1st Lenten Sermon of
"May the Words of the Gospel Wash Our Sins Away"
VATICAN CITY, FEB. 22, 2008.- Here is a translation of the Lenten
delivered today by Capuchin Father Rainero Cantalamessa, preacher of
Pontifical Household, to Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, titled
Began to Preach: The Word of God in the Life of Christ."
This is the first in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The
Word of God
Is Living and Effective."
* * *
In view of the Synod of Bishops next October I thought that I
my Lenten preaching this year to the theme of the word of God. We will
in succession, on the proclamation of the Gospel in the life of Christ,
is, on Jesus as the one “who preaches,” on proclamation in the mission
the Church, that is, on Christ as “preached,” on the word of God as a
of personal sanctification, the “lectio divina,” and on the
between the Spirit and the word, concretely speaking, the spiritual
of the Bible.
We begin this preaching on the day in which the Church celebrates
of the Chair of St. Peter, and this in not without significance for our
First of all it offers us an occasion to pay the homage of our
and devotion to him who today sits in the Chair of Peter, the Holy
Benedict XVI. We then recall what the Apostle Peter himself wrote in
Second Letter, namely, that “no prophetic scripture may be subjected to
explanation” (2 Peter 1:20) and that for this reason every
of the word of God must be measured against the living tradition of the
whose authentic interpretation is entrusted to the apostolic teaching
and, in a singular way, to the Petrine teaching office.
It is beautiful, in such a circumstance as this, and in the
context of ecumenical dialogue, to recall the famous text of St.
“Since, however, it would take too long to enumerate the successions of
the Churches in this volume, we take the very great, the very ancient,
universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most
apostles, Peter and Paul. [...] With this Church, by reason of its more
origin (‘propter potentiorem principalitatem’), every Church must be in
that is, the faithful from everywhere, since in her the Tradition that
from the apostles has always been preserved for all men.”
In this spirit, not without fear and trembling, I ready myself to
my reflections on the vital theme of the word of God, in the presence
the successor of Peter, the Bishop of the Church of Rome.
1. Preaching in the Life of Jesus
After the account of Jesus’ baptism, the Evangelist Mark continues
saying: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God and
‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and
in the Gospel” (Mark 1:14). Matthew puts it more briefly: “From that
Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at
(Matthew 4:17). With these words the “Gospel” begins understood as the
news “of” Jesus -- that is, received from Jesus and of which Jesus is
subject, which is different from the good news “about” Jesus of the
apostolic preaching, in which Jesus is the object.
We have here an event that occupies a very precise place in time
and in space:
It happened “in Galilee,” “after John was arrested.” The verb used by
evangelists, “he began to preach,” strongly emphasizes that it is a
something new not only in the life of Jesus, but in salvation history
The Letter to the Hebrews expresses this novelty thus: “In many and
ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last
he has spoken to us by the Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
A special time begins in salvation, a new “kairos,” which lasts
2 and a half years (from the autumn of 27 A.D., to the spring of 30
Jesus attributed to this activity of his such an importance as to say
he had been sent by the Father and consecrated with an anointing of the
for this, that is, “to announce the glad tidings” (Luke 4:18). On one
while there were some who wanted to keep him, he tells the apostles
they must leave, saying to them: “Let us go on to the next towns, that
may preach there also; for this in fact I have come” (Mark 1:38).
Preaching is part of the so-called “mysteries of the life of
it is as such that we will approach it. In this context the word
means an event of the life of Jesus that bears salvific significance,
is celebrated by the Church as such in her liturgy. If there is not
special feast for the Jesus’ preaching it is because it is recalled in
liturgy of the Church. The “liturgy of the word” in the Mass is nothing
than the liturgical actualization of Jesus who preaches. A Second
Council text says that Christ “is present in His word, since it is he
who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church.”
As, in history, after having preached the kingdom of God, Jesus
went to Jerusalem
to offer himself in sacrifice to the Father, so too, in the liturgy,
having again proclaimed his word, Jesus renews the offering of himself
the Father through the Eucharistic action. When, at the end of the
we say: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in
highest,” we spiritually return to that moment when Jesus enters
to celebrate the Passover there; there the time of preaching ends and
time of the passion begins.
Jesus’ preaching is therefore a “mystery” because it does not only
the revelation of a doctrine, but it explains the mystery itself of the
of Christ; it is essential for understanding both that which comes
-- the mystery of the incarnation -- and that which comes after, the
mystery. Without the word of Jesus they would be mute events. Pope John
II’s idea was a happy one when he inserted the preaching of the kingdom
the “mysteries of light,” which he added to the joyful, sorrowful and
mysteries of the rosary, along with the baptism of Christ, the marriage
at Cana, the transfiguration and the institution of the Eucharist.
2. Christ’s Preaching Continues in the Church
The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote long after the death
thus, a long time after Jesus had ceased to speak; and yet he says that
spoke through the Son “in these last days.” He considers the days in
he is living, therefore, as part of “Jesus’ days.” For this reason, a
further on in the letter, citing the words of the Psalm, “Today if you
his voice, harden not your hearts,” he applies them to Christians,
“Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart without
leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another
day, as long as it is called ‘today’” (Hebrews 3:12-13). God speaks,
today as well in the Church and he speaks “in the Son.”
But how and where can we hear this “voice” of his? Divine
revelation is over;
in a certain sense there are no longer any words of God. And here we
another affinity between word and Eucharist. The Eucharist is present
the whole of salvation history: in the Old Testament, as figure (the
lamb, the sacrifice of Melchizedek, the manna in the desert), in the
Testament, as event (the death and resurrection of Christ), in the
as sacrament (in the Mass).
Christ’s sacrifice is finished and concluded on the cross; in a
therefore, there are no more sacrifices of Christ; and yet we know that
is still a sacrifice and it is the one sacrifice of the cross that is
present and effective in the Eucharistic sacrifice; the event continues
the sacrament, history in the liturgy. Something analogous happens with
word: It has ceased to exist as event, but it continues to exist as
In the Bible, the word of God (“dabar”), especially in the
it assumes in the prophets, always constitutes an event; it is a
that is a word that creates a situation, that always realizes something
in history. The recurrent expression, “the word of Yaweh came to,”
be translated as: “the word of Yaweh assumed a concrete form in” (in
in Haggai, in Zechariah, etc.).
This kind of word-event continues right up to John the Baptist; in
in fact, we read: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius
[...] the word of God came to (“factum est verbum Domini super”) John,
of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1ff.). After this moment, this
disappears completely from the Bible and in its place there appears
-- it is no longer “Factum est verbum Domini” but “Verbum caro factum
the word became flesh (John 1:14). The event is now a person! One never
the phrase, “the word of God came to Jesus,” because he is the Word.
the provisional realizations of the word of God in the prophets, there
the full and definitive realization.
Giving us the Son, St. John of the Cross famously writes, God has
and had nothing left to reveal. God has become mute in a certain sense,
having anything else to say. But this must be rightly understood:
has become silent in the sense that he does not say anything new in
to what he has said in Jesus, but not in the sense that he no longer
he is always saying again what he said in Jesus!
There are no longer word-events in the Church; the word of God
will no longer
come to someone, as it once did with Samuel, Jeremiah or John the
there are however word-sacraments. The word-sacraments are the words of
that “came” once and for all and are gathered in the Bible, that become
reality” every time the Church proclaims with authority and the Spirit
inspired them returns to ignite them again in the heart of those who
them. “He will take what is mine and declare it to you,” Jesus says of
Holy Spirit (John 16:14).
4. The Word-Sacrament That Is Heard
When one speaks of the word as “sacrament,” this term is not
the technical and restricted sense of the “seven sacraments,” but in
broader sense as when one speaks of Christ as the “primordial sacrament
the Father” and of the Church as the “universal sacrament of
St. Augustine’s definition of sacrament as “a word that is seen”
visibile”), used to be contrasted with the word as “a sacrament that
heard” (“sacramentum audibile”).
In every sacrament there is distinguished the visible sign and the
reality, which is grace. The word that we read in the Bible, in itself,
only a material sign (like wine and bread), an ensemble of dead
or, at most, one word of human language among others; but faith
and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, through such a sign we
enter into contact with the living truth and will of God and we hear
voice itself of Christ.
“The body of Christ," Bossuet wrote, "is more truly present in the
sacrament than the truth of Christ is in the evangelical preaching. In
mystery of the Eucharist the species that you see are signs, but what
contained in them is the body itself of Christ; in Scripture, the words
you hear are signs, but the thought that is drawn from them is the
itself of the Son of God.”
The sacramentality of the word of God is revealed in the fact that
it plainly works beyond the person’s understanding, which can be
and imperfect, it almost works by itself, “ex opera operata,” as one
When the prophet Elisha told Naaman the Syrian, who had come to
him to be
cured of leprosy, to wash seven times in the Jordan, Naaman replied
“Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than
the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleansed” (2
5:12)? Naaman was right: The rivers of Syria were undoubtedly better,
had more water; and yet, washing in the Jordan he was healed and his
became like that of a little child, something that would not have
if had bathed in the great rivers of his country.
This is how it is with the word of God contained in Scripture.
nations and also in the Church there have been and there will be better
than some of the books of the Bible, more refined from a literary
and religiously more edifying (just think of the "Imitation of
but none of them work as well as the most modest of the inspired books.
is, in the words of Scripture, something that acts beyond every human
there is an evident disproportion between the sign and the reality that
produces, that makes one think, precisely, of the action of the
The “waters of Israel,” which are the divinely inspired
even today to heal the leprosy of sin; once he has finished reading the
passage at Mass, the Church invites the ordained minister to kiss the
and say: “May the words of the Gospel wash our sins away” (“Per
dicta deleantur nostra delicta”). The healing power of the word of God
attested to by Scripture itself: “For indeed, neither herb nor
cured them, but your all-healing word, O Lord" (Wisdom 16:12).
Experience confirms it. I heard a person give witness in a
that I took part in. He was an alcoholic in the final stage; he could
go for more than two hours without a drink; his family was on the brink
desperation. They invited him with his wife to a meeting on the word of
There someone read a passage of Scripture. A verse went through him
a burning flame and he felt healed. After that, every time he felt
to drink he went to the Bible and opened it to that verse to reread it
he felt the strength return to him until he was completely healed. When
wanted to say what the verse was his voice broke with emotion. It was
word of the Song of Songs: “Your love is more delightful than wine”
of Songs 1:2). These simple words, apparently unrelated to his life,
One reads of a similar episode in “The Way of a Pilgrim.” But the
instance is that of Augustine. Reading Paul’s words to the Romans, “Let
then throw off the works of darkness. […] Let us conduct ourselves
as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and
(Romans 13:12-13), he felt “a light of serenity” shining in his heart
he understood that he was healed of the slavery of the flesh.
5. The Liturgy of the Word
There is a place and a moment in the life of the Church in which
today in the most solemn and certain way and that is the liturgy of the
in the Mass. In the primitive Church the liturgy of the word was
from the liturgy of the Eucharist. The disciples, the Acts of the
reports, “went to the temple together every day”; there they listened
the reading of the Bible, they recited the psalms together with the
Jews; they did what is done in the liturgy of the word; then they
in their houses to “break bread,” that is, to celebrate the Eucharist
Quite early on this practice became impossible for them because of
of the Jewish community toward them, on the one hand, and, on the other
because by this point that had acquired a new way of reading the
completely oriented to Christ. It was in this way that that the hearing
Scripture was also transferred from the temple and the synagogue to the
places of worship, becoming the present liturgy of the word that
the Eucharistic prayer.
St. Justin, in the second century, gives a description of the
celebration in which there are already present all of the essential
of the future Mass. Not only is the liturgy of the word an integral
of it, but alongside the readings of the Old Testament there are
those readings that the saint calls the “memoirs of the apostles,” that
the Gospels and the letters, in concrete terms New Testament.
Heard in the liturgy, the biblical readings acquire a new and more
sense than when they are read in other contexts. They do not have so
the purpose of bringing about better knowledge of the Bible, as when
reads at home or in a school for biblical studies, as they have the
of recognizing him who makes himself present in the breaking of the
of every time illuminating a particular aspect of the mystery that is
to be received. This appears in an almost programmatic way in the
with the two disciples traveling to Emmaus: It was in listening to an
of the Scriptures that the heart of the disciples began to open so that
were then able to recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
One example among many: the readings for the 29th Sunday in
of Cycle B. The first reading is the passage on the suffering servant
takes upon himself the people’s iniquity (Isaiah 53:2-11); the second
speaks of Christ the high priest tried in every like us but sin; the
passage speaks of the Son of Man who has come to give his life in
for many. Together these three passages bring to light a fundamental
of the mystery that is about to be celebrated and received in the
In the Mass the words and episodes of the Bible are not only
are relived; memory becomes reality and presence. That which happened
that time” happens “in this time,” “today” (“hodie”) as the liturgy
to express it. We are not only hearers of the word, but also
and doers of it. It is to us, there present, that the word is
we are called to take the place of the characters who are evoked.
Here too some examples will help one to understand. One reads, in
reading, of the episode in which God speaks to Moses golden calf: We
in the Mass, before the true golden calf. One reads of Isaiah upon
lips the hot coal is pressed, to purify him for his mission: we are
to receive the true hot coal upon our lips. Ezekiel is invited to eat
the scroll of the prophetic oracles and we are about to eat him who is
word itself made flesh and made bread.
This thing becomes clearer if we pass from the Old Testament to
from the first reading to the Gospel passage. The woman who suffers
hemorrhages is certain of being healed if she is able to touch the hem
Jesus’ garment: What to say of us who are about to touch much more than
hem of his garment? Once I was listening to the Gospel episode about
and was struck by its “relevance.” I was Zaccheus; the words were
to me. “Today I must come to your house.” It was about me that it could
said: “He went to stay with a sinner!” And it was about me, after
received him in communion, that Jesus said: “Today salvation has
into this house.”
It is the same with every single episode in the Gospel. How can
one not in
the Mass identify himself with the paralytic to whom Jesus says: “Your
are forgiven you” and “Get up and go to your house,” with Simeon who
the baby Jesus in his arms, with Thomas who, trembling, touches his
In today’s celebration, Friday of the second week of Lent, the Gospel
about the murderous tenants of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-45):
he sent his own son, saying, ‘They will respect my son!’” I remember
effect that these words had on me when I was listening to them once
distractedly. That same Son was about to be given to me in communion:
I prepared to receive him with the respect that the heavenly Father
It is not only the deeds but also the words of the Gospel heard at
acquire a new and more powerful sense. One summer day I found myself
Mass in a small cloistered monastery. The Gospel passage was Matthew
I will never forget the impression that those words of Jesus made on
“Behold, now there is one here greater than Jonah. [...] Behold, now
is one here greater than Solomon.” In that moment it was as if I had
them for the first time. I understood that those to words “now” and
truly meant now and here, that is, in that moment and in that place,
only in the time that Jesus was on earth, many centuries ago. From that
day, those words became dear and familiar to me in a new way. Often, at
in the moment that I genuflect and stand up again after the
I repeat to myself: “Behold, now there is one here greater than Jonah.
Behold, now there is one here greater than Solomon!”
“You who often partake in the divine mysteries,” Origen said to
of his time, “when you receive the body of the Lord you treat it with
care and veneration so that not even a crumb will fall to the ground,
that nothing is lost of the consecrated gift. You are rightly convinced
that it is wrong to let a piece fall out of carelessness. If you are so
in safeguarding his body -- and it is right that you are -- know that
God’s word is not less wrong that neglecting his body.”
Among the many words of God that we hear every day at Mass or in
Office, there is almost always one that is especially destined for us.
itself it can fill our whole day and illumine our prayer. It must not
allowed to fall into the void. Various sculptures and bas-reliefs of
ancient East depict the scribe in the act of listening to the voice of
sovereign who dictates or speaks: He is all attention, his legs are
he is upright, his eyes are wide open, his ears are pealed. This is the
that in Isaiah is attributed to the Servant of the Lord: “Morning after
he opens my ear that I may hear” (Isaiah 50:4). This is how we must be
the word of God is proclaimed.
Let us understand the exhortation that one reads in the prologue
to the Rule
of St. Benedict as being addressed to us: “Let us open our eyes to the
light, let us hear with ears that are attentive and full of stupor the
voice that cries out to us daily, ‘If today you hear his voice, harden
your hearts’ (Psalm 95). And again, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, hear
the Spirit says to the churches’ (Revelation 2:7).”
* * *
 St. Irenaeus, “Adversus Haereses,” III, 2.
 Cf. St. Augustine, Letters, 55, 1,2.
 “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” No. 7.
 Cf. St. John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” II,
 Cf. “Lumen Gentium,” 48.
 St. Augustine, “Tractates on the Gospel of John,” 80,3.
 St. Augustine, “Confessions,” VIII,12.
 Origen, “Homily on Exodus,” XIII, 3.
 “Rule of St. Benedict,” Prologue.
2nd Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa
"Keep Us From Pronouncing Useless Words When We Speak of You"
VATICAN CITY, FEB. 29, 2008 - Here is a translation of the Lenten
meditation delivered today by Capuchin Father Rainero Cantalamessa,
preacher of the Pontifical Household, to Benedict XVI and the Roman
Curia, titled "'For Every Useless Word': Speaking 'as With Words of
This is the second in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The Word
of God Is Living and Effective."
* * *
1. From Jesus Who Preaches to Christ Preached
In the second letter to the Corinthians -- which is, par excellence,
the letter dedicated to the office of preaching -- St. Paul writes
these programmatic words: "We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus
the Lord!" (2 Corinthians 4:5). In a previous letter to these same
faithful in Corinth he wrote: "We preach Christ crucified!" (2
Corinthians 4:5). When the Apostle wants to embrace the content of
Christian preaching with a single word, this word is always the person
of Jesus Christ!
In these statements Jesus is no longer seen -- as in the Gospels -- in
his quality as preacher, but as that which is preached. Similarly, we
see that "Gospel of Jesus" acquires a new meaning, without, however,
losing the old one; from the "glad tidings" in which Jesus is the
subject, one passes to the "glad tidings" in which Jesus is the object.
This is the meaning that the word "gospel" acquires in the solemn
beginning of the Letter to the Romans: "Paul, servant of Christ Jesus,
called to be an apostle, chosen beforehand to proclaim the Gospel of
God, which he promised in the sacred Scriptures, regarding his Son,
born from the line of David according to the flesh, constituted Son of
God with power according to the Spirit of sanctification through
resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord" (Romans 1:1-3).
In this second Lenten meditation we will focus on the Word of God in
the mission of the Church. This is the theme that the third chapter of
the "lineamenta" of next October's Synod of Bishops is concerned with.
The following is an outline of the topics of that chapter:
The Church's Mission is to Proclaim Christ, the Word of God Made Man;
The Word of God is to be Accessible to All, in Every Age;
The Word of God: the Grace of Communion Among Christians;
The Word of God: A Light for Interreligious Dialogue:
(a) With the Jewish people
(b) With other religions
The Word of God: The Leaven in Modern Culture
The Word of God and Human History.
I will restrict myself to a particular, very limited point, which
however, I believe influences the quality and effectiveness of the
proclamation of the Church in all of its expressions.
2. "Useless" Words and "Effective" Words
In Matthew's Gospel, in the context of the sermon on the words that
reveal the heart, a saying of Jesus is reported that has made readers
of the Gospel tremble throughout history: "But I say to you that men
will have to answer for every useless word on the day of judgment"
It has been difficult to explain what Jesus intended by "useless word."
Some light is shed by another passage in Matthew's Gospel (7:15-20)
that addresses the theme of the tree that is known by its fruit and
where the whole discourse seems to be directed at false prophets:
"Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but
underneath are rapacious wolves. You will know them by their fruit."
If Jesus' saying has some relationship with the saying about false
prophets, then perhaps we can discover what the word "useless" means.
The Greek term that is translated by "useless" is "argon," which means
"without effect" (alpha privative, plus "ergos," which means "work").
Some modern translations, including that of the Italian bishops'
conference, render the term with "baseless," and so with a passive
value: a word without a basis, in other words, slander. It is an
attempt to give a more reassuring sense to Jesus' threat. It is not at
all particularly disturbing, in fact, if Jesus says that an answer has
to be given to God for every slander!
But, on the contrary, the meaning of "argon" is active and signifies a
word that does not establish anything, that produces nothing -- thus,
empty, sterile, without effectiveness. In this sense the Vulgate's
ancient translation was more accurate: "verbum otiosum," an "otiose"
word, useless, which is the understanding adopted today in the majority
It is not hard to understand what Jesus means if we compare this
adjective with that which, in the Bible, always characterizes the word
of God: the adjective "energes," effective, that which works, that is
always followed by an effect ("ergos"). This is the same adjective from
which energetic is derived. St. Paul, for example, writes to the
Thessalonians that, having received the divine word of the Apostle's
preaching, they had welcomed it not as the word of men, but, as it
truly is, as "the word of God that works ("energeitai") in those who
believe (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13). The opposition between the word of
God and the word of men is presented here, implicitly, as an opposition
between the word "that works" and the word "that does not work,"
between the effective word and the ineffective and vain word.
We also find this concept of the effectiveness of the divine word in
the letter to the Hebrews: "The word of God is living and effective
("energes") (4:12). But it is an ancient concept; in Isaiah, God
declares that the word that has gone out from his mouth will never
return to him "without effect," without having "done that for which it
was sent" (cf. Isaiah 55:11).
The useless word, for which men will have to answer on the Day of
Judgment, is not, therefore, every and any useless word; it is rather
the useless, empty word pronounced by him who should instead pronounce
the "energetic" words of God. It is, in sum, the word of the false
prophet, who has not received the word of God, but nevertheless
persuades others to believe his merely human words are the word of God.
What happens is exactly the reverse of what St. Paul says: Having
received a human word, it is not taken for what it is, but for what it
is not, that is, a divine word. For every useless word about God, man
will have to answer! This, then, is the meaning of Jesus' grave
The useless word is the counterfeit of the word of God, it is a
parasite of the word of God. It is recognized by the fruits that it
does not produce, because, by definition, it is sterile, without
effectiveness -- for the good, of course. God "keeps vigil over his
word" (cf. Jeremiah 1:12), is jealous for it and cannot allow man to
make use of the divine powers that it bears.
The prophet Jeremiah permits us to hear, as through a loudspeaker, what
is concealed beneath that word of Jesus. With him it is now clear that
it is the false prophets who are the targets: "Thus says the Lord of
hosts: Listen not to the words of your prophets, who fill you with
emptiness; visions of their own fancy they speak, not from the mouth of
the Lord. Let the prophet who has a dream recount his dream; let him
who has my word speak my word truthfully! What has straw to do with the
wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, like a
hammer shattering rocks? Therefore I am against the prophets, says the
Lord, who steal my words from each other. Yes, I am against the
prophets, says the Lord, who borrow speeches to pronounce oracles"
(Jeremiah 23:16, 26-31).
3. Who Are the False Prophets?
But we are not here to give a disquisition on the false prophets in the
Bible. As always, the Bible is speaking about us. That word of Jesus
does not judge the world, but the Church; the world will not be judged
over useless words -- all of its words are, in the sense described
above, useless words! -- but it will be judged, if at all, for not
having believed in Jesus (cf. John 16:9). The "men" who must answer for
every useless word are the men of the Church; we are the preachers of
the word of God.
The "false prophets" are not only those who from time to time
disseminate heresies; they are also those who falsify the word of God.
Paul is the one who uses this term, drawing it from the contemporary
language; literally it means to water down the word, as do the
fraudulent hosts when they dilute their wine with water (cf. 2
Corinthians 2:17; 4:2). The false prophets are those who do not present
the word of God in its purity, but they dilute and extenuate it with a
thousand human words that come from out of their heart.
I too am the false prophet, every time that I do not entrust myself to
the "weakness," "foolishness," "poverty" and "nakedness" of the word
and I cover it up, and I esteem what I have clothed it in more than the
word itself, and the time that I spend covering it up is more than that
which I spend with the word, remaining before it in prayer, worshipping
it and allowing it to live in me.
Jesus, at Cana in Galilee, transformed water into wine, that is,
[transformed] the dead letter into the Spirit that gives life -- this
is how the Fathers of the Church interpreted the episode; false
prophets are those who do the exact opposite, and change the pure wine
of the word of God into water that does not inebriate anyone, into a
dead letter, into vain chatter. Deep down, they are ashamed of the
Gospel (cf. Romans 1:16) and of Jesus' words, because they are "too
hard" for the world, or too poor or naked for the intellectuals, and
they then try to season them with what Jeremiah called "visions of
their own fancy."
St. Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy: "Be eager to present yourself
as acceptable to God […] imparting the word of truth without deviation.
Avoid profane, idle talk, for such people will become more and more
godless" (2 Timothy 2:15-16). Profane chatter is that talk that is not
relevant to God's design, which does not have anything to do with the
mission of the Church. Too many human words, too many useless words,
too many speeches, too many documents. In the era of mass communication
the Church too runs the risk of falling into the "straw" of useless
words, speaking just to say something, writing just because there are
journals and newspapers to be filled.
In this way we offer to the world an optimal pretext resting content in
its unbelief and its sin. When they have heard the authentic word of
God, it would not be easy for unbelievers to go off saying -- as they
often do after listening to our preaching: "Words, words, words!" St.
Paul calls the words of God "the weapons for our battle" and says that
they alone "destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself
against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive in
obedience to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
Humanity is sick from noise, the philosopher [Soren] Kierkegaard said;
it is necessary to fast, but a fasting from words; someone needs to cry
out, as Moses did one day: "Be silent and listen Israel!" (Deuteronomy
27:9). The Holy Father reminded us of the necessity of this fast from
words in his Lenten meeting with the pastors of Rome and I believe, as
is his wont, his invitation was not first directed to the world but to
4. Jesus did not Come to Speak to us of Frivolities
These words of Péguy have always struck me:
"Jesus, my child,"
-- it is the Church speaking to her children --
"did not come to speak to us of frivolities
He did not make the trip to descend to the earth,
to come to tell us riddles and jokes.
