VATICAN CITY, 9 MARCH 2010 (ZENIT)
Here is the first Lenten
sermon Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the
Pontifical Household, gave Friday at the Vatican in the presence
of Benedict XVI and the Curia.
* * *
Ministers of a New Covenant
The Lord has granted me to be a witness of the extraordinary
grace that is being revealed for the Church in this Year for
Priests. Countless are the retreats of the clergy being held in
different parts of the world. In one of these retreats,
organized in Manila by the Episcopal Conference of the
Philippines last January, 5,500 priests and 90 bishops took
part. It was, the cardinal of Manila said, a new Pentecost.
During an hour of guided adoration, at the invitation of the
preacher, all that immense expanse of priests in white vestments
cried out with one voice: "Lord Jesus, we are happy to be your
priests." And one could see from their faces that they were not
The same experience, in a more reduced number, I experienced
with all the clergy of the Sabah region in Malaysia, later in
Singapore and recently in the shrine of Loreto with around 200
Italian bishops and priests. All of them asked me to transmit to
the Holy Father their thanks and greeting and I do so with joy
at this moment.
1. The "Mysteries" of God
The word of God that guides us in these reflections of the Year
for Priests is 1 Corinthians 4:1: "Si nos existimet homo, ut
ministros Christi et dispensatores mysteriorum Dei"; "This is
how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of
the mysteries of God." In Advent we meditated on the first part
of this definition: the priest as servant of Christ, in the
power and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It remains, in this
Lent, to reflect on the second part: the priest as steward of
the mysteries of God. Of course, what we say of the priest is
all the more true for the bishop who possesses the fullness of
The term "mysteries" has two fundamental meanings: the first is
that of the truth hidden and revealed by God, the divine
proposals announced in a veiled manner in the Old Testament and
revealed to men in the fullness of time; the second is that of
"concrete signs of grace," in practice the sacraments. The
Letter to the Hebrews combines the two meanings in the
expression: "the things that relate to God" (ea que sunt ad
Deum); it accentuates, in fact, precisely the ritual and
sacramental meaning, stating that the task of the priest (the
author speaks here, however of the priesthood in general, of the
Old and of the New Testaments) is to "offer gifts and sacrifices
for sins" (Hebrews 5:1).
This second meaning is affirmed above all in the tradition of
the Church. Saint Ambrose wrote two treatises on the rites of
Christian initiation, seen as fulfillment of figures and
prophesies of the Old Testament; he entitled one "De sacramentis"
and the other "De mysteriis," even if in practice they treat the
Returning to the word of the Apostle, the first of these two
meanings brings to light the role of the priest in relation to
the word of God, the second is his role in relation to the
sacraments. Together they delineate the physiognomy of the
priest as witness of the truth of God and as minister of the
grace of Christ, as evangeliser and sacrificer.
For many centuries the function of the priest was reduced almost
exclusively to his role of liturgist and sacrificer: "to offer
sacrifices and forgive sins." It was for Vatican Council II to
make evident, next to the function of worship that of
evangelization. In line with what Lumen Gentium said of the
function of bishops to "teach" and "sanctify," Presbyterorum
“In the measure in which they participate in the office of the
apostles, God gives priests a special grace to be ministers of
Christ among the people. They perform the sacred duty of
preaching the Gospel, so that the offering of the people can be
made acceptable and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:16)
Through the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the People of
God are called together and assembled [...] Their ministry,
which begins with the evangelical proclamation, derives its
power and force from the sacrifice of Christ.”
Of the three meditations of Lent (on Friday, March 19, the
homily is omitted because of the feast of Saint Joseph), we will
dedicate one to the topic of the priest as minister of the world
of God, one to the priest as minister of the sacraments and one,
more existential, to the renewal of the priesthood through
conversion to the Lord.
2. The Letter and the Spirit
Beginning in the 2nd century, one notes a very clear tendency to
in requirements, rites, titles and vestments
the Christian priesthood on the Levitical of the Old
Testament; a tendency that is reflected in canonical
documents such as the Apostolic Constitutions, the Syriac
Didascalia and other similar sources. Precisely this external
assimilation, makes one feel more urgently the need to
rediscover, on an occasion such as this, the novelty and
essential otherness of the ministry of the new covenant
vis-ŕ-vis the old. It is the energetic Pauline affirmation that
I would like to put at the center of the present meditation:
"Our sufficiency is from God, who has qualified us to be
ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the
Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone,
came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at
Moses' face because of its brightness, fading as this was, will
not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater
splendor?" (2 Corinthians 3:3).
What the Apostle intends with the opposition letter-Spirit is
deduced from what he wrote earlier, speaking of the community of
the New Testament: "you show that you are a letter from Christ
delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the
living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human
hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:3).
