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Papal preacher says Christian churches are drawing closer together

Fr Raniero Cantalamessa at the Alpha Course's Leadership Conference

Christian churches are becoming less distant from one another and improving dialogue, according to Fr Raniero Cantalamessa.

Fr Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, was speaking last week at a Leadership Conference organised by the Alpha Course, which ran from May 2 to 6 at various London venues including the Holy Trinity Brompton and the Royal Albert Hall.

“A tectonic movement contrary to the one which drew the present continents apart from one another is taking place spiritually among us. Christians ‘continents’, once very distant and without communication between them, are coming together again,” he said, in an address at the Royal Albert Hall entitled Proclaiming Together the Joy of the Gospel to a Troubled World.

He added that Pope Francis is “resolutely leading us Catholics” in the direction of unity.

Fr Cantalmessa continued: “St Augustine’s most novel insight about the Church is to have identified the essential principle of her unity in the Holy Spirit. While before him the unity of the Church was based in something exterior and visible — the communion of all the bishops among themselves — he makes it consist in something interior: the Holy Spirit. The unity of the Church is thus brought about by the same One who brings about unity in the Trinity.

“The most concrete steps toward unity, therefore, are not those that are made around a table or in joint declarations (even though these are all important and indispensable); they are the ones made when believers and especially leaders of different denominations, in spite of all their differences, meet together to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus, to share their charisms and recognise each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Meanwhile, Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop Welby made a joint appearance at another one of the conference events at the Royal Albert Hall. The two men gave a joint interview and were applauded after praying for Christian unity in what Holy Trinity’s Nicky Gumbel called a “historic” moment.

Full text of Fr Raniero Cantalamessa’s address:


1. The Gospel Fills with Joy the Heart and Life of the Believer

The leader of our Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, at the conclusion of a synod of Bishops on Evangelization held in Rome in 2013, issued a letter entitled “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii gaudium). It begins with the following statement from which the title of the document is taken:

“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy”.

If we do not want the words to remain only words, we must ask ourselves a question: why do we say that the Gospel is a source of joy? Is the expression only a comfortable slogan or does it correspond to truth? In fact, even before that, we need to ask: why is the Gospel called “gospel” (euangelion in Greek) that is, happy news, joyful tidings?

The best way to answer this question is to go back to the moment this word first appears in the New Testament, in the mouth of Jesus. At the beginning of his Gospel, Mark summarizes in a few words the fundamental message that Jesus was preaching in the cities and villages where he went after his Baptism in the Jordan:

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).

At first sight this is not, in fact, “happy” news, joyful news. It sounds, rather, like a stern summons, an austere appeal to change one’s way of life. And this word of Jesus is often repeated in Christian preaching with this somber meaning. In our Catholic liturgy the words “Repent and believe in the Gospel!” are now pronounced while ashes are put on the heads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday.

Unfortunately the real meaning of the message of Jesus has been obscured because of an inaccurate translation of the original Greek word metanoeite. Erasmus of Rotterdam was the first to detect the error, while translating the New Testament from the original Greek. The ancient Latin Vulgate translated it by paenitemini (Mark 1,15), or by paenitentiam agite (Acts 2, 38), that is, do penance. With this ascetic content the term has been received into the language of the Church and in its preaching, while the true meaning of the word is “turn your mind around”, be aware of what is happening. Jesus wanted to convey to the people the same sense of urgency and novelty expressed in the words of God in Isaiah: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43: 19).

Prior to Jesus, to convert always meant to “go back”, as the very term shub used in Hebrew for this action indicates. It meant to return to the violated covenant, through a renewed observance of the law. “Return to me – says the Lord through the prophets -. Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds” (Zechariah 1:3-4; Jeremiah: 8: 4-5). Consequently to be converted had a primarily ascetic, moral and penitential meaning, and it was effected by changing one’s conduct of life. Conversion was seen as a condition for salvation; the meaning was: be converted and you will be saved; be converted and salvation will come to you.

This was the predominant content that the word conversion had even on the mouth of John the Baptist (cf. Luke 3:4-6). However, on Jesus’ lips this meaning changed, not because Jesus played with the words, but because with him the reality has changed. The moral meaning becomes secondary (at least at the beginning of his preaching), [in regard] to a new meaning, unknown until now. To be converted no longer means to go back; it means, rather, to take a leap forward and to enter, through faith, into the kingdom of God who has come among men. To be converted is to take the so-called “decision of the hour,” faced with the fulfilment of God’s promises “Be converted and believe” does not mean therefore two different things, coming one after the other but the same action: be converted, that is, believe; be converted by believing! Saint Thomas Aquinas also affirms this: “Prima conversio fit per fidem,” the first conversion consists in believing. Conversion and salvation have changed places. No longer: “Convert and you will be saved; convert and salvation will come to you”, but, rather: “Convert because salvation has come to you”. Men have not changed; they are neither better nor worse than before; it is God who has changed and who, in the fullness of time, has sent his Son, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Cf. Galatians 4:4).

