Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Lenten Sermon

"There Is a Very Close Relationship Between Conscience and the Holy Spirit"

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 27, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is the third Lenten sermon for 2009 by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, which he gave today at the Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Curia.


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"All Who Are Guided by the Spirit of God Are Sons of God" (Romans 8:14)

1. A new age of the of the Holy Spirit?

"Thus, condemnation will never come to those who are in Christ Jesus, because the law of the Spirit which gives life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death...anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But when Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin but the spirit is alive because you have been justified; and if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead has made his home in you, then he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you".

These are four verses about the Holy Spirit from the eighth chapter of the Letter to the Romans. Christ's name is repeated a full six times in the text. The same frequency is repeated throughout the rest of the chapter, if we consider both the times he is referred to by his name and by the word Son. This fact is fundamentally important. It tells us that for Paul the Holy Spirit's work does not substitute Christ's work, rather it continues it, it fulfills it, and it actualizes it.

The fact that the recently elected president of the United States referenced Joachim of Fiore three times during his electoral campaign has renewed interest in medieval monk's teachings. Few of the people who talk about him, especially on the internet, know or care to know just what exactly this author said. Every idea of church or world renewal is offhandedly attributed to him, even the idea of a new Pentecost for the Church, which was invoked by John XXIII.

One thing is certain: whether or not it should be attributed to Joachim of Fiore, the idea of a third era of the Spirit that would follow on the era of the Old Testament Father and the New Testament Christ is false and heretical because it affects the very heart of the Trinitarian dogma. St. Gregory Nazianzen's statement is entirely different. He makes a distinction between three phases in the revelation of the Trinity: in the Old Testament the Father fully revealed himself and the Son is promised and announced; in the New Testament the Son fully revealed himself and the Holy Spirit is promised and announced; in the time of the Church, the Holy Spirit is finally fully known and we rejoice in his presence.[1]

Even I have been put on a list of Joachim of Fiore's followers just because I cited this text of St. Gregory in one of my books. But St. Gregory refers to the order of the manifestation of the Spirit, not its being or acting, and in this sense his position expresses a incontestable truth, that has been peacefully accepted by all tradition.

The so-called Joachimite thesis is ruled out by Paul and the whole New Testament. For them, the Holy Spirit is nothing other than the Spirit of Christ: objectively because it is the fruit of his Paschal mystery, subjectively because he is the one who pours it out over the Church, as Peter will say to the crowd on the very day of Pentecost: "Now raised to the heights by God's right hand, he has received from the Father the Holy Spirit, who was promised, and what you see and hear is the outpouring of that Spirit." (Acts 2:33) Therefore time of the Spirit is coextensive to the time of Christ.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit that proceeds primarily from the Father, which descends and "rests" in fullness on Jesus, and in him becoming a reality and takes to living among men, as St. Irenaeus says. And in Easter and Pentecost he is poured out over humanity by Jesus. The proof of all this is precisely the cry of "Abba" that the Spirit repeats in the believer (Galatians 4:6) or teaches the believer to repeat (Romans 8:15). How can the Spirit cry out Abba to the Father? He is not begotten by the Father, he is not his Son… He can do it, notes Augustine, because he is the Spirit of the Son and he continues the cry of Jesus.

2. The Spirit as a guide in the Scriptures

After this introduction, I come to the verse from the Eighth Chapter of the Letter to the Romans that I would like to discuss today. "All who are guided by the Spirit of God are sons of God" (Romans 8:14).

The theme of the Holy Spirit as a guide is not new in Scripture. In Isaiah the journey of the people in the desert is attributed to the guidance of the Spirit. "Yahweh's Spirit led them to rest." (Isaiah 63:14) Jesus himself was "led (ductus) by the Spirit into the desert" (Matthew 4:1). The Acts of the Apostles show us a Church that is, step by step, "led by the Spirit." Even St. Luke's design of having the Gospel followed by the Acts of the Apostles intends to show how the same Spirit that guided Jesus in his earthly life, now guides the Church, as the Spirit "of Christ". Does Peter approach Cornelius and the pagans? It is the Sprit that orders him (Cfr. Acts 10: 19, 11:12). Do the apostles make important decisions in Jerusalem? It is the Spirit that prompted them (15:28).

The guidance of the Spirit is exercised not only in the big decisions, but also in the small things. Paul and Timothy want to preach the Gospel in the Province of Asia, but "the Holy Spirit forbids them to do so"; they try to go toward Bithynia, but "the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them" (Acts 16:6). We then understand why he guides in such a pressing manner: the Holy Spirit pushed the nascent Church to leave Asia and come into the world on a new continent, Europe (Cfr. Acts 16:9).

