Hearts of Prayer - Lenten Season
"The Priest As Steward of
the Mysteries of God"
1st Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, Pontifical Household Preacher
March 5, 2010
Ministers of a New Covenant
The Lord has granted me to be a witness of the extraordinary grace
that is being revealed for the Church in this Year for Priests.
Countless are the retreats of the clergy being held in different
parts of the world. In one of these retreats, organized in Manila by
the Episcopal Conference of the Philippines last January, 5,500
priests and 90 bishops took part. It was, the cardinal of Manila
said, a new Pentecost. During an hour of guided adoration, at the
invitation of the preacher, all that immense expanse of priests in
white vestments cried out with one voice: "Lord Jesus, we are happy
to be your priests." And one could see from their faces that they
were not just words.
The same experience, in a more reduced number, I experienced with
all the clergy of the Sabah region in Malaysia, later in Singapore
and recently in the shrine of Loreto with around 200 Italian bishops
and priests. All of them asked me to transmit to the Holy Father
their thanks and greeting and I do so with joy at this moment.
1. The "Mysteries" of God
The word of God that guides us in these reflections of the Year for
Priests is 1 Corinthians 4:1: "Si nos existimet homo, ut ministros
Christi et dispensatores mysteriorum Dei"; "This is how one should
regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of
God." In Advent we meditated on the first part of this definition:
the priest as servant of Christ, in the power and the anointing of
the Holy Spirit. It remains, in this Lent, to reflect on the second
part: the priest as steward of the mysteries of God. Of course, what
we say of the priest is all the more true for the bishop who
possesses the fullness of the priesthood.
The term "mysteries" has two fundamental meanings: the first is that
of the truth hidden and revealed by God, the divine proposals
announced in a veiled manner in the Old Testament and revealed to
men in the fullness of time; the second is that of "concrete signs
of grace," in practice the sacraments. The Letter to the Hebrews
combines the two meanings in the expression: "the things that relate
to God" (ea que sunt ad Deum); it accentuates, in fact, precisely
the ritual and sacramental meaning, stating that the task of the
priest (the author speaks here, however of the priesthood in
general, of the Old and of the New Testaments) is to "offer gifts
and sacrifices for sins" (Hebrews 5:1).
This second meaning is affirmed above all in the tradition of the
Church. Saint Ambrose wrote two treatises on the rites of Christian
initiation, seen as fulfillment of figures and prophesies of the Old
Testament; he entitled one "De sacramentis" and the other "De
mysteriis," even if in practice they treat the same argument.
Returning to the word of the Apostle, the first of these two
meanings brings to light the role of the priest in relation to the
word of God, the second is his role in relation to the sacraments.
Together they delineate the physiognomy of the priest as witness of
the truth of God and as minister of the grace of Christ, as
evangeliser and sacrificer.
For many centuries the function of the priest was reduced almost
exclusively to his role of liturgist and sacrificer: "to offer
sacrifices and forgive sins." It was for Vatican Council II to make
evident, next to the function of worship that of evangelization. In
line with what Lumen Gentium said of the function of bishops to
"teach" and "sanctify," Presbyterorum ordinis states:
“In the measure in which they participate in the office of the
apostles, God gives priests a special grace to be ministers of
Christ among the people. They perform the sacred duty of preaching
the Gospel, so that the offering of the people can be made
acceptable and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:16) Through
the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the People of God are
called together and assembled [...] Their ministry, which begins
with the evangelical proclamation, derives its power and force from
the sacrifice of Christ.”
Of the three meditations of Lent (on Friday, March 19, the homily is
omitted because of the feast of Saint Joseph), we will dedicate one
to the topic of the priest as minister of the world of God, one to
the priest as minister of the sacraments and one, more existential,
to the renewal of the priesthood through conversion to the Lord.
