2nd Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa

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


2nd Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa

"Keep Us From Pronouncing Useless Words When We Speak of You"


Here is a translation of the Lenten meditation delivered today by Capuchin Father Rainero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, to Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, titled "'For Every Useless Word': Speaking 'as With Words of God.'"

This is the second in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The Word of God Is Living and Effective."

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1. From Jesus Who Preaches to Christ Preached

In the second letter to the Corinthians — which is, par excellence, the letter dedicated to the office of preaching — St. Paul writes these programmatic words: "We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus the Lord!" (2 Corinthians 4:5). In a previous letter to these same faithful in Corinth he wrote: "We preach Christ crucified!" (2 Corinthians 4:5). When the Apostle wants to embrace the content of Christian preaching with a single word, this word is always the person of Jesus Christ!

In these statements Jesus is no longer seen — as in the Gospels — in his quality as preacher, but as that which is preached. Similarly, we see that "Gospel of Jesus" acquires a new meaning, without, however, losing the old one; from the "glad tidings" in which Jesus is the subject, one passes to the "glad tidings" in which Jesus is the object.

This is the meaning that the word "gospel" acquires in the solemn beginning of the Letter to the Romans: "Paul, servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, chosen beforehand to proclaim the Gospel of God, which he promised in the sacred Scriptures, regarding his Son, born from the line of David according to the flesh, constituted Son of God with power according to the Spirit of sanctification through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord" (Romans 1:1-3).

In this second Lenten meditation we will focus on the Word of God in the mission of the Church. This is the theme that the third chapter of the "lineamenta" of next October's Synod of Bishops is concerned with. The following is an outline of the topics of that chapter:

The Church's Mission is to Proclaim Christ, the Word of God Made Man;

The Word of God is to be Accessible to All, in Every Age;

The Word of God: the Grace of Communion Among Christians;

The Word of God: A Light for Interreligious Dialogue:

(a) With the Jewish people

(b) With other religions

The Word of God: The Leaven in Modern Culture

The Word of God and Human History.

I will restrict myself to a particular, very limited point, which however, I believe influences the quality and effectiveness of the proclamation of the Church in all of its expressions.

2. "Useless" Words and "Effective" Words

In Matthew's Gospel, in the context of the sermon on the words that reveal the heart, a saying of Jesus is reported that has made readers of the Gospel tremble throughout history: "But I say to you that men will have to answer for every useless word on the day of judgment" (Matthew 12:36).

It has been difficult to explain what Jesus intended by "useless word." Some light is shed by another passage in Matthew's Gospel (7:15-20) that addresses the theme of the tree that is known by its fruit and where the whole discourse seems to be directed at false prophets: "Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but underneath are rapacious wolves. You will know them by their fruit."

If Jesus' saying has some relationship with the saying about false prophets, then perhaps we can discover what the word "useless" means. The Greek term that is translated by "useless" is "argon," which means "without effect" (alpha privative, plus "ergos," which means "work"). Some modern translations, including that of the Italian bishops' conference, render the term with "baseless," and so with a passive value: a word without a basis, in other words, slander. It is an attempt to give a more reassuring sense to Jesus' threat. It is not at all particularly disturbing, in fact, if Jesus says that an answer has to be given to God for every slander!

But, on the contrary, the meaning of "argon" is active and signifies a word that does not establish anything, that produces nothing — thus, empty, sterile, without effectiveness.[1] In this sense the Vulgate's ancient translation was more accurate: "verbum otiosum," an "otiose" word, useless, which is the understanding adopted today in the majority of translations.

It is not hard to understand what Jesus means if we compare this adjective with that which, in the Bible, always characterizes the word of God: the adjective "energes," effective, that which works, that is always followed by an effect ("ergos"). This is the same adjective from which energetic is derived. St. Paul, for example, writes to the Thessalonians that, having received the divine word of the Apostle's preaching, they had welcomed it not as the word of men, but, as it truly is, as "the word of God that works ("energeitai") in those who believe (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13). The opposition between the word of God and the word of men is presented here, implicitly, as an opposition between the word "that works" and the word "that does not work," between the effective word and the ineffective and vain word.

