3rd Advent Sermon, 2009

Author: Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.


Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Advent Sermon

"Mary, Mother and Model of the Priest"

Here is the Advent reflection delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Pontifical Household, for Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia. The talk was titled "Mary, Mother and Model of the Priest."

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Mary, Mother and Model of the Priest

In his letter to priests on the occasion of Holy Thursday in 1979, the first of a series during his pontificate, Pope John Paul II wrote: "In our ministerial priesthood there is the wonderful and penetrating dimension of nearness to the Mother of Christ." In this last meditation of Advent, I would like to reflect on this closeness between Mary and the priest.
There is not much talk of Mary in the New Testament. However, if we pay attention, we note that she is not absent from any of the three central events of the Christian mystery, which are: the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery and Pentecost. Mary was present at the Incarnation because it happened in her womb; she was present at the Paschal Mystery, because it is written that "standing by the cross of Jesus was Mary, his Mother" (cf. John 19:25), she was present at Pentecost, because it is written that the Apostles were "with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus" (cf. Acts 1:14). Each of these three moments reveals to us something of the mysterious closeness between Mary and the priest. As we are now approaching Christmas, I would like to limit myself to the first of these, and discuss what Mary says of the priest and to the priest in the mystery of the Incarnation.
1. What Is the Relationship Between Mary and the Priest?
First of all I would like to refer to the question of the title of priest attributed to the Virgin in tradition. A writer of the end of the fifth century calls Mary "Virgin, and at the same time priest, and altar who has given us Christ — bread of Heaven for the remission of sins."[1] After this, there were frequent references to the topic of Mary as priest, which subsequently became the object of theological developments in the 17th century, in the French school of St. Sulpice. In it, Mary's priesthood is not placed so much in the context of a relationship with the ministerial priesthood, but rather with that of Christ.
At the end of the 19th century a true and proper devotion to the Virgin-priest spread, and St. Pius X even accorded an indulgence to its relative practice. However, when the danger was perceived of confusing the priesthood of Mary with the ministerial priesthood, the magisterium of the Church became reticent and two interventions of the Holy Office practically put an end to such devotion.[2]

After the council, the priesthood of Mary is still spoken of, but it is no longer linked to the ministerial priesthood nor to the supreme priesthood of Christ, but rather to the universal priesthood of the faithful. As figure and first fruits of the Church, she possessed in a personal way that "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9), that all the baptized possess in a collective way.

What can we retain of this long tradition that associates Mary to the priest and what meaning can we give to the "closeness " between Mary and the priest affirmed by John Paul II? It seems to me that what remains is the analogy or the correspondence between the different dimensions of the mystery of salvation. What Mary was once and for all times on the plane of historical reality, the priest is ever anew on the plane of the sacramental reality.

In this connection we can understand the words of Paul VI: "What relationship and what distinctions are there between the maternity of Mary, rendered universal by the dignity and charity of the role given to her by God on the plane of redemption, and the apostolic priesthood, constituted by the Lord to be an instrument of salvific communication between God and men? Mary gives Christ to humanity; and the priesthood also gives Christ to humanity, but in a different way, as is clear; Mary through the Incarnation and through the effusion of grace, of which God filled her; the priesthood through the powers of the sacred order."[3]
The analogy between Mary and the priest can be expressed thus: Mary, through the power of the Holy Spirit, conceived Christ and, after nourishing him and carrying him in her womb, gave birth to him in Bethlehem; the priest, anointed and consecrated in the Holy Spirit at ordination, is also called to be filled with Christ to be able to give birth to him and have him be born in souls through the proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments.
In this connection, the relationship between Mary and the priest has a long tradition behind it, much more authoritative than the notion of Mary-priest. Taking up a thought of St. Augustine [4], the Second Vatican Council wrote: "[The Church is] converted into Mother, because with preaching and baptism she engenders a new and immortal life in her children conceived by the work of the Holy Spirit and born of God."[5]
The baptistery, said the Fathers, is the womb in which the Church gives birth to her children, and the word of God is the pure milk with which she nourishes them. "O mystic marvel! The universal Father is one, and one the universal Word; and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere, and one is the only virgin mother. I love to call her the Church. [...] She is once virgin and mother — pure as a virgin, loving as a mother. And calling her children to her, she nurses them with holy milk, with the Word for childhood" (cf 1 Peter 2:2).[6]
The Blessed Isaac of Stella, in a passage which we read in the office of readings last Saturday, made a synthesis of this tradition: "Mary and the Church are one mother, yet more than one mother; one virgin, yet more than one virgin. Both are mothers, both are virgins. Each conceives of the same Spirit, without concupiscence. Each gives birth to a child of God the Father, without sin. Without any sin, Mary gave birth to Christ the head for the sake of his body. By the forgiveness of every sin, the Church gave birth to the body, for the sake of its head."[7]
What is said in these texts of the Church as a whole, as a sacrament of salvation, should be applied in a special way to priests, because by way of their ministry they are the ones who concretely engender Christ in souls through the word and the sacraments.

