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Papal preacher concludes Lenten sermons on Christ’s ‘I am’ statements—after questioning whether Jesus said them

March 25, 2024

Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, the preacher of the papal household since 1980, reflected on Christ’s words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” on March 22, in his fifth and final Lenten sermon to Pope Francis and the Roman Curia.

During the sermon (Italian text), the 89-year-old Capuchin Franciscan friar—a cardinal since 2021—preached on discernment and discipleship.

The overarching theme of Cardinal Cantalamessa’s 2024 Lenten sermons was “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). In each Friday sermon, the prelate preached on a different “I am” statement made by Christ. His first sermon was devoted to “I am the bread of life”; his second, to “I am the light of the world”; his third, to “I am the Good Shepherd”; his fourth, to “I am the bread of life.”

At the beginning of his second sermon, Cardinal Cantalamessa made the claim that the “I am” statements of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel, while true in one sense, are “not of the historical Jesus.” Thus, the prelate professed his conviction that Christ really is “the way, the truth, and the life,” even as he questioned whether “the sentence was in fact historically pronounced by the earthly Jesus,” before he stated plainly that the “I am” statements are “not of the historical Jesus”:

In these Lenten sermons, we have proposed to meditate on the great “I Am” (Ego eimi) pronounced by Jesus in the Gospel of John. However, there is a question that arises regarding them: were they really pronounced by Jesus, or are they due to the later reflection of the Evangelist, like many parts of the Fourth Gospel? The answer that practically all exegetes today would give to this question is the second one.

I am convinced, however, that these statements are “of Jesus” and I will try to explain why. There is a historical truth and a truth that we can call real, or ontological. Let us take Jesus’ affirmation: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). If, due to some unlikely new discovery, we would come to know that the sentence was in fact historically pronounced by the earthly Jesus, this would not prove it is true (the person who pronounced it could be deceiving himself!).

What makes it “true” is that—in reality and beyond any historical contingency—he is the way, the truth, and the life ...The great words that we will meditate on are therefore of Jesus: not of the historical Jesus, but of Jesus who, as he promised to the disciples (Jn 16:12-15), speaks to us with the authority of the Risen One, through his Spirit.

[In contrast, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in a passage cited by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 126), taught that “Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation” (Dei Verbum, n. 19).]

Cardinal Cantalamessa customarily preaches sermons to the Pope and members of the Roman Curia on Fridays during Advent and Lent, as well as the Good Friday homily in St. Peter’s Basilica. An exception was made for the first Lenten sermon of 2020, when Father Marko Ivan Rupnik took Cantalamessa’s place—despite Rupnik’s canonical conviction, two months earlier, of the offense of absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin.


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