Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap., now in his 43rd year as Preacher to the Papal Household (he was appointed to the position by Pope John Paul II in 1980), delivered the first of his Lenten sermons yesterday. It was a powerhouse — rich in its overall message and filled with thought-provoking statements and surprises.

The 88-year-old Franciscan friar, who was appointed to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis in November 2020, began by speaking about the circumstances that led to the rise of a dangerous movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Modernism. He suggested that the response of the Church to the changes in the world — a refusal to enter into dialogue with the contemporary culture and society — contributed to the rise of Modernism:

The history of the Church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has left us a bitter lesson that we should not forget so as not to repeat the mistake that caused it. I speak of the delay (indeed of the refusal) to take note of the changes that had taken place in society, and of the crisis of Modernism that was its consequence.

Anyone who has studied that period, even superficially, knows the damage it caused for one side and the other, that is, both for the Church and for the so-called “modernists.” The lack of dialogue, on the one hand, pushed some of the best-known modernists into ever more extreme and in the end clearly heretical positions; on the other hand, it deprived the Church of enormous energy, causing endless lacerations and suffering within her, making her withdraw more and more into herself and causing her to lose pace with the times.

Cardinal Cantalamessa, who was ordained a priest in 1958, the same year that Pope John XXIII (the pope who convened the Second Vatican Council) was elected, asserted that the Council “was a prophetic initiative to make up for lost time,” following centuries of retreat and stagnation. He warned against treating the implementation of Vatican II the way many have (wrongly) treated the Council of Trent, as “a finish line and an immovable goal. If the life of the Church were to stop, it would happen like a river that reaches a barrier: it inevitably turns into a quagmire or a swamp.”

Cantalamessa’s words here remind me of the repeated claims by Catholic pundits such as George Weigel, who insists that “John Paul II and Benedict XVI should be understood as one continuous arc of authoritative interpretation of Vatican II,” to the exclusion of other (especially current) popes. It also reminds me of papal critics and traditionalists who whine about how much more time we need to fully implement the council. (For the record, Pope Francis thinks it will take 40 or so more years.)

In his sermon, Cardinal Cantalamessa did not dwell on the the specific teachings or fruits of the Council however. He instead discussed the “method it inaugurated, which is to walk through history, alongside humanity, trying to discern the signs of the times.” This “Vatican II Method” is more urgent today than it was 60 years ago because our society is changing even more rapidly. He explained:

Changes that used to take a century or two now take a decade. This need for continuous renewal is nothing other than the need for continuous conversion, extended from the individual believer to the whole Church in its human and historical component. The Ecclesia semper reformanda. The real problem, therefore, does not lie in the novelty; it is rather in the way we deal with it. Let me explain. Every novelty and every change is a crossroads; it can take two opposite paths: either that of the world or that of God: either the path of death or the path of life.

Another important point in the sermon was Cardinal Cantalamessa’s statement that the Holy Spirit exercises guidance “not only in big decisions, but also in things of lesser importance.” In recent years, many papal critics have downplayed the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. They mock the notion that the Holy Spirit plays any role in the synodal processes during Francis’s pontificate. These critics turn their noses to the idea that the current global synod involves “listening to the Holy Spirit.” Instead they resort to cynicism and charge that the Holy Spirit plays no role and that the synod’s participants — especially the pope — are trying to impose an ideological agenda on the Church in order to destroy her.

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh has described Pope Francis’s vision of synodality as requiring “not just the presence but also the action of the Holy Spirit.” Cardinal Cantalamessa echoes the Holy Father’s faith in the active presence of the Holy Spirit, saying, “He distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts He makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church.”

There is so much more I could say about this sermon, and I encourage you to read the entire thing. I guarantee it will challenge you and help foster deep thoughts and questions for your Lenten meditation.

There is one last thing I do want to discuss, however. As the title indicates, one of the most interesting and challenging aspects of the sermon was Cardinal Cantalamessa’s perspective on handling of an early Church controversy. Anyone who defends Pope Francis on a regular basis has heard papal critics say countless times, “But Paul rebuked Peter!” This is in reference to St. Paul’s recounting to the Galatians that he rebuked Peter “to the face” in Antioch when Peter refused to eat with Gentile Christians.

Papal critics often use this assertion as an attempt to justify their attacks against the pope. There is a simple boilerplate answer to this: Paul was not rebuking Peter for his teachings or the disciplines he promoted, but over his hypocrisy. Francis’s critics attack his doctrinal orthodoxy, whereas Paul criticized Peter at a personal and prudential level.

Cardinal Cantalamessa flipped that entire analysis on its head, proposing that it was Paul who was in the wrong. Not only that, but he uses Paul’s own words to justify Peter’s actions! He said,

Paul is the saint dearest to me, the one I admire and love the most. But in this case I am convinced that he let himself be carried away (and it is not the only time!) by his fiery character. At Antioch, it was Peter who was right, not him. Peter did not at all sin by hypocrisy. The proof is that, on another occasion, Paul himself did exactly what Peter did in Antioch. At Lystra, he had his companion Timothy circumcised “because,” it is written, “of the Jews who were in those regions” (Acts 16:3), that is, so as not to scandalize anyone. To the Corinthians, he writes that he became “a Jew with the Jews, to gain the Jews” (1 Cor 9:20) and in the Letter to the Romans he recommends meeting those who have not yet reached the freedom others enjoy, so as not to make the kingdom of God “a matter of food or drink” (Rom 14:1ff).

The role of mediator that Peter exercised between the contrasting options of James and Paul continues in his successors. Certainly not (which is good for the Church) uniformly in each of them, but according to each one’s own charism that the Holy Spirit (and the cardinals under him) have deemed the most necessary at a given moment of the history of the Church.

The cardinal then explained:

There is someone, it is true, towards whom it is right to be intransigent, but that someone is myself. We are inclined by nature to be intransigent with others and indulgent with ourselves, while we should set out to do just the opposite: be strict with ourselves, and long-suffering with others. Taken seriously, this resolution alone would be enough to sanctify our Lent. It would dispense us from any other type of fasting and would dispose us to work more fruitfully and more serenely in every area of the life of the Church.

A useful exercise in this area is to be honest, in the court of your heart, with the person you disagree with. When I notice that I’m accusing someone inside me, I have to be careful not to take my side right away. I have to stop going over my reasons time and time again like someone chewing gum, and instead try to put myself in the other person’s shoes to understand their motivations and what they could say to me in reply.

This is something we should all strive for this Lent.

Image: Vatican News

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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