2. Mary Believed
This is the objective analogy to be made between Mary and the priest, or the analogy of grace. There is, however, an analogy to be made on the subjective plane, that is, between the personal contribution that the Virgin gave to the grace of election and the contribution that the priest is called to give to the grace of ordination. Neither one is a pure channel which lets grace past without any contribution of itself.
Tertullian speaks of a version of Gnostic Docetism, according to which Jesus was born, yes, of Mary, but not conceived in her and by her; the body of Christ, come down from heaven, would have passed through the Virgin, but not generated in her and by her; Mary was for Jesus a way, not a mother, and Jesus for Mary a guest, not a son.[8]

To not repeat this form of Docetism in his life, the priest cannot limit himself to transmit to others a Christ learned from books that did not become first flesh of his flesh and blood of his blood. As Mary (the image is of St. Bernard), he must be a reservoir that is overflowing with what has filled it, and not simply a channel that allows the water to pass without holding back anything.
The personal contribution, which Mary and the priest have in common, is summed up in the faith. Mary, wrote St. Augustine, "by faith conceived and by faith gave birth" (fide concepit, fide peperit).[9] The priest also by faith carries Christ in his heart and through faith communicates him to others. It will be the center of today's meditation: What can the priest learn from Mary's faith.
When Mary reaches Elizabeth, the latter receives her with great joy and, "full of the Holy Spirit," she exclaimed: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (Luke 1:45). There is no doubt that this having believed refers to Mary's answer to the angel: "Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).
At first glance, Mary's was an easy act of faith, even taken for granted. To become the mother of a king who was to reign for all eternity over the house of Jacob, mother of the Messiah! Was it not the dream of every young Jewish girl? But this is a way of reasoning that is too human and carnal. Mary found herself in total solitude. To whom could she explain what happened to her? Who would believe her when she said that the babe she is carrying in her womb is the "work of the Holy Spirit"? This had never happened to anyone before, and would never happen to anyone again.
Mary certainly knew what was written in the book of the law, and that is that if a young girl at the moment of marriage was not found in a state of virginity, she had to be brought to the front door of her father's house and stoned by the people of the village (cf. Deuteronomy 22:20 ff). We speak willingly today of the risk of faith, understanding in general with this, the intellectual risk; but for Mary it was a real risk!
Carlo Carretto, in his book on Our Lady, recounts how he came to discover Mary's faith. When he lived in the desert, he knew from some Tuareg friends that a girl from the camp was promised as spouse to a young man, but that she did not go to live with him, being too young. He connected this fact with that which Luke says of Mary. Therefore, going over two years later in that same camp, he asked for news of the girl. He noticed a certain embarrassment among his friends, and later one of them, approaching with great secrecy, made a sign: He passed his hand on the throat with the characteristic gesture of Arabs when they wish to say: "They cut off her head." She was discovered pregnant before marriage, and to preserve the honor of the family they had to kill her. He thought again of Mary, and that same night he chose her as his travel companion and teacher of his faith.[10]
God never takes consent from those he calls, hiding the consequences they will have to face. We see it in all the great calls of God. He tells Jeremiah: "They will fight against you" (Jeremiah 1:19). And of Saul, he says to Ananias: "I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (Acts 9:16). Could he have acted differently with Mary, for a mission such as hers? In the light of the Holy Spirit, which accompanies God's call, she certainly would have perceived that her path would not be different from that of the others who had been called. In fact, Simeon would soon express this premonition, when he tells her that a sword would pierce her soul.
A modern writer, Erri De Luca, has described in a poetic way this premonition of Mary at the moment of Jesus' birth. She is alone in the grotto, Joseph is watching outside — by law no man can be present at a birth; and scarcely has she given birth to the son, when strange associations flashed through her mind: "Why my son were you born here in Bet Lehem, House of Bread? And why must we call you Ieshu? Make this shivering up my back, this shiver come from the future be far away from him." Mary senses that her son will be taken from her, then she repeats to herself: "Until the first light Ieshu is mine alone. I want to sing a song with these three words and no more. This night, here, at Bet Lehem, he is mine alone." And, thus saying, she took him to the breast to nurse him.[11]
Mary is the only one who believed "as a contemporary," that is, while the event is happening, before any confirmation or any corroboration on the part of events and of history.[8] Jesus said to Thomas: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (John 20:29): Mary is the first of those who have believed without yet having seen.
St. Paul says that God loves the one who gives with joy (2 Corinthians 9:7), and Mary said her "yes" to God with joy. The verb with which Mary expresses her consent, and which is translated as "fiat" or as "let it be done." In the original Greek it appears in the optative mood ("genoito"), which is used to express desire and even joyful impatience that a certain thing should happen. It is as if the Virgin said: "I also want, with all my being, what God wants; may what he wishes be fulfilled soon." In truth, as St. Augustine said, before conceiving him in her body, she conceived him in her heart.
However, Mary did not actually say "fiat" as she didn't speak Latin, and she didn't even say "genoito," which is a Greek word. What did she say then? What is the word, which in the language spoken by Mary, corresponds most closely to this expression?