We also find this concept of the effectiveness of the divine word in the letter to the Hebrews: "The word of God is living and effective ("energes") (4:12). But it is an ancient concept; in Isaiah, God declares that the word that has gone out from his mouth will never return to him "without effect," without having "done that for which it was sent" (cf. Isaiah 55:11).

The useless word, for which men will have to answer on the Day of Judgment, is not, therefore, every and any useless word; it is rather the useless, empty word pronounced by him who should instead pronounce the "energetic" words of God. It is, in sum, the word of the false prophet, who has not received the word of God, but nevertheless persuades others to believe his merely human words are the word of God. What happens is exactly the reverse of what St. Paul says: Having received a human word, it is not taken for what it is, but for what it is not, that is, a divine word. For every useless word about God, man will have to answer! This, then, is the meaning of Jesus' grave admonishment.

The useless word is the counterfeit of the word of God, it is a parasite of the word of God. It is recognized by the fruits that it does not produce, because, by definition, it is sterile, without effectiveness — for the good, of course. God "keeps vigil over his word" (cf. Jeremiah 1:12), is jealous for it and cannot allow man to make use of the divine powers that it bears.

The prophet Jeremiah permits us to hear, as through a loudspeaker, what is concealed beneath that word of Jesus. With him it is now clear that it is the false prophets who are the targets: "Thus says the Lord of hosts: Listen not to the words of your prophets, who fill you with emptiness; visions of their own fancy they speak, not from the mouth of the Lord. Let the prophet who has a dream recount his dream; let him who has my word speak my word truthfully! What has straw to do with the wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, like a hammer shattering rocks? Therefore I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from each other. Yes, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who borrow speeches to pronounce oracles" (Jeremiah 23:16, 26-31).

3. Who Are the False Prophets?

But we are not here to give a disquisition on the false prophets in the Bible. As always, the Bible is speaking about us. That word of Jesus does not judge the world, but the Church; the world will not be judged over useless words — all of its words are, in the sense described above, useless words! — but it will be judged, if at all, for not having believed in Jesus (cf. John 16:9). The "men" who must answer for every useless word are the men of the Church; we are the preachers of the word of God.

The "false prophets" are not only those who from time to time disseminate heresies; they are also those who falsify the word of God. Paul is the one who uses this term, drawing it from the contemporary language; literally it means to water down the word, as do the fraudulent hosts when they dilute their wine with water (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2). The false prophets are those who do not present the word of God in its purity, but they dilute and extenuate it with a thousand human words that come from out of their heart.

I too am the false prophet, every time that I do not entrust myself to the "weakness," "foolishness," "poverty" and "nakedness" of the word and I cover it up, and I esteem what I have clothed it in more than the word itself, and the time that I spend covering it up is more than that which I spend with the word, remaining before it in prayer, worshipping it and allowing it to live in me.

Jesus, at Cana in Galilee, transformed water into wine, that is, [transformed] the dead letter into the Spirit that gives life — this is how the Fathers of the Church interpreted the episode; false prophets are those who do the exact opposite, and change the pure wine of the word of God into water that does not inebriate anyone, into a dead letter, into vain chatter. Deep down, they are ashamed of the Gospel (cf. Romans 1:16) and of Jesus' words, because they are "too hard" for the world, or too poor or naked for the intellectuals, and they then try to season them with what Jeremiah called "visions of their own fancy."

St. Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy: "Be eager to present yourself as acceptable to God […] imparting the word of truth without deviation. Avoid profane, idle talk, for such people will become more and more godless" (2 Timothy 2:15-16). Profane chatter is that talk that is not relevant to God's design, which does not have anything to do with the mission of the Church. Too many human words, too many useless words, too many speeches, too many documents. In the era of mass communication the Church too runs the risk of falling into the "straw" of useless words, speaking just to say something, writing just because there are journals and newspapers to be filled.

