Evangelization Needs Belief in Eternity, Says Preacher

Father Cantalamessa Gives Advent Sermon to Pope and Curia

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 10, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa says that a renewed faith in eternal life is one of the keys to the New Evangelization. 

The preacher of the Pontifical Household offered this suggestion today during the second of three Advent sermons that he is giving in the presence of the Pope and the Roman Curia.

Father Cantalamessa proposed at the beginning of the series to offer "a small contribution to the need of the Church" for a New Evangelization, concretely by examining three obstacles to the Gospel message: scientism, secularism and rationalism. 

Last week's reflection centered on scientism and today's on secularism.

The Capuchin considered secularism as a synonym of temporality: "the reduction of the real only to the earthly dimension."

And he said, "The fall of the horizon of eternity, or of eternal life, has the effect on Christian life of sap thrown on a flame: it suffocates it, extinguishes it. Faith in eternal life is one of the conditions of the possibility of evangelization."

Changing the worldview

With this backdrop, the Pontifical Household preacher went on to reflect about eternity, including the rise and fall of the belief and the idea of eternity as a hope and a presence.

He gave a brief overview of belief in eternity within Judaism, noting that only after the Babylonian Exile did this faith start to gain ground, and even then, not everyone accepted it.

"This loudly denies the thesis of those -- Feuerbach, Marx, Freud -- who explain belief in God with the desire for an eternal recompense, as projection in the beyond of the disappointed earthly expectations," the preacher observed. "Israel believed in God many centuries before it believed in an eternal recompense in the beyond! Hence, it is not the desire of an eternal recompense that produced faith in God, but it is faith in God that produced the belief of an ultra-earthly recompense."

He continued that "even in the Greek-Roman world [there] is an evolution in the concept of the beyond. The oldest idea is that true life ends with death; after that there is only a semblance of life, in a world of shadows. [...]

"One can understand with this background the impact that the Christian proclamation must have had of a life after death infinitely more full and joyful than the earthly; one can also understand why the idea and the symbols of eternal life are so frequent in the Christian sepulchers of the catacombs."

Timid and reticent

Despite Christianity's radical impact, belief in eternity has wavered, Father Cantalamessa lamented.

"[W]hat has happened to the Christian idea of an eternal life for the soul and for the body, after it triumphed over the pagan idea of 'darkness beyond death,'" he asked.

The answer, the Capuchin suggested, lies in the style of atheism of the 19th century, "expressed preferably in the negation of a beyond."

He explained: "Taking up Hegel's affirmation according to which 'Christians waste in heaven the energies destined for earth,' Feuerbach and above all Marx combated the belief of a life after death, under the pretext that it alienates from the earthly commitment. To the idea of a personal survival in God is constituted the idea of a survival in the species and in the society of the future.

"Little by little, suspicion, forgetfulness and silence fell on the word eternity. Materialism and consumerism did the rest in the opulent society, making it seem inconvenient to still speak of eternity among educated persons and with the passage of time. All this had a clear repercussion on the faith of believers, which became, on this point, timid and reticent."

Coming to the light

Nevertheless, Father Cantalamessa continued, "For the believer, eternity is not, as we see, only a hope, it is also a presence. We have this experience every time that we make a real act of faith in Christ, because 'you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God'; every time we receive Communion, in which 'we are given the pledge of future glory'; every time we hear the words of the Gospel which are 'words of eternal life.'"

And, he suggested, "Between the life of faith in time and eternal life there is a relationship similar to that which exists between the life of the embryo in the maternal womb and that of the baby, once he has come to the light."

"A renewed faith in eternity does not only serve for evangelization, that is, for the proclamation to be done to others," the Capuchin affirmed. "[I]t serves, even before that, to give a new impetus to our journey toward sanctity. The weakening of the idea of eternity acts also on believers, diminishing in them the capacity to face suffering and the trials of life with courage."

To illustrate this point, he proposed the image of a man with a scale: On one side there is the dish to hold that to be weighed and on the other side, the measure. If the measure is lost, he said, then "all that is put on the plate makes the bar rise and makes the scale incline to earth." Even a handful of feathers will bring the scale down. "That is how we are when we lose the weight, the measure of all that is eternity: Earthly things and sufferings easily pull our soul down. Everything seems too heavy, excessive."

Run, hurry up

Father Cantalamessa concluded with the invitation to "direct our thoughts then with renewed impetus toward eternity, repeating to ourselves with the words of the poet: Everything, except the eternal, to the world is vain."

He noted: "In the Hebrew Psalter there is a group of Psalms called 'Psalms of the ascension,' or 'canticles of Sion.' They were the Psalms that Jewish pilgrims sang when they went out on pilgrimage toward the holy city, Jerusalem. One of them begins thus: 'I was glad when they said to me, "let us go to the house of the Lord!"' These Psalms of the ascension then became the Psalms of those that, in the Church, are journeying toward the heavenly Jerusalem; they are our Psalms. Commenting on those initial words of the Psalm, St. Augustine said to his faithful:

"'Let us run because we will go to the house of the Lord; let us run because this course does not exhaust; because we will arrive at an end where there is no exhaustion. Let us run to the house of the Lord and our soul rejoices for those who repeat these words. They have seen the homeland before us, the Apostles saw it and have said to us: "Run, hurry up, follow us! We are going to the house of the Lord!"'"

[ZENIT will publish a translation of the full text of the sermon on Saturday]