|"There Is a Very Close Relationship Between Conscience and the Holy
VATICAN CITY, 27 MARCH 2009 (ZENIT)
Here is the third Lenten sermon
for 2009 by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the
Pontifical Household, which he gave today at the Vatican in the presence
of Benedict XVI and the Curia.
* * *
"All Who Are Guided by the Spirit of God Are Sons of God" (Romans
1. A new age of the of the Holy Spirit?
"Thus, condemnation will never come to those who are in Christ Jesus,
because the law of the Spirit which gives life in Christ Jesus has set
you free from the law of sin and death...anyone who does not have the
Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But when Christ is in you, the
body is dead because of sin but the spirit is alive because you have
been justified; and if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead
has made his home in you, then he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead
will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in
These are four verses about the Holy Spirit from the eighth chapter of
the Letter to the Romans. Christ's name is repeated a full six times in
the text. The same frequency is repeated throughout the rest of the
chapter, if we consider both the times he is referred to by his name and
by the word Son. This fact is fundamentally important. It tells us that
for Paul the Holy Spirit's work does not substitute Christ's work,
rather it continues it, it fulfills it, and it actualizes it.
The fact that the recently elected president of the United States
referenced Joachim of Fiore three times during his electoral campaign
has renewed interest in medieval monk's teachings. Few of the people who
talk about him, especially on the internet, know or care to know just
what exactly this author said. Every idea of church or world renewal is
offhandedly attributed to him, even the idea of a new Pentecost for the
Church, which was invoked by John XXIII.
One thing is certain: whether or not it should be attributed to Joachim
of Fiore, the idea of a third era of the Spirit that would follow on the
era of the Old Testament Father and the New Testament Christ is false
and heretical because it affects the very heart of the Trinitarian
dogma. St. Gregory Nazianzen's statement is entirely different. He makes
a distinction between three phases in the revelation of the Trinity: in
the Old Testament the Father fully revealed himself and the Son is
promised and announced; in the New Testament the Son fully revealed
himself and the Holy Spirit is promised and announced; in the time of
the Church, the Holy Spirit is finally fully known and we rejoice in his
Even I have been put on a list of Joachim of Fiore's followers just
because I cited this text of St. Gregory in one of my books. But St.
Gregory refers to the order of the manifestation of the Spirit, not its
being or acting, and in this sense his position expresses a
incontestable truth, that has been peacefully accepted by all tradition.
The so-called Joachimite thesis is ruled out by Paul and the whole New
Testament. For them, the Holy Spirit is nothing other than the Spirit of
Christ: objectively because it is the fruit of his Paschal mystery,
subjectively because he is the one who pours it out over the Church, as
Peter will say to the crowd on the very day of Pentecost: "Now raised to
the heights by God's right hand, he has received from the Father the
Holy Spirit, who was promised, and what you see and hear is the
outpouring of that Spirit." (Acts 2:33) Therefore time of the Spirit is
coextensive to the time of Christ.
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit that proceeds primarily from the Father,
which descends and "rests" in fullness on Jesus, and in him becoming a
reality and takes to living among men, as St. Irenaeus says. And in
Easter and Pentecost he is poured out over humanity by Jesus. The proof
of all this is precisely the cry of "Abba" that the Spirit repeats in
the believer (Galatians 4:6) or teaches the believer to repeat (Romans
8:15). How can the Spirit cry out Abba to the Father? He is not begotten
by the Father, he is not his Son… He can do it, notes Augustine, because
he is the Spirit of the Son and he continues the cry of Jesus.
2. The Spirit as a guide in the Scriptures
After this introduction, I come to the verse from the Eighth Chapter of
the Letter to the Romans that I would like to discuss today. "All who
are guided by the Spirit of God are sons of God" (Romans 8:14).
The theme of the Holy Spirit as a guide is not new in Scripture. In
Isaiah the journey of the people in the desert is attributed to the
guidance of the Spirit. "Yahweh's Spirit led them to rest." (Isaiah
63:14) Jesus himself was "led (ductus) by the Spirit into the desert"
(Matthew 4:1). The Acts of the Apostles show us a Church that is, step
by step, "led by the Spirit." Even St. Luke's design of having the
Gospel followed by the Acts of the Apostles intends to show how the same
Spirit that guided Jesus in his earthly life, now guides the Church, as
the Spirit "of Christ". Does Peter approach Cornelius and the pagans? It
is the Sprit that orders him (Cfr. Acts 10: 19, 11:12). Do the apostles
make important decisions in Jerusalem? It is the Spirit that prompted
The guidance of the Spirit is exercised not only in the big decisions,
but also in the small things. Paul and Timothy want to preach the Gospel
in the Province of Asia, but "the Holy Spirit forbids them to do so";
they try to go toward Bithynia, but "the Spirit of Jesus would not allow
them" (Acts 16:6). We then understand why he guides in such a pressing
manner: the Holy Spirit pushed the nascent Church to leave Asia and come
into the world on a new continent, Europe (Cfr. Acts 16:9).