In this way we offer to the world an optimal pretext resting content in its unbelief and its sin. When they have heard the authentic word of God, it would not be easy for unbelievers to go off saying — as they often do after listening to our preaching: "Words, words, words!" St. Paul calls the words of God "the weapons for our battle" and says that they alone "destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive in obedience to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Humanity is sick from noise, the philosopher [Soren] Kierkegaard said; it is necessary to fast, but a fasting from words; someone needs to cry out, as Moses did one day: "Be silent and listen Israel!" (Deuteronomy 27:9). The Holy Father reminded us of the necessity of this fast from words in his Lenten meeting with the pastors of Rome and I believe, as is his wont, his invitation was not first directed to the world but to the Church.

4. Jesus did not Come to Speak to us of Frivolities

These words of Péguy have always struck me:

"Jesus, my child,"

— it is the Church speaking to her children —

"did not come to speak to us of frivolities

He did not make the trip to descend to the earth,

to come to tell us riddles and jokes.

There is no time for entertaining ourselves.

He did not give his life,

to come to tell us fables."[2]

The concern to keep the word of God distinct from every other word is such that, sending his apostles out on mission, Jesus commands them not to greet anyone on the way (cf. Luke 10:4). I experienced at my own expense that sometimes this commandment must be obeyed to the letter. Stopping to greet people and exchange pleasantries as one is about to begin preaching inevitably disturbs concentration on the word that is to be announced and causes this word to lose its alterity in regard to all human discourse. The same exigency is experienced — or should be experienced — when one is vesting to celebrate Mass.

The exigency is even greater when it is a matter of the content itself of preaching. In Mark's Gospel Jesus cites the words of Isaiah: "In vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines that are human precepts" (Isaiah 29:13); then he adds, turning to the Pharisees and scribes: "Neglecting the commandment of God, you follow human traditions ... and in this way you nullify the word of God with traditions that you yourselves have handed down" (Mark 7:7-13).

When one never succeeds in proposing the simple and naked word of God, without making it pass through the filter of a thousand distinctions and precisions and additions and explanations, which in themselves are even right, but extenuating the word of God, one is doing precisely what Jesus reproved the Pharisees and scribes for that day: one "nullifies the word of God"; one dilutes it, causing it to lose the greater part of its power of penetration in the heart of men.

The word of God cannot be used for other ends or to clothe already existing human discourses with the mantle of divine authority. In times that are still near to us, one saw where such a tendency led. The Gospel was used to support every type of human project from class struggle to the death of God.

When a listener is so predetermined by psychological, factional, political or impulsive conditions, to make it impossible, from the outset, not to say what he expects and not to make him completely right about everything; when there is no hope of being able to lead the listeners to that point in which it is possible to say to them: "Convert and believe!" then it is well not to proclaim the word of God so that is not be used for party goals and, therefore, betrayed. It is better, in other words, to renounce a real proclamation, limiting oneself — if one pursues the matter at all — to listening, and trying to understand and taking part in the people's anxieties and sufferings, preaching the Gospel of the kingdom rather by presence and charity. Jesus, in the Gospel, shows himself to be very careful about not letting himself be used for the political ends of a party.

Obviously, the reality of experience, and thus the human word, is not excluded from the Church's preaching, but it has to be subordinated to the word of God, to the service of this word. As, in the Eucharist, the body of Christ assimilates those who consume it, and not vice-versa, so also in proclamation the word of God must be the more vital and stronger principle, to subjugate and assimilate the human word, and not the contrary. It is necessary, because of this, to have the courage more often to begin, in treating the doctrinal and disciplinary problems of the Church, from the word of God, especially that of the New Testament, and to remain thus linked to it, bound by it, certain that in this way one will more surely discover, in every question, what the will of God is.

One sees this same need in religious communities. There is a danger that in the formation given to young people and novices, in spiritual exercises and everything else in the community's life, more time is spent on the writings of the founder of the community — often very poor in content — than on the word of God.

5. Speak as With Words of God

I realize that a grave objection can be raised to what I am saying. Should the Church's preaching, then, reduce itself to a sequence — or a barrage — of biblical citations, with so many indications of chapter and verse, in a manner reminiscent of the Jehovah's Witnesses and other fundamentalist groups? Certainly not. We are the heirs of a different tradition. I will explain what I mean by being bound to the word of God.