2. The Letter and the Spirit
Beginning in the 2nd century, one notes a very clear tendency to
mold -- in requirements, rites, titles and vestments -- the
Christian priesthood on the Levitical of the Old Testament; a
tendency that is reflected in canonical documents such as the
Apostolic Constitutions, the Syriac Didascalia and other similar
sources. Precisely this external assimilation, makes one feel more
urgently the need to rediscover, on an occasion such as this, the
novelty and essential otherness of the ministry of the new covenant
vis-ŕ-vis the old. It is the energetic Pauline affirmation that I
would like to put at the center of the present meditation:
"Our sufficiency is from God, who has qualified us to be ministers
of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the
written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the
dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such
splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses' face because
of its brightness, fading as this was, will not the dispensation of
the Spirit be attended with greater splendor?" (2 Corinthians 3:3).
What the Apostle intends with the opposition letter-Spirit is
deduced from what he wrote earlier, speaking of the community of the
New Testament: "you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered
by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God,
not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2
The letter is, therefore, the Mosaic law written on tablets of stone
and, by extension every positive law external to man; the Spirit is
the interior law, written on hearts, that which elsewhere the
Apostle describes, "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus
has set me free from the law of sin and death" (cf. Romans 8:2).
St. Augustine wrote a treatise on our text -- On the Spirit and the
Letter -- which is a milestone in the history of Christian thought.
The novelty of the new covenant as compared with the old, he
explained, is that God no longer limits himself to command man to do
or not to do, but He himself does with him and in him the things
that He commands. "Where the law of works obliges by threatening,
the law of faith obtains by believing ... With the law of works God
says to man: 'Do' what I command you, with the law of faith man says
to God: 'Give' me what you command."
The new law which is the Spirit is much more than an "indication" of
will; it is an "action," a living and active principle. The new law
is the new life. The opposition letter-Spirit is equivalent, in
Saint Paul, to the opposition law-grace: "you are not under the law
but under grace" (Romans 6:14).
The idea of grace is also present in the old covenant, in the sense
of the benevolence, favor and forgiveness of God (the hesed): "I
will be gracious to whom I will be gracious" (Exodus 33:19); the
Psalms are full of this concept. However now the word grace, charis,
has acquired a new, historic meaning: it is the grace that comes
from the Death and Resurrection of Christ and which justifies the
sinner. It is no longer only a benevolent disposition, but a
reality, a "state": "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we
have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we
have obtained access to this grace in which we stand" (Romans
John describes the relation between the old and new covenant in the
same way as Paul: "The law -- he writes -- was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17).
From this is deduced that the new law, or of the Spirit, is not, in
the strict sense, the one promulgated by Jesus on the Mount of the
Beatitudes, but the one engraved by him in hearts at Pentecost. The
evangelical precepts are certainly more lofty and perfect than the
Mosaic; however, on their own, they also would have remained
ineffective. If it had sufficed to proclaim the new will of God
through the Gospel, one could not explain the need there was for
Jesus to die and for the Holy Spirit to come; one could not explain
why the Jesus of John makes everything depend on his "lifting," that
is, on his death on the cross (cf. John 7:39; 16:7-15).
The Apostles are the living proof of this. They had heard from
Christ's living voice all the evangelical precepts, for example that
"he who wishes to be first must be last and servant of all,"
(Matthew 20:27) but till the last supper we see them concerned to
establish who was the greatest among them (cf. Luke 22:24). Only
after the coming of the Spirit upon them do we see them completely
forgetful of themselves and intent only on proclaiming "the mighty
works of God" (cf. Acts 2:11).
Without the interior grace of the Spirit, even the Gospel,
therefore, even the new commandment would remain the old law,
letter. Taking up a bold thought of Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas
Aquinas wrote: "By letter is understood every written law that
remains outside of man, even the moral precepts contained in the
Gospel; therefore even the letter of the Gospel would kill, if the
grace of the faith that heals was not added within." Yet more
explicit is that which he wrote a earlier: "The new law is primarily
the same grace of the Holy Spirit that is given to believers."