The letter is, therefore, the Mosaic law written on tablets of
stone and, by extension every positive law external to man; the
Spirit is the interior law, written on hearts, that which
elsewhere the Apostle describes, "the law of the Spirit of life
in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death"
(cf. Romans 8:2).
St. Augustine wrote a treatise on our text
On the Spirit and the Letter
which is a milestone in the history of Christian thought. The
novelty of the new covenant as compared with the old, he
explained, is that God no longer limits himself to command man
to do or not to do, but He himself does with him and in him the
things that He commands. "Where the law of works obliges by
threatening, the law of faith obtains by believing ... With the
law of works God says to man: 'Do' what I command you, with the
law of faith man says to God: 'Give' me what you command."
The new law which is the Spirit is much more than an
"indication" of will; it is an "action," a living and active
principle. The new law is the new life. The opposition
letter-Spirit is equivalent, in Saint Paul, to the opposition
law-grace: "you are not under the law but under grace" (Romans
The idea of grace is also present in the old covenant, in the
sense of the benevolence, favor and forgiveness of God (the
hesed): "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious" (Exodus
33:19); the Psalms are full of this concept. However now the
word grace, charis, has acquired a new, historic meaning: it is
the grace that comes from the Death and Resurrection of Christ
and which justifies the sinner. It is no longer only a
benevolent disposition, but a reality, a "state": "Therefore,
since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through
our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to
this grace in which we stand" (Romans 5:1-2).
John describes the relation between the old and new covenant in
the same way as Paul: "The law
was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus
Christ" (John 1:17).
From this is deduced that the new law, or of the Spirit, is not,
in the strict sense, the one promulgated by Jesus on the Mount
of the Beatitudes, but the one engraved by him in hearts at
Pentecost. The evangelical precepts are certainly more lofty and
perfect than the Mosaic; however, on their own, they also would
have remained ineffective. If it had sufficed to proclaim the
new will of God through the Gospel, one could not explain the
need there was for Jesus to die and for the Holy Spirit to come;
one could not explain why the Jesus of John makes everything
depend on his "lifting," that is, on his death on the cross (cf.
John 7:39; 16:7-15).
The Apostles are the living proof of this. They had heard from
Christ's living voice all the evangelical precepts, for example
that "he who wishes to be first must be last and servant of
all," (Matthew 20:27) but till the last supper we see them
concerned to establish who was the greatest among them (cf. Luke
22:24). Only after the coming of the Spirit upon them do we see
them completely forgetful of themselves and intent only on
proclaiming "the mighty works of God" (cf. Acts 2:11).
Without the interior grace of the Spirit, even the Gospel,
therefore, even the new commandment would remain the old law,
letter. Taking up a bold thought of Saint Augustine, Saint
Thomas Aquinas wrote: "By letter is understood every written law
that remains outside of man, even the moral precepts contained
in the Gospel; therefore even the letter of the Gospel would
kill, if the grace of the faith that heals was not added
within." Yet more explicit is that which he wrote a earlier:
"The new law is primarily the same grace of the Holy Spirit that
is given to believers."
3. Not by constraint but by attraction
But, specifically, how does this new law, which is the Spirit,
act? It acts through love! The new law is nothing other than
what Jesus calls the "new commandment." The Holy Spirit has
written the new law in our hearts, infusing love in them (Romans
5:5). This love is the love with which God loves us and with
which, at the same time, makes us love Him and our neighbor. It
is a new capacity to love.
Is it not a contradiction to speak of love as a "law"? To this
question the answer must be given that there are two ways that
man can be induced to do or not do something: by constraint or
by attraction. The external law induces him in the first way, by
constraint, with the threat of punishment; love induces him in
the second way, by attraction. Each one, in fact, is attracted
by what he loves, without suffering any constraint from outside.
Love is like a "weight" of the soul that draws one to the object
of one's pleasure, in which one knows one will find one's
repose. Christian life is meant to be lived by attraction,
not by constraint.
Hence love is a law, "the law of the Spirit," in the sense that
it creates in the Christian a dynamism that drives him to do
everything that God wills spontaneously, because he has made his
own the will of God and loves everything that God loves.
In this economy of the Spirit, what place, we ask ourselves,
does the observance of the Commandments have? Indeed, also after
the coming of Christ, the written law subsists: there are the
Commandments of God, the Decalogue, there are the evangelical
precepts; to these are added, later on, the ecclesiastical laws.
What sense does the Code of Canon Law have, monastic rules,
religious vows, all that, in sum, which indicates an objective
will that is imposed on one from outside? Are such things as
foreign bodies in the Christian organism?
In the course of the history of the Church, there have been
movements that have thought thus and rejected, in the name of
the liberty of the Spirit, every law, so much so as to be called
"anomistic", without any law, movements, but they have always
been repudiated by the authority of the Church and by the
Christian conscience itself. The Christian answer to this
problem comes to us from the Gospel. Jesus said that he did not
come to "abolish the law" but to "bring it to fulfillment" (cf
Matthew 5:17). And what is the "fulfillment" of the law?
