles(pope with candles) ROME, Italy, Saturday, April 3, 2010 — Tonight at 9 p.m. in St. Peter’s Basilica, I attended the Holy Saturday evening liturgy which celebrates the Vigil of Easter Sunday — the Vigil of the Resurrection.

The ceremony is special because it begins in darkness, and then, from a single candle, lights up, as the faithful light candles, one from another, throughout the basilica.

(Photo of Pope Benedict entering St. Peter’s carrying the Easter candle, by Albert Cesare. Cesare, 22, a young American photographer, has been accredited by the Vatican Press Office during this Holy Week. This is the first photo of the Vatican he has ever published.)

Unfortunately, when that moving ceremony occurred, I was outside the basilica, in the cold.

With my press pass, I could have been inside.

But the Vatican, evidently, issued too many tickets for this Mass…

As a result, the members of my little group of Holy Week pilgrims (all of whom had valid tickets to enter the Basilica), after standing for more than an hour in a long line which snaked entirely around St. Peter’s Square, were halted by the Vatican police just as they were passing through the final control point.

They, and hundreds of others behind them, were not allowed to proceed into the basilica to attend the Vigil Mass.

In essence, they were literally just a minute too late to get in.

I was inside St. Peter’s at the time, just next to the main altar along with another of our pilgrims, an 88-year-old woman who has lost a foot to cancer and so has to move about in a wheel chair. (Those in wheel chairs have a special entrance, with an elevator, into St. Peter’s.)

I was planning to go back to meet the others at the front entrance, then go inside with them, when my cell phone rang. I learned suddenly, to my surprise, that my group was blocked outside. I had to get to them.

By this time, the basilica had been entirely sealed off for the Pope’s arrival, so I could not exit through the front doors, though I tried. I had to go around the edge of basilica, through a number of check points, and then out the back door of St. Peter’s and all around the outside of the basilica, to reach my companions.

I found them sitting in the open air, in the first section of seats in the piazza near the Bronze Doors. I sought out several officials, trying to have the decision rescinded, to no avail.

Though we were in Rome, we were unable to enter the basilica tonight, and had to sit in the piazza and watch the liturgy on one of the four large video screens in the square.

(Benedict baptizes a young woman on Holy Saturday using a shell to pour water over her head; photo by Albert Cesare)

Several of the women had not brought coats (I had assured everyone that we would be sitting inside). It was not truly cold, but neither was it warm, and there was often a brisk night wind, so as the minutes turned into hours, from 9 p.m. until after midnight, many of the pilgrims began to shiver. I gave my coat to one of the women, and began to shiver too.

But we stayed.

Perhaps there was something positive in the experience, after all. Because we were right in front of the video screen, we could see the Pope even more clearly than those in the basilica — better, even, than those in the very first rows.

And so I was able to watch Benedict’s face throughout the liturgy, and to observe him as he delivered a profound homily on death and eternal life — appropriate for the Vigil Mass of the Resurrection.

pope's smileI also could watch him as he baptized six people, including a young boy.

And I saw that, in contrast to recent days, when he has not smiled at all, he smiled tonight, when those who were baptized brought gifts to the altar.

(Photo of Pope Benedict smiling this evening, by Albert Cesare)

In this sense, I think it is true to say that tonight’s lengthy Easter Vigil liturgy was punctuated by moments of evident joy for the embattled Pope.


“Indeed, the cure for death does exist”

The Easter Vigil Mass is a time when catechumens are baptized, that is, a time when those who have studied and come to believe in the doctrines of the Church are baptized into the Church.

The Pope baptized six people this evening.

Baptism, the Pope said in his homily, is the true medicine of eternal life. Modern science seeks the key to endless life, but the only way to true immortality is through Christ, who died and rose again, and in so doing, made it possible for man to be made new again.

In the context of the recent attacks on him, and on the Church in general as an institution which has covered up grave crimes of sexual abuse, this homily refers directly to such sins — sexual sins like “fornication” and “impurity” — as deadly, calling them “garments of death.”

Benedict said: “Paul designates them [the sins that must be renounced by Christians] thus: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like” (Gal 5:19ff.). These are the garments that we remove: the garments of death.”

I read this as a clear reference to the current crisis, and a call to all Christians, not just those newly baptized tonight, to reject these actions and behaviors — to purify the Church from acts which are abusive, wrong, and death-bringing.