There is no time for entertaining ourselves.
He did not give his life,
to come to tell us fables."
The concern to keep the word of God distinct from every other word is
such that, sending his apostles out on mission, Jesus commands them not
to greet anyone on the way (cf. Luke 10:4). I experienced at my own
expense that sometimes this commandment must be obeyed to the letter.
Stopping to greet people and exchange pleasantries as one is about to
begin preaching inevitably disturbs concentration on the word that is
to be announced and causes this word to lose its alterity in regard to
all human discourse. The same exigency is experienced -- or should be
experienced -- when one is vesting to celebrate Mass.
The exigency is even greater when it is a matter of the content itself
of preaching. In Mark's Gospel Jesus cites the words of Isaiah: "In
vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines that are human precepts"
(Isaiah 29:13); then he adds, turning to the Pharisees and scribes:
"Neglecting the commandment of God, you follow human traditions ... and
in this way you nullify the word of God with traditions that you
yourselves have handed down" (Mark 7:7-13).
When one never succeeds in proposing the simple and naked word of God,
without making it pass through the filter of a thousand distinctions
and precisions and additions and explanations, which in themselves are
even right, but extenuating the word of God, one is doing precisely
what Jesus reproved the Pharisees and scribes for that day: one
"nullifies the word of God"; one dilutes it, causing it to lose the
greater part of its power of penetration in the heart of men.
The word of God cannot be used for other ends or to clothe already
existing human discourses with the mantle of divine authority. In times
that are still near to us, one saw where such a tendency led. The
Gospel was used to support every type of human project from class
struggle to the death of God.
When a listener is so predetermined by psychological, factional,
political or impulsive conditions, to make it impossible, from the
outset, not to say what he expects and not to make him completely right
about everything; when there is no hope of being able to lead the
listeners to that point in which it is possible to say to them:
"Convert and believe!" then it is well not to proclaim the word of God
so that is not be used for party goals and, therefore, betrayed. It is
better, in other words, to renounce a real proclamation, limiting
oneself -- if one pursues the matter at all -- to listening, and trying
to understand and taking part in the people's anxieties and sufferings,
preaching the Gospel of the kingdom rather by presence and charity.
Jesus, in the Gospel, shows himself to be very careful about not
letting himself be used for the political ends of a party.
Obviously, the reality of experience, and thus the human word, is not
excluded from the Church's preaching, but it has to be subordinated to
the word of God, to the service of this word. As, in the Eucharist, the
body of Christ assimilates those who consume it, and not vice-versa, so
also in proclamation the word of God must be the more vital and
stronger principle, to subjugate and assimilate the human word, and not
the contrary. It is necessary, because of this, to have the courage
more often to begin, in treating the doctrinal and disciplinary
problems of the Church, from the word of God, especially that of the
New Testament, and to remain thus linked to it, bound by it, certain
that in this way one will more surely discover, in every question, what
the will of God is.
One sees this same need in religious communities. There is a danger
that in the formation given to young people and novices, in spiritual
exercises and everything else in the community's life, more time is
spent on the writings of the founder of the community -- often very
poor in content -- than on the word of God.
5. Speak as With Words of God
I realize that a grave objection can be raised to what I am saying.
Should the Church's preaching, then, reduce itself to a sequence -- or
a barrage -- of biblical citations, with so many indications of chapter
and verse, in a manner reminiscent of the Jehovah's Witnesses and other
fundamentalist groups? Certainly not. We are the heirs of a different
tradition. I will explain what I mean by being bound to the word of God.
We turn again to the second letter to the Corinthians, where St. Paul
writes: "For we are not like the many who trade [literally: "water
down," "falsify"] on the word of God; but as out of sincerity, indeed
as from God and in the presence of God, we speak in Christ" (2
Corinthians 2:17); and Saint Peter, in his first letter exhorts
Christians saying: "Whoever preaches, let it be as with the words of
God" (1 Peter 4:11). What does it mean to "speak in Christ," or to
speak "as with the words of God"? It certainly does not mean to repeat
materially and only the words pronounced by Christ and by God in
Scripture. It means that the fundamental inspiration, the thought that
"informs" and rules everything else, must come from God, not from man.
The preacher must be "moved by God" and speak as in his presence.
There are two ways to prepare a sermon or any written or verbal
proclamation of faith. I can sit down at the desk and choose for myself
which word to proclaim and the theme to develop, basing myself on my
knowledge, my preferences, etc., and then, once the discourse is
prepared, get on my knees to hastily ask God to bless that which I have
written and make my words effective. This is already something good but
it is not the prophetic way. The contrary is what should be done.
First, get on your knees and ask God what the word is that he wants to
speak; then, sit at the desk and use your own knowledge to give a body
to that word. This changes everything because it is not God who must
make my word his, but it is I who make his word mine.
It is necessary to begin with the certainty of faith that, in every
circumstance, the Risen Lord has a word in his heart that he wants to
reach his people. It is that which changes things and it is that which
must be discovered. And he will not fail to reveal it to his servant,
if his servant asks for it humbly and insistently. In the beginning
there is an almost imperceptible movement of the heart; a little light
that begins to flicker in the mind, a word of the Bible that begins to
draw attention to itself and that illuminates a situation.
Truly "the smallest of all seeds," but afterward you will see that
everything was inside; there was a single note that felled the cedars
of Lebanon. Then go to your desk, open your books, consult your notes,
consult the Fathers of the Church, the masters, the poets. But it is
already something else. It is no longer the Word of God at the service
of your culture but your culture at the service of the Word of God.
Origen describes the process that leads to this discovery well. Before
finding nourishment in Scripture, he said, it is necessary to endure a
certain poverty of the senses; the soul is surrounded on all sides by
darkness, one enters onto ways that have no exit; until, suddenly,
after toilsome searching and prayer, the voice of the Word resounds and
immediately something is illuminated; he whom the soul sought comes to
meet her, "springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills"
(Song of Songs 2:8), that is, disposing the mind to receive his
powerful and luminous word. Great is the joy that accompanies this
moment. It caused Jeremiah to say, "When I found your words, I devoured
them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart" (Jeremiah
Typically God's answer comes in the form of a word of Scripture that,
however, in that moment reveals its extraordinary relevance to the
situation and the problem that is to be treated, as if it were written
precisely for it. Sometimes it is not even necessary to cite or comment
explicitly on any biblical word. It is enough that it be present in the
mind of the one speaking and inform everything that he says. If this is
the case, then de facto he speaks "as with the words of God." This
method is always valid: for the great documents of the magisterium as
for the lessons that the master gives to his novices, for a refined
address as for a humble Sunday homily.
We have all experienced how much one word of God that is deeply
believed and lived gives to the someone before he speaks it and
sometimes this occurs without his knowing; often it must be recognized
that among many words it was that one that touched the heart and led
more than one hearer to the confessional.
After having indicated the conditions of Christian proclamation --
speaking of Christ with sincerity as moved by God and under his gaze --
the apostle asks: "And who is up to this task?" (2 Corinthians 2:16).
It is plain that no one is up to it. We carry this treasure in earthen
vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). We can, however, pray and say: Lord, have
mercy on this poor clay pot that must carry the treasure of your word;
keep us from pronouncing useless words when we speak of you; let us
once taste your word so that we know how to distinguish it from all
others and so that every other word will appear insipid to us. Spread
hunger throughout the land, as you promised, "not a hunger for bread,
or a thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord" (Amos
* * *
 Cf. M. Zerwick, Analysis philologica Novi Testamenti Graeci, Romae
1953, ad loc.
 Charles Péguy, "The Portal of the Mystery of the Second
Virtue," in "Oeuvres poétiques complètes," Gallimard
1975, pp. 587 s.
 Cf. Origen, In Mt Ser. 38 (GCS, 1933, p. 7); In Cant. 3 (GCS, 1925,
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
[Errors found in the English translation of last week's Lenten sermon
have been corrected and the revised text can be found here:
3rd Lenten Sermon of Father
"Be Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only"
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 7, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the
Lenten meditation delivered today by Capuchin Father Rainero
Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, to Benedict XVI and
the Roman Curia, titled "Welcome the Word: The Word of God As a Way of
This is the second in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The Word
of God Is Living and Effective."
* * *
1. "Lectio Divina"
In this meditation we will reflect on the word of God as a way of
personal sanctification. In the "lineamenta" that have been prepared
for the Synod of Bishops in October 2008, this theme is taken up in
Chapter 2, “The Word of God in the Life of the Believer.”
It is a theme that is very dear to the spiritual tradition of the
Church. “The word of God,” St. Ambrose said, “is the vital substance of
our soul; it nourishes, feeds, and governs the soul; there is nothing
else that could give life to man’s soul apart from the word of God.”
“[T]he force and power in the word of God,” adds “Dei Verbum,” “is so
great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the
strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and
everlasting source of spiritual life.”
“It is especially necessary,” John Paul II wrote in “Novo millennio
ineunte,” “that listening to the word of God should become a
life-giving encounter, in the ancient and ever valid tradition of
‘lectio divina,’ which draws from the biblical text the living word
which questions, directs and shapes our lives.” The Holy Father
Benedict XVI has also expressed himself on this theme on the occasion
of the International Congress Sacred Scripture in the Life of the
Church: “By assiduous reading, we listen to God who speaks and, in
prayer, we respond to him with confident openness of heart.”
With the reflections that follow I insert myself in this rich
tradition, beginning with what the Scripture itself says on this point.
We read in the letter of Saint James these lines on the word of God:
“He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind
of first fruits of his creatures. Know this, my dear brothers: Everyone
should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, [...] Therefore,
put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the word that has
been planted in you and is able to save your souls. Be doers of the
word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone is a
hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his
own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly
forgets what he looked like. But the one who peers into the perfect law
of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer
who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does” (James 1:18-25).
2. Welcoming the Word
From James’ text we can draw out a schema of “lectio divina” that has
three steps or successive actions: Welcoming the word, meditating on
the word, putting the word into practice.
Thus the first step is listening to the word: “Welcome the word that
has been planted in you.” This first step embraces all the forms and
ways in which the Christian comes into contact with the word of God:
Listening to the word in the liturgy, now facilitated by the use of the
vernacular and by the wise choice of texts distributed throughout the
year; then, Bible schools, written aids, and -- something that is
irreplaceable -- personal reading of the Bible at home. For those who
are called to teach others, to all of this there is added the
systematic study of the Bible: exegesis, textual criticism, Biblical
theology, study of the original languages.
In this phase it is necessary to beware of two dangers. The first is to
stop at this first stage and to transform the personal reading of the
word of God into an “impersonal” reading. This danger is quite real
today, above all in academic institutions.
St. James compares the reading of the word of God with looking at
oneself in the mirror; but for [Soren] Kierkegaard, those who limit
themselves to studying the sources, the variants, the literary genres
of the Bible, without doing anything else, is like someone who just
looks at the mirror -- considering with exactness the form, the
material, the style, the epoch -- without looking at oneself in the
mirror. For Kierkegaard, the mirror does not perform its function on
its own. The word of God has been given so that you put it into
practice and not so that you exercise yourself in exegesis over its
obscurities. There is a “hermeneutic inflation” and, what is worse, one
believes that the most serious thing in regard to the Bible is
hermeneutics, not practice.
The critical study of the word of God is indispensible and one is never
grateful enough to those who give their lives to smooth the way to an
ever better understanding of the sacred text, but it does not by itself
exhaust the meaning of the Scriptures; it is necessary but not
The other danger is fundamentalism: Taking literally everything that
one reads in the Bible, without any hermeneutic mediation. This second
risk is much less innocuous than might seem to be the case at first
glance and the current debate between creationism and evolutionism is
the dramatic confirmation of this.
Those who defend the literal reading of Genesis -- the world was
created some several thousand years ago, in six days, just as it is now
-- cause immense damage to faith. "Young people brought up in homes and
churches that insist on Creationism,” writes the scientist and
Christian, Francis Collins, “sooner or later encounter the overwhelming
scientific evidence in favor of an ancient universe and the relatedness
of all living things through the process of evolution and natural
selection. What a terrible and unnecessary choice they face! To adhere
to the faith of their childhood, they are required to reject a broad
and rigorous body of scientific data, effectively committing
intellectual suicide. Presented with no other alternative than
Creationism, is it any wonder that many of these young people turn away
from faith, concluding that they simply cannot believe in a God who
would ask them to reject what science has so compellingly taught us
about the natural world?"
The two excesses -- hyper-criticism and fundamentalism -- are only
apparently opposed: What they have in common is the fact that both stop
at the letter, neglecting the Spirit.
3. Contemplating the Word
The second step suggested by St. James consists in “fixing one’s gaze”
on the word, in standing for a long time before the mirror, in sum, in
meditating and contemplating the Word. In this connection the Fathers
used the images of chewing and ruminating. “Reading,” says the 12th
century prior of the Grand Chartreuse, Guigo II, the theorist of the
“lectio divina,” “offers substantial food to the mouth, meditation
chews on it and breaks it up.” “When one recalls to memory things
heard and sweetly thinks on them again in his heart, he becomes like a
ruminator,” Augustine says.
The soul that looks into the mirror of the word learns to know “how he
is,” he learns to know himself, he sees his deformities in the image of
God and in the image of Christ. “I do not seek my own glory,” Jesus
says (John 8:50): well, the mirror is in front of you and immediately
you see how far you are from Jesus. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”:
The mirror is again in front of you and immediately you see that you
are full of attachments and full of superfluous things. “Charity is
patient”: You realize how impatient, envious and self-interested you
More than “searching the Scriptures” (cf. John 5:39), it is a matter of
letting oneself be searched by the Scriptures. The word of God, the
Letter to the Hebrews says, “penetrates even to the point of division
of the soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and is able to discern
sentiments and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12-13). The best
prayer for beginning the moment of contemplation is repeating with the
Psalmist: “You search me, O God, and you know my hear, you probe me and
know my thoughts: You see if I my way is crooked and you guide me along
the way of life” (Psalm 139).
But in the mirror of the word, we do not only see ourselves; we see the
face of God; better, we see the heart of God. Scripture, St. Gregory
the Great says, is “is a letter of Almighty God to his creature; in it
one learns to know the heart of God in the words of God.” Jesus’
saying even holds for God: “From the fullness of the heart the mouth
speaks” (Matthew 12:34); God has spoken to us, in Scripture, of that
which fills his heart and that which fills his heart is love.
In this way the contemplation of the word procures the two pieces of
knowledge that are the most important for advancing along the road of
true wisdom: self-knowledge and knowledge of God. “That I might know
myself and know you” -- “noverim me, noverim te” -- St. Augustine said
to God. “That I might know myself to humble myself and that I might
know you to love you.”
An extraordinary example of this twofold knowledge, of self and of God,
that is obtained from the word of God is the letter to the Church of
Laodicea in the Book of Revelation, which is worth meditating on every
now and again, especially in this time of Lent (cf. Revelation
3:14-20). The Risen Christ lays bare the real situation of the typical
member of this community: "I know your works; I know that you are
neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because
you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my
mouth.” The contrast between that which this person thinks about
himself and that which God thinks of him is striking: “For you say, 'I
am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,' and yet do not
realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.”
A passage of unusual toughness, which, however, is immediately
overturned by one of the most touching descriptions of the love of God:
"Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and
opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he
with me.” It is an image that reveals its realistic and not only
metaphorical significance if it is read, as the text suggests, with the
Eucharistic banquet in mind.
Besides serving to verify the personal state of our soul, this passage
of Revelation can help us to uncover the spiritual situation of the
great part of modern society before God. It is like one of those
infrared photographs taken by a satellite that reveals a panorama
completely different from the one we are used to, the one observed by
Even in this world of ours, powerful on account of its scientific and
technological conquests -- like the Laodiceans, who were commercially
prosperous -- one feels satisfied, rich, without need of anyone, not
even God. It is necessary that someone show it the true diagnosis of
its state: “You do not know that you are unhappy, miserable,
impoverished, blind and naked.” It is necessary that some one cry out
to it, like the child in the Andersen fable: “The king is naked!” But
through love and with love, like the Risen Christ with the Laodiceans.
To every soul that desires it, the word of God assures fundamental, and
in itself infallible, spiritual direction. There is a spiritual
direction that is, so to speak, ordinary and everyday, which consists
in the discovering what God wants in the situations in which man
usually finds himself. Such spiritual direction is assured by
meditation on the word of God accompanied by the interior anointing of
the Spirit, who translates the word into good “inspirations” and the
good inspirations into practical resolutions. This is what is expressed
by the verse of the Psalm that is so dear to lovers of the word: “Your
word is a lamp for my steps, light on my way” (Psalm 119:105).
I was once preaching a mission in Australia. On the last day a man came
to see me, an Italian immigrant who worked there. He said to me:
“Father, I have a serious problem: I have a son who is 11 years old and
who is not yet baptized. The fact is that my wife became a Jehovah’s
Witness and does not want to hear about baptism in the Catholic Church.
If I baptize him, there will be a crisis. If I do not baptize him I
will not be at ease because when we got married we were both Catholic
and we promised to raise our children in the faith.”
The next day the man came to see me and was visibly happier and he said
to me: “Father, I found the solution. Last night, after I got home, I
prayed a little bit, then I opened the Bible randomly. I read the
passage where Abraham takes his son Isaac to sacrifice him and I saw
that when Abraham took his son Isaac to be sacrificed it does not say
anything about his wife.” It was an exegetically perfect discernment. I
baptized the boy myself and it was a moment of great joy for all.
This practice of opening the Bible randomly is a delicate thing, which
must be done with discretion, in a climate of faith and not without
having prayed for a long time. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that,
with these conditions, it has often born marvellous fruit and it has
been practiced by the saints. One reads of St. Francis of Assisi, from
the various stories about his life, that he discovered the type of life
to which God was calling him by opening the Book of the Gospels three
times at random “after having prayed a long time” and being “disposed
to follow the first bit of advice that they offered to him.”
Augustine interpreted the words “Tolle lege” (“Take and read”), which
he heard coming from a nearby house, as a divine order to open the book
of Paul’s letters and to read the verse that presented itself to his
There have been souls who have become holy with the word of God as
their sole spiritual director. “In the Gospel,” wrote St.
Thérèse of Lisieux, “I find everything necessary for my
poor soul. I always find new light in it, hidden and mysterious
meanings. I understand and know from experience that ‘the kingdom of
God is within us’ (cf. Luke 17:21). Jesus does not need books or
teachers to instruct souls; he is the teacher of teachers, he teaches
without the noise of words.” It was through a word of God, reading,
one after the other, chapters 12 and 13 of 1 Corinthians that
Thérèse discovered her profound vocation and jubilantly
exclaimed: “In the mystical body of Christ I will be the heart that
The Bible offers a concrete image that sums up everything that has been
said about meditating on the word: that of the book that is eaten,
which we read about in Ezekiel:
“It was then I saw a hand stretched out to me, in which was a written
scroll, which he unrolled before me. It was covered with writing front
and back, and written on it was: Lamentation and wailing and woe! He
said to me: ‘Son of man, eat what is before you; eat this scroll, then
go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth and he gave me
the scroll to eat. Son of man, he then said to me, feed your belly and
fill your stomach with this scroll I am giving you. I ate it, and it
was as sweet as honey in my mouth. He said: ‘Son of man, go now to the
house of Israel, and speak my words to them’ (Ezekiel 2:9-3:3; cf. also
There is an enormous difference between the book that is simply read or
studied and the book that is swallowed. In the latter case, the word
truly becomes, as St. Ambrose said, “the substance of our soul,” that
which informs our thoughts, forms language, determines actions, creates
the “spiritual” man. The word that is swallowed is a Word that is
“assimilated” by man, even if it is a passive assimilation -- as is the
case with the Eucharist -- that is of a “being assimilated” by the
Word, subjugated and defeated by that which is the most powerful of
In the contemplation of the word we have the sweetest example in Mary:
She stored up all these things -- literally: “these words” --
meditating on them in her heart (Luke 2:19). In her the metaphor of the
book that is swallowed has become reality, even a physical reality. The
word has literally “filled her stomach.”
4. Doing the Word
We thus arrive at the third step along the way proposed by the Apostle
James, the step on which the apostle most insists: “Be doers of the
word and not hearers only, [...] for if anyone is a hearer of the word
and not a doer, [...] a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in
what he does.” This is also what Jesus has most at heart: “My mother
and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into
practice” (Luke 8:21). Without this “doing the word,” everything is but
an illusion, something built on sand. One cannot even say to have
understood the word because, as St. Gregory the Great writes, the word
of God is only truly understood when one begins to practice it.
This third step consists in, in practice, obeying the word. The Greek
term that is used in the New Testament to designate obedience --
“hypakouein” -- literally translated means “listening to,” in the sense
of carrying out what one has heard. “My people have not listened to my
voice, Israel has not obeyed me,” is God’s lament in the Bible (Psalm
As soon as one begins to look through the New Testament to see in what
the duty of obedience consists, one makes a surprising discovery, and
that is, that obedience is almost always seen as obedience to the word
of God. St. Paul speaks of obedience to teaching (Romans 6:17), of
obedience to the Gospel (Romans 10:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:8), of
obedience to truth (Galatians 5:7), of obedience to Christ (2
Corinthians 10:5). We also find the same language elsewhere: The Acts
of the Apostles speaks of the obedience of faith (Acts 6:7), the first
letter of Peter speaks of obedience to Christ (1 Peter 1:2) and of
obedience to truth (1 Peter 1:22).
The obedience itself of Jesus is exercised above all through obedience
to written words. In the episode of the temptations in the desert,
Jesus’ obedience consists in recalling the words of God and of abiding
by them: “It is written!”
His obedience is exercised, in a special way, to the words that are
written of him and for him “in the law, the prophets, and the Psalms”
and that he, as man, discovers progressively as he advances in the
understanding and fulfilment of his mission.
When they want to prevent his being taken into custody, Jesus says:
“But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must
come to pass in this way?" (Matthew 26:54). Jesus’ life is as guided by
a luminous wake that the others do not see and which is created by the
words that were written for him; he gathers from the Scriptures the “it
is necessary” -- “dei” in the Greek -- that governs his whole life.
The words of God, by the present action of the Spirit, become the
expression of the living will of God for me in a given moment. A little
example will help us to understand this. Once in community I discovered
that someone had mistakenly taken something that I use. I was on my way
to ask that it be returned when by chance -- or perhaps it was not
really by chance -- I came up against the word of Jesus according to
which you must “give to whoever asks of you; and whoever takes what is
yours, do not ask for it back” (Luke 6:30). I understood that this word
did not apply universally in all cases, but that certainly in that
moment it did apply to me. It was a matter of obeying the word.
Obedience to the word of God is obedience we can always do. Obeying
visible orders and authorities, is something that we do every so often,
three or four times in a lifetime, if we are talking about serious
obedience; but there can be obedience to God’s word in every moment. It
is also the obedience that applies to all of us, inferiors and
superiors, clerics and laity. The laity do not have a superior in the
Church whom they must obey -- at least not in the sense that religious
and clerics have a superior; but they do have, in compensation, a
“Lord” to obey! They have his word!
Let us conclude this meditation of ours making our own the prayer that
St. Augustine, in his “Confessions,” addresses to God to ask for the
understanding of God’s word: “May your Scriptures be my chaste delight;
may I not be deceived about them, nor deceive others with them. [...]
Turn your gaze to my soul and hear the one who cries out from the
depths. [...] Grant me time to meditate on the secrets of your law, do
not close to the one who knocks. [...] Indeed, your voice is my joy,
your voice is a pleasure superior to all others. Grant me what I love.
[...] Do not abandon this parched blade of grass. [...] May the
recesses of your word open to the one who knocks. [...] I beseech you
through our Lord Jesus Christ, [...] in whom are hidden all the
treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). These treasures I
seek in your books.”
* * *
 St. Ambrose, Exp. Ps. 118, 7,7 (PL 15, 1350).
 “Dei Verbum,” 21.
 John Paul II, "Novo Millennio Ineunte," 39.
 Benedict XVI, in AAS 97, 2005, p. 957.
 S. Kierkegaard, “Per l’esame di se stessi.” La Lattera di Giacomo,
1,22, in “Opere,” a cura di C. Fabro, Firenze 1972, pp. 909 ss.
 F. Collins, “The Language of God,” Free Press 2006, pp. 177 s.
 Guigo II, “Lettera sulla vita contemplativa” (Scala claustralium),
3, in Un itinerario di contemplazione. Antologia di autori certosini,
Edizioni Paoline, 1986, p.22.
 St. Augustine, Enarr. in Ps. 46, 1 (CCL 38, 529).
 St. Gregory the Great, Registr. Epist. IV, 31 (PL 77, 706).
 Celano, "Vita Seconda," X, 15
 St. Augustine, “Confessions.” 8, 12.
 St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Manoscritto A, n. 236.
 St. Gregory the Great, Su Ezechiele, I, 10, 31 (CCL 142, p. 159).
 St. Augustine, “Confessions.” XI, 2, 3-4.
* * *
to Be Read Spiritually, Says Preacher 2008
Delivers Final Lenten Meditation for Pope and Curia
ROME, MARCH 14, 2008 - Scripture is not only inspired by God, but also
"breathes forth God," that is, the Holy Spirit inhabits Scripture and
animates it, says the preacher of the Pontifical Household.
Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa said this today in the Lenten
meditation he delivered to Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia in the
Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.
The sermon was the last in a series of meditations the preacher gave
The series, titled "The Word of God Is Living and Effective," reflects
the theme of the next Synod of Bishops on the word of God, to be held
Father Cantalamessa spoke about the two meanings implied by 2 Timothy
3:16 "all Scripture is inspired by God."
He explained that the more common meaning is the "passive" one,
referring to the way that God directed the writers of the holy texts.
The second meaning, the preacher explained, is "active": Scripture, is
not only "inspired by God" but also "spirates God." "After having
dictated the Scripture, the Holy Spirit is in a way contained within
it; he ceaselessly inhabits it and animates it with his divine breath."
