Characters of the Passion: Pontius Pilate

The individuals we encounter in the Scriptures seem to be characters that God has placed before us so that in them we may recognize every person and situation we may encounter! Isn't it true that we can refer our human experiences to various persons and lessons in the Scriptures for guidance?

For the past few weeks, our topic has been "The Characters of Lent." As we come closer to the liturgical celebration of our Redemption, we now take up "The Characters of the Passion." The first person we will discuss has a particular "eternal" nature for ourselves and for society: Pontius Pilate.

Pilate and Truth

"What is truth?" This statement of Pontius Pilate (John 18:38) is a very sad one indeed. It could have arisen from the religious state of the Roman Empire at the time. The Romans, of course, believed in many pagan gods. As Roman governor of Palestine, Pilate had spent several years among the Jewish people, who claimed belief in one God. "Doubtless, this new experience had influenced his mind, but, like the Roman of his day and like so many people of our own time, he had never taken the pains or the time to go very deeply into the question he was wholly indifferent to religion. One philosopher said this, another said that. Who was to judge between them?" (The Passion of Our Lord, Cardinal Gaetano DeLai, page 98).

Some philosophers, particularly beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing into modern times, have brought these doubts into our own age. Their philosophies would hold that it is impossible for a human person to know objective truth. Sometimes, the rights and respect we should indeed give to the opinions of others, can easily lead to a blurring of the existence of objective truths. Our present Holy Father has addressed this point many times. In fact, his references to the "dictatorship of relativism" have been widely quoted. Shortly before his election, he stated: We are moving toward "a dictatorship of relativism that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure." Again, several months after his election, Pope Benedict said to a group of priests gathered in Aosta, Italy: "The world cannot live without God, the God of Revelation — and not just any god: We see how dangerous a cruel god, an untrue god can be — the God who showed us his face is Jesus Christ."

When we are tempted to doubt the existence of objective truth — truth, which really exists, we should think of two individuals: Pilate and Jesus. Before Pilate, Our Lord proclaimed a mission of truth. In His dialogue with Pilate, Jesus said: "For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice" (John 18:37). The kingdom of Jesus is, as we pray in the Preface for the Mass of Christ the King: "a kingdom of Truth and Life, a kingdom of Holiness and Grace, a kingdom of Justice, Love and Peace." In proclaiming this kingdom throughout His public ministry, Our Lord equated it with truth: "If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32). The great tragedy of Pilate is that Truth Himself was standing before him and yet he failed to recognize Him. Perhaps he allowed the confusion of ideas swirling around him in the society in which he lived to blind him to the existence of the truth? Perhaps, like many of us, he feared recognizing the truth because it would invariably result in consequences for his life? Perhaps he chose to not recognize truth as a "cover" for his moral weakness and lack of courage? The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to tell the story of a man who came to him and told him he was leaving the Church. When the Archbishop asked him why, the man responded that it was because he could no longer accept the truth of the Trinity. The Archbishop responded: "It's not the truth of the Trinity that is your problem but your infidelity to your wife." It is sometimes easier to attempt to deny the truth than to accept its consequences. The same Jesus who said, "I am the truth," also said "I am the way and the life" (John 14:6). If we accept the truth, we must live by the way in order to receive the life. At times, this is a frightening reality for all of us.

Pilate and Ourselves

Pilate was a good Roman. He also, as a Roman governor, had a thorough knowledge of Roman law. One of the basic principles of Roman law, which has come down to us as part of our English and Common law, is the principle that unless guilt is proven, the accused person must be set free. As a Roman and as a governor, Pilate knew Jesus was innocent, yet we recite over and over again, in our Profession of Faith: "He suffered under Pontius Pilate." Pilate condemned an innocent Man. In this false condemnation, Our Lord wished to be our companion and the companion of all those falsely accused down through the ages. In his Address on Good Friday, April 12, 1974, Pope Paul VI placed this scene of the condemnation of Jesus in context for all of us: "The mystery of innocent suffering is one of the most obscure points on the entire horizon of human wisdom; and here it is affirmed in the most flagrant way. But before we uncover something of this problem, there already grows up in us an unrestrained affection for the innocent one who suffers, for Jesus, and for all innocent people — whether they be young or old — who are also suffering, and whose pain we cannot explain. The way of the cross leads us to meet the first person in a sorrowful procession of innocent people who suffer. And this first blameless and suffering person uncovers for us in the end the secret of his passion. It is a sacrifice."

You may have heard of the great Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty. He was one of the victims of the Communist persecution in Hungary after the Second World War. When the Communist authorities arrested him, he had some idea of what was ahead of him: a mock trial, torture and an unjust verdict based on false accusations. While the soldiers arresting him were at the door, he picked up a small holy card showing Jesus on the Cross and he wrote under the image these Latin words: devictus vincit, meaning "once defeated, He now overcomes all." Then he went out to share in Jesus' sufferings and false accusation, knowing he would also share in His victory. Pope John Paul II wrote: "When Jesus Christ himself appeared as a prisoner before Pilate's tribunal and was interrogated by him — did he not answer: ‘For this was I born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth?' It was as if with these words he was once more confirming what he had said earlier: ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.' In the course of so many centuries, of so many generations, from the time of the Apostles on, is it not often Jesus Christ Himself that has made an appearance at the side of people judged for the sake of the truth? And has he not gone to death with people condemned for the sake of the truth? Does he ever cease to be the continuous spokesman and advocate for the person who lives ‘in spirit and truth?' (cf. John 4:23). Just as he does not cease to be it before the Father, he is it also with regard to the history of man" (Redemptor Hominis, 12).

In this topic, I have reflected with you upon some dramatic scenes. However, it is very important to remember that these scenes are played out in your life and in mine, because we are all called to follow Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Since "no slave is greater than his master" (John 13:16), if we admit our ability to know truth, if we recognize it and embrace it when it is presented to us and if we live lives according to that message of truth, we are sure to suffer. In doing so, we are in wonderful company! This is why we read of the great joy with which so many of the early martyrs went to their death, "rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer for the sake of the name" (Acts 5:41). Jesus has paid us a great compliment. He has shared with us His truth. In fact, for most of us He has placed Himself before us, just as He appeared before Pilate. Through weakness, through fear, through human respect, perhaps through a form of the "dictatorship of relativism," Pilate failed, or more likely refused, to recognize Truth. Its recognition would have cost him too much. Let us ask Our Lord to stir up within us the grace of our Confirmation, in which we received the Spirit of courage and fortitude. In this way, we will recognize our marvelous ability to know the truth, to embrace it and "to live lives worthy of the calling with which we have been called" (cf. Ephesians 4:1).

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