This is the great novelty of Christianity. Every other religion lays out a path of salvation for man through ascetic observances or intellectual speculations, promising salvation or illumination as the end prize, but leaving people substantially on their own in accomplishing this task. Christianity does not begin by telling people what they must do to be saved, it begins by telling people what God has done to save them!
It is true that to love God with all our hearts is “the first and greatest commandment” but the commandments do not occupy the first level; they come second. Prior to the category of duty comes the category of gift. Christianity, according to the marvellous definition of the Acts of the Apostles, is “the proclamation of the grace of God” (see Acts 14:3; 20:32).

Many parables in the Gospel confirm the joyful initial proclamation of Jesus. One such is that of the banquet. A king gave a banquet for his son’s wedding. At the appointed time, he sent his servants to call the guests (cf. Matthew 22:1 ff.). They had not paid the price of the meal beforehand, as is done in social dinners. It is only a question of accepting or refusing the invitation. Another is the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus ends it with the words: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). However, in what did the conversion of the sheep consist? Did it return to the sheepfold on its own legs? No, the shepherd brought it back to the sheepfold on his shoulders. All it did was to let itself be carried on the shepherd’s shoulders.

The doctrine of justification through faith doesn’t therefore go back to Paul; it goes back to Jesus! In the Letter to the Romans (3:21 ff.), Saint Paul is the indomitable herald of this extraordinary evangelical novelty, after Jesus had made him experience it dramatically in his own life (cf. Philippians 3: 5 ff.).

We see, then, why the Gospel is called Gospel and why it is source of joy. It tells us of a God who, out of pure grace, has come to save us in his Son Jesus. A God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

The joy of the Gospel is not an easy joy, meant to make people feel comfortable in this life; neither is it a joy reserved for a few fortunate people. It is a joy for all and especially for the poor, the afflicted, the needy.

2. The two aspects of Christian salvation

But now the unavoidable question. If the Gospel is “good news”, “news of happiness”, why then has the world ended up associating Christian faith with everything painful? Nietzsche spoke of Christians as “preachers of death” and as “afflicted with tuberculosis of soul, no sooner born than they begin to die, following their doctrines of weariness and resignation” .

Nietzsche was too prejudiced against Christianity to deserve any credit, but other authors were not. Almost all the Christian characters of the Norwegian dramatist Henrick Ibsen are sad people spreading gloom around them. For Søren Kierkegaard “the awareness of sin is the ‘conditio sine qua non’ of Christianity, without which one cannot become a Christian” . Sin and anguish are for him closely interrelated.

It is not just a question of a few writers and cultivated people. The perception is much more widespread. What is, in fact, the “pre-defined” image of God (in computer language, the default mode) in the human collective unconscious? To discover it, one need only ask oneself this question and to ask it also of others: “What ideas, what words, what realities arise spontaneously in you, before any reflection, when you say: “Our Father, who art in heaven … thy will be done”?

While saying this one interiorly bows his head in resignation, as if preparing for the worst. Unconsciously, the will of God is connected with everything that is displeasing and painful, or that in one way or another, is seen as mutilating freedom and individual development. It is as if God were the enemy of all celebration, joy and pleasure. We see where the famous slogan came from, seen in the poster campaign on London buses a few years ago: “God probably doesn’t exist. So stop worrying and enjoy life”.

This is a distorted perception of God, light-years distant from the image Jesus gives us of God Father in the Gospel. It has deep roots which must be dealt with if we are to embark on a new evangelization. Let us try to identify one of these roots, perhaps the most relevant one.

Already in the prophecies of the Old Testament that announced “the new and eternal covenant” we find two fundamental aspects: a negative aspect consisting in the elimination of sin and evil in general, and a positive aspect that consists in the gift of a new heart and a new spirit; in other words, in destroying the works of man and in rebuilding, or restoring in him, the work of God.

A clear text in this regard is Ezechiel 36: 25-27. It speaks of something that God wants to take out of man: iniquity and the heart of stone; and something he wants to put within man: a new heart and a new spirit. In the New Testament both these aspects are evident. From the beginning of the gospel, John the Baptist presents Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” but also as the one “who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (Jn 1: 29, 33).