Setting him free
Father Cantalamessa then asked, "How do we approach the Scriptures in a
way that they truly 'free' the Spirit that they contain?"
He said that "in Scripture, the Spirit cannot be discovered if not by
passing through the letter, that is, through the concrete human vesture
that the word of God assumed in the different books and inspired
authors. In them the divine meaning cannot be discovered, if not by
beginning from the human meaning, the one intended by the human author,
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Luke, Paul, etc. It is in this that we find the
complete justification of the immense effort in study and research that
surrounds the book of Scripture."
But, Father Cantalamessa affirmed, there is a "tendency to stop at the
letter, considering the Bible an excellent book, the most excellent of
human books, if you will, but only a human book. Unfortunately we run
the risk of reducing Scripture to a single dimension."
The Pontifical Household preacher pointed to a sign of hope: "That the
demand for a spiritual reading of Scripture and one guided by faith is
now beginning to be felt by some eminent exegetes."
The Capuchin urged a furthering of this "spiritual reading."
He explained: "To speak of the 'spiritual' reading of the Bible is not
to speak of an edifying, mystical, subjective, or worse still,
imaginative, reading, in opposition to the scientific reading, which
would be objective. On the contrary, it is the most objective reading
that there is because it is based on the Spirit of God, not on the
spirit of man.
"Spiritual reading is therefore something that is quite precise and
objective; it is the reading that is done under the guidance of, or in
the light of, the Holy Spirit that inspired Scripture. It is based on a
historical event, namely, the redemptive act of Christ which, with his
death and resurrection, accomplishes the plan of salvation and realizes
all of the figures and the prophecies, it reveals all of the hidden
mysteries and offers the true key for reading the Bible."
Toward all truth
Father Cantalamessa said that this "spiritual reading" of Scripture
applies to both the Old and New Testaments.
"Reading the New Testament spiritually means reading it in the light of
the Holy Spirit given to the Church at Pentecost to lead the Church to
all truth, that is, to the complete understanding and actualization of
the Gospel," he said.
The preacher affirmed that spiritual reading both integrates and
surpassed scientific reading: "Scientific reading knows only one
direction, which is that of history; it explains, in fact, that which
comes after in light of that which comes before; it explains the New
Testament in the light of the Old which precedes it, and it explains
the Church in the light of the New Testament.
"Spiritual reading fully recognizes the validity of this direction of
research, but it adds an inverse direction to it. This consists in
explaining that which comes before in the light of that which comes
after, prophecy in the light of its realization, the Old Testament in
the light of the New and the New in the light of the tradition of the
Father Cantalamessa contended, then, that "that which is necessary is
not therefore a spiritual reading that would take the place of current
scientific exegesis, with a mechanical return to the exegesis of the
Fathers; it is rather a new spiritual reading corresponding to the
enormous progress recorded by the study of 'letter.' It is a reading,
in sum, that has the breath and faith of the Fathers and, at the same
time, the consistency and seriousness of current biblical science.
The Pontifical Household preacher ended his reflection with a word of
hope regarding a return to a spiritual reading like that of the Church
The Capuchin said "from the four winds the Spirit has begun
unexpectedly to blow again" and we "witness the reappearance of the
spiritual reading of the Bible and this too is a fruit -- one of the
more exquisite -- of the Spirit."
"Participating in Bible and prayer groups, I am stupefied in hearing,
at times, reflections on God's word that are analogous to those offered
by Origen, Augustine or Gregory the Great in their time, even if it is
in a more simple language," he said. "Let us conclude with a prayer
that I once heard a woman pray after she was read the episode in which
Elijah, ascending up to heaven, leaves Elisha two-thirds of his spirit.
"It is an example of spiritual reading in the sense I have just
explained: 'Thank you, Jesus, that ascending to heaven, you do not only
leave us two-thirds of your Spirit, but all of your Spirit! Thank you
that you did not give your Spirit to just one disciple, but to all
1st Lenten Sermon of Father
Cantalamessa Lent 2007:
"Blessed Are the Pure of Heart, for They Will See God"
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 11, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the
Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa
in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The
Pontifical Household preacher delivered it in the Mater Redemptoris
Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.
* * *
1. From ritual purity to
purity of heart
Continuing our reflection on the evangelical beatitudes that we began
in Advent, in this first Lenten meditation we would like to reflect on
the beatitude of the pure of heart.
Whoever today reads or hears proclaimed, "Blessed are the pure of
heart, for they will see God," instinctively thinks of the virtue of
purity almost as if this beatitude is the positive equivalent of the
Sixth Commandment, "Do not commit impure acts." This interpretation,
sporadically advanced in the course of the history of Christian
spirituality, became predominant beginning in the 19th century.
In reality, purity of heart does not indicate, in Christ's thinking, a
particular virtue, but a quality that should go along with all the
virtues, so that they are truly virtues and not rather "glittering
vices." Its most direct contrary is not impurity, but hypocrisy. A
little exegesis and history will help us to better understand.
What Jesus means by "purity of heart" is made clear by the context of
the Sermon on the Mount. According to the Gospel, what determines the
purity or impurity of an action -- whether it be almsgiving, fasting or
prayer -- is the intention: Is the deed done to be seen by men or to
"When you give alms sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do
in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men.
Truly, I say to you: They have already received their reward. But when
you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is
doing so that your alms may be secret; and your Father who sees in
secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:2-6).
Hypocrisy is the sin that is most powerfully denounced by God in the
Bible and the reason for this is clear. With his hypocrisy, man demotes
God, he puts him in second place, putting the creature, the public, in
first place. "Man sees the appearance, the Lord sees the heart" (1
Samuel 16:7): Cultivating our appearance more than our heart means
giving greater importance to man than to God.
Hypocrisy is thus essentially a lack of faith; but it is also a lack of
charity for our neighbor in the sense that it tends to reduce persons
to admirers. It does not recognize their proper dignity, but sees them
only in function of one's own image.
Christ's judgment on hypocrisy is without appeal: "Receperunt mercedem
suam" (They have already received their reward)! A reward that is,
above all, illusory, even on a human level because we know that glory
flees from those that seek it, and seeks those who flee from it.
Jesus' invectives against the scribes and the Pharisees also help us
understand the meaning of purity of heart. Jesus' criticisms focus on
the opposition between the "inside" and the "outside," the interior and
the exterior of man.
"Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like
whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are
full of dead men's bones and filth. So you also outwardly appear
righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity"
The revolution which Jesus brings about here is of incalculable
significance. Before him, except for some rare hint in the prophets and
the Psalms -- "Who will ascend the mountain of the Lord? Those whose
hands are innocent and whose hearts are pure" (Psalm 24:3) -- purity
was understood in a ritual and cultural way; it consisted in keeping
one's distance from things, animals, persons or places that were
understood to contaminate one and separate one from God's holiness.
Above all, these were things associated with birth, death, food and
sexuality. In different forms and with different presuppositions, other
religions outside the Bible shared these ideas.
Jesus makes a clean sweep of all these taboos and does so first of all
by certain gestures: He eats with sinners, touches lepers, mixes with
pagans. All of these were taken to be highly unsanitary things. He also
sweeps away these taboos with his teachings. The solemnity with which
he introduces his discourse on the pure and the impure makes apparent
how conscious he was of the novelty of his doctrine.
"And he called the people to him again and said to them: 'Hear me all
of you and understand; there is nothing outside a man that by going
into him can defile him. It is the things that come out of a man that
can defile him.... For from within, out of the heart of a man, come
evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting,
wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man'" (Mark
The Gospel writer, almost stupefied, notes: "Thus he declared all foods
clean" (Mark 7:19). Against the attempt of some Judaeo-Christians to
reinstate the distinction between pure and impure in foods and other
sectors of life, the apostolic Church forcefully repeats: "Everything
is clean for those who are pure" -- "omnia munda mundis" -- (Titus
1:15; cf. Romans 14:20).
Purity, understood as continence and chastity, is not absent from the
Gospel beatitude (Jesus also mentions fornication, adultery and
licentiousness among those things that defile the heart); they occupy a
limited and "secondary" place. They are one group among others in an
area in which the "heart" has a decisive place, as when Jesus says:
"Whoever looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with
her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28).
In fact, the terms "pure" and "purity" ("katharos," "katharotes") are
never used in the New Testament to indicate what we mean by them today,
namely, the absence of sins of the flesh. For these things other terms
are used: self-control ("enkrateia"), temperance ("sophrosune"),
From what has been said, it is clear that the one who is the pure of
heart par excellence is Jesus himself. His enemies are constrained to
say of him: "We know that you are true and care for no man" (Mark
12:14). Jesus could say of himself: "I do not seek my own glory" (John
2. A look at history
Early on in the exegesis of the Fathers of the Church we see the three
fundamental directions in which the beatitude of purity of heart will
be received in the history of Christian spirituality delineate
themselves: the moral, the mystical and the ascetic.
The moral interpretation emphasizes rectitude of intention, the
mystical interpretation emphasizes the vision of God, and the ascetic
interpretation emphasizes the struggle against the passions of the
flesh. We see these interpretations exemplified in Augustine, Gregory
of Nyssa and John Chrysostom, respectively.
Faithfully attending to the Gospel context, Augustine interprets the
beatitude in a moral way, as a refusal "to display one's justice before
men so as to be admired by them" (Matthew 6:1), and thus as simplicity
and frankness, which are opposed to hypocrisy. Augustine writes: "Only
he who has shrugged off human praise and in his life is concerned just
to please God, who searches our conscience, has a simple, that is,
Here the factor that determines purity of heart is one's intention.
"All our actions are honest and pleasing in the presence of God if they
are done with a sincere heart, that is, with love as their goal....
Thus, it is not so much the action that must be considered but the
intention with which it is done." This interpretive model, which
focuses on intention, will be operative for the whole subsequent
spiritual tradition, especially the Ignatian one.
The mystical interpretation, which has its first proponent in Gregory
of Nyssa, sees the beatitude in relation to contemplation. We must
purify our hearts of every link to the world and to evil; in this way
the heart of man will return to being that pure and limpid image of God
which it was in the beginning when in our own soul, as in a mirror, we
could "see God."
"If in the conduct of your life you are diligent and attentive, you
will wipe away the ugliness that has been deposited in your heart and
the divine beauty will shine forth in you.... Contemplating yourself
you will see him who is the desire of your heart, and you will be
Here all the weight is on the "apodosis," the fruit promised to
beatitude; having a pure heart is the means; the goal is "to see God."
Linguistically, the influence of the philosopher Plotinus is apparent,
and this will become even more evident in St. Basil.
This interpretive approach will also have a following in the subsequent
history of Christian spirituality, passing through St. Bernard, St.
Bonaventure and the Rhineland mystics. In some monastic circles an
interesting idea will be added: the idea of purity as an interior
unification that is obtained by willing only one thing, when this
"thing" is God. St. Bernard writes: "Blessed are the pure of heart, for
they will see God. As if to say: Purify your heart, set yourself apart
from everything, be a monk, that is, alone, seek just one thing from
the Lord and follow it (cf. Psalm 27:4), freed from everything, you
will see God (cf. Psalm 46:11)."
The ascetic interpretation is fairly isolated in the Fathers and
medieval authors. This interpretation focuses on chastity and will
become predominant, as I said, beginning in the 19th century.
Chrysostom is the clearest example of this approach. The mystic
Ruysbroeck, who distinguishes between chastity of spirit, chastity of
the heart and chastity of the body, is in this same line. He links the
Gospel beatitude to chastity of the heart. This chastity, he writes,
"recollects and reinforces the external senses, while, within, it curbs
and controls the animal instincts.... It closes the heart to earthly
things and deceptive enticements and opens it to heavenly things and to
With different degrees of fidelity, each of these orthodox
interpretations remains within the new horizon of the revolution
brought by Jesus, which leads every moral discourse back to the heart.
Paradoxically, those who have betrayed the Gospel beatitude of the pure
("katharoi") of heart are precisely those who have taken on its name:
the Cathars, with all the similar movements that preceded and followed
them in the history of Christianity. They fall into the category of
those who take purity to consist in being separated, ritually and
socially, from persons and things that are judged to be impure in
themselves. This is a more external than internal purity. These groups
are more the inheritors of the sectarian radicalism of the Pharisees
and of the Essenes than of the Gospel of Christ.
3. Nonreligious hypocrisy
Often emphasis is given to the social and cultural significance of some
beatitudes. It is not unusual to read "Blessed are the peacemakers" on
the banners carried in demonstrations by pacifists. And the beatitude
of the meek who will inherit the earth is rightly invoked in regard to
the principle of nonviolence, to say nothing of the beatitude of the
poor and the persecuted for justice's sake.
But the social relevance of the beatitude of the pure of heart is never
spoken of and seems to be exclusively reserved for the personal sphere.
I am convinced, however, that this beatitude could have a much needed
critical function in our society.
We have seen that in Christ's thinking, purity of heart is not opposed
primarily to impurity but to hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is perhaps the
most widespread human vice, and the least confessed. There are
individual and collective hypocrisies.
Man, Pascal wrote, has two lives: One is his true life and the other is
his imaginary one that he lives in his own opinion or in that of other
people. We work hard to embellish and conserve our imaginary being and
we neglect our true being. If we have some virtue or merit, we are
careful to make it known, in some way or other, so as to attach these
virtues to that imaginary existence. We would rather separate them from
ourselves to join them to it; and we would willingly be cowards in
order to acquire the reputation of being brave.
The tendency brought to light by Pascal has grown enormously in the
present culture, dominated by the mass media, film, television and the
entertainment industry in general. Descartes said: "Cogito ergo sum" (I
think therefore I am); but today this tends to be substituted with "I
appear therefore I am."
Originally the term hypocrisy was reserved for the theater. It simply
meant to act, to represent in a scene. St. Augustine notes this in his
commentary on the beatitude of the pure of heart. "The hypocrites," he
writes, "are the creators of fiction in the sense that they present the
personality of others in plays."
The origin of the term puts us on the way toward discovering the nature
of hypocrisy. It is making one's life a theater in which one acts for
an audience; it is to put on a mask, to cease to be a person and become
Somewhere I read this explanation of the two things: "The character is
nothing else than the corruption of the person. The person is a face,
the character is a mask. The person is radical nakedness, the character
is only clothing. The person loves authenticity and essentiality, the
character lives by fiction and artifice. The person obeys his own
convictions, the character obeys a script. The person is humble and
light, the character is heavy and cumbersome."
But the fiction of the theater is an innocent hypocrisy because it
always maintains the distinction between the stage and life. No one who
sees a performance of Agamemnon -- this is Augustine's example --
thinks that the actor is really Agamemnon. The new and disquieting
development is that today there is a tendency even to annul this
division, transforming life itself into a play. This is what the
so-called reality shows are about that are now all over television.
According to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who died just
last week [March 6], it has now become difficult to distinguish real
events -- the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Gulf War -- from their
media portrayal. Reality and virtuality are confused.
The call back to interiority that characterizes our beatitude and the
whole Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to not allow ourselves to be
drawn into this tendency that tends to empty the person, reducing him
to an image, or worse -- using a term dear to Baudrillard -- a
Kierkegaard drew our attention to the alienation that results from
living in pure exteriority, always and only in the presence of other
people, and never simply in the presence of God and our own "I."
A farmer, he observed, can be an "I" before his cows, if he is always
living with them and has only them as his measure. A king can be an "I"
before his subjects and he will feel like an important "I." The child
grasps himself as an "I" in relation to his parents, a citizen before
But it will always be an imperfect "I" because it lacks the proper
measure. "But what an infinite reality my 'I' acquires when it becomes
aware of existing before God, becoming a human 'I' whose measure is
God.... What an infinite accent falls on the 'I' in the moment that God
becomes my measure!"
It seems like a commentary on the saying of St. Francis of Assisi:
"That which man is before God, that is what he is and nothing else."
4. Religious hypocrisy
The worst thing that a hypocrite can do is to take himself as the
standard by which to judge others, society, culture and the world.
These are precisely the ones whom Jesus calls hypocrites: "Hypocrite,
first take the plank from your own eye and then you will see clearly to
take the speck out of your brother's eye" (Matthew 7:5).
As believers, we have to remember the saying of a Jewish rabbi who
lived during the time of Christ, and according to whom, 90% of the
hypocrisy of the world was found in Jerusalem. Already the martyr
St. Ignatius of Antioch felt the need to admonish his brothers in
faith: "It is better to be Christians without saying so than to say so
without being so."
Hypocrisy seduces pious and religious persons above all, and the reason
for this is simple: Where there is the strongest esteem of the values
of the spirit, of piety and virtue (and of orthodoxy!), the temptation
to affect these so as not to seem lacking in them is also the
strongest. "Certain official positions in human society," writes
Augustine, "must of necessity make us loved and honored by our fellows.
On every side the enemy of our true happiness spreads his snares of
'Well done! Well done!' so that grabbing greedily at these praises we
may be caught by surprise, and abandon our delight in your truth to
look for it, instead in human flattery. So the affection and honor we
receive come to be something we enjoy not for your sake, but in your
The most pernicious hypocrisy would be to hide one's own hypocrisy. I
have never found in any aid to an examination of conscience such
questions as: Am I a hypocrite? Am I more concerned with how other
people see me than with how God sees me? At a certain point in my life
I had to introduce these questions into my examination of conscience
myself, and rarely was I able to pass without a problem to the
questions that followed these.
One day, listening to the parable of the talents read at Mass, I
suddenly understood something. Between bearing fruit with what one is
given and not bearing fruit, there is a third possibility: that of
bearing fruit, not for the one who has given us what we have, but for
our own glory or our own interest, and this is perhaps a graver sin
than bearing no fruit at all. That day at Communion I had to do as
certain thieves do when they are surprised in the act and, full of
shame, empty their pockets and throw what they have stolen at the feet
of the owner.
Jesus has left us a simple and unsurpassable means of rectifying our
intentions at various times throughout the day, the first three
questions of the Our Father: "Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done." These can be said as prayers but they can also be
declarations of intention: All that I do, I want to do it so that your
name will be sanctified, so that your kingdom will come and your will
It would be a precious contribution to society and the Christian
community if the beatitude of the pure of heart would help us to
maintain alive in us the nostalgia for a world that is clean, true,
without religious hypocrisy or nonreligious hypocrisy; a world in which
actions corresponded to words, words to thoughts, and the thoughts of
man to those of God. This will only fully happen in the heavenly
Jerusalem, the city made of crystal, but we must at least strive for it.
An author of fables wrote a fable called "The Glass Town." In the story
a young girl ends up by magic in a town made of glass: glass houses,
glass birds, glass trees, people who move like graceful glass statues.
But nothing in this town breaks because everyone has learned how to
move about in it with care so as not to do any damage. Upon meeting
each other, the people answer questions before they are even asked them
because even thoughts are evident and transparent in this town; no one
tries to lie, knowing that everyone can read what is on his mind.
We shudder to think what would happen if this suddenly occurred here
among us; but it is salutary to at least tend toward such an ideal.
This is the road that will carry us to the beatitude that we have tried
to comment on: "Blessed are the pure of heart for they will see God."
* * *
 St. Augustine, "De sermone Domini in monte," II, 1, 1 (CC 35, p.
 Ibid. II, 13, 45-46.
 Jean-François de Reims, "La vraie perfection de cette vie,"
Part 2, Paris 1651, Instr. 4, p. 160.
 Gregory of Nyssa, "De beatitudinibus," 6 (PG 44, p. 1272).
 St. Basil, "On the Holy Spirit," IX, 23; XXII, 53 (PG 32, 109,168).
 Cf. Michel Dupuy, "Pureté," in DSpir. 12, pp. 2637-2645.
 St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "Sententiae," III, 2 (S. Bernardi Opera,
ed. J. Leclerq and H. M. Rochais).
 St. John Chrysostom, "Homiliae in Mattheum," 15, 4.
 John Ruysbroeck, "Lo splendore delle nozze spirituali," Roma,
Città Nuova 1992, pp.72 f.
 Cf. Blaise Pascal, "Pensées," 147 Br.
 St. Augustine, "De sermone Domini in monte," 2, 5 (CC 35, p. 95).
 St. Francis of Assisi, "Ammonizioni," 19 (Fonti Francescane,
 Cf. Strack-Billerbeck, I, 718.
 St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Ephesians" 15:1 ("It is better to say
nothing and to be, than to chatter and not be") and "Magnesians," 4
("It is necessary not only to call ourselves Christians but also to be
 Cf. St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 36, 59.
 Lauretta, "Il bosco dei lillà," Ancora, Milano, 2nd ed.
1994, pp. 90ff.
Preacher Calls Curia to Meekness
Father Cantalamessa Continues Lenten Sermons
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 16, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The beatitudes are a
self-portrait of Jesus, says Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa and
thus, we should not only imitate them but also make them our own.
He said this today during a Lenten reflection in the presence of
Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel.
In faith we can "drink the meekness of Christ, as well as his purity of
heart and any other virtue of his," the Capuchin said.
Father Cantalamessa said that we can pray for meekness, in the same way
that St. Augustine prayed for chastity: "O God, you ask that I be meek;
give me what you ask and ask me what you will."
His Lenten reflections have focused on the Eight Beatitudes; today's
was: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
Humility and patience
The beatitudes are Jesus' self-portrait, Father Cantalamessa said: "He
is the true poor one, meek, pure of heart, persecuted for
To understand the full meaning of meekness, the Pontifical Household
preacher underlined two constant associations of the Bible and ancient
Christian exhortations: meekness and humility, and meekness and
"One shows the interior dispositions from which meekness springs; the
other the attitudes one should have toward one's neighbor: affability,
gentleness, courtesy," Father Cantalamessa said.
The Gospels "are the demonstration of Christ's meekness, in its dual
aspect of humility and patience," he pointed out. "Highest proof of
Christ's meekness was witnessed in his passion: … no gesture of anger,
no threat; … but Jesus did much more than give us an example of
meekness and heroic patience."
"He made of meekness and nonviolence the sign of true greatness," the
priest said; so that the latter "no longer consists in raising oneself
above others, above the masses, but in lowering oneself to serve and
The social relevance of the beatitudes is perhaps clearest in this call
to meekness, the preacher said, referring to the extraordinary
relevance of this beatitude "in the debate on religion and violence."
"The Gospel leaves no room for doubt. In it there are no exhortations
to nonviolence mixed with contrary exhortations," he said.
Father Cantalamessa then directed his meditation to the theme of the
heart, saying that meekness is rooted there.
Echoing Gospel teaching, he warned that it is from the heart that evil,
violent explosions, wars and conflicts proceed, as well as violent
However, he added, these thoughts can be blocked when they are not
charitable: "Our mind has the capacity to prevent the development of a
thought, to know, from the beginning, where it will end: either in
forgiving or in condemning one's brother, either in one's own glory or
in that of God."
Father Cantalamessa recalled the promise linked to the beatitude of the
meek -- they shall inherit the earth, "which is realized on several
planes, until the definitive promised land, which is eternal life."
"But," he added "certainly one of the planes is human: The earth is
men's hearts. The meek win trust, they attract souls."
2nd Lenten Sermon of Father
"Blessed Are the Meek, For They Shall Inherit the Land" (March 2007)
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 18, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the
Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa
in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The
Pontifical Household preacher delivered the reflection in the Mater
Redemptoris Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.
* * *
1. Who are the meek?
The beatitude on which we wish to meditate today lends itself to an
important observation. It says: "Blessed are the meek for they shall
inherit the land." Now, in another passage of the same Gospel, Jesus
exclaims: "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Matthew
11:29). We conclude from this that the beatitudes are not a nice
ethical program traced by the master for his followers; they are a
self-portrait of Jesus! Jesus is the one who is truly poor, meek, pure
of heart, persecuted for the sake of justice.
Here is the limitation of Gandhi's interpretation of the Sermon on the
Mount, which he so much admired. For Gandhi the whole sermon might have
just as well been considered apart from the historical person of
Christ. "It does not matter to me," he once said, "if someone
demonstrated that the man Jesus never lived and that what we read in
the Gospels is nothing more than a production of the author's
imagination. The Sermon on the Mount will always remain true in my
On the contrary, it is the person and life of Christ that make of the
beatitudes and the whole Sermon on the Mount something more than a
beautiful ethical utopia; they make of them an historical reality, from
which everyone can draw strength through mystical union with the person
of the Savior. They do not merely belong to the order of duties but to
the order of grace.
To see who the meek whom Jesus proclaims "blessed" are, it would be
helpful to briefly review the various terms with which the word "meek"
("praeis") is rendered in modern translations: "meek" ("miti") and
"mild" ("mansueti"). The latter is also the word used in the Spanish
translations, "los mansos," the mild. In French the word is translated
with "doux," literally "the sweet," those who have the virtue of
sweetness. (There is no specific word in French for "meekness"; in the
"Dictionnaire de spiritualité," this virtue is treated in the
entry "douceur," that is, "sweetness.")
In German, different translations alternate. Luther translated the term
with "Sanftmütigen," that is, "meek," "sweet"; in the ecumenical
translation of the Bible, the "Einheits Bibel," the meek are those who
do not act violently -- "die Keine Gewalt anwenden -- thus the
non-violent; some authors accentuate the objective and sociological
dimension and translate "praeis" with "machtlosen," "the weak," "those
without power." English usually renders "praeis" with "the gentle,"
introducing the nuance of niceness and courtesy into the beatitude.
Each of these translations highlights a true but partial component of
the beatitude. If we want to get an idea of the original richness of
the Gospel term it is necessary to keep all the elements together and
to not isolate any. Two regular associations, in the Bible and in
ancient Christian exhortation, help us to grasp the "full meaning" of
meekness: one is the linking of meekness and humility and the other is
the linking of meekness and patience; the one highlights the interior
dispositions from which meekness flows, the other the attitudes that
meekness causes us to have toward our neighbor: affability, sweetness,
kindness. These are the same traits that the Apostle emphasizes when
speaking about charity: "Charity is patient, it is kind, it is not
disrespectful, it is not angry." (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).
