Father Cantalamessa's 1st Advent Sermon

St. Paul: «Model of True Christian Conversion»

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 5, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is the Advent homily Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, delivered today in the Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia.

This is the first of three Advent sermons the preacher will deliver on the theme «‘When the Fullness of Time Had Come, God Sent his Son, Born of a Woman: Going With St. Paul to Meet the Christ Who Comes.»

The next two sermons will be held Dec. 12 and 19.

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«But Whatever Gain I Had, I Counted as a Loss for the Sake of Christ»
The Conversion of St. Paul: Model of True Christian Conversion

The Pauline Year is a great grace for the Church, but it also presents a danger: that of reflecting on Paul, his personality and his doctrine without taking the next step from him to Christ. The Holy Father warned against this risk in the homily with which he proclaimed the Pauline Year in the general audience of last July 2, stating: «This is the purpose of the Pauline Year: to learn from St. Paul, to learn the faith, to learn about Christ.»

This danger has occurred so many times in the past, to the point of giving a place to the absurd thesis according to which Paul, not Christ, is the real founder of Christianity. Jesus Christ was for Paul what Socrates was for Plato: a pretext, a name, under which to put his own thought.

The Apostle, as John the Baptist before him, is an index pointing to one «greater than he,» of which he does not consider himself worthy to be an Apostle. The former thesis is the most complete distortion and the gravest offense that can be made to the Apostle Paul. If he came back to life, he would react to that thesis with the same vehemence with which he reacted in face of a similar misunderstanding of the Corinthians: «Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?» (1 Corinthians 1:13).

Another obstacle to overcome, also for us believers, is that of pausing on Paul’s doctrine on Christ, without catching his love and fire for him. Paul does not want to be for us only a winter sun that illuminates but does not warm. The obvious intention of his letters is to lead readers not only to the knowledge of but also to love and passion for Christ.

To this end I wish to contribute the three meditations of Advent this year, beginning with this one today, in which we reflect on Paul’s conversion, the event that, after the death and resurrection of Christ, has most influenced the future of Christianity.

1. Paul’s Conversion Seen From Within

The best explanation of St. Paul’s conversion is the one he himself gives when he speaks of Christian baptism as being «baptized into the death of Christ» — «buried with him» to rise with him and «walk in newness of life» (cf. Romans 6:3-4). He relived in himself the paschal mystery of Christ, around which, in turn, all his thought will revolve. There are also impressive external analogies. Jesus remained three days in the sepulcher; for three days Saul lived as though dead: He could not see, stand, eat, then, at the moment of baptism, his eyes reopened, he was able to eat and gather his strength; he came back to life (cf. Acts 9:18).

Immediately after his baptism, Jesus withdrew to the desert and so did Paul, after being baptized by Ananias, he withdrew to the desert of Arabia, namely, the desert around Damascus. Exegetes estimate that there were some 10 years of silence in Paul’s life between the event on the road to Damascus and the start of this public activity in the Church. The Jews sought him to death, the Christians did not yet trust him and feared him. His conversion recalls that of Cardinal Newman, whose former brothers of Anglican faith considered a renegade and Catholics looked upon with suspicion because of his new and ardent ideas.

The Apostle had a long novitiate; his conversion did not last a few minutes. And it is in this his kenosis, in this time of deprivation and silence that he accumulated that bursting energy and light that one day would pour over the world.

We have two descriptions of Paul’s conversion: one that describes the event, so to speak, from outside, on a historical note, and another that describes the event from within, on a psychological or autobiographical note. The first type is the one we find in the three relations that we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. To it also belong some references that Paul himself makes of the event, explaining how from being a persecutor he became an apostle of Christ (cf. Galatians 1:13-24).

The second type belongs to Chapter 3 of the Letter to the Philippians, in which the Apostle describes what the encounter with Christ meant to him subjectively, what he was before and what he became afterward; in other words, in what the change in his life consisted existentially and religiously. We will concentrate on his text that, by analogy with the Augustinian work, we can describe as «the confessions of St. Paul.»

In every change there is a «terminus a quo» and a «terminus ad quem,» a point of departure and a point of arrival. The Apostle describes first of all the point of departure, that which was first:

«If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the law blameless» (Philippians 3:4-6).

We can easily make a mistake in reading this description: These were not negative titles, but the greatest titles of holiness of the time. With them Paul’s process of canonization could have been opened immediately, if it had existed at that time. It is as if to say of one today: baptized the eighth day, belonging to the structure par excellence of salvation, the Catholic Church, member of the most austere order of the Church (the Pharisees were this!), most observant of the Rule, etc.»

Instead, there is a point at the top of the text that divides in two the page and life of Paul. It is divided by an adverse «but» that creates a total contrast: «But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything a 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» (Philippians 3:7-8).