In St. Paul we see these two aspects in perfect balance. In the Letter to the Romans, he first highlights what Christ came to free us from: death, sin and the law (Romans 5-7). Then, in chapter 8, he expounds all the splendour of what Christ has procured for us through his death and resurrection: the Holy Spirit and with him divine sonship, the love of God, and the certainty of final glorification.

As always, in moving from Scripture to the time of the Church, one notices that these two aspects are received in different ways. The East has given more emphasis to the positive aspect of salvation, that is, the deification of man and the restoration of the image of God; the West has given more emphasis to the negative aspect, to liberation from sin.

A strange paradox happened in our western theology. The one who was the cantor of grace par excellence, who better than anyone highlighted the difference between the letter and the Spirit, between law and grace, and stressed the absolute necessity of grace for salvation, has also been the one who, due to historical circumstances, contributed the most to restricting grace’s field of action.

I am speaking of course of St. Augustine. The polemic against the Pelagians drove him to highlight first and foremost the role of grace in preserving and healing from sin, the so-called prevenient, helping and healing grace. His doctrine of original sin, as a real hereditary sin that is transmitted through the sexual act of generation, caused baptism to be seen chiefly as liberation from original sin.

What made the occasional loss of balance, in Augustine’s case, so decisive and so long-lasting? The answer is simple: his own unique stature and authority! When a man appeared in the West comparable to him for hardiness and originality of mind, he did not restore the balance to Augustine’s thinking but exacerbated it. I am speaking of Martin Luther. He won for the whole of Christianity the merit of putting the Word of God, Scripture, back at the center and above everything, even the Fathers of the Church. However, his insistence on the total corruption of human nature and the radical sinfulness of man made him stress too unilaterally the negative element of Christian salvation, that is, how sinners are justified.

With him the difference compared to the East becomes truly radical. In contrast to the theory of transformation and divinization of man there is the thesis of an extrinsically imputed righteousness by God that leaves the baptized person “just and a sinner” at the same time: a sinner in himself, but justified in the eyes of God.

In this case as in many others, the golden rule in the dialogue between East and West should not be “either/or” but “both/and.” If Eastern doctrine, with its very lofty idea of the grandeur and dignity of man as the image of God, has highlighted the possibility of the Incarnation, Western doctrine, with its insistence on sin and the misery of humanity, has highlighted the necessity of the Incarnation. A later disciple of Augustine, Blaise Pascal, observed,

“Knowledge of God without knowledge of our misery produces pride. The consciousness of our misery without consciousness of God produces despair. Knowledge of Jesus Christ represents the middle way, because in him we find both God and our misery.”

For St. Augustine, St. Anselm of Canterbury, and Luther, the insistence on the gravity of sin was just another way of making us realize the grandeur of the remedy procured by Christ. They accentuated “the abundance of sin” in order to exalt “the superabundance of grace” (see Rom 5:20). In both cases, the key to everything is the work of Jesus, seen, so to speak, by the East from the right, and by the West from the left.

The two approaches were both legitimate and necessary. In face of the explosion of “absolute evil” in World War II, someone remarked that this was what we had been brought to by discounting the bitter truth about human beings, after two centuries of naïve confidence in the unstoppable progress of man.

Where then is the particular lacuna in our western soteriology which obscures the joyful character of the Gospel? It lies in the fact that grace, inasmuch as it is exalted, has ended up in practice being reduced only to its negative dimension as a remedy for sin, at the expense of transforming grace, consisting in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the whole Trinity in us.

Even the jubilant cry of our Catholic Easter liturgy—“O happy fault, o necessary sin of Adam, that earned us so great and so glorious a Redeemer!”— does not go beyond the negative perspective of sin and redemption. The same happens with “Amazing grace”, one of my favorite hymns, where grace is only the redeeming and healing grace, grace “that saved a wretch like me”.

No doubt, Christian salvation preached and lived in the various Christian Churches of the West is much richer and more nuanced than this, with a beautiful spirituality and at times a rich mysticism; but this is the perception of the Christian message that the secular western world has ended up with. And, as we have seen, it has rejected it.

It is precisely on this point, thanks be to God, that we have been witnessing a change which we can call momentous. All the Churches of the West and those or founded by them, have experienced for more than a century a current of grace running through them, the Pentecostal movement and the different charismatic renewals derived from it in the traditional Christian Churches.

It is no longer possible to ignore, or to consider as marginal, this phenomenon that in more or less profound ways has reached hundreds of millions of believers of all Christian confessions. In receiving the leaders of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in St. Peter’s Basilica in May 1975, Pope Paul VI in his address called the renewal “a chance for the Church and for the world.”