2. Jesus, the meek
If the beatitudes are a self-portrait of Christ, the first thing to do
in commenting on them is to see how they were lived by him. The Gospels
are from beginning to end a demonstration of the meekness of Christ in
its dual aspect of humility and patience. Jesus himself, we pointed
out, proposes himself as the model of meekness. Matthew applies to
Jesus the saying of the Servant of God in Isaiah: "He will no wrangle
or cry out, he will not break a bruised reed nor quench a smoldering
wick" (cf. Mark 12:19-20). His entrance into Jerusalem on the back of a
donkey is seen as an example of a "meek" king who refuses all ideas of
violence and war (cf. Matthew 21:4).
The maximum proof of Christ's meekness is in his passion. There is no
wrath, there are no threats: "When he was reviled he did not revile in
return, when he suffered, he did not threaten" (1 Peter 2:23). This
trait of the person of Christ was so stamped in the memory of his
disciples that Paul, wanting to swear by something dear and sacred in
his second letter to the Corinthians writes: "I entreat you by the
meekness ("prautes") and the gentleness ("epiekeia") of Christ" (2
But Jesus did much more than give us an example of heroic meekness and
patience; he made of meekness and nonviolence the true sign of
greatness. This will no longer mean holding oneself alone above, above
the crowd, but to humble oneself to serve and elevate others. On the
cross, St. Augustine says, the true victory does not consist in making
victims of others but in making oneself a victim: "Victor quia
Nietzsche, we know, was opposed to this vision, calling it "slave
morality," suggested by a natural "resentment" of the weak toward the
strong. According to him, in preaching humility and meekness, making
oneself small, turning the other cheek, Christianity introduced a type
of cancer into humanity which destroyed its élan and mortified
life. In the introduction to "Thus Spake Zarathustra," Nietzsche's
sister summarized the philosopher's thought in this way: "He believes
that, on account of the resentment of a weak and falsified
Christianity, all that was beautiful, strong, superior, powerful --
like the virtues that come from strength -- was proscribed and banned
and thus the forces that promote and exalt life were diminished. But
now a new table of values must be given to humanity, that is, the man
who is strong, powerful, magnificent to excess, the 'superman,' which
is presented to us with great passion as the goal of our life, our
will, our hope."
For some time we have been witnessing this attempt to absolve Nietzsche
from every accusation, to domesticate and, in the end, Christianize
him. It is said that at bottom he was not against Christ, but against
Christians who made self-denial an end in itself, despising life and
acting cruelly toward the body. Everyone has apparently betrayed
Nietzsche's true thought, starting with Hitler. In reality, he would
have been the prophet of a new era, the precursor of postmodernity.
One might say that there has been a lone voice to oppose himself to
this tendency, the French thinker René Girard. According to him,
all of these efforts have done an injustice, above all to Nietzsche
himself. With a perspicacity unique for his time, Girard got to the
heart of the matter. With Nietzsche we are faced with two absolute
alternatives: paganism or Christianity.
Paganism exalts the sacrifice of the weak for the benefit of the strong
and the advancement of life; Christianity exalts the sacrifice of the
strong for the benefit of the weak. It is hard not to see an objective
connection between Nietzsche's proposal and Hitler's program of
eliminating whole groups of human beings for the advancement of
civilization and the purity of the race.
Nietzsche does not just target Christianity, but Christ. "Dionysus
against the Crucified: this is the antithesis," he exclaimed in one
Girard shows that one of the greatest boasts of modern society --
concern for victims, taking the side of the weak and oppressed, the
defense of the life that is threatened -- is in truth a direct product
of the revolution brought by the Gospel. However, by a paradoxical play
of imitative rivalries, these values have been claimed by other
movements as their own achievement and this precisely in opposition to
In the previous meditation I spoke about the social relevance of the
beatitudes. The beatitude of the meek is perhaps the clearest example,
but what is said of it is valid for all the beatitudes. They are the
manifesto of the new greatness, the way of Christ to self-realization,
It is not true that the Gospel kills the desire to do great things and
to esteem. Jesus says: "If someone wants to be first, he must become
the least of all and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35). The desire to be
first is thus legitimate, indeed it is recommended; it is only that the
way to first place has changed: It is not reached by raising ourselves
up above others, squashing them perhaps if they are in our way, but by
lowering ourselves to raise up others together with us.
3. Meekness and tolerance
The beatitude of the weak has come to be extraordinarily relevant in
the debate about religion and violence that was ignited following the
events of 9/11. It reminds us Christians, above all, that the Gospel
leaves no room for doubt. There are no exhortations to nonviolence
mixed with contrary exhortations. Christians may, at certain times,
distance themselves from it, but the Gospel is clear and the Church can
return to it always and be inspired, knowing that it will find nothing
else there but moral perfection.
The Gospel says that "he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark
16:16), but condemned in heaven, not on earth, by God not by men. "When
they persecute you in one city," Jesus says, "flee to another" (Matthew
10:23); he does not say: "Fight back." Once two of his disciples, James
and John, who were not welcomed in a certain Samaritan village, said to
Jesus: "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven upon them to
consume them?" Jesus, it is written, "turned and reproved them." Many
manuscripts also report the tenor of the reproof: "You do not know of
which spirit you are. The Son of Man did not come to lose the souls of
men but to save them" (cf. Luke 9:53-55).
The famous "compelle intrare," "constrain them to enter," with which
St. Augustine, even if with a heavy heart , justifies his approval
of the imperial laws against the Donatists, and which will be used
afterward to justify the coercion of heretics, stems from an obvious
forcing of the Gospel text, fruit of a mechanical literal reading of
Jesus puts the line in the mouth of a man who had prepared a great
feast and, faced with the refusal of those invited to come, he tells
his servants to go out into the highways and hedges and "force the
poor, the feeble, the blind, and the lame to come" (cf. Luke 14:15-24).
It is clear from the context that "force" does not mean anything other
than a friendly insistence. The poor and the feeble, as all the
unfortunate, might feel embarrassed to come to the house: Wear down
their resistance, says the master, and tell them to not be afraid to
come. How often we ourselves have said in similar circumstances: "I was
forced to accept," knowing that insistence in these cases is a sign of
benevolence and not violence.
In a recent book on Jesus that has had a great deal of attention in
Italy, the following statement is attributed to Jesus: "And those
enemies of mine who did not want me to become their king, bring them
here and kill them before me" (Luke 19:27) and it is concluded that it
is to statements such as this that "supporters of 'holy war' have
recourse." Now it needs to be said that Luke does not attribute
these words to Jesus, but to the king in the parable, and we know that
all the details of the parable are not supposed to be transferred to
reality, and in any case, they are to be transferred from the material
to the spiritual level.
4. With meekness and respect
But let us leave aside these considerations of an apologetic sort and
try to see what light the beatitude of the meek can shed on our
Christian life. There is a pastoral application of the beatitude of the
meek that is initiated by the first letter of Peter. It regards
dialogue with the outside world: "Worship the Lord, Christ, in your
hearts, always ready to answer whoever asks you the reason for the hope
in you. But let this be done with meekness ("prautes") and respect" (1
From ancient times there has been two types of apologetics, one that
has its model in Tertullian, and the other that has its model in
Justin; the one aims at winning, the other at convincing. Justin wrote
a "Dialogue with Trypho the Jew," Tertullian (or his disciple) wrote
"Against the Jews." Both of these styles have had their following in
Christian writing (our Giovanni Papini was certainly closer to
Tertullian than to Justin), but today the first style is preferred of
The martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch suggested to the Christians of his
time, in relation to the outside world, this always relevant attitude:
"Faced with their rage, be meek; faced with their arrogance, be
The promise linked to the beatitude of the meek -- "they will inherit
the land" -- is realized on different levels; there is the definitive
promised land of eternal life, but there is also the land which is the
hearts of men. The meek win confidence, they attract souls. The saint
of meekness and sweetness par excellence, St. Francis de Sales, often
said: "Be as sweet as you can and remember that more flies are captured
by a drop of honey than with a barrel of vinegar."
5. Learn from me
We could remain for a long time on these pastoral applications of the
beatitude of the meek but let us pass to a more personal application.
Jesus says: "Learn from me for I am meek." We might object: But Jesus
himself was not always meek! He said, for example, not to oppose the
evil doer and "to him who strikes you on the right cheek, turn and give
him the other" (Matthew 5:39). However, when one the guards strikes him
on the cheek during the trial before the Sanhedrin, it is not written
that he gave him the other cheek, but that with calmness he replied:
"If I said something wrong, show it to me; but if I spoke well, why do
you strike me?" (John 18:23).
This means that not everything in the Sermon on the Mount should be
understood mechanically in a literal way; Jesus, according to his
style, uses hyperbole and images to better imprint the idea on the mind
of his disciples. In the case of turning the other cheek, for example,
what is important is not the gesture of turning the other cheek (which
might sometimes serve more to provoke a person), but not responding to
violence with violence, but to win with calm.
In this sense, his response to the guard is an example of divine
meekness. To measure its range, it is enough to compare it to the
reaction of his apostle Paul (who was himself a saint) in an analogous
situation. When, during Paul's trial before the Sanhedrin, the high
priest Ananias orders Paul to be struck on the mouth, he answers: "God
will strike you, you whitewashed wall!" (Acts 23:2-3).
Another matter should be clarified. In the same Sermon on the Mount
Jesus says: "He who says to his brother: 'Idiot,' will be subject to
the Sanhedrin; and he who says to him: 'Fool,' will suffer the fire of
Gahenna" (Matthew 5:22). Now on many occasions in the Gospel Jesus
turns to the scribes and the Pharisees, calling them "hypocrites,"
"fools" and "blind men" (cf. Matthew 23:17). Jesus also reproves the
disciples, calling them "idiots" and "slow of heart" (cf. Luke 24:25).
Here the explanation is likewise simple. We need to distinguish between
injury and correction. Jesus condemns the words said with anger and
with the intention of offending the brother, not those that aim at
making one aware of his error and at correcting. A father who says to
his son that he is undisciplined, disobedient, does not intend to
offend him but to correct him. Moses is called by Scripture "the most
mild of all men on earth" (Numbers 12:3), and yet in Deuteronomy we
hear him respond to the rebellious Israel: "Thus you repay the Lord,
you foolish and senseless people?" (Deuteronomy 12:3).
Let us take are guide here from St. Augustine. "Love and do what you
will," he says. If you love, whether you correct or not, it will be
from love. Love does no evil to one's neighbor. From the root of love,
as from a good tree, only good fruit can grow.
6. The meek of heart
Thus we arrive on the proper terrain of the beatitude of the meek, the
heart. Jesus says: "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart."
True meekness is decided there. It is from the heart, he says, that
murders, wickedness, calumny come (Mark 7:21-22), as from the boiling
within a volcano come lava, ashes, and fiery stones. The greatest
explosions of violence begin, says St. James, secretly in "the passions
that are stirred up within man" (cf. James 4:1-2). Just as there is an
adultery in the heart, there is also a murder in the heart: "Whoever
hates his own brother," writes John, "is a murderer" (1 John 3:15).
There is not only the violence of hands, there is also that of
thoughts. Inside of us, if we pay attention, there are almost always
"trials behind closed doors" going on. An anonymous monk has written
pages of great penetration on this theme. He speaks as a monk, but what
he says is not just valid for monasteries; he considers the example of
inferiors in a religious community, but it is plain that the problem
occurs in another way also for superiors.
"Observe," he says, "even for just one day, the course of your
thoughts: You will be surprised by the frequency and the vivacity of
the internal criticisms made with imaginary interlocutors. What is
their typical origin? It is this: The unhappiness with superiors who do
not care for us, do not esteem us, do not understand us; they are
severe, unjust, or too stingy with us or with other 'oppressed
persons.' We are unhappy with our brothers, who are 'without
understanding, hard-bitten, curt, confused, or injurious.… Thus in our
spirit a tribunal is created in which we are the prosecutor, judge, and
jury; we defend and justify ourselves; the absent accused is condemned.
Perhaps we make plans for our vindication or revenge."
The desert fathers, not having to fight against external enemies, made
of this interior battle with thoughts (the famous "logismoi") the
benchmark for all spiritual progress. They also worked out a method for
their combat. Our mind, they said, has the capacity to anticipate the
unfolding of a thought, to know, from the beginning, where it will go:
To excuse or condemn a brother, toward our own glory or the glory of
God. "It is the monk's task," said an older monk, "to see his thoughts
from afar" and to bar their way when they go against charity. The
easiest way to do it is say a short prayer or to bless the person that
we are tempted to judge. Afterward, with a calm mind, we can decide how
we should act toward him.
7. Put on the meekness of Christ
One observation before concluding. By their nature the beatitudes are
oriented toward practice; they call for imitation, they accentuate the
work of man. There is the danger that we will become discouraged in
experiencing an incapacity to put them to practice in our own lives,
and by the great distance between the ideal and the practice.
We must recall to mind what was said at the beginning: The beatitudes
are Jesus' self-portrait. He lived them all and did so in the highest
degree; but -- and this is the good news -- he did not live them only
for himself, but also for all of us. With the beatitudes we are called
not only to imitation, but also to appropriation. In faith we can draw
from the meekness of Christ, just as we can draw from his purity of
heart and every other virtue. We can pray to have meekness as Augustine
prayed to have chastity: "O God, you have commanded me to be meek; give
to me that which you command and command me to do what you will."
"As the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on the sentiments of mercy,
goodness, humility, mildness ("prautes"), and patience" (Colossians
3:12), writes the Apostle to the Colossians. Mildness and meekness are
like a robe that Christ merited for us and which, in faith, we can put
on, not to be dispensed from pursuing them but to help us in their
practice. Meekness ("prautes") is placed by Paul among the fruits of
the Spirit (Galatians 5:23), that is, among the qualities that the
believer manifests in his life when he receives the Spirit of Christ
and makes an effort to correspond to the Spirit.
We can end reciting together with confidence the beautiful invocation
of the litany of the Sacred Heart: "Jesus meek and humble of heart,
make our hearts like yours" ("Jesu, mitis et humilis corde: fac cor
nostrum secundum cor tutum").
* * *
 Gandhi, "Buddismo, Cristianesimo, Islamismo," Rome, Tascabili
Newton Compton, 1993, p. 53.
 St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 43.
 Introduction to the 1919 edition of "Also sprach Zarathustra."
 Friedrich Nietzsche, "Complete Works," VIII, Frammenti postumi
1888-1889, Milan, Adelphi, 1974, p. 56.
 R. Girard, "Vedo Satana cadere come folgore," Milano, Adelphi,
2001, pp. 211-236.
 St. Augustine, Epistle 93, 5: "Before I was of the opinion that no
one should be forced into the unity of Christ but that we should only
act with words, fight through discussion, and convince with reason."
 Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce, "Inchiesta su Gesù," Milan,
Mondadori, 2006, p. 52.
 St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Letter to the Ephesians," 10, 2-3.
 St. Augustine, "Commentary on the First Letter of John," 7, 8 (PL
 A monk, "Le porte del silenzio," Milan, Ancora, 1986, p. 17
(Originale: "Les porte du silence," Geneva, Libraire Claude Martigny).
 "Detti e fatti dei Padri del deserto," edited by C. Campo and P.
Draghi, Milan, Rusconi, 1979, p. 66.
 Cf. St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 29.
3rd Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa
"Blessed Are You Who Hunger Now, for You Will Satisfied"
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 25, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the
Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa
in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The
Pontifical Household preacher delivered the reflection in the
Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.
* * *
1. The beatitudes and the historical Jesus
The research on the historical Jesus, so in fashion today -- whether it
be conducted by scholars who are believers or the radical research of
nonbelievers -- hides a grave danger: It can lead one to believe that
only what, for this new approach, can be verified of the earthly Jesus
is "authentic" while all the rest would be nonhistorical and therefore
"inauthentic." This would mean unjustifiably limiting God's means for
revealing himself to history alone. It would mean tacitly abandoning
such a truth of faith as biblical inspiration and therefore the
revealed character of Scripture.
It appears that the attempt not to narrow New Testament research to the
historical approach is beginning to gain momentum among various
biblical scholars. In 2005 a consultation on "Canon Criticism and
Theological Interpretation" was held at the Pontifical Biblical
Institute in Rome with the participation of eminent New Testament
scholars. The consultation had the purpose of promoting the aspect of
biblical interpretation that takes the canonical dimension of the
Scriptures into account and integrates it with historical research and
the theological dimension.
From all this we conclude that the "word of God," and therefore that
which is normative for the believer, is not the hypothetical "original
nucleus" variously reconstructed by historians, but that which is
written in the Gospels. The results of historical research must be
taken seriously because they even guide the understanding of the
posterior developments of the tradition; but we will continue to
pronounce the exclamation "The Word of God!" at the end of the of the
reading of the Gospel text, not at the end of the reading of the latest
book on the historical Jesus.
These observations are particularly helpful when we deal with the use
we should make of the Gospel beatitudes. It has come to be known that
the beatitudes have reached us in two different versions. Matthew has
eight beatitudes, Luke only four, followed by corresponding contrary
"woes"; in Matthew the discourse is indirect: "Blessed are the poor ...
blessed are the hungry"; in Luke the discourse is direct: "Blessed are
you who are poor ... blessed are you who hunger"; Luke has "poor" and
"hungry," Matthew has poor "in spirit" and hungry for "justice."
After all the critical work done to distinguish that which, in the
beatitudes, comes from the historical Jesus and that which comes from
Matthew and Luke, the task of the believer of today is not to choose
one of the versions as authentic and leave the other aside. What needs
to be done rather is to gather up the message contained in both
versions and -- according to the contexts and necessities of today --
give precedence, from time to time, to one or the other perspective as
the two Evangelists themselves did in their time.
2. Who are the hungry and the satiated?
Following this principle, let us reflect today on the beatitude of the
hungry, taking Luke's version as our point of departure: "Blessed are
you who hunger, for you will be satisfied." We will see later that
Matthew's version, which speaks of "hunger for justice" is not opposed
to Luke's version but confirms and reinforces it.
The hungry of Luke's beatitude are not in a different category from the
poor mentioned in the first beatitude. They are the same poor people
considered in their most dramatic condition: the lack of food. In a
parallel way the "satiated" are the rich, who in their prosperity, can
satisfy not only their needs but also their wants in regard to food. It
is Jesus himself who is concerned to explain who the satiated and who
the hungry are. He does this with the parable of the rich man and the
poor man Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). This parable also looks at poverty
and prosperity under the aspect of lack of food and superabundance of
food: the rich man "feasted sumptuously every day"; the poor man
desired in vain "to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table."
The parable, however, explains not only who the hungry and the satiated
are but also and above all why the former are called blessed and the
latter are called unfortunate. "One day the poor man died and was
carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and
was buried ... and was tormented in Hades." This reveals where the two
roads lead: the narrow one of poverty and the broad and spacious one of
Prosperity and being satiated tend to enclose man in an earthly horizon
because "where your treasure is, there is your heart" (Luke 12:34);
gluttony and drunkenness weigh down the heart, suffocating the seed of
the word (cf. Luke 21:34); they cause the rich man to forget that that
very night he might be asked to give an account of his life (Luke
16:19-31); they make entering into the kingdom "more difficult than the
passing of a camel through the eye of a needle" (Luke 18:25).
The rich man and the other rich people of the Gospel are not condemned
just because they are rich but for the use they make or do not make of
their riches. In the parable of the rich man Jesus makes it clear that
there is a way out for the rich man: He could think of Lazarus at his
door and share his sumptuous feast with him.
The remedy, in other words, is for the rich to make friends with the
poor (cf. Luke 16:9); the unfaithful steward is praised for doing this
but in the wrong way (Luke 16:1-8). Satiety, however, drains the spirit
and makes it very difficult for one to follow the road to assisting the
poor; the story of Zaccheus shows how it is possible but also how rare
it is. Thus we can understand the reason for the "woe" directed to the
rich and satiated; but it is a "woe" that is more of a "Look out!" than
a "Be accursed!"
3. He has filled the hungry with good things
From this point of view the best commentary on the beatitudes of the
hungry and the poor is that pronounced by Mary in the Magnificat.
"He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in
the imagination of their hearts; he has cast down the mighty from their
thrones, he has exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good
things, he has sent the rich away empty-handed" (Luke 1:51-53).
With a series of strong aorist verbs, Mary describes a reversal and a
radical change of places among men: "He has cast down -- he has
exalted"; "he has filled -- he has sent away empty-handed." Something
has already happened or typically happens in God's acting. Looking at
history, it does not seem that that there has been a social revolution
in which the rich, by a stroke, have been impoverished and the hungry
have had their fill. If therefore what we expected was a social and
visible change, history suggests that a lie has been told.
The reversal has happened, but in faith! The kingdom of God has been
revealed and this has provoked a silent but radical revolution. The
rich man is like a person who has set aside a large sum of money;
during the night there is a coup d'état and the value of the
money has dropped 100%; the rich man wakes up the next morning but he
does not know that he has been reduced to poverty. The poor and the
hungry, on the contrary, have gained an advantage because they are
better prepared to accept the new reality, they do not fear the change;
they have a ready heart.
St. James, addressing the rich, said: "Weep and howl for the miseries
that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted" (James 5:1-2). Even
here there is no report from the time of St. James that the wealth of
the rich rotted in the granaries. What the apostle is saying rather is
that something has come which has made the wealth of the rich lose all
its value; a new wealth has been revealed. "God," St. James writes,
"chose the poor of the world to make them rich with faith and heirs of
the kingdom" (James 2:5).
More than an "incitement to cast down the mighty from their thrones and
exalt the lowly," as it has sometimes been written, the Magnificat is a
salutary admonition addressed to the rich and powerful about the
tremendous danger they are courting; it is just like the "woes" Jesus
pronounces in the parable of the rich man.
4. A parable with contemporary relevance
It is not enough for a reflection on the beatitude of the hungry and
the satiated to stop at an explanation of their exegetical
significance; it must also help us to read the situation around us with
evangelical eyes and to act in accord with the meaning of the beatitude.
The parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus repeats itself
today in our midst on a global scale. The two characters stand
precisely for two hemispheres: The rich man represents the Northern
Hemisphere (Western Europe, America, Japan); Lazarus is, with a few
exceptions, the Southern Hemisphere. Two characters, two worlds: the
"First World" and the "Third World." Two worlds of unequal greatness:
What we call the "Third World" in fact represents "Two Thirds of the
World." (The usage of this new term is growing.)
Someone has compared the earth to a spaceship on a voyage through the
cosmos. In the spaceship one of the three astronauts consumes 85% of
the resources present and takes it upon himself to try to grab the
remaining 15%. Waste is normal in the rich countries. Years ago
research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined
that of 161 billion kilos (354.9 billion pounds) of food products, 43
billion -- that is, a fourth -- end up in the garbage. If we wanted to,
we could easily recover about 2 billion kilos (4.4 billion pounds) of
this food that has been thrown away, a quantity that would be
sufficient to feed 4 million people for one year.
Indifference -- pretending not to see, "passing to the other side of
the road" (cf. Luke 10:31) -- is perhaps the greatest sin committed
against the poor and hungry. Ignoring the great multitude of hungry,
beggars, homeless, those without medical care, and above all those
without hope for a better future -- Pope John Paul II wrote in the
encyclical "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis" -- "means becoming like the rich
man who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus laying at his gate."
We tend to put between ourselves and the poor double glass panes.
Double panes -- much in use today -- prevent cold and noise from
entering; whatever reaches us gets muffled and weakened. And in fact we
see the poor move about, get upset, and cry out behind the television
screen, on the pages of the newspaper and missionary magazines, but
their cry reaches us from far away. It does not reach the heart or only
touches it for a moment.
The first thing to do in regard to the poor, therefore, is to break the
"double panes," overcome indifference and insensitivity, throw down the
defenses, and allow ourselves to be invaded by a healthy unease on
account of the frightening misery that there is in the world. We are
called to share the sigh of Christ: "I feel compassion for this crowd
that has nothing to eat": "Misereor super turba" (cf. Mark 8:2). When
we have the occasion to see what misery and hunger is with our own
eyes, visiting the villages in the rural interior or on the outskirts
of great cities in certain African countries (this happened to me some
months ago in Rwanda), we are choked up by compassion and left without
The elimination or reduction of the unjust and scandalous abyss that
exists between the satiated and the hungry of the world is the most
urgent and most enormous task that humanity has left undone as we enter
the new millennium. It is a task in which the religions above all must
distinguish themselves and cooperate beyond all rivalry. Such a
momentous undertaking cannot be promoted by any political leader or
power influenced by the interests of their own nation and often by
powerful economic forces. The Holy Father Benedict XVI gave an example
with the forceful appeal he directed to the members of the diplomatic
corps accredited to the Holy See: "Among the key issues, how can we not
think of the millions of people, especially women and children, who
lack water, food, or shelter? The worsening scandal of hunger is
unacceptable in a world which has the resources, the knowledge, and the
means available to bring it to an end."
6. "Blessed are they who hunger for justice"
I said at the beginning that the two versions of the beatitude of the
hungry, that of Luke and that of Mark, do not pose alternatives but go
together. Matthew does not speak of material hunger but of hunger and
thirst for "justice." There have been two basic interpretations of
One, in line with Lutheran theology, interprets Matthew's beatitude in
light of what St. Paul will later say about justification through
faith. To have hunger and thirst for justice means being aware of one's
own need for justice and the impossibility of attaining it on one's own
and therefore the need humbly to wait for it from God. The other
interpretation sees in this justice "not that which God himself does or
that which he grants but rather that which he demands from man"; in
other words, the works of justice.
Following this interpretation, which has for quite some time been the
more common and the more plausible exegetically, the material hunger of
Luke and the spiritual hunger of Matthew are no longer unconnected.
Helping the hungry and the poor is among the works of justice and,
indeed, according to Matthew it will be the criterion for the
separation of the just and the reprobate at the end (cf. Matthew 25).