3. Not by constraint but by attraction
But, specifically, how does this new law, which is the Spirit, act?
It acts through love! The new law is nothing other than what Jesus
calls the "new commandment." The Holy Spirit has written the new law
in our hearts, infusing love in them (Romans 5:5). This love is the
love with which God loves us and with which, at the same time, makes
us love Him and our neighbor. It is a new capacity to love.
Is it not a contradiction to speak of love as a "law"? To this
question the answer must be given that there are two ways that man
can be induced to do or not do something: by constraint or by
attraction. The external law induces him in the first way, by
constraint, with the threat of punishment; love induces him in the
second way, by attraction. Each one, in fact, is attracted by what
he loves, without suffering any constraint from outside. Love is
like a "weight" of the soul that draws one to the object of one's
pleasure, in which one knows one will find one's repose.
Christian life is meant to be lived by attraction, not by
Hence love is a law, "the law of the Spirit," in the sense that it
creates in the Christian a dynamism that drives him to do everything
that God wills spontaneously, because he has made his own the will
of God and loves everything that God loves.
In this economy of the Spirit, what place, we ask ourselves, does
the observance of the Commandments have? Indeed, also after the
coming of Christ, the written law subsists: there are the
Commandments of God, the Decalogue, there are the evangelical
precepts; to these are added, later on, the ecclesiastical laws.
What sense does the Code of Canon Law have, monastic rules,
religious vows, all that, in sum, which indicates an objective will
that is imposed on one from outside? Are such things as foreign
bodies in the Christian organism?
In the course of the history of the Church, there have been
movements that have thought thus and rejected, in the name of the
liberty of the Spirit, every law, so much so as to be called "anomistic",
without any law, movements, but they have always been repudiated by
the authority of the Church and by the Christian conscience itself.
The Christian answer to this problem comes to us from the Gospel.
Jesus said that he did not come to "abolish the law" but to "bring
it to fulfillment" (cf Matthew 5:17). And what is the "fulfillment"
of the law? "Complete fulfillment of the law -- answers the Apostle
-- is love" (Romans 13:10). On the commandment of love -- says Jesus
-- depend all the law and the prophets (cf Matthew 22:40).
Obedience thus becomes the proof that one lives under grace. "If you
love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Love, then,
does not replace the law, but observes it, "fulfills" it. Ezekiel's
prophecy attributed, in fact, to the future gift of the Spirit and
of the new heart, the possibility of observing the law of God: "And
I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my
statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances" (Ezekiel 36:27).
"The law was given -- wrote Augustine with precision -- so that
grace would be sought and grace was given so that the law would be
4. Up-to-dateness of the Message of Grace
Up to here the consequences that the Pauline message on the new
covenant can have on the way of conceiving and living the Christian
life. On this occasion, however, I would like to make evident above
all the light that this throws on the problem of evangelization in
today's world and on the inter-religious dialogue and, consequently,
on the role of the priest as minister of the truth of God.
Augustine wrote his treatise on The Letter and the Spirit to combat
the Pelagian thesis according to which to be saved it is sufficient
that God has created us, gifted us with free will and given a law
that indicates to us his will. In practice, it is the thesis that
man can save himself on his own and that the coming of Christ is,
certainly, an extraordinary help, but not indispensable for
One could debate -- and today it is debated among scholars -- if the
Saint had interpreted correctly the thought of the monk Pelagius.
However, this must not surprise us. The Fathers who found themselves
combating heresies often specified those that (from their point of
view!) were the logical implications of a certain doctrine, without
taking too much into account the point of view or different language
of the adversary. They were more concerned with doctrine than with
persons, with the dogmatic truth than the historical. Augustine, by
the way, shows himself very much more respectful and courteous in
regard to Pelagius than was, for example, Cyril of Alexandria in
The modern reappraisal of authors such as Pelagius and Nestorius
does not at all mean therefore a reappraisal of Pelagianism or
Nestorianism. This distinction has contributed, in recent times, to
the re-establishment of communion with the so-called Nestorian or
Monophysite Churches of the East.
