Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM, CAP
Fr. Cantalamessa is the preacher to the Papal Household. For the last 21 years he has preached for Pope John Paul II on Fridays during Advent and Lent. He leads numerous formation sessions and retreats throughout the world. Fr. Cantalamessa is a prophetic voice speaking to many people throughout the world. He has a deep passion for Christian unity.
In 1975, while I was a professor of Ancient Christianity at the Catholic University of Milan, I began hearing about a new move in the church, a new spirit, a new way of praying. In the beginning I was very “anti.” I told the lady who described this activity to me: “You should never go again to that particular retreat house.” I was surprised to see that these people, whom you already realize were part of the charismatic renewal, were not offended by my criticism. They loved me and even asked me to give them teachings.
I once gave a university course about the charismatic and prophetic movements in the early church just to try to understand what was going on now. Some manifestations were exactly like those which had occurred in the first Christian communities, in Corinth, for instance. But, as you may imagine, I was unprepared to accept other things, like speaking in tongues.
In 1977, a lady from Milan received four all-inclusive tickets to go to America to attend a conference in Kansas City. This was to be a large interdenominational gathering of 40,000 people, half Catholics and half other Christian denominations. I was given one of these tickets because I was coming to the States to start learning English. I thought to myself: “After all, in a week I shall be over all this annoyance.”
In Kansas City, there was one thing which particularly impressed me and I must share it with you. At one moment during the conference someone began to speak prophetic words. Prophetic words are authoritative messages spoken in the name of God: “You bishops, mourn and weep because the body of my Son is broken. You priests, mourn and weep because the body of my Son is broken. You lay people, mourn and weep because the body of my Son is broken.” One after another, almost all the 40,000 people fell to their knees. This huge crowd in Kansas City was crying out as one in repentance. And above the stadium a huge sign proclaimed: “Jesus is Lord.”
I was looking at all this as an outsider but I couldn’t help being moved. I said to myself: “This is a prophecy for the future of the church. One day the church shall be reunited in one single visible body. This is how it will happen; through all of us repenting, praying and weeping together, under the I,ordship of Christ.” But can you imagine, I was still very critical and said to myself: “This is very beautiful. No doubt this comes from the Lord, but I cannot accept it.” I was unprepared to understand the expressions of other Christian denominations, especially Pentecostals.
“Choose Jesus as Lord of your Life”, one of the hymns sung on this occasion said: “Lift high the banner of love; Jericho must fall.” It’s the story of Jericho falling before the sound of the trumpets. When the crowd sang the refrain, “Jericho must fall,” my fellow Italians (there were five of us) nudged me and said: “Listen carefully, because Jericho is you.”
And Jericho did fall. It was a spectacular fall that began in Kansas City, Missouri, and ended in Convent Station, New Jersey. There was a prayer meeting to be held in New Jersey and someone invited me to attend. A priest said: “Stay with us this week.” I remember thinking to myself: “This, after all, is not a house of perdition or prostitution. It is a house of prayer, and staying there won’t do me any harm.” I decided: “Lord, I will stay. I will give you another chance to speak to me.”
After this decision everything went smoothly, even though I resisted with all my strength. You must realize that I did my best. There was a moment during the prayer meeting when we were in the chapel praying, and I remember saying to myself: “I am a son of St. Francis of Assisi. I have a beautiful spirituality. What am I looking for among these lay brothers?” At that moment a lady opened her Bible and started reading. It was the passage where John the Baptist said to the Pharisees: “Don’t say in your hearts, We are sons of Abraham, we are sons of Abraham.”‘
I assure you, this is the way the Holy Spirit builds when he is present in a gathering. He speaks in a simple but very, very strong way. So I stood up (speaking Italian because I did not know any English then) and everybody seemed to understand my Italian. I said: “Lord, I don’t want to say any longer that I am a son of St. Francis of Assisi. I ask you to make me a true son of St. Francis of Assisi. Baptize me with your Holy Spirit.” Then they prayed over me. I recall somebody saying: “Choose Jesus as Lord of your life.”