For John, the guidance of the Paraclete is provided within the realm of
knowledge. He is the one who "will guide" the disciples to the full
truth (John 16:3); his anointing "teaches everything", to the point that
he who possesses him has no need for any other teacher (Cfr. 1 John
2:27). Paul introduces and important new concept. For him the Holy
Spirit is not just "the interior teacher"; he is a principle of new life
("those who are guided by him become children of God"!); he does not
just say what should be done, rather he also gives the capacity to do
what he commands.
In this manner, the guidance of the Spirit is essentially different from
that of the Law which allows one to see the good that is to be
accomplished, but leaves the person struggling against the evil they do
not want (Cfr. Romans 7:15). Earlier in the Letter to the Galatians the
Apostle said: "But when you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the
Law" (Galatians 5:18)
Paul's vision of the Spirit's guidance, which is deeper and more
ontological (with regards to the very being of the believer) does not
exclude the more common vision of the Spirit as an interior teacher, as
a guide for the knowledge of truth and of God's will. On this occasion,
this is precisely what I would like to talk about.
This is a topic that has been significantly developed within the
tradition of the Church. The Church Fathers said that if Christ is the
"the way" (odos) that leads to the Father (John 14:6), then the Holy
Spirit is "the guide along the way" (odegos). St. Ambrose writes
"This is the Spirit, our head and our guide (ductor et princeps), who
directs our mind, affirms our affection, attracts us where he wants and
turns our steps toward heaven". The hymn Veni creator collects this
tradition in the following verse: "Ductore sic te praevio vitemus omne
noxium": with you as our guide we will avoid all evil. The Second
Vatican Council weighs in on this topic when it describes itself as
"God's people who believe they are led by the Spirit of the Lord".
3. The Spirit guides through the conscience
Where is the Paraclete's guidance at work? The first realm, or organ, is
the conscience. There is a very close relationship between conscience
and the Holy Spirit. What is the famous "voice of conscience" if not a
sort of "long distance repeater" through which the Holy Spirit speaks to
each person? "My conscience testifies for me in the Holy Spirit",
exclaims St. Paul, speaking about his love for his fellow Hebrews (cfr.
Through this "organ", the guidance of the Holy Spirit goes beyond the
Church, to all people. Even the pagans "can demonstrate the effect of
the Law engraved on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears
witness" (Romans 2:15). Precisely because the Holy Spirit speaks to
every rational being through their conscience, St. Maximus the Confessor
said, "we see many people, even among the barbarians and nomads, who
turn to a honorable and good life, and scorn the wild laws that had
prevailed among them from the beginning".
The conscience is also a sort of interior law, not a written law,
different and inferior to the law that exists in the believer through
grace, but not in disagreement with it, since it also comes from the
same Spirit. Those who only posses this "inferior" law, but obey it, are
closer to the Spirit than those who possess the superior law that comes
from baptism, but do not live in accordance with it.
Among the believers this interior guide of the conscience is
strengthened and elevated by the anointing that "teaches all things, is
truthful and does not lie" (1 John 2:27), and it is therefore an
infallible guide if they listen to it. In commenting on this very text
St. Augustine formulated the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the
"interior teacher". He asks, what does it mean by "you do not need
someone to teach you"? Could it mean that a christian individual already
knows everything on his own and has no need to read, learn and listen to
anyone else? If this was the case, why would the Apostle have written
his letter? The truth is that we need to listen to other teachers and
preachers, but those who the Holy Spirit speaks intimately to will
understand and be helped by what the other teachers say. This explains
why many people can listen to the same sermon and teaching, but not all
understand it in the same way.
What a consoling reassurance we get from all of this! The word that once
rang out in the gospel: "The master is here and is calling you!" (John
11:28), is true for every christian. The same teacher of that time,
Christ, that speaks now through his Spirit, is inside of us and calls
us. St. Cyril of Jerusalem was right to define the Holy Spirit as "the
great instructor, that is teacher, of the Church".
In this personal and intimate realm of the conscience, the Holy Spirit
instructs us with "good inspirations", or "interior lights" that all
have experienced in some way in life. We are urged to follow the good
and avoid evil, attractions and inclinations of the heart that cannot be
naturally explained, because they are often contrary to the direction
that nature would want to take.