We turn again to the second letter to the Corinthians, where St. Paul writes: "For we are not like the many who trade [literally: "water down," "falsify"] on the word of God; but as out of sincerity, indeed as from God and in the presence of God, we speak in Christ" (2 Corinthians 2:17); and Saint Peter, in his first letter exhorts Christians saying: "Whoever preaches, let it be as with the words of God" (1 Peter 4:11). What does it mean to "speak in Christ," or to speak "as with the words of God"? It certainly does not mean to repeat materially and only the words pronounced by Christ and by God in Scripture. It means that the fundamental inspiration, the thought that "informs" and rules everything else, must come from God, not from man. The preacher must be "moved by God" and speak as in his presence.

There are two ways to prepare a sermon or any written or verbal proclamation of faith. I can sit down at the desk and choose for myself which word to proclaim and the theme to develop, basing myself on my knowledge, my preferences, etc., and then, once the discourse is prepared, get on my knees to hastily ask God to bless that which I have written and make my words effective. This is already something good but it is not the prophetic way. The contrary is what should be done. First, get on your knees and ask God what the word is that he wants to speak; then, sit at the desk and use your own knowledge to give a body to that word. This changes everything because it is not God who must make my word his, but it is I who make his word mine.

It is necessary to begin with the certainty of faith that, in every circumstance, the Risen Lord has a word in his heart that he wants to reach his people. It is that which changes things and it is that which must be discovered. And he will not fail to reveal it to his servant, if his servant asks for it humbly and insistently. In the beginning there is an almost imperceptible movement of the heart; a little light that begins to flicker in the mind, a word of the Bible that begins to draw attention to itself and that illuminates a situation.

Truly "the smallest of all seeds," but afterward you will see that everything was inside; there was a single note that felled the cedars of Lebanon. Then go to your desk, open your books, consult your notes, consult the Fathers of the Church, the masters, the poets. But it is already something else. It is no longer the Word of God at the service of your culture but your culture at the service of the Word of God.

Origen describes the process that leads to this discovery well. Before finding nourishment in Scripture, he said, it is necessary to endure a certain poverty of the senses; the soul is surrounded on all sides by darkness, one enters onto ways that have no exit; until, suddenly, after toilsome searching and prayer, the voice of the Word resounds and immediately something is illuminated; he whom the soul sought comes to meet her, "springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills" (Song of Songs 2:8), that is, disposing the mind to receive his powerful and luminous word.[3] Great is the joy that accompanies this moment. It caused Jeremiah to say, "When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart" (Jeremiah 15:16).

Typically God's answer comes in the form of a word of Scripture that, however, in that moment reveals its extraordinary relevance to the situation and the problem that is to be treated, as if it were written precisely for it. Sometimes it is not even necessary to cite or comment explicitly on any biblical word. It is enough that it be present in the mind of the one speaking and inform everything that he says. If this is the case, then de facto he speaks "as with the words of God." This method is always valid: for the great documents of the magisterium as for the lessons that the master gives to his novices, for a refined address as for a humble Sunday homily.

We have all experienced how much one word of God that is deeply believed and lived gives to the someone before he speaks it and sometimes this occurs without his knowing; often it must be recognized that among many words it was that one that touched the heart and led more than one hearer to the confessional.

After having indicated the conditions of Christian proclamation — speaking of Christ with sincerity as moved by God and under his gaze — the apostle asks: "And who is up to this task?" (2 Corinthians 2:16). It is plain that no one is up to it. We carry this treasure in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). We can, however, pray and say: Lord, have mercy on this poor clay pot that must carry the treasure of your word; keep us from pronouncing useless words when we speak of you; let us once taste your word so that we know how to distinguish it from all others and so that every other word will appear insipid to us. Spread hunger throughout the land, as you promised, "not a hunger for bread, or a thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord" (Amos 8:11).

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[1] Cf. M. Zerwick, Analysis philologica Novi Testamenti Graeci, Romae 1953, ad loc.
[2] Charles Péguy, "The Portal of the Mystery of the Second Virtue," in "Oeuvres poétiques complètes," Gallimard 1975, pp. 587 s.

[3] Cf. Origen, In Mt Ser. 38 (GCS, 1933, p. 7); In Cant. 3 (GCS, 1925, p. 202).

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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