The Cross of Jesus Christ Why am I mentioning my experience? Because if we are to receive the Holy Spirit in this new, dramatic way scripture says that we must be baptized. But if we have already been baptized, there is need of a new baptism or a renewal of our baptism. For me, baptism in the Spirit was precisely this-a chance the Lord gave me to ratify and renew my baptism.
For most of us, baptism is a bound sacrament. That means that while we have received baptism in the church, the church gave it in the hope that at some point in our adult life we would confirm our “I believe” in a personal, free act of faith. Until there is this act of faith in the life of a Christian, baptism remains a bound sacrament. Baptism allows us to receive Holy Communion but it also reveals why there are so many inactive Christians, passive and lacking any power. Jesus promised power to his believers, power enough to cast out demons and convict the world. Why, then, are we so powerless?
Coming back to my experience, my perception was that I was simply renewing my baptism, choosing Jesus as my Lord, and renewing my ordination-my religious profession. There was a moment when somebody said: “Choose Jesus as your Lord.” At that very instant I lifted up my eyes and saw the crucifix. It was as if Jesus was waiting to tell me a very important thing. “Careful, Raniero.” Of course there was no audible speaking by Jesus. Nothing visible-only a deeper communication.
This is the way God communicates something without verbal expression, without visible images. He speaks directly to the heart. He was speaking to my heart. “Be careful. This Jesus you are choosing as your Lord is not an easy Jesus. Not a rosewater Jesus. This is the crucified Jesus.” This was when all my doubts fell away. If I was still wondering if the charismatic renewal was something superficial and emotional-just a lifting of our arms to impress each other, I was convinced at that moment that this renewal goes straight to the heart of the gospel, which is the cross of Jesus Christ!
A Love for the Word of God Nothing spectacular happened during this moment of my baptism in the Spirit. Nothing. But there was prophecy. Somebody said: “You will experience a new joy in proclaiming my word.” At that time I was more a professor than a preacher. For a while, this remained for me a kind of question mark. Now, after seventeen or eighteen years, I can tell you that this prophecy has come true. I have experienced a new joy in proclaiming the word of God.
On the plane from Newark to Washington I had one of my first experiences as I found that in just praying my breviary the scriptures came alive. The psalms were not just words I knew by heart; no, they came alive. I was astonished. I read: “One generation proclaims to the other the greatness of the Lord.” And a whole world opened in front of me. I remembered what is written in the New Testament: “Then at that moment Jesus opened their minds so that they were able to understand the scriptures.”
This is what the Holy Spirit does. One of the first actions of the Holy Spirit is to open our minds to understand scripture, to see how true it is and that it is the word of God-the passionate word of a father to his children, for use in very personal situations. The love of scripture which results from receiving the Holy Spirit is unbelievable. I know people who cannot separate themselves from the Bible.
For example, I know a young widow who, after she lost her husband, was lost in fear. The first months were terrible. Then she discovered the Bible, so much so that sometimes when she went to bed she placed the Bible on became a woman filled with an understanding of scripture which sometimes enriches and instructs me.
When I came to Washington, I realized that I had a new desire for prayer. Something was attracting me to the chapel, and prayer opened to me the world of the Trinity. The Father spoke to me about the Son; the Son spoke to me about the Father; the Father and the Son about the Holy Spirit. I discovered the law of love which is the law of the Trinity.
Do you know what the law of love is? The law of love consists of not speaking of oneself, but speaking always of the other person. This is why the Father reveals the Son. The Son doesn’t speak very much about himself; he speaks about the Father. When the Holy Spirit comes, what does he say? He doesn’t start revealing his name; he doesn’t proclaim ruah, ruah (r~cah is the Hebrew name for the Holy Spirit). When the Spirit comes, he says: “Abbe, Abba.” This is the law. Imagine if this law of love were to be applied in a family. Imagine a father speaking to his children always of the good of their mother, and the mother always telling them of the goodness of their father. Oh, this would change many, many things.