When a Jew wished to say to God, "yes, so be it," he said "amen!" If we try to go back to the exact word that came from Mary's lips, we arrive precisely at the word "amen." Those Psalms that in the Latin Vulgate ended  with the expression: "fiat, fiat", in the Greek text of LXX, end with "genoito, genoito" and in the original Hebrew known by Mary with "amen, amen."

Amen is a Hebrew word, the root of which means to be solid, to be certain; it was used in the liturgy as a response of faith to the Word of God. With "amen" one recognizes what has been said as firm, stable, valid and binding. Its exact translation, when it is a response to the Word of God, is this: "So it is, and so be it."

It indicates faith and obedience at the same time; it recognizes that what God says is true and one submits to it. It is to say "yes" to God. In this sense it appears on the lips of Jesus. "Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will" (cf Matthew 11:26).

Furthermore, Jesus is amen personified — "The Amen […] says this" (Revelation 3:14) — and through him all other amen's that are said in the world are taken to God (cf 2 Corinthians 1:20). Mary as well, after her son, is the amen to God made person.

The faith of Mary is an act of love and docility, mysterious like every encounter between grace and liberty. This is the true personal greatness of Mary, her blessedness, confirmed himself by Christ. "Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed!" (Luke 11:27), says a woman in the Gospel. The woman proclaims that Mary is blessed because she carried Jesus; Elizabeth proclaimed her blessed because she believed; the woman proclaims blessed the one who carries Jesus in the womb; Jesus proclaims blessed the one who carries him in the heart: "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it," Jesus responds. In this way, it helps this woman and all of us to understand from where this personal greatness of Mary comes from. Who "keeps" the Word of God better than Mary, of whom it says on two occasions in Scripture that she "kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart?" (cf. Luke 2:19,51).

We should not finish our contemplation of the faith of Mary with the impression that Mary believed once, on one occasion, and never again in her life; that there was only one great act of faith in the Virgin's life. How many times, after the Annunciation, Mary was martyred by the apparent contrast of her situation with all that was written and known about the will of God, in the Old Testament, and about the figure of the Messiah. The Second Vatican Council gave us a great gift by affirming that Mary also walked in faith, and more, that she "advanced" in faith, that is to say, faith grew and was perfected in her ("Lumen Gentium," 58).

3. Let's Also Believe!

We move now from Mary to the priest. St. Augustine wrote: "Mary believed, and in her what was believed came to pass. Let's also believe so that what came to pass in her can also happen to us".[9] Let us also believe! The contemplation of Mary should bring us to renew above all our personal act of faith and abandonment to God.

We all should and can imitate Mary in our faith, but in a special way the priest should. "The just man, because of his faith, shall live" (cf. Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17). This applies, in a special way, to the priest. He is the man of faith. Faith is what makes him what he is, that is to say, his "weight" and the efficacy of his ministry.

What the faithful capture immediately in a priest, in a pastor, is if he believes in what he says and in what he celebrates. Those who seek God above all in the priest, realize immediately; those who do not seek God in him can be easily fooled and even fool the priest himself, making him seem important, brilliant, in step with the trends, when in reality he is a "resounding gong or a clashing cymbal."

