Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Homily at Holy Christ Shrine

by Pope Saint John Paul II


Given by Pope John Paul II on February 6, 1996 during his Pastoral Visit to Guatemala.

Publisher & Date

Vatican, February 6, 1996

1. "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (Mk 15:39).

On one occasion in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked the disciples: "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" (Mt 16:13). They gave him various answers. Lastly Simon Peter answered: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16).

As Bishop of Rome and Successor of St. Peter, I am pleased to repeat the same words at this celebration. Almost 2,000 years have passed since the time when Peter uttered them. Christ, the Son of the living God made man, proclaimed the Gospel, afterwards he was crucified for the sins of the world and, after being laid in the sepulchre, he rose on the third day. Your Shrine of the Holy Christ of Esquipulas is dedicated to this mystery of the Redemption.

The Gospel according to St. Mark, which we have heard, reminds us of Christ's agony on the Cross. We hear the moving words: "Eloi, Eloi, lame sabachthani?" which mean: "'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?'. ... And Jesus, uttering a loud cry, breathed his last" (Mk 15:34, 37). At that precise moment, at the very instant of the death of the Son of man, the Roman centurion, that is to say, a pagan, made a profession of extraordinary faith: "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (Mk 15:39). The Evangelist adds that the centurion spoke these words on seeing how Jesus died.

Dear brothers and sisters, I come as a pilgrim to your Shrine of Esquipulas, at the same time renewing Peter's confession and that of the centurion. Peter says: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God", and the centurion affirms: "Truly this man was the Son of God". It seems as if this second confession, from the mouth of a pagan, is an announcement of the conversion of many peoples outside Israel to that faith which Peter was the first to confess. Because of that faith, we are meeting here in the Shrine of Christ's Passion.

Ask for gifts of pardon and reconciliation

How significant it is that the Latin American nations surround Christ's Passion with such deep veneration and so much love! Your faith and your Christian life are focused on this mystery.

I affectionately greet Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruno and thank him for his words of introduction to this celebration. At the same time I cordially greet the Cardinals, Bishops, first of all, the Bishops of Guatemala and the other Bishops of Central America, as well as the Benedictine monks, the priests and religious. I am happy to meet all of you faithful of Guatemala and of the neighboring countries, who profess such great devotion to the Christ of Esquipulas and are participating in the Mass today.

2. This "most perfect and complete" image of Christ on the Cross, "the Lord of Mercy", as he is called here, has been venerated for almost four centuries. You and other pilgrims from Mexico and the neighboring republics of Central America prostrate yourselves before the Black Christ of Esquipulas, and in your personal encounter with the Redeemer, you ask for the gifts of pardon, reconciliation and peace. This splendid white basilica, now cared for by Benedictine monks, has preserved the image formerly venerated in a simple hermitage and then, for more than 200 years, in the parish church of Santiago. All that shows the spread of this devotion down the centuries.

And it was not slow to bear fruit. From here is born a new life of faith in Christ the servant who suffered for our salvation but rose again, and now lives and intercedes on our behalf. He is the Teacher, he is "the Way, and the Truth, and the Life" (Jn 14:6). United with him, dead to sin and called to a new life men are fulfilled as persons and children of God and respond to the call to social harmony firmly based on justice, brotherhood and peace. Reconciliation with God, reconciliation between the children of God: the message of the Christ of Esquipulas is alive and enduring.

In this same basilica, the Presidents of Central America signed the Esquipulas Agreement in 1986, the origin of the peace process in the area, which has yielded positive results in El Salvador and Nicaragua. I sincerely hope that in the near future Guatemala will conclude a definitive peace agreement. Furthermore, the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) has its headquarters here and promotes the unity of the isthmus together with the other organizations of the "System of Central American Integration" (SICA).

3. The truth about Christ, the Suffering Servant, is deeply rooted in the Old Testament. Today's first reading from the Prophet Isaiah highlights this. It is well known that the Prophet is sometimes called "the Evangelist of the Old Testament". The dose relationship between the events of Christ's Passion and what the Prophet announced many centuries before the events of the Lord's Passion is surprising. It is enough to reflect, for example, on the words we heard earlier: "I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting" (Is 50:6). Perhaps in no other text has what happened during Christ's Passion been so eloquently expressed, starting with his arrest and imprisonment, until his death on the Cross: Christ was defenseless, his enemies could spit in his face and strike him with impunity. He was led away to the pillar of scourging and cruelly beaten, before his crucifixion, he suffered the insults of all those who had scourged him, and would continue to do so during the crucifixion on Golgotha. According to Isaiah's prophetic vision Christ is truly the suffering Servant of the Lord: those who fear the Lord, heed his Servant's voice (cf. Is 50:1 0).