"Complete fulfillment of the law
answers the Apostle
is love" (Romans 13:10). On the commandment of love
depend all the law and the prophets (cf Matthew 22:40).
Obedience thus becomes the proof that one lives under grace. "If
you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Love,
then, does not replace the law, but observes it, "fulfills" it.
Ezekiel's prophecy attributed, in fact, to the future gift of
the Spirit and of the new heart, the possibility of observing
the law of God: "And I will put my spirit within you, and cause
you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my
ordinances" (Ezekiel 36:27). "The law was given
wrote Augustine with precision
so that grace would be sought and grace was given so that the
law would be observed." 
4. Up-to-dateness of the Message of Grace
Up to here the consequences that the Pauline message on the new
covenant can have on the way of conceiving and living the
Christian life. On this occasion, however, I would like to make
evident above all the light that this throws on the problem of
evangelization in today's world and on the inter-religious
dialogue and, consequently, on the role of the priest as
minister of the truth of God.
Augustine wrote his treatise on The Letter and the Spirit to
combat the Pelagian thesis according to which to be saved it is
sufficient that God has created us, gifted us with free will and
given a law that indicates to us his will. In practice, it is
the thesis that man can save himself on his own and that the
coming of Christ is, certainly, an extraordinary help, but not
indispensable for salvation.
One could debate
and today it is debated among scholars
if the Saint had interpreted correctly the thought of the monk
Pelagius. However, this must not surprise us. The Fathers who
found themselves combating heresies often specified those that
(from their point of view!) were the logical implications of a
certain doctrine, without taking too much into account the point
of view or different language of the adversary. They were more
concerned with doctrine than with persons, with the dogmatic
truth than the historical. Augustine, by the way, shows himself
very much more respectful and courteous in regard to Pelagius
than was, for example, Cyril of Alexandria in confronting
The modern reappraisal of authors such as Pelagius and Nestorius
does not at all mean therefore a reappraisal of Pelagianism or
Nestorianism. This distinction has contributed, in recent times,
to the re-establishment of communion with the so-called
Nestorian or Monophysite Churches of the East.
All this is, however, of relative interest to us. The important
thing to retain is that Augustine is right on the key issue:
nature, free will and the guidance of the law, are not enough to
be saved; grace is needed, that is, Christ is needed. To think
otherwise would mean to render superfluous his coming and with
it his Death and Redemption; it would mean considering Christ an
example of life, not "source of eternal salvation to all who
obey him" (Hebrews 5:9).
It is on this point that Augustine's thought
and before him that of Paul
reveals itself of extraordinary up-to-dateness. That which,
according to the Apostle, distinguishes the new covenant from
the old, the Spirit from the letter, grace from the law, the due
distinctions made, is exactly that which distinguishes
Christianity today from every other religion.
The forms have changed, but the essence is the same. "Work of
the law," or work of man, is every human practice, when one
makes one's salvation depend on it, whether this is conceived as
communion with God or as communion with oneself, or in being in
tune with the energies of the universe. The assumption is the
same: God does not give himself, he is conquered!
We can illustrate the difference thus. Every human religion or
religious philosophy begins with telling man what he must do to
be saved: duties, works, be these external ascetic works or
speculative paths to one's interior I, to the All or to the
Nothing. Christianity does not begin by telling man what he must
do, but what God has done for him. Jesus did not begin to preach
saying: "Repent and believe in the Gospel so that the Kingdom
will come to you"; he began by saying: "The Kingdom of God is
among you: repent and believe in the Gospel." Not conversion
first and then salvation, but salvation first and then
conversion. Christianity is the religion of grace, of the
Also in Christianity
we already mentioned it
there are duties and commandments, but the plane of
Commandments, including the greatest of all which is to love God
and one's neighbor, is not the first plane but the second:
before it is the plane of gift, of grace. "We love, because he
first loved us" (1 John 4:19). It is from the gift that the duty
springs, not vice versa.
We Christians will not enter into dialogue with other faiths,
affirming the difference or superiority of our religion; this
would be the very negation of dialogue. Rather, we will insist
on that which unites us, the common objectives, acknowledging in
the others the same right (at least subjective) of considering
their faith the most perfect and the definitive one. Without
forgetting, after all, that whoever lives with consistency and
in good faith a religion of works and of the law is better and
more pleasing to God than one who belongs to the religion of
grace, but neglects completely either to believe in grace or to
carry out the works of faith.
All this should not induce us, however, to put in brackets our
faith in the novelty and uniqueness of Christ. It is not a
question of affirming the superiority of a religion over others,
but of recognizing the specificity of each one, to know who we
are and what we believe.
