3rd Lenten Sermon 2010

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


Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Lenten Sermon 2010

"If You Return to Me"


Here is the third Lenten sermon of Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Papal Household Preacher, delivered today at the Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Curia.

* * *

1. The crisis of the priest

In Scripture we find the description of the interior crisis of a priest in which many of today's pastors, I am sure, will recognize themselves. It is that of Jeremiah, who was a priest before being a prophet, "of the priests who were in Anathoth" (Jeremiah 1:1).

"So let it be, O Lord, if I have not entreated thee for their good, if I have not pleaded with thee on behalf of the enemy ...  I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice .... Will thou be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?" (Jeremiah 15:11-18). At another time the crisis explodes in a more open way: "thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived ... I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name! (Jeremiah 20:7-9).

What is God's answer to the prophet and priest in crisis? Not "poor thing, you are right, how unhappy you are!" "Therefore, thus says the Lord: 'If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me, if you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth'" (Jeremiah 15:19). In other words: conversion!

Speaking of the novelty of the ministry of the new covenant we saw that it consists of grace, that is, of the fact that the gift precedes the duty and that the duty springs precisely from the gift. Let us now apply this fundamental principle to the priestly ministry. What we have considered up to now constituted priestly grace, the gift received: ministers of Christ, dispensers of the mysteries of God. We cannot conclude our reflections without also bringing to light the duty and call that springs from it, so to speak the “ex opere operantis” of the priesthood. Such a call is the same as God addressed to Jeremiah: conversion!

I believe I interpret the concern most often expressed in the past by the Holy Father and that motivated, at least in part, the proclamation of this Year for Priests, dedicating this last meditation to the need for purification within the Church, beginning with her clergy. The call to conversion resounds in crucial moments of the New Testament: at the beginning of Jesus' preaching: "repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15); at the beginning of apostolic preaching, the day of Pentecost: "Brethren, what shall we do? And Peter said to them, 'Repent, and be baptized ... and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:37). However, these are not the contexts that concern us priests more directly. We have believed in the Gospel, we have been baptized and have received the Holy Spirit. There is another "repent!" that concerns us closely, that which resounds within every one of the seven letters to the churches of Revelation. It is not addressed to nonbelievers or neophytes, but to persons who have lived for a long time in the Christian community.

A fact renders these letters particularly significant for us: they are addressed to the pastor and to the one responsible for each one of the seven churches. "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write": the title angel is not explained except in reference, direct or indirect, to the pastor of the community. It cannot be thought that the Holy Spirit attributed to real angels the responsibility of the faults and deviations that were in the different churches and that the invitation to conversion was addressed to them.

2. "Be faithful to the end"

Let us reread some of these letters, seeking to pick up in them elements of an authentic conversion of the clergy, deacons, priests and bishops. We begin with the first letters, the one to the church of Ephesus. We notice first of all one thing. The Risen One does not begin his discourse saying what is not going well in the community. This letter, as almost all the others, begins by highlighting the positive, the good that is done in the church: "I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance ... I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary" (Revelation 2:2).

Only at this point does the call to conversion intervene: "But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen, repent (metanoeson) and do the works you did at first”. The call to conversion takes on the aspect of a return to the first fervor and love of Christ. Which of us priests does not remember with emotion the moment in which we realized we were called by God to his service, the moment of the profession for the religious, the enthusiasm of the first years of ministry for the priests? It is true that there also was the factor of age, youth. But in this case it is not about nature: it was grace then and it can be grace today.

"I remind you," wrote the Apostle to the disciple Timothy, "to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands" (2 Timothy 1:6). The Greek term that is translated "rekindle" suggests the idea of blowing on the fire so that it will burn again, rekindle the flame. In one of the Advent meditations, we saw how the sacramental anointing, received in ordination, can be active and operative again through prayer and a leap of faith. Also the author of the Letter to the Hebrews admonished the first Christians to recall their initial enthusiasm: "But recall the former days" (Hebrews 10:32).

Of the Letter to the church of Ephesus we retain therefore the pressing invitation to rediscover the love and fervor of former times. We find another component of priestly conversion in the letter to the church of Smyrna. Also here, the Risen One first brings to light the positive: "I know your tribulation and your poverty," but the call follows immediately: "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life."

Fidelity! The Holy Father has put this word as title and program of the Year for Priests: "Fidelity to Christ and Fidelity of the Priest." The word fidelity has two essential meanings. The first is that of constancy and perseverance; the second, is that of loyalty, correctness, the opposite in sum of infidelity, deceit and betrayal.

The first meaning is that present in the word of the Risen One to the church of Smyrna, the second is that intended by Paul in the text that we chose as guide of our reflections: "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy" (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). This word recalls, perhaps intentionally, that of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: "Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?" (Luke 12:42). The contrary of this fidelity is that which the unfaithful steward does in the parable (Luke 16:1 ff.).

