With Advent here, the papal preacher has a how-to guide for seeking Christ

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Pope Francis listens as Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, delivers a sermon in the Apostolic Palace, Dec. 4, 2015. Credit: L'Osservatore Romano.

The Preacher of the Pontifical Household’s first sermon for the Advent season was a striking reminder of the Christian’s need to love Christ and to see the Church as his body and spouse.

“Let us seek to love Christ and to make him loved, and we will have rendered our best service to the Church,” Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap. said Dec. 4. He was preaching to Pope Francis and a congregation largely composed of clergy at the Redemptoris Mater chapel of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.

“If the Church is the spouse of Christ, then like every spouse she will generate new children only in uniting herself to her Spouse through love. The fruitfulness of the Church depends on her love for Christ. The best service anyone of us can do for the Church is therefore to love Jesus and grow in intimacy with him.”

The papal preacher also reminded the congregation of the logic of Christian belief.

“People do not accept Christ because of love for the Church but they accept the Church because of love for Christ, even a Church disfigured by the sin of its many representatives,” he said.

“What does it mean to have a personal encounter with Jesus? he asked. “It means saying, ‘Jesus is Lord!’, the way that Paul and the early Christians said it, which determines a person’s whole life forever because of it.”

Father Cantalamessa reflected that “when this happens Jesus is no longer a personage but a person. He is no longer someone who is only talked about but someone to whom and with whom we can speak because he is risen and alive; he is no longer just a memory, although alive and operative liturgically, but an actual presence. It also means not making any important decisions without having submitted them to him in prayer.”

The priest cited Pope Francis’ invitation to Christians to seek “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ,” as the Pope had said in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium.

The papal preacher considered the phrase “personal encounter,” which he said has “a vaguely Protestant resonance to our Catholic ears.”

However, he made clear that the personal encounter with Christ does not substitute for the sacramental encounter. Rather, the encounter with Christ makes the sacraments “a freely chosen and welcome encounter” instead of a nominal or “habitually routine” one.

Fr. Cantalamessa has planned his Advent homilies for the Pope to focus on four major documents of the Second Vatican Council. On Friday he focused on Lumen gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church.

Discussion of the documents of the Second Vatican Council has been perennial since the council closed 50 years ago, he said. In his view, the discussion has focused on their doctrinal and pastoral applications, but very little on their spiritual content.

He said all of the Second Vatican Council draws from Christ as the light of nations, the “Lumen gentium.” This is the key to the council’s Christ-centered vision for the Church. This vision is “spiritual and mystical before being social and institutional.” The restoration of this vision would make for a more effective evangelization, he argued.

Father Cantalamessa confessed that he had previously misunderstood Lumen gentium because he had assumed its first words referred to the Church, not to Christ. He reflected that the true focus of this document is explained in the works of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the theologian who later became Benedict XVI.

Father Cantalamessa suggested that most commentary on the council “focused more on the communion of the Church’s members with each other than on the communion of all its members with Christ.”

He reflected on how Lumen gentium presents the Church as “our mother” and “the spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb.” Christ unites himself to the Church “by an unbreakable alliance” and nourishes and cherishes it.

“It is the Church which, once purified, he willed to be joined to himself, subject in love and fidelity,” the dogmatic constitution says.

Father Cantalamessa said “the Church is the body of Christ because she is the spouse of Christ!” The papal preacher also credited Ratzinger for highlighting the intrinsic relationship between these two images.

St. Paul’s image of the Church as the Body of Christ is not primarily based on his metaphor of the human body having many parts. Rather, it is based on “the spousal idea of the one flesh that a man and a woman form when they join themselves in marriage” and even more on “the Eucharistic idea of the one body that is formed by those who partake of the same bread.”

“Without the Church and without the Eucharist, Christ would not have a ‘body’ in the world,” Father Cantalamessa reflected.

He noted the Church Fathers’ theological dictum that what can be said about the Church can be applied, with necessary distinctions, to “each person in particular in the Church.”

“If the Church in its innermost and truest meaning is the body of Christ, then I actualize the Church in myself, I am an ‘ecclesial being,’ to the extent that I allow Christ to make me his body, not just in theory but also in practice,” he said. “What counts is not the position I occupy in the Church but the position that Christ occupies in my heart!”

This actualization takes place through the sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist. The saying “the Eucharist makes the Church” applies on both the community and personal level. Through the Eucharist, “two lives, mine and Christ’s, become one ‘without confusion and without division’” in a real, mystic way.

Father Cantalamessa again noted that the image of the Church as the body of Christ is linked to the image of the Church as the spouse of Christ.

“According to St. Paul, the immediate consequence of marriage is that the body of the husband now belongs to the wife and, conversely, the body of the wife belongs to the husband.”

The preacher then applied this to the Christian’s life.

“There is nothing in my life that does not belong to Christ. No one should say, ‘Oh, Jesus does not know what it means to be married, to be a woman, to have lost a son, to be sick, to be elderly, or to be a person of color!’ If you experience something, he experiences it too, thanks to you and through you,” the papal preacher said.

“Whatever Christ himself was not able to experience ‘in the flesh’ – since his earthly existence, like everyone else’s, was limited to certain experiences – is now lived and ‘experienced’ by the Risen One ‘in the Spirit’ thanks to the spousal communion at Mass.”
 
“What an inexhaustible reason for amazement and comfort at the thought that our humanity becomes Christ’s humanity!” he exclaimed. “However, what responsibility comes along with all this! If my eyes have become Christ’s eyes and my mouth has become Christ’s mouth, what a reason not to allow my gaze to indulge in lustful images, or allow my tongue to speak against a brother, or allow my body to serve as an instrument of sin!”

“One can only shudder at the thought of the terrible damage that is done to the body of Christ that is the Church,” the papal preacher said.

Father Cantalamessa said his upcoming homilies will draw on the Second Vatican Council's constitutions Sacrosanctum Concilium, on the sacred liturgy; Dei verbum, on divine revelation; and Gaudium et spes, on the Church in the modern world.


Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously identified Father Cantalamessa as a Dominican. He is a Capuchin Franciscan.

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