Basing themselves precisely on this ethical component of the person,
some eminent scientists and biologists today have come to see beyond the
theory that considers human beings to be chance result of the selection
of the species. If the law that governs evolution is just the fight for
the survival of the fittest, how can we explain certain acts of pure
altruism and even self sacrifice for the sake of truth and justice?
4. The Spirit guides through the magisterium of the Church
Up to now we have dealt with the conscience, the first area in which
guidance of the Holy Spirit is exercised. There is a second area, which
is the Church. The internal witness of the Holy Spirit should be
combined with the external, visible and objective witness, which is the
apostolic magisterium. In the book of Revelation, at the end of each of
the seven letters, we hear the admonishment: "Let anyone who can hear,
listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches" (Revelation 2:7).
The Spirit also speaks to the churches and the communities, not just to
individuals. In the Acts of the Apostles St. Peter brings the two
testimonies of the Holy Spirit together, the interior and exterior, the
personal and the public. He has just finished speaking to the crowd
about Christ put to death and resurrected, and they feel "cut to the
heart" (Acts 2:37). He spoke the same words in front of the heads of the
Sanhedrin, and they became irate (cfr. Acts 4:8). The same words, the
same preacher, but an entirely different effect. How could this be? The
explanation is found in these words that the Apostle said at that time:
"We are witnesses to this, we and the Holy Spirit whom God has given to
those who obey him." (Acts 5:32)
The two testimonies need to come together so that the faith can flower:
the apostle's who proclaims the word and the Holy Spirit's that allows
it to be accepted. The same idea is expressed in the gospel of John,
when, speaking about the Paraclete, Jesus says: "he will be my witness.
And you too will be witnesses" (John 15:26).
It is just as deadly to try to forego either of the two guides of the
Spirit. When the interior testimony is neglected, we easily fall into
legalism and authoritarianism; when the exterior, apostolic testimony is
neglected, we fall into subjectivism and fanaticism. In ancient times
the Gnostics refused the apostolic, official testimony. St. Irenaeus
wrote these famous words in apposition to them:
"For this gift of God has been entrusted to the Church, as breath was to
the first created man… of which all those are not partakers who do not
join themselves to the Church… Alienated thus from the truth, they do
deservedly wallow in all error, tossed to and fro by it, thinking
differently in regard to the same things at different times, and never
attaining to a well-grounded knowledge".
When everything is reduced to just the personal, private listening to
the Spirit, the path is opened to a unstoppable process of division and
subdivision, because everyone believe they are right. And the very
division and multiplication of denominations and sects, often
contrasting each other in their essential points, demonstrates that the
same Spirit of truth in speaking cannot be in all, because otherwise he
would be contradicting himself.
It is well known that this is the danger to which the protestant world
is most exposed, having built the "interior testimony" of the Holy
Spirit as the only criteria of truth, against every exterior, ecclesial
testimony, other than that of the written Word. Some extreme fringes
will even go as far as to separate the interior guidance of the Spirit
even from word of the Scriptures. We then have the various movements of
"enthusiasts" or "enlightened" who have punctuated the history of the
Church, whether catholic, orthodox or protestant. The most frequent
result of this tendency, which concentrates all attention on the
internal testimony of the Spirit, is that the Spirit slowly looses the
capital letter and comes to coincide with the simple human spirit. That
is what happened with rationalism.
We should recogonize however that there is also the opposite risk: that
of making the external and public testimony of the Spirit absolute,
ignoring the internal testimony that works through the conscience
enlightened by grace. In other words, it is the risk of reducing the
guidance of the Paraclete to only the official magisterium of the
Church, thus impoverishing the variegated action of the Holy Spirit.
In this case, the human element, organizational and institutional, can
easily prevail. The passivity of the body is fostered and the doors are
opened to the marginalization of the laity and the excessive
clericalization of the Church.
Even in this case, as always, we should rediscover the whole, the
synthesis, that is truly "catholic". It is the ideal of a healthy
harmony between listening to what the Spirit says to me, as an
individual, and what he says to the Church as a whole and through the
Church to individuals.
5. Discernment in personal life
We now come to the guidance of the Spirit in the spiritual path of each
believer. This goes by the name of discernment of spirits. The first and
fundamental discernment of spirits is that which allows us to
distinguish between "the Spirit of God" and the "spirit of the world". (Cfr.
1 Corinthians 2:12) St. Paul provides an objective discernment criteria,
the same that Jesus had given: that of the fruits. The "works of the
flesh" reveal that a certain desire comes from the old sinful man; the
"fruits of the Spirit" reveal that it comes from the Spirit (cfr.