For John, the guidance of the Paraclete is provided within the realm of knowledge. He is the one who "will guide" the disciples to the full truth (John 16:3); his anointing "teaches everything", to the point that he who possesses him has no need for any other teacher (Cfr. 1 John 2:27). Paul introduces and important new concept. For him the Holy Spirit is not just "the interior teacher"; he is a principle of new life ("those who are guided by him become children of God"!); he does not just say what should be done, rather he also gives the capacity to do what he commands.

In this manner, the guidance of the Spirit is essentially different from that of the Law which allows one to see the good that is to be accomplished, but leaves the person struggling against the evil they do not want (Cfr. Romans 7:15). Earlier in the Letter to the Galatians the Apostle said: "But when you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law" (Galatians 5:18)

Paul's vision of the Spirit's guidance, which is deeper and more ontological (with regards to the very being of the believer) does not exclude the more common vision of the Spirit as an interior teacher, as a guide for the knowledge of truth and of God's will. On this occasion, this is precisely what I would like to talk about.

This is a topic that has been significantly developed within the tradition of the Church. The Church Fathers said that if Christ is the "the way" (odos) that leads to the Father (John 14:6), then the Holy Spirit is "the guide along the way" (odegos).[2]  St. Ambrose writes "This is the Spirit, our head and our guide (ductor et princeps), who directs our mind, affirms our affection, attracts us where he wants and turns our steps toward heaven".[3] The hymn Veni creator collects this tradition in the following verse: "Ductore sic te praevio vitemus omne noxium": with you as our guide we will avoid all evil. The Second Vatican Council weighs in on this topic when it describes itself as "God's people who believe they are led by the Spirit of the Lord".[4]

3. The Spirit guides through the conscience

Where is the Paraclete's guidance at work? The first realm, or organ, is the conscience. There is a very close relationship between conscience and the Holy Spirit. What is the famous "voice of conscience" if not a sort of "long distance repeater" through which the Holy Spirit speaks to each person? "My conscience testifies for me in the Holy Spirit", exclaims St. Paul, speaking about his love for his fellow Hebrews (cfr. Romans 9:1).

Through this "organ", the guidance of the Holy Spirit goes beyond the Church, to all people. Even the pagans "can demonstrate the effect of the Law engraved on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness" (Romans 2:15). Precisely because the Holy Spirit speaks to every rational being through their conscience, St. Maximums the Confessor said, "we see many people, even among the barbarians and nomads, who turn to a honorable and good life, and scorn the wild laws that had prevailed among them from the beginning".[5]

The conscience is also a sort of interior law, not a written law, different and inferior to the law that exists in the believer through grace, but not in disagreement with it, since it also comes from the same Spirit. Those who only posses this "inferior" law, but obey it, are closer to the Spirit than those who possess the superior law that comes from baptism, but do not live in accordance with it.

Among the believers this interior guide of the conscience is strengthened and elevated by the anointing that "teaches all things, is truthful and does not lie" (1 John 2:27), and it is therefore an infallible guide if they listen to it. In commenting on this very text St. Augustine formulated the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the "interior teacher". He asks, what does it mean by "you do not need someone to teach you"? Could it mean that a christian individual already knows everything on his own and has no need to read, learn and listen to anyone else? If this was the case, why would the Apostle have written his letter? The truth is that we need to listen to other teachers and preachers, but those who the Holy Spirit speaks intimately to will understand and be helped by what the other teachers say. This explains why many people can listen to the same sermon and teaching, but not all understand it in the same way.[6]

What a consoling reassurance we get from all of this! The word that once rang out in the gospel: "The master is here and is calling you!" (John 11:28), is true for every christian. The same teacher of that time, Christ, that speaks now through his Spirit, is inside of us and calls us. St. Cyril of Jerusalem was right to define the Holy Spirit as "the great instructor, that is teacher, of the Church".[7]

In this personal and intimate realm of the conscience, the Holy Spirit instructs us with "good inspirations", or "interior lights" that all have experienced in some way in life. We are urged to follow the good and avoid evil, attractions and inclinations of the heart that cannot be naturally explained, because they are often contrary to the direction that nature would want to take.