All the justice that God asks of man is summarized in the double
precept of love of God and neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:40). It is the love
of neighbor that should move those who hunger for justice to concern
themselves with those who hunger for bread. It is from this great
principle that the Gospel acts in the social realm. Liberal theology
understood this principle well.
"In no part of the Gospel," writes one of the most illustrious
representatives of liberal theology, Adolph von Harnack, "do we find it
taught that we should be indifferent to our brothers. Evangelical
indifference (not worrying about food, clothing, the concerns of
tomorrow) more than anything else expresses that which each soul should
feel in regard to the world, in regard to its goods and enticements.
However, when it is a question of our neighbor, the Gospel does not
want to hear about indifference, but imposes love and piety. In other
words, the Gospel considers the spiritual and temporal needs of our
brothers as inseparable."
The Gospel does not incite the hungry to seek justice on their own, to
rise up. In the time of Jesus, unlike today, the poor had no
theoretical or practical instrument to do this; so the Gospel does not
ask of them the useless sacrifice of losing their lives following some
zealot, some Spartacus. Jesus himself will confront the wrath and
sarcasm of the rich with his "woes" (cf. Luke 16:14); he does not leave
this job to the victims.
To try to find at all costs in the Gospel models and explicit
invitations addressed to the poor and the hungry to rise up and change
their situation on their own is foolish and anachronistic and loses
sight of the true contribution that the Gospel can make to their cause.
In this connection Rudolph Bultmann is right when he writes that
"Christianity ignores every project for transforming the world and it
does not have proposals to present for the reform of political and
social conditions," even if this claim is in need of some
The way of the beatitudes is not the only way for confronting the
problem of wealth and poverty, hunger and content; there are others,
made possible by the progress of social consciousness, to which
Christians rightly give their support and the Church guidance with its
The great message of the beatitudes is that, regardless of what the
rich and satiated do or do not do for them, even so, in the actual
state of things, the situation of the poor and the hungry for justice
is preferable to that of the former.
There are structures and aspects of reality that cannot be observed
with the naked eye but only with the help of a special light, with
infrared or ultraviolet rays. Much use is made of these in satellite
photos. The image obtained with this light is very different and
surprising for those who are used to seeing the same panorama in
natural light. The beatitudes are like infrared rays: They give us a
different image of reality, in fact the only true one because it shows
what will remain after the "figure of this world" has passed.
7. Eucharist and sharing
Jesus has left us the perfect antithesis of the rich man's feast,
namely, the Eucharist. It is the daily celebration of the great feast
to which the master will invite "the poor, the deformed, the blind, and
the lame" (Luke 16:21), that is, all the poor Lazaruses who are
wandering about. In the Eucharist perfect "table fellowship" is
realized: There is the same food and the same drink, and in the same
amount for all, for the one who presides, for the one who arrives last,
for the wealthiest and the poorest of the poor.
The link between material bread and spiritual bread was quite visible
in the early Church, when the Lord's Supper, which was called "agape,"
took place in the context of a fraternal meal in which common bread and
Eucharistic bread were shared.
To the Corinthians who were divided on this point St. Paul wrote: "When
you meet together it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in
eating each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and
another is drunk" (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). This is a grave accusation;
it intends to say: "Your gathering is no longer a Eucharist!"
Today the Eucharist is no longer celebrated in the context of a common
meal, but the contrast between those who have more than enough and
those who lack necessities has assumed a global dimension. If we
project what Paul describes in the local church of Corinth onto the
universal Church, we are disturbed by the realization that this
(objectively but not always as a matter of guilt) is what is happening
today. Among the millions of Christians on the various continents who
will be participating in Mass next Sunday there will be those (such as
ourselves) who will return to homes where they have every good from God
at their disposition and there will be others who have nothing to give
their children to eat.
The recent postsynodal exhortation on the Eucharist forcefully reminds
us: "The food of truth demands that we denounce inhumane situations in
which people starve to death because of injustice and exploitation, and
it gives us renewed strength and courage to work tirelessly in the
service of the civilization of love."
The money which the Church designates for this purpose -- for the
sustaining of the various national and diocesan charities, soup
kitchens for the poor, initiatives for providing food in developing
countries -- this is the best-spent money. One of the signs of the
vitality of our traditional religious communities are the soup kitchens
that exist in almost every city, which distribute thousands of meals
every day in a respectful and hospitable climate. It is a drop in the
ocean but even the ocean, Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, is made up of
many small drops.
I would like to end with the prayer that we say every day before meals
in my community: "Bless, O Lord, this food that from your bounty we are
about to take, help us to provide also for those who have no food and
grant that we may participate one day in your heavenly meal. Through
Christ our Lord."
* * *
 Cf. J. Dupont, "Le beatitudini," 2 vol. Edizioni Paoline, 1992.
 John Paul II, "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis," No. 42.
 "Address of Benedict XVI delivered in the Vatican Apostolic Palace
to members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See," Monday,
January 8, 2007.
 Cf. Dupont, vol. 2, pp. 554 ff.
 A. von Harnack, "Il cristianesimo e la società," Mendrisio,
Cultura Moderna, 1911, pp. 12 ff.
 R. Bultmann, "Il cristianesimo primitivo," Milano, Garzanti, 1964,
 "Sacramentum Caritatis," No. 90.
4th Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa
"Let Us Call Even Those Who Hate Us 'Brother'"
VATICAN CITY, APRIL 1, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the
Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa
in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The
Pontifical Household preacher delivered this final Lenten reflection of
the year in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.
* * *
1. The mercy of Christ
The beatitude on which we would like to reflect in this last Lenten
meditation is the fifth in the order of St. Matthew's Gospel: "Blessed
are the merciful for they shall find mercy." As we have done in all our
meditations this Lent, we will take as our point of departure the
affirmation that the beatitudes are a self-portrait of Christ, and,
following the procedure we have used in the past, we will ask how Jesus
lived mercy. What does Jesus' life tell us about this beatitude?
In the Bible, the word "mercy" has two basic meanings: The first
indicates the attitude of the stronger part (in the covenant, this
would be God himself) toward the weaker part and it usually expresses
itself in the forgiveness of infidelities and of faults; the second
indicates the attitude toward the need of the other and it expresses
itself in the so-called works of mercy. (In this second sense the term
appears often in the Book of Tobit.) There is, so to say, a mercy of
the heart and a mercy of the hands.
Both forms of mercy shine forth in Jesus' life. He reflects God's mercy
toward sinners, but he is also moved by all human sufferings and needs;
he gives the crowds to eat, heals the sick, frees the oppressed. The
Evangelist says of him: "He has taken on our infirmities and borne our
sicknesses" (Matthew 8:17).
In the beatitude we are considering, the prevalent sense is certainly
the first one, that of forgiving and remitting sins. This is what we
conclude from considering the beatitude and its reward: "Blessed are
the merciful, for they shall find mercy," that is, with God, who remits
their sins. Jesus' admonition, "Be merciful as your Father is
merciful," is immediately explained with "forgive and you will be
forgiven" (Luke 6:36-37).
We know of Jesus' acceptance of sinners in the Gospel and the
opposition this earns him from the defenders of the law, who accuse him
of being "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and
sinners" (Luke 7:34). One of Jesus' sayings which is best attested to
historically is: "I have not come to call the just, but sinners" (Mark
2:17). Feeling accepted and not condemned by him, sinners listen to him
But who are the sinners in question? In line with the widespread
tendency today to get the Pharisees of the Gospel entirely off the
hook, attributing the negative image to a later doctoring by the
Evangelists, someone has claimed that these "sinners" were only "the
deliberate and impenitent transgressors of the law," in other words,
the common delinquents of the time and those who had gone outside the
If this were so, then Jesus' adversaries would have been entirely right
to be scandalized and see him as an irresponsible and socially
dangerous person. It would be as if a priest today were to regularly
frequent members of the mafia and criminals and accept their
invitations to dinner with the pretext of speaking to them of God.
In reality, this is not how things are. The Pharisees had their vision
of the law and of what conformed to it or was contrary, and they
considered reprobate all those who did not follow their practices.
Jesus does not deny that sin and sinners exist; he does not justify
Zacchaeus' frauds or the deed of the woman caught in adultery. The fact
that he calls them "sick" shows this.
What Jesus condemns is the relegating to oneself the determination of
what true justice is and considering everyone else to be "thieves,
unjust, adulterers," denying them the possibility of conversion. The
way that Luke introduces the parable of the Pharisee and the tax
collector is significant: "He also told this parable to some who
trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others"
(Luke 18:9). Jesus was more severe with those who condemned sinners
with disdain than he was with sinners themselves.
2. A God who prides himself on having mercy
Jesus justifies his behavior toward sinners saying that this is how the
heavenly Father acts. He reminds his adversaries of God's word to the
prophets: "It is mercy that I want and not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13).
Mercy toward the people's infidelity, "hesed," is the most salient
trait of the God of the covenant and it fills the Bible from one end to
the other. A psalm speaks of it in the course of a litany, explaining
all the events in the history of Israel: "For your mercy is eternal"
Being merciful appears in this way as an essential aspect to being "in
the image and likeness of God." "Be merciful, as your heavenly Father
is merciful" (Luke 6:36) is a paraphrase of the famous: "Be holy for I
the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 6:36).
But the most surprising thing about God's mercy is that he feels joy in
being merciful. Jesus ends the parable about the lost sheep saying:
"There will be more joy in heaven over one converted sinner than for
ninety-nine just people who have no need to convert" (Luke 15:7). The
woman who finds her lost coin calls out to her friends: "Rejoice with
me." In the parable of the prodigal son also the joy overflows and
becomes a feast, a banquet.
We are not dealing with an isolated theme but one deeply rooted in the
Bible. In Ezekiel God says: "I do not rejoice over the death of the
wicked person but (I rejoice!) in his desisting from his wickedness and
living" (Ezekiel 33:11). Micah says that God "takes pride in having
mercy" (Micah 7:18), that is he takes pleasure in being merciful.
But why, we ask ourselves, must one sheep count more on the scales than
all the others put together, and to count more it must be the one that
went away and caused the most problems? I have found a convincing
explanation in the poet Charles Péguy. Getting lost, that sheep,
like the younger son, made God's heart tremble. God feared that he
would lose him forever, that he would be forced to condemn him and
deprive him eternally. This fear made hope blossom in God and this
hope, once it was realized brought joy and celebration. "Each time a
man repents, a hope of God is crowned." This is figurative language,
as is all our language about God, but it contains a truth.
The condition that makes this possible in us men is that we do not know
the future and therefore we hope; in God, who knows the future, the
condition is that he does not want (and, in a certain sense, cannot)
realize what he wants without our consent. Human freedom explains the
existence of hope in God.
What should we say about the ninety-nine prudent sheep and the older
son? Is there no joy in heaven for them? Is it worthwhile to live one's
entire life as a good Christian? Remember what the father said to his
older son: "Son, you are with me always and all that I have is yours"
(Luke 15:31). The older son's mistake is to have thought that staying
always at home and sharing everything with the father was not an
incredible privilege but a merit; he acts more like a mercenary than a
son. (This should put all of us older brothers on guard!)
On this point reality is better than the parable. In reality, the older
son -- the First Born of the Father, the Word -- did not remain in the
Father's house; he went into "a far off land" to look for the younger
son, that is, fallen humanity; he was the one that brought the younger
son back home and procured the new clothes for him and a feast to which
he can sit down at every Eucharist.
In one of his novels Dostoyevsky describes a scene that has the air of
having been witnessed in reality. A woman holds a baby a few weeks old
in her arms and -- for the first time, according to her -- he smiles at
her. All contrite, she makes the sign of the cross on his forehead and
to those who ask her the reason for this she says: "Just as a mother is
happy when she sees the first smile of her child, God too rejoices
every time a sinner gets on his knees and addresses a heartfelt prayer
3. Our mercy, cause or effect of God's mercy?
Jesus says: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will find mercy," and
in the Our Father he has us pray: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we
forgive those who trespass against us." He also says: "If you do not
forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your sins" (Matthew
6:15). These statements might make us think that God's mercy toward us
is an effect of our mercy toward others and that it is proportionate to
If it were this way, then the relationship between grace and good works
would be totally reversed, and the purely gratuitous character of
divine mercy would be destroyed. God solemnly announced the gratuitous
character of his grace to Moses: "I will give grace to whomever I wish,
and will have mercy on whomever I choose to have mercy" (Exodus 33:19).
The parable of the two servants (Matthew 18:23ff) is the key for
correctly interpreting the relationship between God's mercy and ours.
There we see how it is the king who, in the first instance, without
conditions, forgives an enormous debt to the servant (ten thousand
talents!) and it is precisely his generosity that should have moved the
servant to have pity on the other servant who owed him the tiny sum of
one hundred denarii.
We must be merciful because we have received mercy, not in order to
receive mercy; but we must be merciful, otherwise God's mercy will have
no effect on us and will be taken back, just as the king in the parable
took back the mercy he had shown to the pitiless servant. "Prevenient
grace" is always what creates the duty: "As the Lord has forgiven you,
so you also must forgive," St. Paul writes to the Colossians
If in the beatitudes God's mercy toward us seems to be the effect of
our mercy toward our brothers it is because Jesus links it to the
perspective if the last judgment ("they will find mercy," in the
future!). "The judgment," writes St. James in fact, "will be without
mercy for those who have not been merciful; yet mercy triumphs over
judgment" (James 2:13).
4. Experiencing divine mercy
If divine mercy is the beginning of everything and it demands mercy
among men and makes it possible, then the most important thing for us
is to have a renewed experience of God's mercy. We are drawing near to
Easter and this is the Easter experience par excellence.
The author Franz Kafka wrote a novel called "The Trial." In it there is
a man who is put under arrest without anyone knowing the reason why.
The man continues his normal life and work but also carries out
extensive research to find out the reasons, the court, the charges and
the procedure. But no one knows what to tell him except that he really
is on trial. In the end two men come to carry out the sentence,
During the course of the story it comes to be known that there are
three possibilities for this man: true absolution, apparent absolution,
pardon. Apparent absolution and pardon would not resolve anything; with
them the man would remain in mortal uncertainty all his life. In the
true absolution "the trial procedures will be completed eliminated, the
whole thing would disappear; not only the charge but also the trial and
the sentence would be destroyed, all will be destroyed."
But it is not known whether there have ever been any of these true
absolutions; there are only rumors about them, nothing more than
"beautiful stories." The novel ends, as all the others of this author
do: Something is glimpsed from far away; it is anxiously pursued like
in a nightmare, but there is no possibility of reaching it.
At Easter the Church's liturgy conveys the unbelievable news that true
absolution exists for man; it is not just a legend, something beautiful
but unattainable. Jesus has "canceled the bond that stood against us
with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross"
(Colossians 2:14). He has destroyed everything. "There is no
condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," exclaims St. Paul
(Romans 8:1). No condemnation! Nothing at all! For those who believe in
In Jerusalem there was a miraculous pool and the first one to climb
into it when the waters were stirred up was healed (John 5:2ff). The
reality, even here, is infinitely greater than the symbol. From the
cross of Christ there flowed water and blood, and not just one but all
who step into this fountain will leave it healed.
After baptism, this miraculous pool is the sacrament of reconciliation
and this last meditation would like to serve as a preparation for a
good Easter confession. A confession different from the usual ones, in
which we truly allow the Paraclete to "convince us of sin." We could
take as a mirror the beatitudes meditated on during Lent, beginning now
and repeating the ancient expression, which is so beautiful: "Kyrie
eleison!" "Lord have mercy!"
"Blessed are the pure of heart": Lord, I see all the impurity and
hypocrisy that is in my heart, the double life I live before you and
before others. … Kyrie eleison!
"Blessed are the meek": Lord, I ask your forgiveness for the hidden
impatience and violence in me, for rash judgments, for the suffering I
have caused those around me. … Kyrie eleison!
"Blessed are the hungry": Lord, forgive my indifference toward the poor
and the hungry, my constant search for comfort, my bourgeoisie
lifestyle. … Kyrie eleison!
"Blessed are the merciful": Lord, often I have asked for and quickly
received your mercy, without reflecting on the price you paid for it!
Often I have been the servant who was forgiven but who did not know how
to forgive. … Kyrie eleison! Lord have mercy!
There is a particular grace when, not only the individual, but the
entire community places itself before God in this penitential attitude.
From this profound experience of God's mercy we leave renewed and full
of hope: "God, rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved
us, even when we were dead in our sins, he made us alive again in
Christ" (Ephesians 2:4-5).
5. A Church "rich in mercy"
In his message for Lent this year the Holy Father writes: "May Lent be
for every Christian a renewed experience of God's love given to us in
Christ, love that every day we must, for our part, return to our
neighbor." This is how it is with mercy, the form that God's love takes
in relation to sinful man: After we have had an experience of it we
must, for our part, show it to our brothers, and do this at the level
of the ecclesial community and at a personal level.
Preaching from this same table during the retreat for the Roman Curia
in the Jubilee Year 2000, Cardinal François Xavier Van
Thuân, alluding to the rite of the opening of the Holy Door, said
in a meditation: "I dream of a Church that is a 'Holy Door,' open, that
welcomes all, full of compassion and understanding for the pain and
suffering of humanity, completely ready to console it."
The Church of the God who is "rich in mercy," "dives in misericordia,"
cannot itself fail to be "dives in misericordia." We can draw some
criteria from the attitude of Christ toward sinners that we examined
above. He does not make light of sin, but he finds the way to not
alienate sinners but to draw them to himself. He does not see in them
only what they are, but what they can become if reached by divine mercy
in the depths of their misery and desperation. He does not wait for
them to come to him; often it is he who goes in search of them.
Today, exegetes are fairly in agreement in admitting that Jesus did not
have a hostile attitude toward the Mosaic law, which he himself
scrupulously observed. What he opposed in the religious elite of his
time was a certain rigid and sometimes inhuman manner of interpreting
the law. "The Sabbath," he said, "is for man and not man for the
Sabbath" (Mark 2:27), and what he says about the Sabbath rest, one of
the most sacred laws of Israel, holds for every other law.
Jesus is firm and rigorous about principles but he knows when a
principle must give way to the higher principle of God's mercy and
man's salvation. How these criteria drawn from Christ's actions can be
concretely applied to new problems in society depends on patient study
and definitively on the discernment of the magisterium. Even in the
life of the Church, as in Jesus' life, the mercy of the hands and of
the heart must shine forth together with the works of mercy, which are
the essence of mercy.
6. "Put on mercy"
The last word in regard to the beatitudes must always be the one that
touches us personally and moves each of us to conversion and action.
St. Paul exhorts the Colossians with these words:
"Put on, then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion,
kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another
and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as
the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive" (Colossians
"We human beings," said St. Augustine, "we are vessels of clay that are
damaged by the slightest nick" ("lutea vasa quae faciunt invicem
angustias"). We cannot live together in harmony, in the family and
in any type of community, without the practice of reciprocal
forgiveness and mercy. Mercy ("misericordia") is a word composed of
"misereo" and "cor"; it means to be moved in your heart, to be moved to
pity, in the face of suffering or by your brother's mistake. This is
how God explains his mercy when he sees the people going astray: "My
heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred" (Hosea 11:8).
It is a question of responding not with condemnation but with
forgiveness and, when it is possible, excusing. When we consider
ourselves, this saying is correct: "He who excuses himself, God
accuses. He who accuses himself, God excuses." When it is a matter of
other people the contrary must be held: "He who excuses his brother,
God excuses him. He who accuses his brother, God accuses him."
For a community, forgiveness is what oil is for a motor. If one drives
a car without a drop of oil, after a few kilometers everything will go
up in flames. Forgiveness that lets others go is like oil. There is a
psalm that sings of the joy of living together as reconciled brothers;
it says that this "is like perfumed oil on the head" that runs down
into Aaron's beard and clothing to the very hem (cf. Psalm 133).
Our Aaron, our High Priest, the fathers of the Church would have said,
is Christ; mercy and forgiveness is the oil that runs down from the
"head" raised up on the cross, it runs down along the body of the
Church to the edges of her robes to those who live on her margins.
Where we live in this way, in reciprocal forgiveness and mercy, "the
Lord gives his blessing and life forever."
Let us try to see where, in all our relationships, it seems necessary
to let the oil of mercy and reconciliation run down. Let us pour it out
silently, abundantly, this Easter. Let us unite ourselves with our
Orthodox brothers who at Easter do not cease to sing:
"It is the day of the Resurrection!
Let us radiate joy through this feast,
Let us call even those who hate us 'brother,'
forgiving all for the love of the Resurrection."
* * *
 Cf. E.P. Sanders, "Jesus and Judaism," London: SCM, 1985, p. 385.
 Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, "Gli albori del cristianesimo," I, 2, Brescia:
Paideia, 2006, pp. 567-572.
 Ch. Péguy, "Il portico del mistero della seconda
virtù," in Oeuvres poétiques complètes, Paris:
Gallimard, 975, pp. 571 ff.
 F. Dostoevskij, "L'Idiota," Milano, 1983, p. 272.
 F. Kafka, "Il processo," Garzanti, Milano, 1993, pp. 129 ff.
 F.X. Van Thuân, "Testimoni della speranza," Roma:
Città Nuova, 2000, p.58.
 St. Augustine, Sermons, 69, 1 (PL 38, 440)
 Stichirà di Pasqua, testi citati in G. Gharib, Le icone
festive della Chiesa Ortodossa, Milano 1985, pp. 174-182.
Good Friday Sermon of Father
"There Were Also Some Women"
VATICAN CITY, APRIL 6, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the
Good Friday sermon delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero
Cantalamessa during the Celebration of the Lord's Passion in St.
Peter's Basilica, and in the presence of Benedict XVI.
* * *
There were also some women
"Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, his mother's sister,
Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene" (John 19:25). Let us leave
Mary his mother aside this time. Her presence on Calvary needs no
explanation. She was his mother, and this by itself says everything;
mothers do not abandon their children, not even one condemned to death.
But why were the other women there? Who were they and how many were
The Gospels tell us the names of some of them: Mary Magdalene, Mary the
mother of James and Joseph, Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee,
a certain Joanna and a certain Susanna (Luke 8:3). Having come with
Jesus from Galilee, these women followed him, weeping, on the journey
to Calvary (Luke 23:27-28). Now, on Golgotha, they watched "from a
distance" (that is from the minimum distance permitted them), and from
there, a little while later, they accompanied him in sorrow to the
tomb, with Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:55).
This fact is too marked and too extraordinary to hastily pass over. We
call them, with a certain masculine condescension, "the pious women,"
but they are much more than "pious women," they are "mothers of
courage"! They defied the danger of openly showing themselves to be
there on behalf of the one condemned to death. Jesus said: "Blessed is
he who is not scandalized by me" (Luke 7:23). These women are the only
ones who were not scandalized by him.
There has been animated discussion for quite some time about who it was
that wanted Jesus' death: Was it the Jews or Pilate? One thing is
certain in any case: It was men and not women. No woman was involved,
not even indirectly, in his condemnation. Even the only pagan woman
named in the accounts, Pilate's wife, dissociated herself from his
condemnation (Matthew 27:19). Certainly Jesus died for the sins of
women too, but historically they can say: "We are innocent of this
man's blood" (Matthew 27:24).
* * *
This is one of the surest signs of the honesty and the historical
reliability of the Gospels: The poor showing of the authors and
inspirers of the Gospels and the marvelous figure cut by the women.
Clearly the authors and inspirers of the Gospels saw the story they
were telling as infinitely greater than their own miserableness and
were thus drawn to be faithful to it. Otherwise, who would have allowed
the ignominy of their own fear, flight, and denial -- which was made to
look worse by the very different conduct of the women -- recorded for
It has always been asked why it was the "pious women" who were the
first to see the Risen Christ and receive the task of announcing it to
the apostles. This was the more certain way of making the Resurrection
credible. The testimony of women had no weight and much less that of a
woman, like Mary Magdalene, who had been possessed by demons (Mark
16:9). It is probably for this reason that no woman figures in Paul's
long list of those who had seen the Risen Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians
15:5-8). The same apostles took the words of the women as "an idle
tale," an entirely female thing, and did not believe them (Luke 24:11).
The ancient authors thought they knew the answer to this question.
Romanos the Melode exhorts the apostles to not be offended by the
precedence accorded to the women. They were the first to see the Risen
Christ, he said, because a woman, Eve, was the first to sin! The
real answer is different: The women were the first to see him because
they were the last to leave him for dead after his death when they came
to bring spices to his tomb to anoint him (Mark 16:1).
* * *
We must ask ourselves about this fact: Why were the women untroubled by
the scandal of the cross? Why did they stay when everything seem
finished, and when even his closest disciples had abandoned him and
were secretly planning to go back home?
Jesus had already given the answer to this question when, replying to
Simon, he said of the woman who had washed and kissed his feet: "She
has loved much" (Luke 7:47)! The women had followed Jesus for himself,
out of gratitude for the good they had received from him, not for the
hope of getting some benefit from him or having a career from following
him. "Twelve thrones" were not promised to them, nor had they asked to
sit at his right hand in his kingdom. They followed him, it is written,
"to serve him" (Luke 8:3; Matthew 27:55); they were the only ones,
after Mary his mother, to have assimilated the spirit of the Gospel.
They followed the reasoning of the heart and this had not deceived him.
In this there presence near to the crucified and risen Christ contains
a vital teaching for today. Our civilization, dominated by technology,
needs a heart to survive in it without being dehumanized. We have to
give more room to the "reasons of the heart," if humanity is not to
fail in this ice age.