It is not difficult to explain the reason for the difficulty to
admit the idea of grace and of its instinctive rejection on the
part of modern man. To be saved "by grace" means to recognize
one’s own dependence and this is the most difficult thing.
Noteworthy is Marx's affirmation: "A being does not appear
independent unless and only in so far he is lord of himself, and
he is not lord of himself unless and only in so far he owes his
existence to himself. A man who lives by the 'grace' of another
is considered a dependent being [...]. But I would live
completely by the grace of another, if he had created my life,
if he was the source of my life and the latter was not my own
creation." The reason why a creator God is rejected is also
the reason why a savior God is rejected.
It is the explanation that St. Bernard gives of Satan's sin: he
preferred to be the most unhappy of creatures on his own merit,
rather than the most happy by the grace of another; he preferred
to be "unhappy but sovereign, rather than happy but dependent: "misere
praeesse, quam feliciter subesse." 
The rejection of Christianity, in progress at certain levels of
our Western culture, when it is not rejection of the Church and
of Christians, is rejection of grace.
5. The Task of Ministers of the New Covenant
What is, in this field, the task of priests in so far as
ministers of the mysteries of God and teachers of the faith? It
is that of helping brothers to live the novelty of grace, which
is to say the novelty of Christ.
In the Gospel Jesus uses the expression "the mysteries of the
Kingdom of Heaven" to indicate all his teaching and, in
particular, what refers to his person (cf. Matthew 13:11). After
Easter, increasingly the singular is used rather than the
plural, from the mysteries to the mystery: all the mysteries of
God are now summed up in the mystery that is Christ.
Saint Paul speaks of "God's mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid
all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:2-3).
He invites us to think of Christ as in a palace in which, as one
enters, one sees wonder upon wonder. The material universe, with
all its beauty and incalculable extension, is the only adequate
image of the spiritual universe that is Christ. Not for nothing
was the latter made "through him and for him" (Colossians 1:16).
The Apostle pointed out with greater clarity than anyone the
center and heart of the Christian proclamation and he expressed
it in a programmatic way, as a manifesto: "We preach Christ
crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:23) and "For what we preach is not
ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord" (2 Corinthians 4:5). These
words fully justify the affirmation according to which
Christianity is not a doctrine but a person.
But, what does it mean in practice to preach "Christ crucified,"
or "Christ Jesus our Lord"? It does not mean to speak always and
only of the Christ of the kerygma or of the Christ of the dogma,
that is, to transform homilies into lessons in Christology. It
means, rather, to "recapitulate everything in Christ" (Ephesians
1:10), to found every duty on him, to make each thing serve the
objective of taking to men the "surpassing worth of knowing
Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:8).
Jesus must be the formal object, not necessarily and always the
material object of preaching, what "informs" it, what gives it
is foundation and gives authority to any other proclamation,
soul and light of the Christian proclamation. "Arid is all
nourishment of the soul
exclaims Saint Bernard
if it is not seasoned with this oil; insipid if it is not
seasoned with this salt. What you write has no flavor
non sapit mihi
if it does not beat within the heart of Jesus
nisi sonuerit ibi Cor Jesu" .
In the Liturgy of the Hours in the German language , the
Stundengebet, there is a hymn (Lauds of Tuesday of the second
week) that I have loved from the first moment that I recited it.
It begins thus: “Göttliches Wort, der Gottheit Schrein, für uns
in dein Geheimnis ein”: Word divine, shrine of the Divinity
let us penetrate into your mystery.
The expression "the mystery of Christ" is the most
comprehensive of all: it gathers in his being and in his acting
his humanity and his divinity, his pre-existence and his
Incarnation, the prophecies of the Old Testament and their
realization in the fullness of time. We can repeat it as an
ejaculation: Word divine, shrine of the Divinity
let us penetrate into your mystery.
 PO, 2.
 Cf. J.-M. Tillard, "Sacerdoce," in DSpir. 14, col.12.
 Augustine, "On the Spirit and the Letter," 13,22.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-IIae, q. 106, a. 2.
 Ibid., q. 106, a. 1; cf. Augustine, "On the Spirit and the
Letter," 21, 36.
 Augustine, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 26, 4-5: CCL
36, 261; Confessions, XIII, 9.
 Augustine, "On the Spirit and the Letter," 19, 34.
 K. Marx, Manuscripts of 1884, in Gesamtausgabe, III, Berlin,
1932, p. 124 and Criticism of Hegel's Philosophy of Law, in
Gesamtausgabe, I, 1, Frankfurt on M., 1927, p. 614 f.
 Bernard of Clairvaux, "De gradibus humilitatis," X, 36: PL
 Bernard of Clairvaux, "Sermones super Canticum," XV, 6: Ed.
Cistercense, Rome 1957, p.86.