Leave Everything and Come
A few months after my return to Italy, something happened which visibly and practically changed my life. One day as I was praying in my cell in the friary, I prayed for the first time in a manner vaguely like speaking in tongues; not exactly the same, but somewhat similar. For a moment there was a very deep-down communication-nothing verbal or visible-but I sensed that Jesus was passing in front of me. It was the same Jesus who came back from the Jordan after his baptism in the Spirit and he was saying to me: “If you want to help me in proclaiming the kingdom of God, leave everything and come. ‘I understood that he meant that I was to leave my teaching position. At that time I was head of a department at a huge university. I felt an instant of panic. This university had established this chair especially for me. But I understood that Jesus was inviting me-a man who has many things to do and is always in a hurry. I was afraid that I would not be ready to answer “yes.” At the end of this hour of prayer, however, by the grace of God, I found in my heart a full ‘yes, Lord, I can.” The Lord called me to leave my professorship and become an itinerant preacher of the gospel. Because I am a religious man with a vow of obedience, I went to my superior general and told him: “Father, I think the Lord is asking me to do something completely different.” He said (as any good bishop or pastor would), “Let us wait one year more.” So I went on teaching for one year. At the end of this time I went to my superior general in Rome. We both prayed and then he said: ‘yes, it is the will of God. They will say that you and |I are both mad, but in ten years maybe they will change their opinion.”
On the very day when the superior general gave me permission to start a new life, the breviary contained this beautiful passage from the prophet Haggai, in which God sends Haggai to encourage the people. The people stopped rebuilding their own houses and started rebuild-ing the temple of God. God was pleased and sent prophets to encourage them. Haggai said: “Now take courage you Joshua, son of Jehozadak; take courage Zerubbabel: take courage, you people of the land and work, because I am with you, says the Lord” (Haggai 2:3-5).
Do you know what the law of love is? The law of love consists of not speaking of oneself, but speaking always of the other person. This is why the Father reveals the Son. The Son doesn’t speak very much about himself he speaks about the Father.
After reading this in the breviary, I went to St. Peter’s Square to ask St. Peter for a new gift of faith for my new ministry. It was a rainy October day, and St. Peter’s Square was completely empty. Something compelled me to look at the window of the Pope-you know, where the window of the Pope is in the Square. It was as if the word of God were crying through me: “Take courage, John Paul II; take courage, you cardinals and bishops of the Catholic Church; and work, because I am with you, says the Lord.” So far so good. Except that three months later I was appointed preacher to the Pope!
“Take courage, John Paul II; take courage, you cardinals and bishops of the Catholic Church; and work, because I am with you, says the Lord.” So far so good. Except that three months later I was appointed preacher to the Pope!
Take Courage. I am with You. Preacher to the Pope! Maybe it would be worth while to say a little about what this means. Many Catholics don’t know that every Friday during Lent and Advent the Holy Father takes time to listen to a sermon, a meditation given by a priest of the Catholic Church, which, for the last sixteen years, has been me. He never misses a sermon. Once when he was traveling around Central America, he missed two Fridays. When he returned he came straight to me, apologizing for having missed two sermons. It’s really he who gives the sermons to me through his humility, his example.
The first time I was in front of this very unusual audience I couldn’t help telling what had happened to me in St. Peter’s Square, just below the Pope’s window. So again I quoted Haggai the prophet-not just as a quotation but as a living prophecy. I heard him say to this audience: “Take courage, John Paul II; take courage, you cardinals and bishops, you people of the land, and work, because I am with you, says the Lord.” And I could see in the eyes of my listeners the word of God becoming an active reality at that very moment.
Very often when the Lord sends me around the world to proclaim the word of God, I repeat this prophecy of Haggai. Now I have the pleasure, the joy, of proclaiming it for you: ‘Take courage, you bishops of this country; take courage, you priests; take courage, you lay people, and walk, because I am with you, says the Lord.”
ChristLife Catholic Evangelization Services, now offers an excellent video and audio series by Fr. Cantalamessa. Click here for more information.