In this, quite differently than in other areas, technology is of little
help to us. For a long time now there has been work on a computer that
"thinks" and many are convinced that there will be success. But
(fortunately!) no one has yet proposed inventing a computer that
"loves," that is moved, that meets man on the affective plane,
facilitating love, as computers facilitate the calculation of the
distance between the stars, the movement of atoms, and the memorizing
The improvement of man's intelligence and capacity to know does not go
forward at the same rate as improvement in his capacity to love. The
latter does not seem to count for much and yet we know well that
happiness or unhappiness on earth does not depend so much on knowing or
not-knowing as much as it does on loving or not loving, on being loved
or not being loved. It is not hard to understand why we are so anxious
to increase our knowledge but not so worried about increasing our
capacity to love: Knowledge automatically translates into power, love
One of the modern idolatries is the "IQ" idolatry, of the "intelligence
quotient." Numerous methods of measuring intelligence have been
proposed, even if all have so far proved to be in large part
unreliable. Who is concerned with the "quotient of the heart"? And yet
what Paul said always remains true: "Knowledge puffs up, love builds
up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). Secular culture is no longer able to draw this
truth from its religious source, in Paul, but perhaps it is ready to
underwrite it when it returns in literary garments. Love alone redeems
and saves, while science and the thirst for knowledge, by itself, is
able to lead Faust and his imitators to damnation.
After so many ages had spoken of human beings by taking names from man
-- "homo erectus," "homo faber," and today's "homo sapiens-sapiens" --
it is good for humanity that the age of woman is finally dawning: an
era of the heart, of compassion, of peace, and this earth ceases to be
"the threshing floor which makes us so fierce."
* * *
From every part there emerges the exigency to give more room to women
in society and in religion. We do not believe that "the eternal
feminine will save us." Everyday experience shows us that women can
"lift us up," but they can also cast us down. She too needs to be
saved, neither more nor less than man. But it is certain that once she
is redeemed by Christ and "liberated" on the human level from ancient
subjugations, woman can contribute to saving our society from some
profound evils that threaten it: inhuman cruelty, will to power,
spiritual dryness, disdain for life.
But we must avoid repeating the ancient gnostic mistake according to
which woman, in order to save herself, must cease to be a woman and
must become a man. Pro-male prejudice is so deeply rooted in society
that women themselves have ended up succumbing to it. To affirm their
dignity, they have sometimes believed it necessary to minimize or deny
the difference of the sexes, reducing it to a product of culture.
"Women are not born, they become," as one of their illustrious
representatives has said.
This tendency seems to have been overcome. In postmodern thought the
ideal is no longer indifference but equal dignity. Difference in
general is beginning to be seen as creative, whether for men or for
women. Each of the two sexes represents "the other" and stimulates
openness and creativity, since what defines the human person is
precisely his being in relation. "Man is prideful," writes the poet
Claudel; "There was no other way to get him to understand his neighbor,
to get inside his skin; there was no other way to get him to understand
dependence, necessity, the need for another than himself, than through
the law of being different [a man or a woman]."
* * *
How grateful we must be to the "pious women"! Along the way to Calvary,
their sobbing was the only friendly sound that reached the Savior's
ears; while he hung on the cross, their gaze was the only one that fell
upon him with love and compassion.
The Byzantine liturgy honored the pious women, dedicating a Sunday of
the liturgical year to them, the second Sunday after Easter, which has
the name "Sunday of the Ointment Bearing Women." Jesus is happy that in
the Church the women who loved him and believed in him when he was
alive are honored. Of one of them -- the woman who poured the perfumed
oil on his head -- he made this prophecy that has come true over the
centuries: "Wherever in the whole world this Gospel is preached what
she has done will be told in memory of her" (Matthew 26:13).
The pious women must not only be admired and honored, but imitated. St.
Leo the Great says that "Christ's passion is prolonged to the end of
ages" and Pascal wrote that "Christ will be in agony until the end
of the world." The passion is prolonged in members of the Body of
Christ. The many religious and lay women are the heirs of the "pious
women" who today are at the side of the poor, those sick with AIDS,
prisoners, all those rejected by society. To them, believers and
nonbelievers, Christ repeats: "You have done this for me" (Matthew
* * *
The pious women are examples for Christian women today not only for the
role they played in the Passion but also for the one they played in the
Resurrection. From one end of the Bible to the other we meet the "Go!"
of the missions ordered by God. It is the word addressed to Abraham and
Moses ("Go, Moses, into the land of Egypt"), to the prophets, to the
apostles: "Go out to all the world and preach the Gospel to every
They are all "Go's!" addressed to men. There is only one "Go!"
addressed to women, the one addressed to the ointment bearers the
morning of the resurrection: "Jesus said to them, 'Do not be afraid; go
and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me'"
(Matthew 28:10). With these words they were made the first witnesses of
It is a shame that, because of the later erroneous identification of
Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who washed Jesus' feet (Luke
7:37), she ended up giving rise to numerous ancient and modern legends
and she has entered into the devotions and art in "penitent" garments,
instead of as the first witness of the resurrection, the "apostolorum
apostola" (apostle of the apostles), according to St. Thomas Aquinas'
"The women departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and
ran to tell his disciples" (Matthew 28:8). Christian women, continue to
bring the successors of the apostles and to us priests, who are their
collaborators, the good news: "The Master lives! He has risen! He
precedes you into Galilee, that is, wherever you go!" Continue to give
us courage, continue to defend life. Together with the other women of
the world you are the hope of a more human world.
To the first among the "pious women," and their incomparable model, the
mother of Jesus, we repeat this ancient prayer of the Church: "Holy
Mary, succor of the miserable, support of the fearful, comfort of the
weak: pray for the people, intervene for the clergy, intercede for the
devoted female sex" (Ora pro populo, interveni pro clero, intercede pro
devoto femineo sexu).
* * *
 Romanos the Melode, "Hymns," 45, 6.
 Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, 22, v.151.
 W. Goethe, "Faust," finale, part II.
 Cf. Coptic Gospel of Thomas, 114; Excerpts of Theodotus, 21,3.
 Simone de Beauvoir, "The Second Sex," 1949.
 P. Claudel, "The Satin Slipper," act III, scene 8.
 St. Leo the Great, Sermon 70, 5 (PL 54, 383).
 B. Pascal, "Pens ««±±es," n. 553 Br.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, XX, 2519.
 Antiphon to the Magnificat, Common of Virgins.
1st Lenten Sermon of Father
"And Being in Agony He Prayed More Earnestly" (March 17, 2006)
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 17, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the
Lenten sermon delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa
in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The
Pontifical Household preacher delivered it in the Mater Redemptoris
Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.
* * *
"And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly" (Luke 22:44)
Jesus in Gethsemane
1. Baptized in his death
In the Advent meditations, I tried to bring to light the need we have
at present to rediscover the "kerygma," that is, that original core of
the Christian message in the presence of which the act of faith in God
normally flowers. This core, the passion and death of Christ,
represents its essential element.
From the objective point of view, or the point of view of faith, it is
the resurrection, not the death of Christ, which is the qualifying
element: "It is no great thing to believe that Jesus has died," writes
St. Augustine, "pagans and reprobates also believe this; all believe
it. But what is really great is to believe that he has risen. The faith
of Christians is the resurrection of Christ." But from the
subjective point of view or the point of view of life, the Passion, not
the Resurrection, is the most important element for us. "Of the three
things that constitute the most sacred triduum -- crucifixion, burial
and resurrection of the Lord -- we," St. Augustine also wrote, "realize
in the present life the meaning of the crucifixion, while we hold by
faith and hope what burial and resurrection mean."
It has been written that the Gospels are "accounts of the Passion
preceded by a long Introduction" (M. Kahler). But sadly the latter,
which is the most important part of the Gospels, is also the least
appreciated in the course of the liturgical year, as it is read only
once a year, in Holy Week, when, because of the duration of the rites,
it is moreover impossible to pause to comment and explain it. There was
a time when preaching on the Passion occupied a place of honor in all
popular missions. Today, when these occasions have become rare, many
Christians reach the end of their lives without ever having experienced
With our Lenten reflections we intend to fill, at least in some
measure, this lacuna. We need to remain a while with Jesus in
Gethsemane and on Calvary in order to be prepared for Easter. It is
written that there was a miraculous pool in Jerusalem and that the
first to plunge into it, when its waters were stirred, was cured. We
must now throw ourselves, in spirit, into this pool, or into this
ocean, which is the passion of Christ.
In baptism, we have been "baptized in his death," "buried with him"
(Romans 6:3 ff.): That which happened once mystically in the sacrament,
must be realized existentially in life. We must give ourselves a
salutary bath in the Passion to be renewed, reinvigorated and
transformed by it. "I buried myself in the passion of Christ, wrote
Blessed Angela of Foligno, and I was given the hope that in it I would
find my liberation."
2. Gethsemane, a historical fact
Our journey through the Passion begins, as that of Jesus, from
Gethsemane. Jesus' agony in the Garden of Olives is a fact affirmed in
the Gospels on four foundations, that is, by the four evangelists.
John, in fact, also speaks of it, in his own way, when he puts on
Jesus' lips the words: "Now is my soul troubled (which remind us of the
"my soul is sad" of the synoptic Gospels) and the words: "Father, save
me from this hour!" (which reminds us of the "remove this cup from me"
of the synoptic Gospels (John 12:27 ff.). There is also an echo of it,
as we shall see, in the Letter to the Hebrews.
It is something altogether extraordinary that an event so minutely
"apologetic" should have found such an outstanding place in tradition.
Only one historical event, strongly affirmed, explains the relevance
given to this moment of the life of Jesus. Each one of the evangelists
gave the episode a different hue according to his own sensitivity and
the needs of the community to which they wrote. But they did not add
anything truly "foreign" to the event; rather each one brought to life
some of the infinite spiritual implications of the event. They did not
do, as we say today, "eis-egesis," but "ex-egesis."
Those which, according to the letter, are reciprocally contrasting and
exclusive affirmations in the Gospels, are not so according to the
Spirit. If an external and material coherence is absent, a profound
concord, instead, is not lacking. The Gospels are four branches of a
tree, separated on the top, but united in the trunk (the common oral
tradition of the Church) and, through it, in the root, which is the
historical Jesus. The inability of many scholars of the Bible to see
things in this light depends, in my judgment, on ignorance in regard to
what happens in spiritual and mystical phenomena. They are two worlds
governed by different laws. It is as if someone wanted to explore the
heavenly bodies with the instruments of submarine exploration.
An eminent Catholic exegete, Raymond Brown, who was able to combine
scientific rigor and spiritual sensitivity in an exemplary way in the
study of the Bible, summarizes as follows the content of the initial
episode of the Passion: "Jesus who separates himself from the
disciples, the agony of his soul when praying that the cup be removed
from him, the loving response of the Father who sends an angel to
support him, the solitude of the master who three times finds his
disciples asleep instead of praying with him, the courage expressed in
the final resolution to go out to meet the traitor: Taken from the
different Gospels, this combination of human pain, divine support and
solitary self-giving has contributed much to make believers in Christ
love him, becoming the object of the art of meditation."
The original core around which the whole scene of Gethsemane developed
seems to have been that of the prayer of Jesus. The memory of the
struggle of Jesus in prayer in face of the imminence of his Passion,
finds its roots in a very ancient tradition, on which Mark, as well as
the other sources, depend , and it is in this aspect on which we
wish to reflect in the present meditation.
The gestures he makes are those of a person who struggles in mortal
anguish: "He fell on the ground," he rises to go where his disciples
are, he kneels again, then rises again …… he sweats drops of blood
(Luke 22:44). From his lips comes the supplication: "Abba, Father! All
things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me" (Mark 14:36). The
"violence" of the prayer of Jesus in the imminence of his death is
highlighted above all in the Letter to the Hebrews, which states that
Christ "[i]n the days of his flesh, offered up prayers and
supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save
him from death" (Hebrews 5:7).
Jesus is alone, before the perspective of a great suffering that is
about to befall him. The awaited and feared "hour" of the final combat
with the forces of evil, of the great test (peirasmos), has arrived.
But the cause of his agony is even more profound: He feels himself
burdened with all the evil and indignities of the world. He has not
committed this evil, but it is the same, because he has freely assumed
it: "He bore our sins in his body" (1 Peter 2:24), that is (according
to the meaning this word has in the Bible), in his own person, soul,
body and heart at the same time. Jesus is the man "made to be sin,"
says St. Paul (2 Corinthians 5:21).
3. Two different ways of struggling with God
To remove every pretext of the Arian heresy, some ancient Fathers
explained the episode of Gethsemane in a pedagogical vein with the idea
of "concession" (dispensation): Jesus did not really experience anguish
and dread; he only wanted to teach us with prayer how to overcome our
human resistances. In Gethsemane, writes St. Hilary of Poitiers,
"Christ is not sad for himself, and does not pray for himself, but for
those whom he advises to pray with attention, so that the chalice of
the Passion will not befall them" .
After Chalcedon and, especially, after surmounting the Monothelite
heresy, the need is no longer felt to take recourse to this
explanation. Jesus in Gethsemane does not pray only to exhort us to do
so. He prays because, being true man, 'in everything like us, except
sin,' he experiences our own struggle in the face of what human nature
But, although Gethsemane is not explained only with a pedagogic
intention, it is true that such a concern was present in the mind of
the evangelists who transmitted the episode to us, and it is important
for us to take it up. In the Gospels, the account of an event cannot be
separated from the call to imitation. "Christ suffered for you, leaving
you an example, that you should follow in his steps," says the letter
of Peter (1 Peter 2:21).
The word "agony" said of Jesus in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44) must be
understood in the original sense of struggle, more than in the present
one of agony. The time comes when prayer becomes combat, effort, agony.
I am not speaking, at this moment, of the struggle against
distractions, namely, the struggle with ourselves. I am speaking of the
struggle with God. This occurs when God asks us to do something that
our nature is not ready to give him, and when God's action becomes
incomprehensible and disconcerting.
The Bible presents another case of struggle with God in prayer and it
is very instructive to compare the two episodes. It is Jacob's struggle
with God (Genesis 32:23-33). The setting is also very similar. Jacob's
struggle takes place at night, on the other side of a ford -- that of
Yabboq -- and, similarly, Jesus' takes place at night, on the other
side of the torrent of Kidron. Jacob leaves behind his slaves, wives
and children, to remain alone; Jesus also moves away from his last
three disciples to pray.
But why does Jacob struggle with God? Here is the great lesson we must
learn. "I will not let you go," he says, "until you have blessed me,"
that is, until you do what I have asked you. He even asks: "Tell me
your name." He is convinced that, using the power given by knowing
God's name, he will be able to prevail over his brother Laban, who
follows him. God blesses him, but does not reveal his name to him.
Jacob struggles therefore to bend God's will to his. Jesus struggles to
bend his human will to God's. He struggles because "the spirit is
willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mark 14:38). Spontaneously we wonder:
Who are we like when we pray in difficult situations? Are we like Jacob
if, like the man of the Old Testament when, in prayer, we struggle to
induce God to change his decision, more than to change ourselves and
accept his will; so that he will remove that cross, rather than to be
able to carry it with him. We are like Jesus if, even amid groans and
the flesh sweating blood, we seek to abandon ourselves to the will of
the Father. The results of the two prayers are very different. God does
not give his name to Jacob, but he gives Jesus the name which is above
every name (Philippians 2:11).
At times, persevering in this kind of prayer, something strange happens
that it is good for us to know in order to not miss out on a valuable
moment. The roles are inverted. God becomes the one who prays and one
becomes him to whom one prays. We begin to pray to ask God for
something and, once in prayer, we realize little by little that it is
He, God, who stretches his hand to us asking us for something. We have
gone to ask him to take away that thorn of the flesh, that cross, that
trial; that he free us from that function, that situation, the
closeness of that person …… and behold, God asks us in fact to accept
that cross, that situation, that function, that person.
A poem of Tagore helps us to understand what it is about. It is a
beggar who speaks and recounts his experience. It goes more or less
like this: I had been begging from door to door on the streets of the
city, when in the distance a golden carriage appeared. It was that of
the King's son. I thought: This is the occasion of my life; and I sat
down opening wide my sack, hoping to receive alms without even having
to ask for them; beyond that, that riches rain down to the ground
around me. But what was my surprise when, reaching me, the carriage
halted, the King's son got down and stretching out his hand said to me:
"Can you give me something? What a gesture of your royalty, to stretch
out your hand!" …… Confused and uncertain I took out a grain of rice
from my sack, only one, the smallest, and gave it to him. But what
sadness when, in the afternoon, searching in my sack, I found a grain
of gold, only one, the smallest. I wept bitterly for not having had the
courage to give all."
The most sublime case of this inversion of roles is precisely the
prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane. He prays that the Father remove the cup
from him, and the Father asks him to drink it for the salvation of the
world. Jesus gives not one, but all the drops of his blood, and the
Father compensates him, constituting him Lord, also as man, so that
"just one drop of that blood is enough to save the whole world" (una
stilla salvum facere totum mundum quit ab omni scelere).
4. "Being in agony, he prayed more earnestly"
These words were written by the evangelist Luke (22:44), with a clear
pastoral intention: To show the Church of his time, subjected already
to situations of struggle and persecution, what the master taught in
Human life is strewn with many little nights of Gethsemane. The causes
can be very numerous and different: a threat to our health, a lack of
appreciation of the environment, the indifference of someone close to
us, the fear of the consequences of some error committed. But there can
be more profound causes: the loss of the meaning of God, the
overwhelming awareness of one's sin and unworthiness, the impression of
having lost the faith. In short, what the saints have called "the dark
night of the soul."
Jesus teaches the first thing to be done in these cases: to turn to God
in prayer. We must not deceive ourselves: It is true that Jesus in
Gethsemane also sought the company of his friends, but, why did he seek
it? Not so that they would say good words to him, to be distracted or
consoled. He asks that they support him in prayer, that they pray with
him: "So you could not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray" (Matthew
It is important to observe how the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane
begins, in the oldest source, which is Mark: "Abba, Father, all things
are possible to thee" (Mark 14:36). The philosopher Kierkegaard makes
illuminating reflections in this respect. He says: "The decisive
question is that for God all things are possible." Man falls into real
despair only when he no longer has before him any possibility, any
task; when, as one says, there is nothing to do.
"When one faints," continues Kierkegaard, "one goes in search of
smelling salts; but when one despairs, one must say: 'Find an
opportunity; find him an opportunity!' The opportunity is the only
remedy; give him an opportunity and the one in despair regains his
appetite, is reanimated, because if man remains without an opportunity,
it is as if he was lacking air. Sometimes the inventiveness of human
imagination can suffice to find an opportunity, but in the end, when it
is a question of believing, only this serves: that for God all things
This possibility, always within reach for a believer, is prayer: "to
pray is like breathing." And if one has already prayed without
success? Pray again! Pray "prolixius," with greater earnestness. One
might object that, however, Jesus was not heard, but the Letter to the
Hebrews says exactly the opposite: "He was heard because of his piety."
Luke expresses this interior help that Jesus received from the Father
with the detail of the angel: "And there an angel appeared to him from
heaven, who comforted him" (Luke 22:43). But it was a "prolepsis," an
anticipation. The Father's great help was the resurrection.
God, St. Augustine observed, hears even when he does not hear, that is,
when we do not get what we ask for. His delay in responding is also him
listening, so that he can give to us more than we asked for. If
despite everything we continue praying, it is a sign that he is giving
us his grace. If Jesus, at the end of the scene pronounces his
resolute: "Rise, let us be going" (Matthew 26:46), it is because the
Father has given him more than "twelve legions of angels" to defend
him. "He has inspired him," St. Thomas says, "with the will to suffer
for us, infusing love in him."
The capacity to pray is our great resource. Many Christians, including
truly committed ones, experience their powerlessness in face of
temptations and the impossibility to adapt themselves to the very high
exigencies of Gospel morality, and sometimes conclude that they can't,
and that it is impossible, to fully live the Christian life.
In a certain sense, they are right. It is impossible, in fact, on their
own, to avoid sin; grace is needed; but in addition -- we are taught --
grace is free and cannot be merited. What should we do then: despair,
surrender? The Council of Trent says: "God, giving you the grace,
commands you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot."
The difference between the law and grace consists precisely in this: In
the law, God says to man: "Do what I command you!"; in grace, man says
to God: "Give me what you command me!" The law commands, and grace
demands. Once he discovered this secret, St. Augustine, who until then
had struggled in vain to be chaste, changed his methods; rather than
struggling with his body he began to struggle with God. He said: "O
God, you command me to be chaste; well then, give me what you command
and command me what you will!" And we know he obtained chastity!
Jesus gave his disciples ahead of time the means and words to unite
themselves to him in trials -- the Our Father. There is no state of
soul that is not reflected in the Our Father and that does not find in
him the possibility of being translated into prayer: joy, praise,
adoration, thanksgiving, repentance. But the Our Father is above all
the prayer of the hour of trial. There is an obvious similarity between
the prayer that Jesus left to his disciples and the one he himself
raised to the Father in Gethsemane. In fact, he left us his prayer.
The prayer of Jesus begins as the Our Father, with the cry: "Abba,
Father!" (Mark 14:36), or "My Father" (Matthew 26:39); he continues, as
the Our Father, asking that his will be done; he asks that this chalice
be removed from him, as in the Our Father we ask to be "delivered from
evil"; he asks his disciples to pray so as not to fall into temptation
and makes us end the Our Father with the words: "Lead us not into
What consolation in the hour of trial and darkness, to know that the
Holy Spirit continues in us the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, that the
"unspeakable groans" with which the Spirit intercedes for us, in those
moments, reach the Father mixed with the "prayers and supplications,
with loud cries and tears" which the Son raised to Him when "his hour"
was upon him! (Hebrews 5:7).
5. In agony until the end of the world
We must take up one last teaching before taking leave of the Jesus of
Gethsemane. St. Leo the Great says that "the Passion is prolonged until
the end of time." He is echoed by the philosopher Pascal in the
famous meditation on the agony of Jesus:
"Christ will be in agony until the end of the world. During this time,
we must not sleep.
"I was thinking of you in my agony: Those drops of blood I shed for you.
"Do you always want to cost me the blood of my humanity, without you
shedding a tear?
"I am more of a friend to you than this or that one, because I have
done more for you than they, and they would never suffer what I have
suffered for you, they would never die for you in the moment of your
infidelity and cruelties, as I have done and am willing to do in my
chosen ones and in the Holy Sacrament."
All this is not simply a way of speaking or a psychological
constriction; it corresponds mysteriously to the truth. In the Spirit,
Jesus is also now in Gethsemane, in the praetorium, on the cross. And
not only in his Mystical Body -- in which he suffers, is apprehended or
killed, but, in a way that we cannot explain, also in his person. This
is true not "despite" his resurrection, but precisely "because" of the
resurrection which has made the Crucified One "alive in the centuries."
Revelation presents to us the Lamb in heaven "standing," that is, risen
and alive, but with the signs of his immolation still visible
The privileged place where we can find this Jesus "in agony until the
end of the world" is the Eucharist. Jesus instituted it immediately
before going to the Garden of Olives so that his disciples would be
able, in every age, to make themselves "contemporary" with his Passion.
If the Spirit inspires in us the desire to be one hour at the side of
Jesus in Gethsemane this Lent, the simplest way to achieve it is to
spend, on Thursday afternoon, one hour before the Blessed Sacrament.
Obviously, this must not make us forget the other way in which Christ
"is in agony until the end of the world," that is, in the members of
his Mystical Body. More than that, if we wish to give solidity to our
sentiments toward him, the obligatory way is precisely to do something
for someone else that which we cannot do for him who is in glory.
The word Gethsemane has become a symbol of all moral pain. Jesus has
not yet suffered in his flesh, his pain is altogether interior, and yet
he only sweat drops of blood here, when it is his heart, and not yet
his flesh, which is crushed. The world is very sensitive to bodily
pains, it is easily moved by them; it is much less so in face of moral
pains, which at times it even derides, interpreting them as
hypersensitivity, autosuggestions and whims.
God takes the pain of the heart seriously and we should too. I think of
those who have had their strongest bond in life broken and find
themselves alone -- more often women; those who are betrayed in their
affection, are anguished in face of something that threatens their
lives or a loved one; in whom, unjustly or rightly -- there is not much
difference from this point of view -- see themselves pointed out, from
one day to the next, for public derision. How many hidden Gethsemanes
there are in the world, perhaps under our own roof, next door, or in
the next work desk! It is our task to single out someone this Lent and
come close to the one who is there.
May Jesus not have to say among these, his members: "I look for
compassion, but there was none, for comforters, but found none" (Psalm
68:21). On the contrary, let it be that he is able to make us feel
in our hearts the word that compensates all: "You did it to me."
--- --- ---
 St. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 120, 6: CCL 40, p. 1791.
 St. Augustine, Cartas, 55, 14, 24 (CSEL 34,2, p. 195).
 Il libro della B. Angela da Foligno, Quaracchi, Grottaferrata 1985,
 R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah. From Gethsemane to the
Grave. A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, I,
Doubleday, New York, 1994, p. 216.
 Brown, p. 233.
 Cfr. St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, X, 37.
 Cfr. St. Maximus Confessor, In Mattheum 26,39 (PG 91, 68).
 Tagore, Gitanjali, 50 (trad. ital. Newton Compton, Roma 1985, p.
 S. Kierkegaard, "La Malattia Mortale," Part I, C, in "Opere,"
edited by C. Fabro, pp. 639 ff.
 Ibid., p. 640
 St. Augustine, "On the First Letter of John," 6, 6-8 (PL 35, 2023
 St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologiae," III, q. 47, a. 3.
 Denzinger-Schonmetzer, "Enchiridion Symbolorum," No. 1536.
 St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 29.
 St. Leo the Great, "Sermo," 70, 5: PL 54, 383.
 B. Pascal, "Penséées," n. 553 Br.
Cantalamessa on Christ's Obedience
Second Lenten Sermon Given to
Pontifical Household (March 31, 2006)
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 31, 2006
(Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the second Lenten sermon
preached this morning, before Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, by
Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, at the Vatican.
* * *
1. Sacrifice or obedience?
One cannot take in the ocean, but
one can do something better: allow oneself to be taken in by it,
submerging oneself anywhere in its expanse. This is what occurs with
Christ's passion. The mind cannot wholly take it in, nor can its depth
be seen, but we can submerge ourselves in some moments of its
occurrence. In this meditation, we would like to enter in through the
door of obedience.