Basing themselves precisely on this ethical component of the person, some eminent scientists and biologists today have come to see beyond the theory that considers human beings to be chance result of the selection of the species. If the law that governs evolution is just the fight for the survival of the fittest, how can we explain certain acts of pure altruism and even self sacrifice for the sake of truth and justice?[8]

4. The Spirit guides through the magisterium of the Church

Up to now we have dealt with the conscience, the first area in which guidance of the Holy Spirit is exercised. There is a second area, which is the Church. The internal witness of the Holy Spirit should be combined with the external, visible and objective witness, which is the apostolic magisterium. In the book of Revelation, at the end of each of the seven letters, we hear the admonishment: "Let anyone who can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches" (Revelation 2:7).

The Spirit also speaks to the churches and the communities, not just to individuals. In the Acts of the Apostles St. Peter brings the two testimonies of the Holy Spirit together, the interior and exterior, the personal and the public. He has just finished speaking to the crowd about Christ put to death and resurrected, and they feel "cut to the heart" (Acts 2:37). He spoke the same words in front of the heads of the Sanhedrin, and they became irate (cfr. Acts 4:8). The same words, the same preacher, but an entirely different effect. How could this be? The explanation is found in these words that the Apostle said at that time: "We are witnesses to this, we and the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him." (Acts 5:32)

The two testimonies need to come together so that the faith can flower: the apostle's who proclaims the word and the Holy Spirit's that allows it to be accepted. The same idea is expressed in the gospel of John, when, speaking about the Paraclete, Jesus says: "he will be my witness. And you too will be witnesses" (John 15:26).

It is just as deadly to try to forego either of the two guides of the Spirit. When the interior testimony is neglected, we easily fall into legalism and authoritarianism; when the exterior, apostolic testimony is neglected, we fall into subjectivism and fanaticism. In ancient times the Gnostics refused the apostolic, official testimony. St. Irenaeus wrote these famous words in apposition to them:

"For this gift of God has been entrusted to the Church, as breath was to the first created man… of which all those are not partakers who do not join themselves to the Church… Alienated thus from the truth, they do deservedly wallow in all error, tossed to and fro by it, thinking differently in regard to the same things at different times, and never attaining to a well-grounded knowledge".[9]

When everything is reduced to just the personal, private listening to the Spirit, the path is opened to a unstoppable process of division and subdivision, because everyone believe they are right. And the very division and multiplication of denominations and sects, often contrasting each other in their essential points, demonstrates that the same Spirit of truth in speaking cannot be in all, because otherwise he would be contradicting himself.

It is well known that this is the danger to which the protestant world is most exposed, having built the "interior testimony" of the Holy Spirit as the only criteria of truth, against every exterior, ecclesial testimony, other than that of the written Word.[10] Some extreme fringes will even go as far as to separate the interior guidance of the Spirit even from word of the Scriptures. We then have the various movements of "enthusiasts" or "enlightened" who have punctuated the history of the Church, whether catholic, orthodox or protestant. The most frequent result of this tendency, which concentrates all attention on the internal testimony of the Spirit, is that the Spirit slowly looses the capital letter and comes to coincide with the simple human spirit. That is what happened with rationalism.

We should recogonize however that there is also the opposite risk: that of making the external and public testimony of the Spirit absolute, ignoring the internal testimony that works through the conscience enlightened by grace. In other words, it is the risk of reducing the guidance of the Paraclete to only the official magisterium of the Church, thus impoverishing the variegated action of the Holy Spirit.

In this case, the human element, organizational and institutional, can easily prevail. The passivity of the body is fostered and the doors are opened to the marginalization of the laity and the excessive clericalization of the Church.

Even in this case, as always, we should rediscover the whole, the synthesis, that is truly "catholic". It is the ideal of a healthy harmony between listening to what the Spirit says to me, as an individual, and what he says to the Church as a whole and through the Church to individuals.

5. Discernment in personal life

We now come to the guidance of the Spirit in the spiritual path of each believer. This goes by the name of discernment of spirits. The first and fundamental discernment of spirits is that which allows us to distinguish between "the Spirit of God" and the "spirit of the world". (Cfr. 1 Corinthians 2:12) St. Paul provides an objective discernment criteria, the same that Jesus had given: that of the fruits. The "works of the flesh" reveal that a certain desire comes from the old sinful man; the "fruits of the Spirit" reveal that it comes from the Spirit (cfr. Galatians 5:19-22). "The desires of self-indulgence are always in opposition to the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are in opposition to self-indulgence" (Galatians 5:17).

