"The Joy of the Gospel Fills the Heart and Life"
Fr. Cantalamessa's First Lenten Homily
In this first meditation of Lent, I would like to take advantage of the Holy Father’s absence, to propose a reflection on his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, which I would not have dared to do in his presence. Obviously, it will not be a systematic comment, but only a reflection together to make our own some of his qualifying points.
The Personal Encounter with Jesus of Nazareth
Written at the end of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, the Exhortation presents three poles of interest, which are intertwined: the subject, the object and the method of the evangelization: who must evangelize, what must be evangelized, how should one evangelize. In regard to the evangelizing subject, the Pope says that it is constituted by all the baptized:
“In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (Cf. Matthew 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals, while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized” (nr. 120).
This affirmation is not new; it was expressed by Blessed Paul VI in Evangelii nuntiandi andby Saint John Paul II in Christifideles laici; Benedict XVI insisted on thespecial role reserved in it for the family. Even before all this, the universal call to evangelization was proclaimed with the decree Apostolicam actuasitatem of Vatican Council II. I once heard an American laymanbegin his intervention on evangelization thus: “Two thousand five hundred Bishops, gathered in the Vatican, wrote to me to come to proclaim the Gospel.” All, of course, were curious to know who he was. And then he, who was also a man full of humor, explained that the two thousand five hundred Bishops were those gathered in the Vatican for the Second Vatican Council and who had written the document on the apostolate of the laity. He was absolutely right: that document was not addressed to all or to none; it was addressed to every baptized person and he took it, rightly so, as addressed personally to him.
Therefore, it is not on this point that one must look for the novelty of Pope Francis’ Evangelii gaudium. He only confirms what his predecessors inculcated over and over. The novelty is to be sought elsewhere: in the appeal he addresses to the readers at the beginning of the letter and which, I believe, constitutes the heart of the whole document:
“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not for him or her” (EG, nr. 3).
This means that the ultimate purpose of evangelization is not the transmission of a doctrine, but an encounter with a person, Jesus Christ. The possibility of such a face to face encounter depends on the fact that Jesus, risen, is alive and desires to walk next to every believer, as he really walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; more than that, as he was in their very heart, when they returned to Jerusalem, after having received him in the broken bread.
In Catholic language, “the personal encounter with Jesus” has never been a very familiar concept. Preferred instead of “personal” encounter was the idea of ecclesial encounter, which occurs, namely, through the sacraments of the Church. To our Catholic ears, the expression had vaguely Protestant resonances. Obviously the Pope is not thinking of a personal encounter that substitutes the ecclesial. He only wishes to say that the ecclesial encounter must also be free, willed, and spontaneous, not purely nominal, juridical or habitual.
To understand what it means to have a personal encounter with Jesus, it is necessary to give a look, however rough, to the history of the Church. How did one become Christian in the first three centuries of the Church? With all the differences from individual to individual and from place to place, it happened after a long initiation, the catechumenate, and it was the fruit of a personal decision, moreover, a risky one because of the possibility of martyrdom.
Things changed when Christianity became first a tolerated religion (Constantine’s Edict of 313) and then, in a brief time, a favored religion when not in fact imposed. At the beginning of the 5thcentury the Emperor Theodosius II issued a law according to which only the baptized could access public offices. Added to this is the fact of the Barbarian invasions that in a brief time changed completely the political and religious order of the empire. Western Europe became an ensemble of Barbarian kingdoms, in some cases with an Arian population, in the majority pagan.
In the regions of the old empire (above all in the East and south central Italy) to become Christian was no longer the decision of the individual but of society, so much so that Baptism was now administered almost always to children. As regards the Barbarian kingdoms, the custom prevailed in them of following the decision of the head. When on Christmas Eve of 498 or 499 Clovis, King of the Franks, had himself baptized at Rheims by the Bishop, Saint Remy, all the people followed him. (It is the reason why France had the title “Eldest Daughter of the Church”). Thus began the practice of mass baptisms. Well before the Protestant Reformation the norm : “Cuius regio eius et religio” was in progress: the religion of the king is also that of the kingdom.
In this situation, the accent is no longer put on the moment or on the way in which one became Christian, namely on the coming to the faith, but on the moral exigencies of the faith itself, on the change of customs, in other words, on morality. Despite everything, the situation was less grave than might appear to us today because, with all the inconsistencies that we know, the family, the school, the culture and little by little also the society, still helped, almost spontaneously, to absorb the faith. Without counting that, since the beginning of the new situation, forms of life were born, such as monasticism and then various Religious Orders in which baptism was lived in all its radicalism and Christian life was the fruit of a personal, often heroic, decision.
This situation so-called “of Christianity” changed radically and it is not the case here to pause to illustrated the times and ways of the change. Suffice it to know that it was no longer as it was in past centuries, in which the greater part of our traditions and our mentality itself were formed. The advent of modernity, initiated with humanism, accelerated by the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, the emancipation of the State from the Church, the exaltation of individual freedom and of self-determination and, finally, the radical secularization that has resulted, have changed profoundly the situation of the faith in society.
