VATICAN CITY, 26 MARCH 2010 (ZENIT)
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"
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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." 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
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
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  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
"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"
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." 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
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
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
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
[Translation by ZENIT]
 Quoted in Benedict XVI's Letter of Proclamation of the Year
 Cf. Augustine, Sermo 46: CCL 41, pp. 529 ff.
 Teresa of Avila, Life, cc. 7-8.
 Ib. 9, 1-3