In what sense and under what aspects can one say that this reality is a chance for the Catholic Church and for the Churches born from the Reformation? I think it is this: it allows us to restore to Christian salvation the rich and inspiring positive content consisting in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the new life in Christ.

It gives a different outward picture of Christian life: it is a joyous, contagious Christianity lived in the power and the anointing of the Spirit, with none of the gloomy pessimism that Nietzsche reproached it for. A Christian faith lived in “the law of the Spirit, which gives life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8, 2). Sin is not in the least trivialized, because one of the first effects of the coming of the Paraclete in the heart of a human being is to “convince the world of sin” (John 16.8). I know this because it was an experience of this kind that brought about my difficult and reluctant surrender to this “current of grace” 38 years ago!

It is not a question of belonging to this “movement’—or to any movement—but of opening oneself to the action of the Holy Spirit in whatever state one finds oneself. No one has a monopoly on the Holy Spirit, much less the Pentecostal and charismatic movement. The important thing is not to remain outside of the current of grace that is flowing under different forms through all of Christianity, to see it as God’s sovereign initiative and an opportunity for the Church. To acknowledge that without the Holy Spirit we can do nothing. In an important ecumenical gathering an Orthodox Metroplitan pronounced these solemn words:

Without the Holy Spirit:
God is far away,
Christ stays in the past,
the Gospel is a dead letter,
the Church is simply an organisation,
authority a matter of domination,
mission a matter of propaganda,
liturgy no more than an evocation,
Christian living a slave morality.

But with the Holy Spirit:
the cosmos is resurrected and groans with the birth-pangs of the Kingdom,
the risen Christ is there,
the Gospel is the power of life,
the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
authority is a liberating service,
mission is a Pentecost,
the liturgy is both memorial and anticipation,
human action is deified.

We leave it to our Orthodox brethren to discern whether this current of grace is intended only for us, Churches of the West, or if, for a different reason, a new Pentecost is also what Eastern Christians are in need of.

One thing can spoil this chance, and it comes, unfortunately, from within itself. Scripture affirms the primacy of the sanctifying work of the Spirit over its charismatic activity. We only need to read what St. Paul says about the relationship between charisms and love:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2)

It would compromise this opportunity if the emphasis on the charisms, particularly in the more spectacular of them, were eventually to prevail over the effort for an authentic life “in Christ” and “in the Spirit,” based on conformity to Christ and therefore on putting to death the works of the flesh and on seeking the fruits of the Spirit. Holiness is to charisms what the insulator is to electricity; it allows the high voltage current of divine energy to pass through us and enrich the Church without producing short circuits of pride and rivalry.

3. Together!

You may have noticed that I have left aside until now a word –and a promise – contained in the title of my talk, the word “together”: “Proclaiming the joy of the Gospel together”. Let me share with you some thoughts on this vital issue of unity among Christians.

One circumstance makes this point particularly relevant. The Christian world is preparing to celebrate the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation. Joint declarations and documents are already beginning to circulate in view of this event. It is vital for the whole Church that this opportunity not be wasted by people remaining prisoners of the past, trying to ascertain—even if with a more objective and irenic attitude than in the past—each other’s rights and wrongs. Rather, let us take a qualitative leap forward, like what happens when the sluice gate of a river or a canal allows ships to continue to navigate at a higher water level.

The situation in the world, in the church, and in theology has dramatically changed since then. It is a matter of starting over again with the person of Jesus, humbly helping our contemporaries to experience a personal encounter with him. We need to go back to the time of the Apostles: they faced a pre-Christian world, and we are facing a largely post-Christian world. When Paul wants to summarize the essence of the Christian message in one sentence, he does not say, “I proclaim this or that doctrine to you.” Instead he says, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), and “We preach . . . Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). He proclaims the kerygma, the cry.

A few years ago a painting was sold at an auction in New York for 119 million dollars. It shows a man running along a bridge against a reddish background, his eyes wide open and his hands wrapped around his open mouth. He is emitting a cry but we immediately understand that it is an empty cry, with no words, only a sound full of anguish and desperation.

I am speaking of course of the famous painting by the Norwegian artist Edward Munch, called The Scream. In my opinion the reason why this small and unassuming painting is so highly valued is that it has become a kind of manifesto of the final stage of atheistic existentialism. Having cast aside the cry full of hope—the kerygma—humanity now finds itself having to scream in the void its existential anguish. It is to this deeply changed and troubled world that we are called to proclaim the good news of the Gospel.