Hence the urgency of a new evangelization, namely, of an evangelization that moves from bases that are different from the traditional ones and that takes into account the new situation. It is, in practice, about creating for the men of today occasions that enable them to take, in the new context, that free, personal and mature decision that Christians took at the beginning on receiving baptism, and that made them real, not nominal, Christians.
How to respond to the new needs?
We are not, of course, the first to pose the problem. Not to go too far back again, we recall the institution in 1972 of the Ritual of the Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), which proposes a kind of catechumenal path for the baptism of adults. In some countries with mixed religions, where many persons ask for the baptism as adults, this instrument has revealed itself of great efficacy.
However, what should be done for the mass of Christians that are already baptized, who live as Christians purely in name and not in fact, completely estranged from the Church and from the sacramental life? The answer to this problem came more from God himself than from human initiative, and it is the innumerable ecclesial movements, lay aggregations and renewed parish communities, which appeared after the Council. The common contribution of all this reality, though in a great variety of styles and of numeric consistency, is that they are the context or the instrument, which allows so many adult persons to make a personal choice for Christ, to take their baptism seriously, to become active subjects of the Church.
Saint John Paul II saw in these Movements and living parish communities “the signs of a new spring of the Church.” In Novo millennio ineunte he wrote: “Of great importance for communion is the duty to promote the various aggregative realities, whetherin the more traditional forms, or in the newerones of Ecclesial Movements, which continue to give to the Church a vivacity that is a gift of God and constitutes an authentic “spring of the Spirit.” Benedict XVI expressed himself in the same way on different occasions. In the homily of the Chrism Mass of Holy Thursday of 2012, he said:
“Whoever looks at the history of the post-Conciliar period can recognize the dynamic of true renewal, which has often assumed unexpected forms in Movements full of life, which render almost tangible the inexhaustible vivacity of the Holy Church, the presence and the effective action of the Holy Spirit.”
The Gospel Fills with Joy the Heart and Life of the Believer
However, we now turn to Pope Francis’ letter. It begins with the words from which the title of the document is taken: ‘the joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. There is a connection between the personal encounter with Jesus and the experience of the joy of the Gospel. The joy of the Gospel is only experienced by establishing an intimate relationship, from person to person, with Jesus of Nazareth.
If we do not want the words to remain only words, at this point we must ask ourselves a question: why is the Gospel a source of joy? Is the expression only a comfortable slogan or does it correspond to truth? In fact, still before: why is the Gospel called: euangelion, that is, happy news, beautiful, joyful news? The best way to discover it is to begin from the moment this word makes its first appearance in the New Testament, in fact, on Jesus’ mouth. At the beginning of his Gospel, Mark summarizes in a few words the fundamental message that Jesus was preaching in the cities and villages where he went after his Baptism in the Jordan:
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).
At first sight this is not, in fact, “happy” news, joyful news. It sounds, rather, like a severe call, an austere appeal to change. It is proposed to us in this sense at the beginning of Lent, in the Gospel of the First Sunday, and by some it accompanies the rite of ashes on the head: “Repent and believe in the Gospel!” Therefore, it is vital to understand the true sense of this beginning of the Gospel.
The real meaning of the message of Jesus has been obscured because of an inexact translation of the original Greek word metanoeite. The Latin vulgate translated it with paenitemini in Mark 1,15, and with paenitentiam agite in Acts 2, 38, that is, do penance. With this ascetic content the term has been received in the common language of the Church and its preaching, while the true meaning of the word is “repent”, “turn your mind around”, be aware of what is happening.
Prior to Jesus, to convert meant always to “go back” (as the term itself indicates, used in Hebrew, for this action, namely the term shub); it meant to return to the violated covenant, through a renewed observance of the law. Through the mouth of the prophet Zechariah: “return to me […] Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds” (Zechariah 1:3-4; Cf. also Jeremiah: 8_4-5). Consequently to be converted had a primarily ascetic, moral and penitential meaning, and it was effected by changing one’s conduct of life. Conversion was seen as a condition for salvation; the meaning was: be converted and you will be saved; be converted and salvation will come to you.
This was, finally, the predominant meaning that the word conversion had on the lips of John the Baptist (Cf. Luke 3:4-6). However, on Jesus’ lips this meaning changed, not because Jesus enjoyed changing the meaning of the words, but because with him the reality changed. The moral meaning becomes secondary (at least at the beginning of his preaching), in regard to a new meaning, unknown until now. To be converted no longer meant to go back; it meant, rather, to take a leap forward and to enter, through faith, in the kingdom of God who came among men. To be converted is to take the so-called “decision of the hour,” in face of the realization of God’s promises.
“Be converted and believe” does not mean two different and successive things, but the same action: be converted, that is, believe; be converted by believing! Saint Thomas Aquinas also affirms this: “Prima conversio fit per fidem,” the first conversion consists in believing. Conversion and salvation have exchanged places. No longer: sin – conversion – salvation (Convert and you will be saved; convert and salvation will come to you”), but, rather: sin – salvation – conversion (Convert because salvation has come to you”). Men have not changed; they are not better or worse than before; it is God who has changed and who, in the fullness of time, sent his Son, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Cf. Galatians 4:4).