Those who don't believe, but approach the priest with a spirit of seeking, understand the difference immediately. What puts one in a healthy crisis is not generally a learned discussion on faith, but rather an encounter with one who truly believes with all his being. Faith is contagious. One does not catch something by hearing someone speak of a virus or by studying it, but rather by entering into contact with someone who has it. This is faith.

At times we suffer and even complain in prayer to God, because people abandon the Church, they don't leave sin behind them. We talk, and talk and talk ... and nothing happens. One day the apostles attempted to expel a demon from a young man, but they couldn't do it. After Jesus expelled the demon from the young boy, they approached Christ and took him to one side and asked: "Why could we not drive it out?" Jesus responded: "Because of your little faith" (Matthew 17:19-20).

St. Bonaventure tells us how one day, when he was living on the Alvernia Mount, it came to him what the Fathers say, that is to say, that the devout soul, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Almighty, can spiritually conceive by faith the blessed Word of the Father, give birth to it, give it a name and seek it and adore it like the Three Kings, and finally present it happily to God Our Father in his temple. He then wrote a work titled "The Five Feasts of the Child Jesus" to show how the Christian can relive in himself each one of the five moments of the life of Jesus. I limit myself to what St. Bonaventure says of the first two feasts, the conception and the nativity, and I will apply it in particular to priests.

The priest conceives Jesus when, unhappy with the life he is living, and moved by holy inspirations and inflamed with holy ardour, detaching himself resolutely from his old customs and attachments, remains spiritually fecund by the grace of the Holy Spirit and conceives the proposal of a new life.

Once conceived, the blessed Son of God is born in the heart of the priest if, after having conducted a holy discernment, asked opportune counsel, invoked the help of God, he put into practice the holy proposal, beginning to realize what he had been thinking but never undertaken for fear of not being capable.

This proposition of new life should, however, translate itself immediately, without delay, into something specific, in a change, possibly something external and visible, in our life and in our customs. If the proposal is not fulfilled, Jesus is conceived, but is not born. It would be one of so many spiritual abortions, which, unfortunately, the world of souls is full of.

There are two simple words that Maria said in the moment of the Anunciation, and that the priest says in the moment of his ordination: "Here I am," and "Amen" or "Yes." I remember the moment of my ordination, together with some 10 other companion, when my name was called. I responded with emotion, "Here I Am!"

During the rite, they ask us some questions:  "Do you want to exercise the priestly ministry during your entire life?",  and "Do you want to undertake faithfully and with dignity the ministry of the word through preaching?" "Do you want to celebrate with devotion and fidelity the mysteries of Christ?" To each question we respond: "Yes, I do."

The spiritual renewal of the Catholic priesthood, desired by the Holy Father, will be proportional to the enthusiasm with which each one of us, priests and bishops of the Church, will be capable of pronouncing again a joyful "I am here" and "yes, I do," making one relive the anointing received in the ordination.

Jesus entered the world saying: "Behold, I come to do your will" (Hebrews 10:7). Let's welcome him at Christmas saying these same words: "I have come, Lord Jesus, to do your will!"


[1] Ps. Epiphany, Homily in praise of the Blessed Virgin, (PG 43, 497)
[2] Cf. On the questions, R. Laurentin, Mary — ecclesiology — priesthood,  Paris 1952; art. "Sacerdoti" in the New Dictionary of Mariology, Ed. Paoline 1985, 1231-1242.

[3] Paul VI, General Audience, Oct. 7, 1964.
[4] St. Augustine, Sermons, 72 A, 8 (Misc. Aug. I, p.164).
[5] "Lumen Gentium," 64.

[6] Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, I, 6.
[7] Blessed Isaac Stella, Sermons, 51 (PL 194, 1863).

[8] Tertulliano, "De Carne Christi," 20-21 (CCL 2, 910 ss.).
[9] St. Augustine, Sermons, 215, 4 (PL 38,1074).

[10] C. Carretto, "Beata te che hai creduto," Ed. Paoline, 1986, pp. 9 ss.
[11] E. De Luca, "In Nome Della Madre," Feltrinelli, Milano, 2006, pp. 66 ss.

[12] "Lumen Gentium," 58.
[13] St. Augustine, Discourses, 215,4 (PL 38, 1074).  

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