On the other hand, the actions and behaviors which are to mark and characterize the lives of Christians are these: “Paul, ” he said, “calls these new ‘garments’ ‘fruits of the spirit,’ and he describes them as follows: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Gal 5:22).”

The text also sets forth very clearly one of the Pope’s oft-repeated themes: that science alone cannot bring man the true happiness we all seek. Though he does not deny the benefits science can bring, he does deny that science, without a relationship to faith in Christ, can bring final happiness, even if ways are discovered to prolong human life for many centuries.

Benedict’s most profound reflections came in these words: “Endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation. The true cure for death must be different. It cannot lead simply to an indefinite prolongation of this current life. It would have to transform our lives from within. It would need to create a new life within us, truly fit for eternity.”

Here is the complete text of tonight’s homily.


Homily for the Easter Vigil on the Night of April 3, 2010, in Saint Peter’s Basilica

by Benedict XVI

Dear brothers and sisters,

An ancient Jewish legend from the apocryphal book “The life of Adam and Eve” recounts that, in his final illness, Adam sent his son Seth together with Eve into the region of Paradise to fetch the oil of mercy, so that he could be anointed with it and healed.

The two of them went in search of the tree of life, and after much praying and weeping on their part, the Archangel Michael appeared to them, and told them they would not obtain the oil of the tree of mercy and that Adam would have to die.

Subsequently, Christian readers added a word of consolation to the Archangel’s message, to the effect that after 5,500 years the loving King, Christ, would come, the Son of God who would anoint all those who believe in him with the oil of his mercy.

“The oil of mercy from eternity to eternity will be given to those who are reborn of water and the Holy Spirit. Then the Son of God, Christ, abounding in love, will descend into the depths of the earth and will lead your father into Paradise, to the tree of mercy.”

This legend lays bare the whole of humanity’s anguish at the destiny of illness, pain and death that has been imposed upon us. Man’s resistance to death becomes evident: somewhere – people have constantly thought – there must be some cure for death. Sooner or later it should be possible to find the remedy not only for this or that illness, but for our ultimate destiny – for death itself. Surely the medicine of immortality must exist.

Today too, the search for a source of healing continues. Modern medical science strives, if not exactly to exclude death, at least to eliminate as many as possible of its causes, to postpone it further and further, to prolong life more and more.

But let us reflect for a moment: what would it really be like if we were to succeed, perhaps not in excluding death totally, but in postponing it indefinitely, in reaching an age of several hundred years? Would that be a good thing? Humanity would become extraordinarily old, there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation.

The true cure for death must be different. It cannot lead simply to an indefinite prolongation of this current life. It would have to transform our lives from within. It would need to create a new life within us, truly fit for eternity: it would need to transform us in such a way as not to come to an end with death, but only then to begin in fullness.

What is new and exciting in the Christian message, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, was and is that we are told: yes indeed, this cure for death, this true medicine of immortality, does exist. It has been found. It is within our reach.

In baptism, this medicine is given to us.

A new life begins in us, a life that matures in faith and is not extinguished by the death of the old life, but is only then fully revealed.

To this some, perhaps many, will respond: I certainly hear the message, but I lack faith. And even those who want to believe will ask: but is it really so? How are we to picture it to ourselves? How does this transformation of the old life come about, so as to give birth to the new life that knows no death?

Once again, an ancient Jewish text can help us form an idea of the mysterious process that begins in us at baptism. There it is recounted how the patriarch Enoch was taken up to the throne of God. But he was filled with fear in the presence of the glorious angelic powers, and in his human weakness he could not contemplate the face of God.

“Then God said to Michael,” to quote from the book of Enoch, “‘Take Enoch and remove his earthly clothing. Anoint him with sweet oil and vest him in the robes of glory!’ And Michael took off my garments, anointed me with sweet oil, and this oil was more than a radiant light … its splendour was like the rays of the sun. When I looked at myself, I saw that I was like one of the glorious beings” (Ph. Rech, Inbild des Kosmos, II 524).

Precisely this – being reclothed in the new garment of God – is what happens in baptism, so the Christian faith tells us. To be sure, this changing of garments is something that continues for the whole of life.

What happens in baptism is the beginning of a process that embraces the whole of our life – it makes us fit for eternity, in such a way that, robed in the garment of light of Jesus Christ, we can appear before the face of God and live with him for ever.

In the rite of baptism there are two elements in which this event is expressed and made visible in a way that demands commitment for the rest of our lives.