Christ's obedience is the most
salient aspect in the apostolic catechesis. "Christ became obedient
unto death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8); "by one man's
obedience many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:8-9). Obedience
appears as the key to the reading of the whole history of the passion,
from where it takes its meaning and value.
To those who were scandalized that
the Father could find satisfaction in the death on a cross of his Son
Jesus, St. Bernard rightly responded: "It was not his death that
satisfied him, but the spontaneous will of the one who was dying": "Non
mors placuit sed voluntas sponte morientis." Thus, it is not so much
the death itself of Christ that has saved us, but his obedience unto
God wants obedience, not sacrifice,
says Scripture (1 Samuel 15:22; Hebrews 10:5-7). It is true that in
Christ's case, he also wanted sacrifice, and he wanted it likewise for
us, but of the two one is the means, the other the end. God wants
obedience for itself; he wants sacrifice only indirectly, as the
condition that makes obedience possible and authentic. In this
connection, the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christ "learned to obey
through suffering." The passion was the proof and measure of his
Let us try to understand in what
Christ's obedience consisted. As a child, Jesus obeyed his parents; as
an adult he submitted himself to the Mosaic Law; during the passion he
submitted himself to the Sanhedrin's and Pilate's sentence. However,
the New Testament does not mention these obediences; it mentions
Christ's obedience to the Father. St. Irenaeus interprets Jesus'
obedience in the light of the Songs of the Servant, as an interior,
absolute submission to God, carried out in a situation of extreme
"That sin which had appeared thanks
to the wood, was abolished thanks to obedience on the wood, as obeying
God, the Son of Man was nailed on the wood, destroying the science of
evil and introducing and having penetrate in the world the science of
good. Disobedience to God is evil, as obedience to God is good.
Therefore, in virtue of the obedience he rendered unto death, hanging
from the wood, he eliminated the ancient disobedience that occurred in
Jesus' obedience is exercised, in a
particular way, in the words that are written about and for Him "in the
law, in the prophets and in the psalms." When they want to oppose his
capture, Jesus says: "But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled,
that it must be so?" (Matthew 26:54).
2. Can God obey?
But how can Christ's obedience be
reconciled with faith in his divinity? Obedience is an act of the
person, not of nature, and the person of Christ, according to orthodox
faith, is that of the very Son of God. Can God obey himself? Here we
touch upon the most profound core of the Christological mystery. Let us
try to understand in what this mystery consists.
In Gethsemane Jesus says to the
Father: "yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt" (Mark 14:36). The
whole problem consists in knowing who that "I" and who that "you" is;
who says the "fiat" and to whom it is said. In antiquity, two quite
different answers were given to this question, according to the
underlying type of Christology.
For the Alexandrian School, the "I"
speaking was the person of the Word that, as incarnate, says his "yes"
to the divine will -- the "you" -- that he himself has in common with
the Father and the Holy Spirit. He who says "yes" and he to whom he
says "yes" constitute the same will, but considered in two times or in
two different states: in the state of the incarnate Word and in the
state of the eternal Word. The drama, if one can speak of such, takes
place more within God than between God and man, and this because the
existence is not yet clearly recognized of a human and free will in
More valid on this point is the
interpretation of the Antiochian School. The authors of this School say
that for obedience to take place there must be a subject that obeys and
a subject to obey: No one obeys himself! As moreover Christ's obedience
is the antithesis of Adam's disobedience, it must be a question of the
obedience of a man, the New Adam, capable as such to represent
humanity. Herein, then, are those who are that "I" and that "you"; the
"I" is the man Jesus; the "you" is God, whom he obeys!
However, this interpretation also
has a serious lacuna. If Jesus' "fiat" in Gethsemane is essentially a
man's "yes," even if he is indissolubly united to the Son of God -- the
"homo assumptus" -- how can it have a universal value so as to be able
to "constitute" all men "just"? Jesus seems more a sublime model of
obedience than an intrinsic "cause of salvation" for all those who obey
him (Hebrews 5:9).
The development of Christology
filled this lacuna, above all thanks to the work of St. Maximus the
Confessor and of the III Constantinopolitan Council. St. Maximus
affirms: the "I" is not humanity that speaks to the divinity
(Antiochians); neither is it God who, in so far as incarnate, speaks to
himself in so far as eternal (Alexandrians). The "I" is the incarnate
Word who speaks in the name of the free human will he has assumed; the
"you" instead is the Trinitarian will that the Word has in common with
In Jesus the Word obeys the Father
humanly! And yet the concept of obedience is not annulled nor does God,
in this case, obey himself, because between the subject and the end of
obedience is the whole breadth of a real humanity and a free human
God obeyed humanly! One then
understands the universal power of salvation contained in Jesus'
"fiat": it is the human act of a God; it is a divine-human, "teandrico"
act. That "fiat" is truly, to use the _expression of a psalm, "the rock
of our salvation" (Psalm 95:1). It is because of this obedience that
"all have been made just."
3. Obedience to God in Christian life
As always, let us try to extract
some practical teaching for our life, remembering the invitation of the
First Letter of Peter: "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an
example, that you should follow in his steps." To reflect on obedience
might contribute to create the appropriate spiritual climate in the
Church and the Curia every time one faces the eventuality of changes of
persons and functions.
As soon as one tries to find in the
New Testament in what the duty of obedience consists, a surprising
discovery is made, that is, that obedience is seen almost always as
obedience to God. There is also talk, of course, of the other forms of
obedience: to parents, employers, superiors, civil authorities, "to the
whole human institution" (1 Peter 2:13), but much less often and in a
much less solemn manner. The substantive "obedience" itself is used
only and exclusively to indicate obedience to God or, in any case, to
instances that are on the part of God, except in one passage of the
Letter to Philemon, where it indicates obedience to the Apostle.
St. Paul speaks of obedience to the
faith (Romans 10:16,26), of obedience to the doctrine (Romans 6:17), of
obedience to the Gospel (Romans 10:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:8), of
obedience to the truth (Galatians 5:7), of obedience to Christ (2
Colossians 10:5). We find the same languages in other places: the Acts
of the Apostles speak of obedience to the faith (Acts 6:7), the First
Letter of Peter speaks of obedience to Christ (1 Peter 1:2) and of
obedience to the truth (1 Peter 1:22).
But is it possible and meaningful to
speak today of obedience to God, after the new and living will of God,
manifested in Christ, has been expressed and fully objectified in a
whole series of laws and hierarchies? Is it licit to think that there
still exists, after all this, "free" wills of God that must be accepted
Only if one believes in an actual
and punctual "Lordship" of the Risen One in the Church, only if one is
convinced in one's heart of hearts that also today -- as the Psalm says
-- "The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks ... and does not keep silent"
(Psalm 50:1), only then is one able to understand the need and the
importance of obedience to God. It consists of listening to God who
speaks, in the Church, through his Spirit, which illuminates the words
of Jesus and of the whole Bible and confers authority on them, making
them channels of the living and actual will of God for us.
But as in the Church institution and
mystery they are not opposed, but united, so we must show that
spiritual obedience to God does not dissuade from obedience to the
visible and institutional authority; on the contrary, it renews it,
strengthens and vivifies it to the point that obedience to men is the
criteria to judge if obedience to God does or does not exist and if it
Obedience to God is like the "thread
from on high" that sustains the splendid spider web hanging from a
fence. Lowering himself by the thread that it itself has made, the
little animal makes its fabric, perfect and stretching out to every
corner. However, that thread from on high, which has served to weave
the fabric, does not break once the work is finished; what is more, it
is what sustains the whole framework; without it everything loosens. If
one of the lateral threads becomes detached, the spider works to
rapidly repair its fabric, but if that thread from on high breaks, the
spider moves away; it knows that there is nothing to do.
Something similar occurs with
respect to the network of authorities and obediences in a society, in a
religious order, in the Church. Obedience to God is the thread from on
high: All has been built around it; but it cannot be forgotten not even
after the construction has ended. Otherwise, everything enters in
crisis, until proclaiming, as has occurred in not very distant years:
"Obedience is no longer a virtue."
But, why is it so important to obey
God? Why does God want so much to be obeyed? Certainly not because he
likes to command and have subjects! It is important because by obeying
we do the will of God, we want the same things God wants, and thus we
fulfil our original vocation, which is to be "in his image and
likeness." We are in the truth, in the light and as a consequence in
peace, as the body that has reached its point of stillness. Dante
Alighieri enclosed all this in a verse considered by many the most
beautiful of the whole "Divine Comedy": "and in loving him we find our
4. Obedience and authority
Obedience to God is obedience we can
always carry out. To obey orders and visible authorities happens only
occasionally, three or four times in one's whole life -- I am speaking,
of course, of those of a certain seriousness; however, to obey God is
something that occurs very often. The more one obeys, the more God's
orders multiply, because he knows that this is the most beautiful gift
that he can give, the one he gave his favorite Son, Jesus.
When God finds a soul determined to
obey, then he takes his life in his hands, as one takes the rudder of a
boat, or as one takes the reins of a cart. He becomes in deed, and not
only in theory, "Lord," who "rules," who "governs," it can be said,
moment by moment the person's gestures and words, his way of using
This "spiritual direction" is
exercised through "good inspirations" and with greater frequency even
in God's words in the Bible. One reads or hears passages of Scripture
and behold a phrase, a word, is illuminated, it becomes, so to speak,
radioactive. One feels it questions one, that it indicates what one
must do. Here one decides whether or not to obey God. The Servant of
Yahweh says thus in Isaiah: "Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my
ear to hear as those who are taught" (Isaiah 50:4). We, too, every
morning in the Liturgy of the Hours or the Mass, should listen with an
attentive ear. In it there is almost always a word that God addresses
to us personally and the Spirit does not fail to act so that it will be
recognized among all.
I have mentioned that obedience to
God is something that can always be done. I must add that it is also
obedience that we can all do, both subjects as well as superiors. It is
usually said that one must obey to be able to command. It is not just
question of an empirical affirmation; there is a profound theological
reason at its base, if by obedience we understand obedience to God.
When an order comes from a superior
who makes an effort to live in the will of God, who has prayed before
and has no personal interests to defend, but only the brother's good,
then the authority of God itself is the buttress of such an order or
decision. If protest arises, God says to his representative what he
said one day to Jeremiah: "Behold, I make you this day a fortified city
... and bronze walls [...]. They will fight against you; but they shall
not prevail against you, for I am with you" (Jeremiah 1:18f.).
A famous English exegete gives an
enlightening interpretation of the Gospel episode of the centurion:
"I," says the centurion, "am a man set under authority, with soldiers
under me: and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,'
and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it" (Luke 7:8).
By the fact of being subject, that is, obedient, to his superiors and
ultimately, to the emperor, the centurion can give orders which are
backed by the authority of the emperor in person; he is obeyed by his
soldiers because, in turn, he obeys and is subject to his superior.
So -- he says -- it occurs with
Jesus in regard to God. Given that he is in communion with God and
obeys God, he has behind him the very authority of God and because of
this can command his slave to be healed, and he will heal; he can
command the sickness to leave him, and it will leave him.
It is the force and simplicity of
this argument which draws Jesus' admiration and makes him say that he
has never found such faith in Israel. He has understood that Jesus'
authority and his miracles stem from his perfect obedience to the
Father, as Jesus himself, moreover, explains in John's Gospel: "He who
sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is
pleasing to him" (John 8:29).
Obedience to God adds authority to
power, that is, a real and effective power, not only nominal or of
duty; ontological, so to speak, not only juridical. St. Ignatius of
Antioch gave this wonderful advice to a colleague of his in the
episcopate: "May nothing be done without your consent, but may you not
do anything without God's consent."
This does not mean to attenuate the
importance of the institution or the duty, or to make the subject's
obedience depend only on the degree of spiritual power or of the
superior's authority, which would manifestly be the end of all
obedience. It only means that the one who exercises authority must lean
as little as possible, or only as a last resort, on the task or duty he
carries out, and lean the most possible on the union of his will with
God's, that is, on his obedience; the subject on the other hand must
not judge or pretend to know if the superior's decision is or is not in
conformity with God's will. He must presume it is, unless it is an
order that is manifestly against conscience, as occurs sometimes in the
political realm, under totalitarian regimes.
It occurs as in the commandment of
love. The first commandment is the "first" because the source and
incentive of everything is the love of God; but the criterion to judge
is the second commandment: "he who does not love his brother whom he
has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). The same
can be said of obedience: if one does not obey God's visible
representatives on earth, how can one say one obeys God who is in
5. Present Matters to God
This way of obedience to God does
not have, of itself, anything of the mystical or extraordinary, but is
open to all the baptized. It consists of "presenting affairs to God,"
according to the advice that Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, gave him one
day (cf. Exodus 18:19). I can decide on my own to take an initiative,
to go or not go on a trip, to take or not take a job, to make or not
make a visit, to incur or not incur an expense and then, once decided,
to pray to God for the success of the matter.
But if love of obedience to God is
born in me, then I will act in a different way: I will first ask God,
with the very simple means of prayer, if it is his will that I
undertake that trip, job, visit, expense and then I do or do not do it,
but then it will already be, in any case, an act of obedience to God,
and no longer a free initiative on my part. In general it is clear that
I will not hear, in my brief prayer, any voice, nor will I have an
explicit answer about what to do, or at least it is not necessary that
there be one so that what I do will be obedience.
Acting thus, in fact, I have
submitted the matter to God, I have despoiled myself of my will, I have
given up deciding on my own and I have given God a possibility to
intervene, if he so wills, in my life. What I now decide to do,
regulating myself with the ordinary criteria of discernment, will be
obedience to God.
Just as the faithful servant never
takes an initiative or responds to an order from strangers without
saying: "I must first hear my employer," likewise the true servant of
God does not undertake anything without saying to himself: "I must pray
a little to know what my Lord wants me to do!" Thus one relinquishes
the reins of one's life to God! Thus the will of God penetrates, in an
ever more capillary way in the fabric of a life, embellishing it and
making it a living, holy and agreeable sacrifice to God" (Romans 12:1).
The whole of life becomes obedience to God and proclaims silently his
sovereignty in the Church and the world.
God -- said St. Gregory the Great --
"sometimes warns us with words, sometimes, instead, with events," that
is, with incidents and situations. There is an obedience to God --
often among the most exacting -- which consists simply in obeying the
situations. When one has seen that, despite all the efforts and
prayers, there are difficulties, at times even absurd situations in our
lives and -- in our opinion -- spiritually counterproductive, which do
not change, it is necessary to stop "kicking against the goad" and to
begin to see in them God's silent but determined will in us. Experience
teaches that only after having pronounced a total "yes" from the depth
of one's heart to the will of God, do such situations of suffering lose
the anguishing power they have over us. We live them with greater peace.
A case of difficult obedience to
situations is the one that befalls all with age, that is, the
withdrawal from activity, the cessation of function, having to pass
witness to others leaving perhaps incomplete and in suspense projects
and initiatives underway. There are those who, jokingly, have said that
the highest function is a cross, but that at times the most difficult
thing is not so much to ascend it, as to descend from it, to be
deprived of the cross!
Of course it is not a question of
speaking ironically about a delicate situation, before which no one
knows how to react until it touches him. The latter is one of the
obediences that is most akin to Christ's in his Passion. Jesus
suspended teaching, truncated all activity, did not let himself be held
back by the thought of what would happen with his disciples; he was not
concerned about what would happen to his word, entrusted, as it was,
only to the poor memory of some fishermen. He did not even let himself
be held back by the thought that he was leaving his mother alone. No
lament, no attempt to bring about a change in the Father's decision: "I
do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I
love the Father. Rise, let us go hence" (John 14:31).
6. Mary, the obedient one
Before ending our considerations on
obedience, let us contemplate for a moment the living icon of
obedience, she who not only imitated the obedience of the Servant, but
lived it with Him. St. Irenaeus writes: "In a parallel manner" --
understood as referring to Christ, the new Adam -- "one finds that also
the Virgin Mary is obedient, when she says: 'Behold the handmaid of the
Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word' (Luke 1:38). As Eve, by
disobeying became the cause of death for herself and for the whole
human race, so Mary, by obeying, became the cause of salvation for
herself and for the whole human race." Mary appears to the
theological reflection of the Church -- we are, in fact, in the
presence of the first outline of Mariology -- through the title of
Mary also surely obeyed her parents,
the law, Joseph. But it is not of these obediences that St. Irenaeus is
thinking, but of her obedience to the Word of God. Her obedience is the
exact antithesis of Eve's disobedience. But -- again -- whom did Eve
disobey to be called the disobedient? Certainly not her parents, of
which she was lacking; or her husband or some written law. She
disobeyed the word of God! As Mary's "fiat" is situated in Luke's
Gospel next to Jesus' "fiat" in Gethsemane (cf. Luke 22:42), so for St.
Irenaeus, the obedience of the new Eve is placed next to the obedience
of the new Adam.
No doubt, in her earthly life, Mary
recited or heard the verse of the Psalm in which one says to God:
"Teach me to do thy will" (Psalm 142:10). We address the same prayer to
her: "Teach us, Mary, to do the will of God as you did!"
* * *
 St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "De
errore Abelardi," 8, 21 (PL 182, 1070).
 St. Irenaeus, "Dimostrazione
della predicazione apostolica," 34.
 St. Maximus the Confessor, "In
Matth.," 26, 39 (PG 91, 68).
 Dante Alighieri, "Paradiso," 3,
 Cf. C.H. Dodd, "Il fondatore del
cristianesimo, Leumann," 1975, p. 59 f.
 St. Ignatius of Antioch,
"Lettera a Policarpo," 4, 1.
 St. Gregory the Great, "Omelie
sui vangeli," 17, 1 (PL 76, 1139).
 St. Irenaeus, "Adv. Haer.," III,
Father Cantalamessa on
3rd Lenten Sermon preached to Pope
Benedict XVI and the Pontifical Household (April 7, 2006)
Rocks Were Split"
1. The Passion and the Shroud
Christ's passion is the subject most
addressed in Western art. Suffice it to think of the innumerable
representations, in painting and sculpture, of Jesus in Gethsemane, the
"Ecce Homo," the crucifixion, the famous depositions from the cross,
called "pietà" and, in the German world, "Vesperbild." In our
secularized world, art remains one of the forms of evangelization which
even penetrates realms closed to all other forms of proclamation. I met
a Japanese girl who converted and received baptism [after] studying art
No artistic representation of the
Passion, however, has exercised and still exercises a fascination like
that of the shroud. It matters not, from our point of view, to know
whether or not the shroud is "authentic," if the image was formed
naturally or artificially, if it is only an icon or also a relic. What
is certain is that it is the most solemn and sublime representation of
death that the human eye has ever contemplated. If a God can die, this
is the least inadequate way to represent his death to us.
The closed eyelids, the lips
together, the composed features of the face: More than a dead person,
it all makes one think of a man immersed in profound and silent
meditation. It seems like the translation in images of the ancient
antiphon of Holy Saturday: "Caro mea requiescet in spe," "my body too
will rest secure." Even the former homily on Holy Saturday that is read
in the office of readings acquires a particular force read before the
shroud: "What happened? Today on earth, there is great silence, great
silence and solitude. Great silence because the King sleeps.……"
Theology tells us that at his death
Christ's soul separated from his body as it does in every man who dies,
but his divinity remained united both to his soul as well as to his
body. The shroud is the most perfect representation of this
Christological mystery. That body was separated from the soul, but not
from the divinity. There is something divine that moves over the
martyred face, full of majesty, of the Christ of the shroud.
To perceive it, suffice it to
compare the shroud with other representations of the dead Christ made
by the hand of human artists, for example Mantegna's dead Christ, and
even more so that of Holbein the Younger, in the Museums of Basel,
which represents the body of Christ in all the rigidity of death and
the incipient decomposition of the members. Before this image,
Dostoyevsky, who contemplated it at length on one of his trips, said
that one can easily lose one's faith; before the shroud, on the
contrary, faith may be found, or found again if it has been lost.
Christ's face of the shroud is like
a boundary, a wall that separates two worlds: the world of men full of
agitation, violence and sin and the world of God inaccessible to evil.
It is a shore on which all waves break. As if, in Christ, God says to
the force of evil what the book of Job says to the ocean: "Thus far
shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be
stayed" (Job 38:11).
Before the shroud we can pray like
this: "Lord, make me your shroud. When, again descending from the
cross, you come to me in the sacrament of your body and blood, may I
wrap you with my faith and love as in a shroud, so that your features
are imprinted on my soul and also leave on it an indelible trace. Lord,
make of the coarse and crude cloth of my humanity our shroud!"
2. The Passion of the Savior's Soul
In this meditation, we go ideally to
Calvary. The evangelists sum up the most overwhelming event of the
history of the world in three words: "and they crucified him" (Mark and
Matthew), "there they crucified him" (Luke), "to crucify him" (John).
The readers they were addressing knew well what these words meant; we
do not. We must deduce it from other sources. These also, however, are
strangely reticent; the torture of the cross was considered so
horrifying that it had to be kept far away, in Cicero's words, "not
only from the eyes, but also from the ears of a Roman citizen." It
should not be spoken about by genteel people.
The condemned one could be bound by
cords on the writs or fixed with nails to the cross. Mention of the
wounds to the hands and feet of the risen one tells us that for Jesus
the second way was adopted and one can easily imagine the torture that
Several theories have been proposed
about the immediate physical cause of Jesus' death: heart attack,
suffocation; the most recent indicates dehydration and the loss of
blood as the most plausible medical explanation of Christ's death.
But far more profound and painful
than the passion of the body was that of Christ's soul. The latter had
several causes. The first was solitude. The Gospels insist much on the
progressive abandonment of Jesus in his passion: by the crowds, by the
disciples and finally by the Father himself. "You will leave me alone"
(John 16:32); "Then all the disciples forsook him and fled" (Matthew
26:56; Mark 14:50).
Christ's solitude is impressive
above all in the episode of Gethsemane, when he seeks repeatedly and in
vain for some one to be close to him. To express the anguish of this
moment, Mark and Matthew use the verb "ademonein." In Greek we know
that the letter "a" at the beginning of a word indicates absence,
privation; "demonein" has the same root as demos, people, and of
democracy. The underlying idea then is that of a man cut off from human
society, prey to a kind of solitary terror, as some one who finds
himself projected in a remote point of the universe where, if he cries
out, his voice is lost in an icy void.
Solitude reaches its culmination on
the cross when Jesus, in his humanity, feels abandoned even by the
Father: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" This was not a cry
of dejection or despair, as has sometimes been thought. If the
evangelists thought this, they would not have made the Roman
centurion's confession of faith depend on it: "Truly this was the Son
of God!" (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39). Nothing however prevents one from
thinking that the evangelists had interpreted Jesus' cry in the light
of the quoted psalm, as _expression of the extreme solitude and
abandonment that Jesus experienced at this moment in his humanity.
That which the Apostle Paul
assumes as the greatest renunciation and suffering possible to the
world, "I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from
Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race" (cf. Romans
9:1), Christ, in fact, experienced this with respect of God. He became
the atheist, the one without God, so that men might return to God.
There is, in fact, an active atheism, culpable, which consists in
rejecting God, and there is a passive atheism, of punishment and
expiation, which consists in being rejected or feeling rejected, by
God. One must question the mystics who shared a small part of the dark
night of Christ -- the last among them Mother Teresa of Calcutta -- to
know how painful this form of atheism is.
Another aspect of the interior
passion of Christ was humiliation and contempt. "He was despised and
rejected by men. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened
not his mouth" (Isaiah 53:3-7). So predicted Isaiah, and so it
happened. From the moment of the arrest until under the cross it was a
crescendo of contempt, insults and mockery surrounding the person of
Christ. "They clothed him in a purple cloak, and plaiting a crown of
thorns they put it on him. And they began to salute him, 'Hail, King of
the Jews!' And they struck his head with a reed, and spat upon him, and
they knelt down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they
stripped him of the purple cloak, and put his own clothes on him. And
they led him out to crucify him" (Mark 15:17-20). Under the cross, "the
chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying: 'He
saved others; he cannot save himself'" (Matthew 27:41ff.). Jesus is
defeated. All the innumerable "defeated" of life have someone who can
understand and help them.
But the passion of the Savior's soul
has an even deeper cause than solitude and humiliation. In Gethsemane
he prays that the cup be removed from him (cf. Mark 14:36). In the
Bible, the image of the cup evokes almost always the idea of the wrath
of God against sin (cf. Isaiah 51:22; Psalm 75:9; Revelation 14:10).
At the beginning of the letter, St.
Paul establishes a fact which has the value of a universal principle:
"The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness"
(Romans 1:18). Where there is sin, one cannot fail to note the judgment
of God against it, otherwise God would compromise with sin and the
distinction itself between good and evil would fail. God's wrath is the
same thing as his holiness. Now, Jesus in Gethsemane is ungodliness,
all the ungodliness of the world. He, writes the Apostle, is the man
"made sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21). It is against him that the wrath of
God "is revealed." The infinite attraction that there is from eternity
between the Father and the Son is now run through by an equally
infinite repulsion between the holiness of God and the malice of sin
and this is "to drink the cup."
3. "Is it I, Master?
Now is the moment to pass from
contemplation of the passion to our response to it. I pointed out at
the beginning the role played by art in addressing the passion of
Christ. Next to painting and sculpture, with gratitude we must also
remember music. For many people, within and outside of Christianity,
Bach's "Passion according to St. Matthew" is the only means of
knowledge of the passion of Christ. A means before which it is
difficult to remain altogether neutral and detached. Alternated in the
account of the facts (recitatives) is meditation (the arias) prayer
(choral) the impulse of the heart; all that penetrates in the senses
and the soul by the suggestion of a music which reaches here one of its
most sublime heights.