This does not mean ignoring the great theological and spiritual enrichment that came from the Reformation or desiring to go back to the time before it. It means instead allowing all of Christianity to benefit from its achievements, once they are freed from certain distortions due to the heated atmosphere of the time and of later controversies.

Justification by faith, for example, ought to be preached by the whole Church—and with more vigor than ever. Not in opposition to good works – the issue already settled (“we are not justified by our good works, but we are not finally saved without our good works, that is, without our correspondence to grace”), – but rather in opposition to the claim of people today that they can save themselves thanks to their science, technology or their man-made spirituality, without the need for a redeemer coming from outside humanity. I am convinced that if he were alive today this is the way
Luther himself would preach justification through faith!

Let me now try to show how St. Augustine’s ideas about the Church can contribute to advance our ecumenical dialogue. This man has left his mark on almost all areas of western theology but especially on two of them: grace and the Church. The first is the result of his battle against Pelagianism and the second is the result of his battle against Donatism. If, as we have seen, his doctrine on grace leaves some gaps to fill, his doctrine of the Church proves to be particularly useful in promoting Christian unity.

St. Augustine makes a distinction between the communion of sacraments (communio sacramentorum) and the society of saints (societas sanctorum). The first visibly unites all those who take part in the same external signs: sacraments, Scripture, Church ministry; the second unites only those who, in addition to the signs, share in common the reality hidden under the signs (res sacramentorum), i. e., the Holy Spirit, grace, and charity. These two aspects of the Church—the visible, institutional and the invisible, spiritual—cannot be separated. However, since unfortunately they do not coincide anymore because of historical separations and the sin of human beings, one cannot give more importance to institutional communion than to spiritual communion.

This poses a serious question for me. Can I, as a Catholic, feel more in communion with the multitude of those baptized in my own church, who nevertheless completely neglect Christ and the Church, than I do with all those who, though belonging to other confessions, believe in the same fundamental truths I do, love Jesus Christ to the point of giving their lives for him, spread the gospel, are concerned with trying to alleviate the poverty in the world, and who have the same gifts of the Holy Spirit that we have? Persecutions, so frequent today in certain parts of the world, do not make distinctions: they do not burn churches or kill people because they are Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Pentecostal, but because they are Christians. In the eyes of the persecutors we are already one!

This is of course a question that believers in other Churches should also ask themselves in regard to my own Church and, thanks be to God, this is precisely what is happening. I am convinced that one day we will be amazed – at least the youngest among us will be amazed – at not having been aware earlier of what the Holy Spirit was doing among Christians in our day beyond the official channels. A tectonic movement contrary to the one which drew the present continents apart from one another is taking place spiritually among us. Christians “continents”, once very distant and without communication between them, are coming together again, thanks to the Spirit of God.

St. Augustine’s most novel insight about the Church is to have identified the essential principle of her unity in the Holy Spirit. While before him the unity of the Church was based in something exterior and visible — the communion of all the bishops among themselves — he makes it consist in something interior: the Holy Spirit. The unity of the Church is thus brought about by the same One who brings about unity in the Trinity. “The Father and Son have wanted us to be united among ourselves and with them by means of the same bond that unites them, namely, the love that is the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit performs the same function in the Church that the soul performs in our physical body: He is the animating and unifying principle. “What the soul is to the human body the Holy Spirit is to the body of Christ, which is the Church.” Jesus is the one who once and for all established this mystical foundation when he prayed “that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22). A fundamental unity in doctrine and discipline will be the fruit of this mystical and spiritual unity, but it can never be its cause. What deeply unites all Christians and makes every difference secondary is a renewed faith in and love for the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Not, however, the Jesus of dogma, of theology, of the respective traditions, but the risen Jesus who is alive today in the Spirit. The same Jesus who is present here among us, and rejoices to see his disciples united “in one accord”, as they were on the day of Pentecost.

The most concrete steps toward unity, therefore, are not those that are made around a table or in joint declarations (even though these are all important and indispensable); they are the ones made when believers and especially leaders of different denominations, in spite of all their differences, meet together to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus, to share their charisms and recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
There is one thing I remember from my 11 years as a member of the Catholic delegation for dialogue with the Pentecostal Churches: when we were sitting around a table asking each other what we called “the hard questions”, we seemed to disagree on almost every point; when we went to chapel to pray, sing and listen to the Word of God together, nobody could tell who was Pentecostal and who Catholic. It’s the same experience we are having at this Alpha Leadership Conference.

Pope Francis is resolutely leading us Catholics in this direction, and we joyfully follow him.