We are witnessing the trial of the innocent Christ. Men judge him, they condemn him to be scourged, crown him with thorns, and finally put him to death; and the Son of man dies on Golgotha. In the midst of all this Isaiah puts the following words on the lips of the Lord's Servant: "The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame. He is near who upholds my right.... See the Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?" (Is 50:7- 9). Wherever in the world we meet at the foot of an image of the suffering Christ, we become aware of this mystery of man's judgment on God, expressed in Jesus' tortured body. Undoubtedly man's judgment on the Son of God also brings with it another judgment, that is, God's judgment on humanity, on each person, on sinful humanity. He who died on the Cross was the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Justice and mercy meet in his redemptive death.

Justice and mercy meet in Christ's death

4. "You are my Son. Today I have begotten you" (Heb 5:5).

The Father speaks these words eternally, and the Word, the Son of the same nature as the Father, is eternally begotten. Therefore, at this moment, at the moment of the Passion and Death on Golgotha, at the moment of the Crucifixion, the Father's words are spoken with a special depth, the depth of love, which corresponds to the depth of the suffering, the sacrifice and the redemptive death. Christ accepts his eternal sonship from the Father and in it offers himself to the Father as an ineffable gift for the sins of the whole world, a gift that takes away sins with the blood of the spotless Lamb, a gift that sanctifies, that is, one which raises up to God all that had fallen. Precisely for this reason, at the very moment of the sacrifice of the Cross, the Father reveals Christ's priesthood to the world: "You are a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek" (Heb 5:6). Christ is the one priest of the new and eternal Covenant. He is the priest of his own sacrifice, which he offers on the Cross by accepting death for the sins of all humanity. His bloody sacrifice will endure, in an unbloody manner, throughout history. It is carried out by the whole Church in the offering of the Body and Blood of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine, the sacrament of the Eucharist instituted in the Upper Room.

5. Today's liturgy tells us all this about Christ in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, about this same Christ whom you venerate here when you come on pilgrimage to Esquipulas, your national shrine. With particular intensity you profess the truth about Christ tortured, about Christ Redeemer of the world, about Christ the one eternal Priest of the new Covenant, in this place together with and in the name of the whole universal Church. Here the "mysterium" of the suffering Servant of the Lord has been entrusted, in a certain way, to your particular devotion. What the Letter to the Hebrews says of Christ has been turned, as it were into your own particular charism: "In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to God, who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and when perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (Heb 5:7-9).

He is the Christ obedient unto death, to death on the Cross. He implored the Father in Gethsemane: "Father, if it is your will, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done" (Lk 22:42). And he was heard, as the Letter to the Hebrews says. He was heard because of his reverence. As Son he received from the Father the grace of obedience by which he could accept all that his persecutors had prepared for him. And "all" means: his arrest in Gethsemane, his unjust trial, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, his journey to Calvary, the crucifixion, and finally that terrible agony until his last breath. He accomplished everything. This is attested by the last words he uttered as he died: "It is finished" (Jn 19:30). He added: "Father into your hands I commit my spirit!" (Lk 23:46). In this way, at the price of his Passion and Death on the Cross he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

Adore the Cross, sign of our salvation

6. This is the moving depth of the Gospel, of the New Testament: God, who wants man to walk on the way of his commandments. He wants us to obey him who for our sake was obedient unto death and who gave himself up for our salvation. God wants us to understand clearly the eloquence of this gift and to accept it in the deepest obedience of faith. Thus he wants us to understand how this sacrificial love must be requited with love, and to find in it the spiritual strength to shape our life and to bear all the crosses which we experience on our way.

"Hail O Cross! Hail, O Cross of Christ!". A tradition says that with these words the Apostle Andrew, Peter's brother accepted the passion that he suffered at the end of his life. The Shrine of Esquipulas invites us to adore Christ's Cross as a sign of our salvation, in which man, united to Christ, wins the victory over sin, over Satan and death, to share with him the eternal Father's love.

Hail, O Cross! Amen.

At the end of Mass, before imparting his Blessing, the Pope added the following words.

Dear brothers and sisters, thank you for your presence and witness to our faith. We have prayed together for peace and reconciliation in the whole world especially in Guatemala. I know that there are good prospects of peace because the people desire peace. I had hoped to find a warm climate. You have put the warmth in this celebration. Thank you very much!

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