Opposed to this fidelity is betrayal of the trust of Christ and of the Church, the double life, failing in the duties of one's state, above all in regard to celibacy and chastity. We know from painful experience how much harm can come to the Church and to souls from this type of infidelity. It is perhaps the harshest trial that the Church is going through at this moment.

3. "To the church of Laodicea write"

The letter that should make us reflect more than all the others is the one to the angel of the church of Laodicea. We know its severe tone: "I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth [...] be zealous and repent" (Revelation 3:15 ff).

The lukewarmness of a part of the clergy, the lack of zeal and apostolic inertia: I believe it is this that weakens the Church even more than the occasional scandals of some priests that make more noise and against whom it is easier to hasten to take measures. The great misfortune for us parish priests — said the Holy Cure of Ars — is that the spirit becomes sluggish."[1] He certainly was not among the number of these parish priests, but this phrase of his makes us think.

We must not generalize (the Church is rich in holy priests who carry out their duty silently), but Heaven help us if we are silent. A committed laymen said to me with sadness: "The population of our country has grown in the last 20 years by over three million inhabitants, but we Catholics have stayed with the same number. Something is not right in our Church." And knowing that clergy, I knew what was not right: the concern of many of them was not souls, but money and comfort.

There are places where the Church is alive and evangelizes almost solely by the commitment and zeal of some lay faithful and lay groups that moreover at times face obstacles and are regarded with suspicion. It is they who often push the priests themselves, paying for their trip and stay to take part in a retreat or in Spiritual Exercises that they would otherwise never do.

Sometimes it is precisely those who do least for the kingdom of God who claim more advantages. Saint Peter and Saint Paul, both, felt the need to warn against the temptation to set ourselves up as owners of the faith: "not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock" (cf. 1 Peter 5:3), wrote the first; "Not that we lord it over your faith; we work with you for your joy," wrote the second (2 Corinthians 1:24). We set ourselves up as masters of the faith, for example, when we consider all the areas and facilities of the parish as if they were our own to be given to whom we wish, while they are goods of the whole community, of which we are custodians, not proprietors.

Finding myself preaching in a North European country, which in the past had been a source of priests and missionaries and which now was going through a profound crisis (Holland to be precise), I asked a priest of the area what he thought was the reason for this. "In this country, he answered, the priests decided everything from the pulpit and the confessional, to the point of who one should marry and how many children one should have. When the sense and need of individual liberty was spread in the society, people rebelled and turned their back completely on the Church." The clergy felt itself "owner of the faith," more than collaborator of the people's joy.

The words addressed by the Risen One to the church of Laodicea: "For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that your are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked," make one think of another great temptation of the clergy when passion for souls fails, and that is the desire for money. Already Saint Paul lamented bitterly: “Omnia quae sua sunt quaerunt, non quae Jesu Christi": "They all look after their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:21). Among the most insistent recommendations to the elders, in the Pastoral Letters, is that of not been attached to money (1 Timothy 3:3). In the letter to proclaim the Year for Priests the Holy Father presents the Holy Cure of Ars as model of priestly poverty. "He was rich to give to others and was very poor for himself." His secret was: "give everything and keep nothing."

In his long discourse [2] on pastors for a salutary examination of conscience St. Augustine proposed to his time the reproach of Ezekiel against negligent pastors. It is not bad to hear it again, at least to know what must be avoided in the priestly ministry:
"Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. "The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them" (Ezekiel 34:2-4).

4. "Behold, I am at the door and knock"

But also the severe Letter to the church of Laodicea, as all the others, is a letter of love: "Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten." It ends with one of the absolutely most touching images of the Bible: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock."

In us, priests, Christ does not knock to enter, but to go out. 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 come in; when it is a question of successive conversions, from a state of grace to a higher state, from lukewarmness to fervor, the opposite happens: Christ is within and knocks on the walls of the heart to go out!

I will explain in what sense. In baptism we received the Spirit of Christ; it remains in us as in his temple (1 Corinthians 3:16), as long as it is not chased away by mortal sin. But it can happen that this Spirit ends up being imprisoned and walled up by the heart of stone that is formed around it. It does not have the possibility to expand and permeate the faculties, actions and feelings of the person. When we read the phrase of Christ: "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 want to come in but to go out.

The Apostle says that Christ must be "formed" in us (Galatians 4:19), namely, to develop and receive his complete form; it is this development that is impeded by the lukewarmness of a heart of stone. At times one sees on the sides of streets big trees (in Rome they are generally pines) whose roots, imprisoned by the asphalt, fight to expand, raising segments of the cement itself. Thus we must imagine the kingdom of God in the heart of man: a seed destined to become a majestic tree on which the birds of the sky rest, but for which it is difficult to develop if it is suffocated by terrestrial concerns.