Galatians 5:19-22). "The desires of self-indulgence are always in
opposition to the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are in
opposition to self-indulgence" (Galatians 5:17).
Sometimes this objective criterion is not enough because the choice is
not between good and evil, but between a good and another good and it is
about seeing which one is what God wants, in a given situation. It was
primarily to respond to this demand that St. Ignatius of Loyola
developed his doctrine on discernment. He invites us to look at one
thing above all: our own interior dispositions, the intentions (the
"spirits") that are behind a decision.
St. Ignatius suggested practical means to apply these criteria. One
is this: when we are faced with two possible choices, it is useful to
first consider one of them, as if we must follow it, and to stay in that
state for a day or more; then we should evaluate how our heart reacts to
that choice: is there peace, harmony with the rest of our own decisions;
is there something inside of you that encourages you in that direction,
or on the contrary has it left a haze of restlessness… Then repeat the
process with the second hypothesis. All this should be done in an
atmosphere of prayer, abandonment to God's will, and openness to the
The most favorable condition for making a good discernment is the
habitual interior disposition to do God's will in every situation. Jesus
said "My judgment is just, because I do not see my will, but the will of
he who sent me" (John 5:30).
The danger, among some modern people who intend to practice discernment,
is to emphasize the psychological aspects to such an extent that we
forget the primary agent of all discernment which is the Holy Spirit.
There is a deep theological reason for this. The Holy Spirit is himself
the substantial will of God and when he enters a soul "he manifests
himself as the very will of God for those in whom he is found".
The concrete fruit of this meditation could be a renewed decision to
trust ourselves in everything and for everything to the guidance of the
Holy Spirit, as a sort of "spiritual direction". It is written that
"whenever the cloud rose from the Dwelling, the Israelites would resume
their march. If the cloud did not rise, they would not resume their
march" (Exodus 40:36-37). Even we should not undertake anything if it is
not the Holy Spirit, that according to tradition is prefigured by the
cloud, who moves us and without having consulted him first in every
We have the most luminous example in the very life of Jesus. He never
undertook anything without the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit he
walked in the desert; with the power of the Holy Spirit he returned and
began his preaching; "In the Holy Spirit" he chose his apostles (cfr.
Acts 1:2); in the Spirit he prayed and offered himself to the Father (cfr.
St. Thomas speaks about this interior guidance of the Spirit as a sort
of "instinct the just have": "Just as in corporal life the body is not
moved if not by the spirit that gives it life, so also in the spiritual
world all of our movements should come from the Holy Spirit". This
is how the "law of the Spirit" works; this is what the Apostle calls
"letting oneself be guided by the Spirit" (Galatians 5:18).
We should abandon ourselves to the Holy Spirit as the chords of the harp
abandon themselves to the fingers of the musician that moves them. Like
talented actors, we should tend our ear toward the voice of the prompter
that is hidden, so we can faithfully recite our part in the scene of
life. It is easier than we think, because our prompter speaks to us from
the inside, he teaches us all things, he instructs us in everything. It
is enough to just give an interior glance, a movement of our heart, a
prayer. We read this eulogy about a holy bishop of the second century,
Melito of Sardes, that I wish could be said of each of us after our
death: "In his life he did everything the Holy Spirit moved him to
[Translation by Thomas Daly]
* * *
 Cfr. St. Gregory Nazianzen, Orations, XXXI, 26 (PG 36, 161 s.).
 St. Gregory Nazienzen, On Faith (PG 45, 1241C): cfr. Ps.-Atanasio,
Dialogue against the Macedonians, 1, 12 (PG 28, 1308C).
 St. Ambrose, In Defence of David, 15, 73 (CSEL 32,2, p. 348).
St. Maximus the Confessor, Various chapters, I, 72 (PG 90, 1208D).
 Gaudium et spes, 11.
 St. Maximus the Confessor, Various chapters, I, 72 (PG 90,
 Cfr. St. Augustine, On the first Letter of John, 3,13; 4,1 (PL
35, 2004 s.).
 S. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesi, XVI, 19.
 Cf. F. Collins, The Language of God
 St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, 24, 1-2.
 Crf. J.-L. Witte, Esprit-Saint et Eglises séparées, in Dict.Spir.
 Cf. S. Ignazio di Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, IV Week (ed. BAC,
Madrid 1963, pp. 262 ss).
 Cfr. Guglielmo di St. Thierry, Lo specchio della fede, 61 (SCh
301, p. 128).
 St. Thomas, On the Letter to the Galatians, ch.V, lesson.5,
n.318; lesson. 7, n. 340.
 Eusebio di Cesarea, Ecclesiastical History, V, 24, 5.