Preaching in the Heart of Gotham

Each Good Friday, Father George W. Rutler preaches for three hours on the Seven Last Words of Jesus, drawing thousands to his midtown Manhattan church to hear the Gospel applied to the situation of their lives.


Father Rutler (EWTN photo)

To prepare our hearts for Holy Week, Fathers for Good spoke to Father Rutler, who is host of a program on EWTN and pastor of Our Saviour Church.

Fathers for Good: How many years have you been preaching on the Seven Last Words? What will be your theme this year?

Father Rutler: If one counts the years I was an ordained Anglican, I have been preaching on the Last Words for nearly 40 years. This will be my 26th time preaching the Passion as a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. After a fire destroyed St. Agnes Church when I was on the staff there, I preached the Three Hours for half a dozen years in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. As they say, “Only in New York.”

I used to have a different “theme” for each year and in some sense I still do, since the meditations reflect on the Passion in the light of present challenges in culture, but the abiding theme is always the same: Christ crucified. In our present-day society the Church is being crucified, and that is what I would consider.

FFG: What do you hope your listeners take away from your three hours of preaching?

Father Rutler: The most important result of the three hours is to help people to go to confession. Preaching is the easy part. The real work is done by the priests who hear confessions during those three hours and the following Good Friday Liturgy. Just today, one priest told me that last year in our church, as I was preaching, he heard confessions for five and one half hours non-stop. And two other confessors were at work at the same time.

The cross is “medicina mundi” -- the medicine of the world. In a culture that flees from crosses and places crosses on others, the Good News is the saving power of Christ’s sacrifice. And I hope it stimulates a renewed reverence for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

FFG: You preach in the heart of Manhattan, this year in the midst of an economic crisis that many blame on Wall Street greed. Is there a message about our current “Black Friday” economy and the Good Friday “economy of salvation”?

Father Rutler: There always are crises of one sort or another. The present economic crisis will pass, and if greed is to blame in part for it, it is also the case that corrupt politicians have paved the way for it, and that demagogues are exploiting it to increase the power of human government, at the expense of the prophetic voice of the Church.

The Good Friday message to all such people is what Christ told Pilate: “You would have no power over me were it not given you from above.” The world’s worst economic crisis was when Judas, like so many of our universities and other institutions today, betrayed Christ for money and control.

FFG: Is there a Scripture passage or theme that you would recommend for us to keep in mind?

Father Rutler: The abiding theme throughout the Passion is the words of Jesus that led to his death sentence: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58).

He proclaims his divinity. The crucifixion is an inexplicable tragedy only to those who do not accept that Christ is the Living Word of God. Every generation asks Jesus, “What are you making of yourself?” (John 8:53).

Of course that is the wrong question, because Christ, the Eternal Son, never made himself into anything. He is the eternal I AM and needs no adjectives. We do. What we are depends not on what Christ makes of himself but what we make of him.

But he is the I AM, no matter what we think or do. On Good Friday, as the Resurrection beckons, we should be overwhelmed by what Christ does for us, and shamed by the superficiality of our lives and the banality of our culture.

We are not worthy of Christ. But that is the whole point: his death for us is an act of mercy for what we have done wrong and not a reward for anything we have done right.