There are obviously different degrees in this situation. In the majority of souls committed to a spiritual path Christ is not imprisoned in an armour-plate but, so to speak, in guarded liberty. He is free to move but within very precise limits. This happens when he is tacitly made to understand what he can and cannot ask us. Prayer yes, but not if it compromises sleep, rest, healthy information; obedience yes, but only if it does not abuse our willingness; chastity yes, but not to the point of depriving us from some relaxing entertainment, even if daring. In sum, the use of half measures.

In the history of sanctity the most famous example of the first conversion, that of sin to grace, is Saint Augustine; the most instructive example of the second conversion, that of lukewarmness to fervor, is Saint Teresa of Avila. What she says of herself in her Life is probably exaggerated by her humility and delicacy of conscience,  but it can serve us as a useful examination of conscience:

"From pastime to pastime, from vanity to vanity, from occasion to occasion, I would again begin to endanger my soul [...] The things of God gave me pleasure and I was unable to detach myself from those of the world. I wanted to reconcile these two so contrary enemies with one another: the life of the spirit with the tastes and pastimes of the senses."

The result of this state was profound unhappiness: "I fell and got up again, and I got up so badly that I fell again. Thus, in fact, I was so lacking in perfection that I was almost no longer aware of venial sins, and I did not fear mortals as I should have, because I did not flee from dangers. I can say that my life was one of the most painful that one could imagine, because I did not enjoy God, and I was not happy in the world. When I was in worldly pastimes, the thought of what I owed God made me spend it with affliction; and when I was with God, I was disturbed by the affections of the world."[3] Many priests could discover in this analysis the profound reason for their own dissatisfaction and discontent.

It was contemplation of the Christ of the Passion that gave Teresa the decisive push that made her the saint and mystic that we know.[4]

5. "I want hope in him!"

To conclude, let us turn to God's answer to Jeremiah's lamentations. God makes promises to his converted prophet that acquire a particular meaning if read as if addressed to us priests of the Catholic Church in the present moment of grave embarrassment that we are going through: "If you are able to distinguish what is beautiful from what is vile"; that is, if you are able to distinguish what is essential from what is secondary in your life, if you prefer my approval to that of men; "you shall be as my mouth." "They shall turn to you, but not you to them": the world will seek your favor, not you that of the world. "I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you" (Jeremiah 15:19-20).

What happens in this moment is a leap of hope; we must go back to read the encyclical Spe salvi sumus of our Holy Father. Scripture gives us different examples of leaps of hope, but one seems to me particularly instructive and close to the present situation: Jeremiah's Third Lamentation. It begins with a disconsolate tone: "I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light ... I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the burden of their songs all day long. So I say, 'Gone is my glory, and my expectation from the Lord'" (Lamentations  III, 1-18).

However, at this point it is as if the prophet had an unexpected second thought; he says to himself: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness. 'The Lord is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in him.'"

And from the moment he makes the decision "I will hope in him" the tone changes and from sullen lamentation becomes confident awaiting of restoration: "The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord ... let him give his cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off for ever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men"  (Lamentations III, 22-33).

I found myself preaching a retreat to the clergy of an American diocese shattered by the indiscriminate reaction of public opinion to the scandals of some of their members. It was the time right after the collapse of the Twin Towers and the material ruins seemed to be the symbol of other ruins. This text of Scripture contributed visibly to give back confidence and hope to many.

Christ suffers more than us by the humiliation of his priests and the affliction of his Church; if he permits it, it is because he knows the good that can come from it, in view of a greater purity of the Church. His invitation: "Come to me all you who labor and are oppressed and I will give you rest," (Matthew 11:28) was addressed, in the first place, to those he had around him and today to his priests. "Come to me and you will find rest": the most beautiful fruit of this Year for Priests will be a return to Christ, a renewal of our friendship with him. In his love, the priest will find all that of which he deprived himself humanly and "a hundredfold more," according to his promise.

Thus we change Jeremiah's initial protest into thanksgiving: "Thank you Lord, that one day you seduced us, thank you that we let ourselves be seduced, thank you for giving us the possibility of returning to you and for taking us back again after every attempt to flee. Thank you for entrusting to us "the charge of your courts" (Zechariah 3:7) and make of us "your mouth."

[Translation by ZENIT]


[1] Quoted in Benedict XVI's Letter of Proclamation of the Year for Priests

[2] Cf. Augustine, Sermo 46: CCL 41, pp. 529 ff.

[3] Teresa of Avila, Life, cc. 7-8.

[4] Ib. 9, 1-3  


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