All this is, however, of relative interest to us. The important
thing to retain is that Augustine is right on the key issue: nature,
free will and the guidance of the law, are not enough to be saved;
grace is needed, that is, Christ is needed. To think otherwise would
mean to render superfluous his coming and with it his Death and
Redemption; it would mean considering Christ an example of life, not
"source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Hebrews 5:9).
It is on this point that Augustine's thought -- and before him that
of Paul -- reveals itself of extraordinary up-to-dateness. That
which, according to the Apostle, distinguishes the new covenant from
the old, the Spirit from the letter, grace from the law, the due
distinctions made, is exactly that which distinguishes Christianity
today from every other religion.
The forms have changed, but the essence is the same. "Work of the
law," or work of man, is every human practice, when one makes one's
salvation depend on it, whether this is conceived as communion with
God or as communion with oneself, or in being in tune with the
energies of the universe. The assumption is the same: God does not
give himself, he is conquered!
We can illustrate the difference thus. Every human religion or
religious philosophy begins with telling man what he must do to be
saved: duties, works, be these external ascetic works or speculative
paths to one's interior I, to the All or to the Nothing.
Christianity does not begin by telling man what he must do, but what
God has done for him. Jesus did not begin to preach saying: "Repent
and believe in the Gospel so that the Kingdom will come to you"; he
began by saying: "The Kingdom of God is among you: repent and
believe in the Gospel." Not conversion first and then salvation, but
salvation first and then conversion. Christianity is the religion of
grace, of the “amazing grace”!
Also in Christianity -- we already mentioned it -- there are duties
and commandments, but the plane of Commandments, including the
greatest of all which is to love God and one's neighbor, is not the
first plane but the second: before it is the plane of gift, of
grace. "We love, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). It is
from the gift that the duty springs, not vice versa.
We Christians will not enter into dialogue with other faiths,
affirming the difference or superiority of our religion; this would
be the very negation of dialogue. Rather, we will insist on that
which unites us, the common objectives, acknowledging in the others
the same right (at least subjective) of considering their faith the
most perfect and the definitive one. Without forgetting, after all,
that whoever lives with consistency and in good faith a religion of
works and of the law is better and more pleasing to God than one who
belongs to the religion of grace, but neglects completely either to
believe in grace or to carry out the works of faith.
All this should not induce us, however, to put in brackets our faith
in the novelty and uniqueness of Christ. It is not a question of
affirming the superiority of a religion over others, but of
recognizing the specificity of each one, to know who we are and what
It is not difficult to explain the reason for the difficulty to
admit the idea of grace and of its instinctive rejection on the part
of modern man. To be saved "by grace" means to recognize one’s own
dependence and this is the most difficult thing. Noteworthy is
Marx's affirmation: "A being does not appear independent unless and
only in so far he is lord of himself, and he is not lord of himself
unless and only in so far he owes his existence to himself. A man
who lives by the 'grace' of another is considered a dependent being
[...]. But I would live completely by the grace of another, if he
had created my life, if he was the source of my life and the latter
was not my own creation." The reason why a creator God is
rejected is also the reason why a savior God is rejected.
It is the explanation that St. Bernard gives of Satan's sin: he
preferred to be the most unhappy of creatures on his own merit,
rather than the most happy by the grace of another; he preferred to
be "unhappy but sovereign, rather than happy but dependent: "misere
praeesse, quam feliciter subesse." 
The rejection of Christianity, in progress at certain levels of our
Western culture, when it is not rejection of the Church and of
Christians, is rejection of grace.