There is first of all the rite of renunciation and the promises. In the early Church, the one to be baptized turned towards the west, the symbol of darkness, sunset, death and hence the dominion of sin. The one to be baptized turned in that direction and pronounced a threefold “no”: to the devil, to his pomp and to sin. The strange word “pomp”, that is to say the devil’s glamour, referred to the splendour of the ancient cult of the gods and of the ancient theatre, in which it was considered entertaining to watch people being torn limb from limb by wild beasts. What was being renounced was a type of culture that ensnared man in the adoration of power, in the world of greed, in lies, in cruelty. It was an act of liberation from the imposition of a form of life that was presented as pleasure and yet hastened the destruction of all that was best in man.

This renunciation – albeit in less dramatic form – remains an essential part of baptism today. We remove the “old garments”, which we cannot wear in God’s presence. Or better put: we begin to remove them.

This renunciation is actually a promise in which we hold out our hand to Christ, so that he may guide us and reclothe us. What these “garments” are that we take off, what the promise is that we make, becomes clear when we see in the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Galatians what Paul calls “works of the flesh” – a term that refers precisely to the old garments that we remove.

Paul designates them thus: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like” (Gal 5:19ff.). These are the garments that we remove: the garments of death.

Then, in the practice of the early Church, the one to be baptized turned towards the east – the symbol of light, the symbol of the newly rising sun of history, the symbol of Christ. The candidate for baptism determines the new direction of his life: faith in the Trinitarian God to whom he entrusts himself. Thus it is God who clothes us in the garment of light, the garment of life. Paul calls these new “garments” “fruits of the spirit”, and he describes them as follows: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22).

In the early Church, the candidate for baptism was then truly stripped of his garments. He descended into the baptismal font and was immersed three times – a symbol of death that expresses all the radicality of this removal and change of garments. His former death-bound life the candidate consigns to death with Christ, and he lets himself be drawn up by and with Christ into the new life that transforms him for eternity.

Then, emerging from the waters of baptism the neophytes were clothed in the white garment, the garment of God’s light, and they received the lighted candle as a sign of the new life in the light that God himself had lit within them. They knew that they had received the medicine of immortality, which was fully realized at the moment of receiving holy communion. In this sacrament we receive the body of the risen Lord and we ourselves are drawn into this body, firmly held by the One who has conquered death and who carries us through death.

In the course of the centuries, the symbols were simplified, but the essential content of baptism has remained the same. It is no mere cleansing, still less is it a somewhat complicated initiation into a new association. It is death and resurrection, rebirth to new life.

Indeed, the cure for death does exist. Christ is the tree of life, once more within our reach. If we remain close to him, then we have life. Hence, during this night of resurrection, with all our hearts we shall sing the alleluia, the song of joy that has no need of words. Hence, Paul can say to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil 4:4).

Joy cannot be commanded. It can only be given. The risen Lord gives us joy: true life. We are already held for ever in the love of the One to whom all power in heaven and on earth has been given (cf. Mt 28:18). In this way, confident of being heard, we make our own the Church’s Prayer over the Gifts from the liturgy of this night: Accept the prayers and offerings of your people. With your help may this Easter mystery of our redemption bring to perfection the saving work you have begun in us. Amen.


“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)


Special note: Three years ago, we participated in a concert in Rome (on March 29, 2007) in which a Russian choir and orchestra, flying in from Moscow, performed a new version of The Passion According to St. Matthew composed a few months before by the young Russian Orthodox bishop (now archbishop and “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion Alfeyev).

That moving concert, in which one or two of the exhausted women singers fainted on stage and had to be carried off, was broadcast live worldwide via a Vatican Television Center feed by EWTN.

No DVD or CD was ever made of that concert — until a few days ago. After nearly three years, we have finally produced the DVD and CD of that historic concert, and they aqre now available for sale.

I believe the sound of this music, and the sight of the performance, especially duing Holy Week, when we recall Christ’s Passion, will bring tears to your eyes.

The DVD and CD of this historic concert are now available on at website at the following link: https://insidethevatican.com/products/concerts-dvd-cd.htm

Further Note: We filled all place for our Easter pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome (March 30-April 8). We are now beginning to take preliminary requests for our Fall 2010 pilgrimage, which will include a visit to Assisi and a discussion of the issues mentioned in this email above. If you would like information about this trip, please email us at: [email protected].

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