In view of these meditations, I
wanted to hear again Bach's "Passion" according to St. Matthew; it was
a moment that moved me profoundly. At the announcement of the betrayal,
all the apostles asked Jesus: "Is it I, Lord?" However, before having
us hear Christ's response, annulling all distance between the event and
its commemoration, the composer makes today's devout Christian
intervene who cries out his confession: "Yes, it is I, I am the
This interpretation is profoundly
biblical. The kerygma, or announcement, of the Passion is always made
up of two elements: a fact -- "suffered," "died"; the motivation of the
event -- "for us," "for our trespasses." He was put to death, says the
Apostle, "for our trespasses" (Romans 4:25); died "for the ungodly," he
died "for us" (Romans 5:6-8). It is always like this.
The Passion inevitably remains
extraneous to us, unless we enter into it through that little narrow
door of the "for us." Only he truly knows the Passion who acknowledges
that it is also his work. Without this, the rest is digression. I am
Judas who betrays, Peter who denies, the crowd that shouts, "Barabbas
not him!" Every time I have preferred my satisfaction, my convenience,
my honor to Christ's this has occurred. In a memorable talk for Good
Friday, Don Primo Mazzolari was not wrong to speak of "our brother
If Christ died "for me" and "for my
trespasses," then it means -- simply returning the phrase to the active
-- that I killed Jesus of Nazareth, that my trespasses crushed him. It
is what Peter proclaims forcefully to the three thousand listeners, the
day of Pentecost: "You killed Jesus of Nazareth!" "You denied the Holy
and Righteous One!" (cf. Acts 2:23; 3:14).
Those three thousand were not all
present on Calvary to hammer the nails or before Pilate to ask that he
be crucified. They could have protested, instead, they accepted the
accusation and said to the apostles: "Brethren, what shall we do?"
(Acts 2:37). The Holy Spirit had "convinced them of sin," making them
engage in simple reasoning: If the Messiah is dead for the sins of his
people and I have committed a sin, I have killed the Messiah.
It is written that at the moment of
Christ's death "the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to
bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also
were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were
raised" (Matthew 27:51ff.). An apocalyptic explanation -- symbolic
language to describe the eschatological event -- is usually given of
these signs, but they also have a parenthetic meaning: indicating what
should occur in the heart of the one who reads and meditates on the
passion of Christ. St. Leo the Great writes: "Human nature trembles
before the Redeemer's torture, the rocks of unfaithful hearts are split
and those that were closed in the sepulchers of their mortality emerge,
lifting the stone that weighed down on them."
We have arrived at the point in
which we must gather the fruit of the whole of our meditation on the
Passion. The Bible has explained the profound meaning of the word
metanoia, conversion, as a change of heart: "Create in me, O God, a new
heart," "rend your hearts and not your garments" (Joel 2:13). Also the
conversion of the crowd that heard Peter's talk is expressed through
the image of the heart: "They were cut to the heart" (Acts 2:37).
Every conversion implies a movement,
a passing from one state to another, from one point of departure to a
point of arrival. The point of departure, a state from which one must
come out is for Scripture that of the hardness of heart. "I gave them
over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels" (Psalm
80:13), "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your
wives" (Matthew 19:8), "grieved at their hardness of heart" (Mark 3:5),
"by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for
yourself" (Romans 2:5).
In the whole Bible, but
especially in the New Testament, the heart indicates the seat of the
interior life, as opposed to the outward appearance: "man looks on the
outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).
The heart is man's most profound I, his very person, in particular, his
intelligence and will. It is the center of the religious life, the
point in which God addresses man and man decides his response to God.
One now understands what hardness of
heart represents for Scripture: the refusal to submit to God, to love
him with one's whole heart, to obey his law. The term "sclerocardia,"
invented by the Bible, is significant. A hard heart is a sclerosed
heart, felted up, impermeable to any form of love that is not love of
self. The images used by Scripture are those of the "heart of stone"
(Ezekiel 36:26), of the "uncircumcized heart" (Jeremiah 9:26), and of
stubbornness (Deuteronomy 31:27).
The term "ad quem," or the point of
arrival of the conversion is described, coherently, with the images of
the contrite, wounded, lacerated, circumcised heart, of the heart of
flesh, of the new heart: "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken
spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise
(Psalm 51:19); "this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble
and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word" (Isaiah 66:2); "we may
be heard with a contrite heart and a humbled spirit" (Deuteronomy 3:39).
4. "I stand at the door and knock"
Let us now attempt to understand how
this change of heart is brought about.
We must distinguish two situations.
When it is a question of the first conversion, from incredulity to
faith, or from sin to grace, Christ is outside and knocks on the walls
of the heart to enter, when it is a question of successive conversions,
from one state of grace to a higher one, from lukewarmness to fervor,
the opposite occurs: Christ is within and knocks on the walls of the
heart to come out!
I will explain. In baptism we
received the Spirit of Christ; that remains in us as in his temple (1
Corinthians 3:16), so long as he is not chased out by mortal sin. But
it can happen that this Spirit ends up by being as though imprisoned
and walled in by a heart of stone that is formed around it. It has no
possibility to expand and permeate with himself the faculties, factions
and sentiments of the person. When we read Christ's phrase in
Revelation: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" (Revelation 3:20),
we should understand that he does not knock from outside, but from
within; he does not wish to enter but to come out.
The Apostle says that Christ must be
"formed" in us (Galatians 4:19), namely, develop and receive his full
form; and this development is impeded by the heart of stone. Sometimes
large trees are seen on the sides of the streets (in Rome they are
generally pines), whose roots, imprisoned by the asphalt, struggle to
expand, raising parts of the cement itself. This is how we should
imagine the Kingdom of God within us: a seed destined to become a
majestic tree on which the birds of heaven rest, but which makes it
difficult to develop because of the resistance of our egoism.
There are obviously different
degrees in this situation. In the majority of souls committed to a
spiritual path, Christ is not imprisoned in a breastplate but, so to
speak, in guarded freedom. He is free to move, but within very precise
limits. This occurs when he is tacitly made to understand what he can
and cannot ask of us. Prayer yes, but not so as to compromise our
sleep, rest, healthy information; obedience yes, but he must not abuse
our availability; chastity yes, but not to the point of depriving us of
some relaxed show, though impudent. In sum, the use of half measures.
In the history of holiness, the most
famous example of the first conversion, that from sin to grace, is St.
Augustine; the most instructive example of the second conversion, that
from lukewarmness to fervor, is St. Teresa of Avila. It might be that
what she says of herself in her life is exaggerated and dictated by the
delicacy of her conscience, but it might serve us for a useful
examination of conscience.
"Well that is how I began, from
pastime to pastime, from vanity to vanity, from occasion to occasion,
to go so far on very great occasions and pervert my soul in many
vanities. The things of God made me very content but I was bound by
those of the world. It seems that I wished to reconcile these two
opposites -- so inimical one to the other -- as are spiritual life and
sensuous joys, tastes and pastimes."
The result of this state was a
profound unhappiness, in which we might also recognize our own: "I
spent almost twenty years in this tempestuous sea, with these falls and
with raising myself up and badly -- as I would fall again -- and in a
life so low in perfection, in which I paid virtually no attention to
venial sins, and the mortal ones, though I feared them, but not as I
should, as I did not remove myself from the dangers. I can say that it
was one of the most painful lives that I believe one could imagine,
because I neither enjoyed God nor brought happiness to the world. When
I was in worldly joys, to remember what I owed God was painful for me;
when I was with God, worldly pastimes disturbed me."
It was, in fact, contemplation of
the Passion that gave Teresa the decisive impulse to change. This is
how the saint describes the moment of her "conversion": "It happened to
me, entering the oratory one day, I saw an image that I had taken there
to put away, which had been found for a celebration at home. It was of
a very wounded Christ and so devout that, on looking at it, I was so
distressed to see him like that, because it represented well what he
went through for us. I felt so much how badly I had thanked him for
those wounds, that I thought my heart was breaking and I threw myself
next to Him with very great shedding of tears, begging him to
strengthen me once and for all so as not to offend him. I told him I
would not rise from there until he did what I implored him. I think it
did me good, because I have improved much since then." Today we know
to what point she improved!
5, "Far be it from me to glory ..."
It is written that, on that day, the
multitudes "when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating
their breasts" (Luke 23:48). We want to do this also, returning to our
work after being with Jesus on Calvary. Once we have passed through our
little spiritual "earthquake," we see the sign of the cross and death
of Christ change completely: from the chapter of accusation and reason
for fear and sadness, to its transformation into a reason for joy and
security. The "propter nos," because of us, is transformed into "pro
nobis," in our favor. The cross now appears as honor and glory, that
is, in Pauline language, as joyful security accompanied by overwhelming
gratitude, to which man rises in faith and which is expressed in praise
We can open ourselves without fear
to that joyful and pneumatic dimension in which the cross no longer
appears as "folly and scandal," but, on the contrary, as "strength of
God and wisdom of God." We can make of it our reason for unbreakable
certainty, supreme proof of the love of God for us, inexhaustible topic
of proclamation and, without any arrogance at all, but with profound
humility, say with the Apostle: "But far be it from me to glory except
in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!" (Galatians 6:14).
At a time when in several places
pressure is being exerted to remove the crucifix from classrooms and
public places, we, Christians, must fix it more than ever to the walls
of our hearts. We began this meditation asking Jesus to make his shroud
in our souls. We ask Mary to help us to fulfill this program with the
words of the Stabat Mater: "Sancta Mater, istud agas, / crucifixi fige
plagas / cordi meo valide": "O Holy Mother, make the wounds of the
Crucified One be engraved in my heart."
 "Antica Omelia sul Sabato Santo"
(PG 43, 439 f.).
 F. Dostoyevsky, "The Idiot,"
Part II, iv.
 Cf. Cicero, "Pro Rabirio" 5, 16.
 Cf. R. Brown, "The Death of the
Messiah," II, p. 1051.
 St. Leo the Great, "Sermo" 66,
3(PL 54, 366).
 St. Teresa of Avila, "Life,"
 Ibid., 9, 1-3.
Father Cantalamessa's Good Friday
"God Manifests His Love for Us" (April 14?)
VATICAN CITY, APRIL 7, 2006 (ZENIT.org).- Here is a translation of the
Good Friday sermon preached today in St. Peter's Basilica, before
Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, by Capuchin Father Raniero
Cantalamessa, preacher to the Pontifical Household.
* * *
"God Manifests His Love for Us"
1. Christians, be serious in taking action!
"The time is sure to come when people will not accept sound teaching,
but their ears will be itching for anything new and they will collect
themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes;
and then they will shut their ears to the truth and will turn to myths"
(2 Timothy 4:3-4).
This word of Scripture -- and in a special way the reference to the
itching for anything new -- is being realized in a new and impressive
way in our days. While we celebrate here the memory of the passion and
death of the Savior, millions of people are seduced by the clever
rewriting of ancient legends to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was
never crucified. In the United States a best-seller at present is an
edition of The Gospel of Thomas, presented as the Gospel that "spares
us the crucifixion, makes the resurrection unnecessary, and does not
present us with a God named Jesus."
Some years ago, Raymond Brown, the greatest biblical scholar of the
Passion, wrote: "It is an embarrassing insight into human nature that
the more fantastic the scenario, the more sensational is the promotion
it receives and the more intense the faddish interest it attracts.
People who would never bother reading a responsible analysis of the
traditions about how Jesus was crucified, died, was buried, and rose
from the dead are fascinated by the report of some 'new insight' to the
effect that he was not crucified or did not die, especially if the
subsequent career involved running off with Mary Magdalene to India ……
These theories demonstrate that in relation to the passion of Jesus,
despite the popular maxim, fiction is stranger than fact, and often,
intentionally or not, more profitable."
There is much talk about Judas' betrayal, without realizing that it is
being repeated. Christ is being sold again, no longer to the leaders of
the Sanhedrin for thirty denarii, but to editors and booksellers for
billions of denarii. No one will succeed in halting this speculative
wave, which instead will flare up with the imminent release of a
certain film, but being concerned for years with the history of Ancient
Christianity, I feel the duty to call attention to a huge
misunderstanding which is at the bottom of all this pseudo-historical
The apocryphal gospels on which they lean are texts that have always
been known, in whole or in part, but with which not even the most
critical and hostile historians of Christianity ever thought, before
today, that history could be made. It would be as if within two
centuries an attempt were made to reconstruct a present-day history
based on novels written in our age.
The huge misunderstanding is the fact that they use these writings to
make them say exactly the opposite of what they intended. They are part
of the gnostic literature of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The gnostic
vision -- a mixture of Platonic dualism and Eastern doctrines, cloaked
in biblical ideas -- holds that the material world is an illusion, the
work of the God of the Old Testament, who is an evil god, or at least
inferior; Christ did not die on the cross, because he never assumed,
except in appearance, a human body, the latter being unworthy of God
If, according to The Gospel of Judas, of which there has been much talk
in recent days, Jesus himself orders the apostle to betray him, it is
because, by dying, the divine spirit which was in him would finally be
able to liberate itself from involvement of the flesh and re-ascend to
heaven. Marriage oriented to births is to be avoided; woman will be
saved only if the "feminine principle" (thelus) personified by her, is
transformed into the masculine principle, that is, if she ceases to be
The funny thing is that today there are those who believe they see in
these writings the exaltation of the feminine principle, of sexuality,
of the full and uninhibited enjoyment of this material world, contrary
to the official Church which would always have frustrated all this! The
same mistake is noted in regard to the doctrine of reincarnation.
Present in the Eastern religions as a punishment due to previous faults
and as something to which one longs to put an end with all one's might,
it is accepted in the West as a wonderful possibility to live and enjoy
this world indefinitely.
These are issues that would not merit being addressed in this place and
on this day, but we cannot allow the silence of believers to be
mistaken for embarrassment and that the good faith (or foolishness?) of
millions of people be crassly manipulated by the media, without raising
a cry of protest, not only in the name of the faith, but also of common
sense and healthy reason. It is the moment, I believe, to hear again
the admonishment of Dante Alighieri:
Christians, be serious in taking action:
Do not be like a feather to every wind,
Nor think that every water cleanses you.
You have the New and the Old Testament
And the Shepherd of the Church to guide you;
Let this be all you need for your salvation ……
Be men, do not be senseless sheep.
2. The Passion Preceded the Incarnation!
But let us leave these fantasies to one side. They have a common
explanation: We are in the age of the media and the media are more
interested in novelty than in truth. Let us concentrate on the mystery
that we are celebrating. The best way to reflect this year on the
mystery of Good Friday would be to re-read the entire first part of the
Pope's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," Not being able to do so here, I
would like at least to comment on some passages that refer more
directly to the mystery of this day. We read in the encyclical:
"To fix one's gaze on the pierced side of Christ, of which John speaks,
helps to understand what has been the point of departure of this
encyclical letter: 'God is love.' It is there, on the cross, where this
truth can be contemplated. And, beginning from there, we must now
define what love is. And, from that gaze, the Christian finds the
orientation of his living and loving."
Yes, God is love! It has been said that, if all the Bibles of the world
were to be destroyed by some cataclysm or iconoclastic rage and only
one copy remained; and if this copy was also so damaged that only one
page was still whole, and likewise if this page was so wrinkled that
only one line could still be read: if that line was the line of the
First Letter of John where it is written that "God is love!" the whole
Bible would have been saved, because the whole content is there.
I lived my childhood in a cottage only a few meters from a high-tension
electrical wire, but we lived in darkness, or with the light of
candles. Between us and the electrical wire was a railway, and with the
war going on, nobody thought of overcoming the small obstacle. This is
what happens with the love of God: It is there, within our grasp,
capable of illuminating and warming everything in our life, but we live
out our existence in darkness and cold. This is the only true reason
for sadness in life.
God is love, and the cross of Christ is the supreme proof, the
historical demonstration. There are two ways of manifesting one's love
towards someone, said Nicholas Cabasilas, an author of the Byzantine
East. The first consists of doing good to the person loved, of giving
gifts; the second, much more demanding, consists of suffering for him.
God has loved us in the first way, that is, with a munificent love, in
creation, when he filled us with gifts, within and outside us; he has
loved us with a suffering love in the redemption, when he invented his
own annihilation, suffering for us the most terrible torments, for the
purpose of convincing us of his love. Therefore, it is on the cross
that one must now contemplate the truth that "God is love."
The word "passion" has two meanings: It can indicate a vehement love,
"passionate," or a mortal suffering. There is continuity between the
two things and daily experience shows how easily one passes from one to
the other. It was also like this, and first of all, in God. There is a
passion, Origen wrote, that precedes the incarnation. This is "the
passion of love" that God has always nourished towards the human race
and that, in the fullness of time, led him to come on earth and suffer
3. Three Orders of Greatness
The encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" indicates a new way of engaging in
the apologetics of the Christian faith, perhaps the only way possible
today and certainly the most effective. It does not pit supernatural
values against natural values, divine love against human love, eros
against agape, but shows the original harmony, that must be continually
discovered healed, due to human sin and frailty. The Gospel not only
coincides with human ideals, but in the literal sense of realizing
them, the Gospel restores, elevates and protects them. It does not
exclude eros from life, but rather excludes the poison of egoism from
There are three orders of greatness, Pascal said in his famous
"Penséées." The first is the material order or of
bodies: in it excels one who has many properties, who is gifted with
athletic strength or physical beauty. It is a value that should not be
disparaged, but it is the lowest. Above it is the order of genius and
intelligence in which thinkers, inventors, scientists, artists, and
poets are distinguished. This is an order of a different quality. To be
rich or poor, beautiful or ugly does not add or subtract anything from
genius. The physical deformity attributed to their person, does not
take anything away from the beauty of Socrates' thought or Leopardi's
The value of genius is certainly higher than the preceding, but it is
not yet the highest. Above it is another order of greatness, and it is
the order of love, of goodness. (Pascal calls it the order of holiness
and grace). A drop of holiness, Gounod said, is worth more than an
ocean of genius. To be beautiful or ugly, learned or illiterate does
not add or take anything away from a saint. His greatness is of a
Christianity belongs to this third level. In the novel Quo Vadis, a
pagan asks the Apostle Peter who had just arrived in Rome: Athens has
given us wisdom, Rome power, and what does your religion offer us?
Peter responds: Love! Love is the most fragile thing that exists in the
world; it is represented, and it is, as a child. It can be killed with
very little, as we have seen with horror these days that very little is
needed to kill a child. But what do power and wisdom become, that is
strength and genius, without love and goodness? They become Auschwitz,
Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all the rest that we know well.
4. Forgiving love
"God's eros for man," continues the encyclical, "is also totally agape.
This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous
manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which
forgives" (no. 10).
This quality also shines in the highest degree in the mystery of the
cross. "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life
for his friends," Jesus said in the Cenacle (John 15:13). One could
exclaim: a love does exist, O Christ, which is greater than giving
one's life for one's friends. Yours! You did not give your life for
your friends, but for your enemies! Paul says "one will hardly die for
the righteous man -- though perhaps for a good man one will dare even
to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners
Christ died for us" (Romans 5:6-8).
However, it does not take long to discover that the contrast is only
apparent. The word "friends" in the active sense indicates those who
love you, but in the passive sense it indicates those who are loved by
you. Jesus calls Judas "friend" (Matthew 26:50) not because Judas loved
him, but because He loved Judas! There is no greater love than to give
one's life for enemies, considering them friends: this is the meaning
of Jesus' phrase. Men can be enemies of God, but God will never be able
to be an enemy of man. It is the terrible advantage of children over
fathers (and mothers).
We must reflect in what way, specifically, the love of Christ on the
cross can help the man of today to find, as the encyclical says, "the
orientation of his living and loving." It is a love of mercy, that
excuses and forgives, which does not wish to destroy the enemy, but, if
anything, enmity (cf. Ephesians 2:16). Jeremiah, the closest among men
to the Christ of the Passion, prays to God saying: "let me see the
vengeance upon them" (Jeremiah 11:20); Jesus dies saying: "Father,
forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
It is precisely this mercy and capacity for forgiveness of which we are
in need today, so as not to slide ever more into the abyss of
globalized violence. The Apostle wrote to the Colossians: "Put on then,
as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness,
lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one
has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has
forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Colossians 3:12-13).
To have mercy means to be moved to pity (misereor) in the heart
(cordis) in regard to one's enemy, to understand of what fabric we are
all made and hence to forgive. What might happen if, by a miracle of
history, in the Near East, the two peoples at war for decades, rather
than blaming one another were to begin to think of the suffering of
others, to be moved to pity for one another. A wall of division between
them would no longer be necessary. The same thing must be said of so
many other ongoing conflicts in the world, including those between the
different religious confessions and Christian Churches.
How much truth there is in the verse of Pascoli: "Men, peace! In the
prostrate earth, too great is the mystery." A common fate of death
looms over all. Humanity is enveloped in so much darkness and bowed
under so much suffering that we must have some compassion and
solidarity for one another.
5. The duty to love
There is another teaching that comes to us from the love of God
manifested on the cross of Christ. God's love for man is faithful and
eternal: "I have loved you with an everlasting love," says God to man
in the prophets (Jeremiah 31:3); and again, "I will not be false to my
faithfulness" (Psalm 89:34). God has bound himself to love forever; he
has deprived himself of the freedom to turn back. This is the profound
meaning of the Covenant that in Christ became "new and eternal."
Questioned ever more frequently in our society is what relationship
there might exist between the love of two young people and the law of
marriage; what need love has, which is impulsive and spontaneous, to be
"bound." Ever more numerous therefore are those who refuse the
institution of marriage and choose so-called free love or simple, de
facto, living together.
Only if one discovers the profound and vital relationship that exists
between law and love, decision and institution, can one respond
correctly to those questions and give young people a convincing reason
to be "bound" to love forever and not to be afraid to make love a
"Only when the duty to love exists," wrote the philosopher who, after
Plato, has written the most beautiful things about love, "only then is
love guaranteed for ever against any alteration; eternally liberated in
blessed independence; assured in eternal blessedness against any
desperation." The meaning of these words is that the person who
loves, the more intensely he loves, the more he perceives with anguish
the danger his love runs. A danger that does not come from others, but
He knows well in fact that he is inconstant and that tomorrow, alas, he
might get tired and no longer love or change the object of his love.
And, now that he is in the light of love, he sees clearly what an
irreparable loss this would entail, so he protects himself by "binding"
himself to love with the bond of duty, thus anchoring in eternity his
act of love in time.
Ulysses wanted to return to see his homeland and wife again, but he had
to pass through the place of the Sirens that lured mariners with their
singing and lead them to crash against the rocks. What did he do? He
had himself tied to the vessel's mast, after having plugged the ears of
companions with wax. Arriving at the spot, charmed, he cried out to be
loosed to reach the Sirens, but his companions could not hear him and
so he was able to see his homeland and embrace his wife and son
again. It is a myth, but it helps to understand the reason for
"indissoluble" marriage and, on a different plane, for religious vows.
The duty to love protects love from "desperation" and renders it
"blessed and independent" in the sense that it protects from the
desperation of not being able to love forever. Show me some one who is
really in love -- said the same thinker -- and he will tell you if, in
love, there is opposition between pleasure and duty; if the thought of
"having" to love for the whole of life brings fear and anguish to the
lover, or, rather, supreme joy and happiness.
Appearing one day in Holy Week to Blessed Angela of Foligno, Christ
said a word to her that has become famous: "I have not loved you for
fun!" Christ, indeed, has not loved us for fun. There is a gamesome
and playful dimension in love, but it itself is not a game; it is the
most serious thing and most charged with consequences that exists in
the world; human life depends on it. Aeschylus compares love to a lion
cub that is raised at home, "docile and tender at first even more than
a child," with which one can even play but then growing up, is capable
of slaughter and of staining the house with blood.
These considerations are not enough to change the present culture that
exalts the freedom to change and the spontaneity of the moment, the
practice off "use and discard" applied even to love. (Life,
unfortunately, will do so when at the end we find ourselves with ashes
in hand and the sadness of not having built anything lasting with
love). But that they at least serve to confirm the goodness and beauty
of the choice of those who have decided to live love between man and
woman according to God's plan and to attract many young people to make
the same choice.
Nothing more remains for us but to intone with Paul the hymn to the
victorious love of God. He invites us to attain with him a marvelous
experience of interior healing. He thinks about all the negative things
and critical moments of his life: tribulation, anguish, persecution,
hunger, nakedness, danger and the sword. He contemplates them in the
light of the certainty of the love of God and shouts: "But in all this
we emerge triumphant thanks to him who loves us!"
Lift up your gaze; from your personal life move to consider the world
that surrounds you and the universal human destination, and again the
same joyous certainty: "I am convinced that neither death nor
life...nor present things nor future things, nor powers, nor height,
nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the
love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:37-39).
We reclaim his invitation, this Friday of the Passion, and we repeat
his words for us while, before long, we adore the cross of Christ.
* * *
 H. Bloom, in the interpretative essay that accompanies M. Meyer's
edition, The Gospel of Thomas, Harper, San Francisco, s.d., p. 125.
 R. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, II, New York, 1998, pp.
 See logion 114 in The Gospel of Thomas, ed, Mayer, p. 63); in the
Gospel of the Egyptians, Jesus says: "I have come to destroy woman's
work" (cf. Clemens of Al., Stromata, III, 63). This explains why The
Gospel of Thomas became the gospel of the Manicheans, while it was
severely combated by ecclesiastical authors (for example, by Hippolytus
of Rome), who defended the goodness of marriage and of creation in
 Paradiso, V, 73-80.
 Benedict XVI, Enc. "Deus Caritas Est," 12.
 Cf. N. Cabasilas, Life in Christ, VI, 2 (PG 150, 645). Cf.
Origen, Homilies on Ezekiel, 6,6 (GCS, 1925, p. 384 f).
 Cf. B. Pascal, "Penséées," 793, ed. Brunschvicg.
 Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis, chapt. 33.
 Giovanni Pascoli, "I due fanciulli."
 S. Kierkegaard, Acts of Love, I, 2, 40, ed. by C. Fabro, Milan,
1983, p. 177 ff.
 Cf. Odyssey, XII.
 The Book of Blessed Angela of Foligno, Instructio 23 (ed.
Quaracchi, Grottaferrata, 1985, p. 612).
 Aeschylus, Agamemnon, vv. 717 ff.