Just before the American presidential election, Fr Frank Pavone, an American celebrity priest, released two scandalous videos. Fr Pavone co-founded and directs Priests for Life, a group dedicated to furthering pro-life causes, mainly through political action, and often by indiscriminately deploying graphic images of aborted fetuses.
In the recent videos, Fr Pavone places a naked, dead, human fetus on a consecrated altar and delivers a long political message supporting Donald Trump. Pavone has been stingingly rebuked by his bishop, both for callously exploiting a dead child as a political prop, and for desecrating an altar. An investigation is underway.
In the wake of this priest’s disgraceful behaviour, a protestant friend asked me:
I understand why using a human body to make a point is wrong. Is there any resource to understand why depictions of Christ on the cross (indistinguishable from a bodily state of death) is appropriate? Full disclosure: I am Protestant and the churches I’m most familiar with almost never have the body of Christ depicted on crosses. This is even more confusing to me because we are made in the likeness of God- part of the reasoning behind why using a baby’s body to make a point is not dignified or acceptable. I think that depictions of Christ’s suffering aren’t wrong in general, but alongside of or in the centre of worship it sometimes makes me feel worried. Is this a topic you would tackle or have resources to journey through?
There is a lot I could say about the way that dead child was treated. I’ll let Mother Church speak, because her words are always more measured and fruitful than mine:
CCC. 2300 The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honours the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.
So let’s talk about that crucifix. Naturally, all Christians understand that death is not to be feared or shied away from, because it is the door to eternal life. But … why can’t we Catholics just focus on the “life” part? Isn’t it kind of ghoulish to have all those scenes of execution hanging around? It seems in bad taste at best, and maybe grotesquely backward at worst, as if we’re missing the point – fixating on the problem rather than the happy ending.
No. The crucifix, corpus and all, gives our Faith and our entire lives meaning. We believe that Christ rose from the dead and that we will, too, someday; but we also understand that, just as Christ suffered on earth, so do we suffer now. And this is why we display so many crucifixes, and not just bare crosses: because we are still in the throes of that suffering. We need the crucifix to remind us that Christ is with us in our struggle. There is no pain, no sorrow, no failure, no fear, no doubt, no grief, no darkness that He did not personally feel and carry and endure.
And we need the crucifix to remind us that all of these things have already been redeemed, once and for all, by the one perfect sacrifice that came about when he willingly suffered and died to buy us back from death. The crucifix is both a reminder that Jesus shares what we suffer, and that Jesus has already taken on all the weight of the suffering we cause.
When a priest has the immense privilege of saying Mass, Christ actually re-offers Himself, body, blood, soul, and divinity, to the Father. He does not suffer again, and He does not die again; but He does offer Himself again, as a living sacrifice, through the consecrated hands of the priest, because He never tires of giving Himself over for us, His beloved.
And all of this happens on the altar, which is no mere table or stage set or piece of furniture. It recalls both the table of the Last Supper, where Christ instituted the Eucharist, and the altar on which Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, in a prefiguring of the sacrifice that God the Father would make of His own son.
Heaven and earth converge on that altar.
And this is why the actions of Father Pavone were so appalling. He, as a priest, ought to know better than anyone else that there is nothing that one can add to the sacrifice that takes place on that altar, where the actual body of actual God actually lies. The sacred altar is not the place for jokes, for ad libbing, for politics, or for anything besides the reason it was made: to be a place where God comes down from Heaven.
On that consecrated altar, not only do we join Christ in re-offering the sacrifice of Calvary to the Father, but we take his now-living body into our bodies.
And here’s the crux of it: It really is all about bodies, and how we treat them; the issue of Fr Pavone showing disrespect to the dead baby, and the issue of Fr Pavone showing disrespect to the altar? They are the same issue. You cannot separate them. You cannot take the crucifix away if you want to live. It was no accident that Jesus died such a public death, up on a high hill where everyone could see His shame, His suffering, and His bloody death. Recall how Moses cured the Israelites in the desert by forcing them to look up on the snake mounted on a cross. They had to look in order to be healed. And so must we look at a crucifix if we want to be healed.
If we were unwilling to face, to contemplate, to remember, to glory in the crucifixion, it would be like accepting a gift with thanks, but refusing to look inside. It would be like going to a doctor, but refusing to show him our flesh. It would be like joining in marriage but refusing to come to bed. You cannot refuse the body if you want life. We must look. We must show. For our own sakes, we must not turn away.
The Church teaches us to be careful with how we treat dead bodies, but also to be careful with how we treat living bodies – our own bodies, the bodies of others, and most of all the body of Our Lord. We believe that the consecrated Host is literally the living body of our living God. Before He died, He told us to remember Him, including the sacrifice He made for us. And so we honour that Ever-living God by obeying.
This is why we display crucifixes so prominently in our Churches: Because He told us to. He wanted us to know what He has done and will do for us, with his actual body. On the cross, His poor bleeding arms reached out east and west, stretching out to bring salvation to the generations who came before Christ and to all the generations yet unborn. And the crucifix also extends vertically, as He hung upright, bridging the gap between God and man.
It’s not just an empty cross. It’s occupied Right in the middle of that intersection of worlds is the body, the body, that undeniably real human body of the Beloved Son, with the fountain of mercy pouring forth from His pierced heart.
To my protestant friend: You say that depictions of Christ’s suffering in the centre of worship makes you feel worried. It should. It should shake you to the core.