Sometimes this objective criterion is not enough because the choice is not between good and evil, but between a good and another good and it is about seeing which one is what God wants, in a given situation. It was primarily to respond to this demand that St. Ignatius of Loyola developed his doctrine on discernment. He invites us to look at one thing above all: our own interior dispositions, the intentions (the "spirits") that are behind a decision.

St. Ignatius suggested practical means to apply these criteria.[11] One is this: when we are faced with two possible choices, it is useful to first consider one of them, as if we must follow it, and to stay in that state for a day or more; then we should evaluate how our heart reacts to that choice: is there peace, harmony with the rest of our own decisions; is there something inside of you that encourages you in that direction, or on the contrary has it left a haze of restlessness… Then repeat the process with the second hypothesis. All this should be done in an atmosphere of prayer, abandonment to God's will, and openness to the Holy Spirit.

The most favorable condition for making a good discernment is the habitual interior disposition to do God's will in every situation. Jesus said "My judgment is just, because I do not see my will, but the will of he who sent me" (John 5:30).

The danger, among some modern people who intend to practice discernment, is to emphasize the psychological aspects to such an extent that we forget the primary agent of all discernment which is the Holy Spirit. There is a deep theological reason for this. The Holy Spirit is himself the substantial will of God and when he enters a soul "he manifests himself as the very will of God for those in whom he is found".[12]

The concrete fruit of this meditation could be a renewed decision to trust ourselves in everything and for everything to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as a sort of "spiritual direction". It is written that "whenever the cloud rose from the Dwelling, the Israelites would resume their march. If the cloud did not rise, they would not resume their march" (Exodus 40:36-37). Even we should not undertake anything if it is not the Holy Spirit, that according to tradition is prefigured by the cloud, who moves us and without having consulted him first in every action.

We have the most luminous example in the very life of Jesus. He never undertook anything without the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit he walked in the desert; with the power of the Holy Spirit he returned and began his preaching; "In the Holy Spirit" he chose his apostles (cfr. Acts 1:2); in the Spirit he prayed and offered himself to the Father (cfr. Hebrews 9:14).

St. Thomas speaks about this interior guidance of the Spirit as a sort of "instinct the just have": "Just as in corporal life the body is not moved if not by the spirit that gives it life, so also in the spiritual world all of our movements should come from the Holy Spirit".[13]  This is how the "law of the Spirit" works; this is what the Apostle calls "letting oneself be guided by the Spirit" (Galatians 5:18).

We should abandon ourselves to the Holy Spirit as the chords of the harp abandon themselves to the fingers of the musician that moves them. Like talented actors, we should tend our ear toward the voice of the prompter that is hidden, so we can faithfully recite our part in the scene of life. It is easier than we think, because our prompter speaks to us from the inside, he teaches us all things, he instructs us in everything. It is enough to just give an interior glance, a movement of our heart, a prayer. We read this eulogy about a holy bishop of the second century, Melito of Sardes, that I wish could be said of each of us after our death: "In his life he did everything the Holy Spirit moved him to do".[14]

[Translation by Thomas Daly]

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[1] Cfr. St. Gregory Nazianzen, Orations, XXXI, 26 (PG 36, 161 s.).

[2] St. Gregory Nazienzen, On Faith (PG 45, 1241C): cfr. Ps.-Atanasio, Dialogue against the Macedonians, 1, 12 (PG 28, 1308C).

[3] St. Ambrose, In Defence of David, 15, 73 (CSEL 32,2, p. 348).  St. Maximus the Confessor, Various chapters, I, 72 (PG 90, 1208D).

[4] Gaudium et spes, 11.

[5] St. Maximus the Confessor, Various chapters, I, 72 (PG 90, 1208D).

[6] Cfr. St. Augustine, On the first Letter of John, 3,13; 4,1 (PL 35, 2004 s.).

[7] S. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesi, XVI, 19.

[8] Cf. F. Collins, The Language of God

[9] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, 24, 1-2.

[10] Crf. J.-L. Witte, Esprit-Saint et Eglises séparées, in Dict.Spir. 4, 1318-1325.

[11] Cf. S. Ignazio di Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, IV Week (ed. BAC, Madrid 1963, pp. 262 ss).

[12] Cfr. Guglielmo di St. Thierry, Lo specchio della fede, 61 (SCh 301, p. 128).

[13] St. Thomas, On the Letter to the Galatians, ch.V, lesson.5, n.318; lesson. 7, n. 340.

[14] Eusebio di Cesarea, Ecclesiastical History, V, 24, 5.