Many evangelical parables do no more than confirm this happy initial proclamation. One such is that of the banquet. A king gave a banquet for his son’s wedding. At the appointed time, he sent his servants to call the guests (Cf. Matthew 22:1 ff.). They had not paid the price before, as is done in social dinners. It is only a question of accepting or refusing the invitation. Another is the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus ends it with the word: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). However, in what did the conversion of the sheep consist? Perhaps it returned to the sheepfold with its own legs? No, the shepherd that went to bring it back brought it back to the sheepfold on his shoulders. All that it could do was to let itself be taken on his shoulders.
In the Letter to the Romans (3:21 ff.), Saint Paul is the indomitable herald of this extraordinary evangelical novelty, after Jesus made him experience the dramatic event of his life. He re-evokes the fact, which changed the course of his life, thus:
“But whatever gain I had [to be circumcised, Jewish, irreproachable as to the observance of the law], I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).
See why the Gospel is called Gospel and why it is source of joy. It tells us of a God that, out of pure grace, has come to meet us in his Son Jesus. A God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Many remember from the Gospel almost solely Jesus’ phrase: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) and they convince themselves that the Gospel is synonymous with suffering and self-denial, and not with joy. However, let us deepen the discourse: “follow me,” where? To Calvary, to death on the cross? No, this is the penultimate stage in the Gospel, not the last one. Follow me, through the cross, to the resurrection, to life, to joy without end!
Faith, Works and the Holy Spirit
However, do we not in this way reduce the Gospel to a single dimension, to that of faith, neglecting works? And how can we reconcile the explanation just given with the other passages of the New Testament, where the word conversion is addressed to one who has already believed? To the Apostles who had been following him for so time, Jesus said one day: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). In Revelation, John repeats to each one of the seven Churches the imperative “be converted” (metanoeson), where the unequivocal meaning of the word is: return to the fervor you had at the beginning, be vigilant, do the works you did at first, stop indulging in the illusion of being all right with God, come out of your tepidness! (Cf. Revelation 2:3)
The matter is explained with a simple analogy with what happens in physical life. The child can do nothing to be conceived in the mother’s womb; it is in need of the love of two parents who have given it life; however, once it has come to the light it must put its lungs to work, breathe, suck milk, otherwise the life it received is extinguished. Saint James’ phrase is understood in this sense: “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26), in the sense, that is, that without works faith “dies.”
This is also the sense that Catholic theology has always given to the Pauline definition of “faith that renders itself active through love” (Galatians 5:6). We are not saved by good works, but we are not saved without good works: thus we can summarize what the Council of Trent states on this point, and which the ecumenical dialogue renders ever more widely shared between Christians.
Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation reflects this synthesis between faith and works. After having begun speaking of the joy of the Gospel that fills the heart, in the body of the letter he recalls all the great “no’s” that the Gospel pronounces against egoism, injustice, the idolatry of money, and all the great “yes’s” that it spurs us to say at the service of others, to the social commitment and to the poor. It demonstrates that the personal encounter with Jesus, of which he spoke to us at the beginning of the letter, is altogether different from an intimistic and individualistic experience; it becomes, on the contrary, the main spring for evangelization and personal sanctification.
However, the need for commitment, which the Gospel implies does not attenuate the promise of joy with which Jesus began his ministry and the Pope begins his Exhortation, rather, it reinforces it. That grace that God offered men sending his Son into the world, now that Jesus is dead and is risen and has sent the Holy Spirit, does not leave the believer alone prey to the exigencies of the law and of duty; but does in him and with him, through grace, what it commands him. It makes him “overjoyed also in tribulation” (2 Corinthians 7:4).
It is the certainty with which Pope Francis concludes his Exhortation. The Holy Spirit, he reminds, “helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26) (EG, nr. 280.). He is our great resource. The joy promised by the Gospel is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:21), and it is not maintained except thanks to a continuous contact with him.
At a recent meeting of leaders of the Charismatic Fraternity, Pope Francis used the example of what happens in human breathing. It takes place in two phases: there is inspiration, with which one receives air and expiration, when air goes out. He said they are a good symbol of what should happen in the spiritual organism. Through prayer, meditation of the Word of God, the sacraments, mortification, and silence, we inhale the oxygen that is the Holy Spirit; we diffuse the Spirit when we go out towards others in the proclamation of the faith and in works of charity.
The Lenten Season we have just begun is, par excellence, the time of inspiration. At this time, we take deep breaths; we fill the lungs of our soul with the Holy Spirit and thus, without our realizing it, our breath will have the scent of Christ.
Good Lent to all!
English translation by ZENIT
— — —
 Benedict XVI, Address to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family of 2011.
 Novo millennio ineunte, 46.
 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II ae, q. 113, a, 4.
 Address to the members of the “Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships,” Friday, October 31, 2014.
Return to Lent page...
Return to Holy Week page...