5. The Task of Ministers of the New Covenant
What is, in this field, the task of priests in so far as ministers
of the mysteries of God and teachers of the faith? It is that of
helping brothers to live the novelty of grace, which is to say the
novelty of Christ.
In the Gospel Jesus uses the expression "the mysteries of the
Kingdom of Heaven" to indicate all his teaching and, in particular,
what refers to his person (cf. Matthew 13:11). After Easter,
increasingly the singular is used rather than the plural, from the
mysteries to the mystery: all the mysteries of God are now summed up
in the mystery that is Christ.
Saint Paul speaks of "God's mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all
the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:2-3). He
invites us to think of Christ as in a palace in which, as one
enters, one sees wonder upon wonder. The material universe, with all
its beauty and incalculable extension, is the only adequate image of
the spiritual universe that is Christ. Not for nothing was the
latter made "through him and for him" (Colossians 1:16).
The Apostle pointed out with greater clarity than anyone the center
and heart of the Christian proclamation and he expressed it in a
programmatic way, as a manifesto: "We preach Christ crucified" (1
Corinthians 1:23) and "For what we preach is not ourselves, but
Jesus Christ as Lord" (2 Corinthians 4:5). These words fully justify
the affirmation according to which Christianity is not a doctrine
but a person.
But, what does it mean in practice to preach "Christ crucified," or
"Christ Jesus our Lord"? It does not mean to speak always and only
of the Christ of the kerygma or of the Christ of the dogma, that is,
to transform homilies into lessons in Christology. It means, rather,
to "recapitulate everything in Christ" (Ephesians 1:10), to found
every duty on him, to make each thing serve the objective of taking
to men the "surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus" (Philippians
Jesus must be the formal object, not necessarily and always the
material object of preaching, what "informs" it, what gives it is
foundation and gives authority to any other proclamation, soul and
light of the Christian proclamation. "Arid is all nourishment of the
soul -- exclaims Saint Bernard -- if it is not seasoned with this
oil; insipid if it is not seasoned with this salt. What you write
has no flavor -- non sapit mihi -- if it does not beat within the
heart of Jesus -- nisi sonuerit ibi Cor Jesu" .
In the Liturgy of the Hours in the German language , the
Stundengebet, there is a hymn (Lauds of Tuesday of the second week)
that I have loved from the first moment that I recited it. It begins
thus: “Göttliches Wort, der Gottheit Schrein, für uns in dein
Geheimnis ein”: Word divine, shrine of the Divinity – let us
penetrate into your mystery.
The expression "the mystery of Christ" is the most comprehensive of
all: it gathers in his being and in his acting his humanity and his
divinity, his pre-existence and his Incarnation, the prophecies of
the Old Testament and their realization in the fullness of time. We
can repeat it as an ejaculation: Word divine, shrine of the Divinity
-- let us penetrate into your mystery.
 PO, 2.
 Cf. J.-M. Tillard, "Sacerdoce," in DSpir. 14, col.12.
 Augustine, "On the Spirit and the Letter," 13,22.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-IIae, q. 106, a. 2.
 Ibid., q. 106, a. 1; cf. Augustine, "On the Spirit and the
Letter," 21, 36.
 Augustine, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 26, 4-5: CCL 36,
261; Confessions, XIII, 9.
 Augustine, "On the Spirit and the Letter," 19, 34.
 K. Marx, Manuscripts of 1884, in Gesamtausgabe, III, Berlin,
1932, p. 124 and Criticism of Hegel's Philosophy of Law, in
Gesamtausgabe, I, 1, Frankfurt on M., 1927, p. 614 f.
 Bernard of Clairvaux, "De gradibus humilitatis," X, 36: PL 182,
 Bernard of Clairvaux, "Sermones super Canticum," XV, 6: Ed.
Cistercense, Rome 1957, p.86.
[Translation by ZENIT]
© Innovative Media, Inc.
Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan
Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno,
Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958.
Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature.
In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II
Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he
still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent
This page is the work of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and