In this brief text the name of Christ appears three times. The encounter with him has divided his life in two, has created a before and an after. A very personal encounter (it is the only text where the Apostle uses the singular «my,» not «our» Lord) and an existential encounter more than a mental one. No one will ever be able to know in-depth what happened in that brief dialogue: «Saul, Saul!» «Who are you, Lord? I am Jesus!» He describes it as a «revelation» (Galatians 1:15-16). It was a sort of fusion of fire, a beam of light that even today, at a distance of 2,000 years, illuminates the world.

2. A Change of Mind

We will attempt to analyze the content of the event. It was first of all a change of mind, of thought, literally a metanoia. Up to now Paul believed he could save himself and be righteous before God through the scrupulous observance of the law and the traditions of the fathers. Now he understood that salvation is obtained in another way. I want to be found, he says, «not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith» (Philippians 3:8-9). Jesus made him experience in himself that which one day he would proclaim to the whole Church: justification by grace through faith (cf. Galatians 2:15-16; Romans 3:21 ff.).

An image comes to mind when reading the third chapter of the Letter to the Philippians: A man is walking at night in a thick wood in the faint light of a candle, being careful that it does not go out; walking, walking as dawn arrive
s, the sun comes out, the faint light of the candle turns pale, to the point that it is no longer useful and he throws it away. The smoking wick was his own righteousness. One day, in the life of Paul, the sun of righteousness arose, Christ the Lord, and from that moment he did not want any other light than his.

It is not a question of a point along with others, but of the heart of the Christian message. He would describe it as «his Gospel,» to the point of declaring anathema whoever dared to preach a different Gospel, whether it be an angel or he himself (cf. Galatians 1:8-9). Why such insistence? Because the Christian novelty consists in this, which distinguishes it from every other religion or religious philosophy. Every religious proposal begins by telling men what they must do to save themselves or to obtain «illumination.» Christianity does not begin by telling men what they must do, but what God has done for them in Christ Jesus. Christianity is the religion of grace.

There is a place — and how great it is — for the duties and observance of the Commandments, but then, as response to grace, not as its cause or price. We are not saved by good works, though we are not saved without good works. It is a revolution of which, at a distance of 2,000 years, we still try to be aware. The theological debates on justification through faith of the Reformation and onward have often hampered rather than favored it because they have kept the problem at the theoretical level, the texts of opposing schools, rather than helping believers to have the experience in their life.

3. «Repent, and Believe in the Gospel»

However, we must ask ourselves a crucial question: who is the author of this message? If it were the Apostle Paul, then those would be right who say that he, not Jesus, is the founder of Christianity. But he is not the author; he does no more than express in elaborated and universal terms a message that Jesus expressed with his typical language, made of images and parables.

Jesus began his preaching saying: «The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel» (Mark 1:15). With these words he already taught justification through faith. Before him, to be converted meant to «go back» (as indicated by the Hebrew term shub); it meant to return to the broken Covenant, through a renewed observance of the law. «Return to me […], return from your evil ways,» God said through the prophets (Zechariah 1:3-4; Jeremiah 8:4-5).

Consequently, to be converted has a primarily ascetic, moral and penitential meaning and it is affected by changing one’s conduct of life. Conversion is seen as a condition for salvation; the meaning is: Repent and you will be saved; repent and salvation will come to you. This is the predominant meaning that the word conversion has on the lips of John the Baptist (cf. Luke 3:4-6). However, on Jesus’ lips this moral meaning takes second place (at least at the beginning of his preaching) in regard to a new meaning, unknown until now. Manifested also in this is the epochal leap that is verified between the preaching of John the Baptist and that of Jesus.

To be converted no longer means to return to the ancient Covenant and the observance of the law, but to make a leap forward, entering into the new Covenant, to seize this Kingdom that has appeared, to enter it through faith. «Repent and believe» does not mean two different and successive things, but the same action: repent, that is believe; repent by believing! «Prima conversion fit per fidem,» St. Thomas Aquinas would say, the first conversion consists in believing.[1]

God took the initiative of salvation: He has made his Kingdom come; man must only accept, in faith, God’s offer and live the demands afterward. It is like a king who opens the door of his palace, where a great banquet is ready, and, being at the door, invites all passersby to enter, saying: «Come, all is ready!» It is the call that resounds in all the so-called parables of the Kingdom: The hour much awaited has struck, take the decision that saves, do not let the occasion slip by!

The Apostle says the same thing with the doctrine of justification through faith. The only difference is due to that which has occurred, in the meantime, between the preaching of Jesus and that of Paul: Christ was rejected and put to death for the sins of men. Faith in the Gospel («believe in the Gospel»), is now configured as faith «in Jesus Christ,» «in his blood» (Romans 3:25).

What the Apostle expresses through the adverb «freely» («dorean») or «by grace,» Jesus said with the image of receiving the Kingdom as a child, namely, as a gift, without putting forward merits, appealing only to the love of God, as children count on the love of their parents.

For some time exegetes have discussed whether or not one must continue to talk about the conversion of St. Paul; some prefer to speak of a «call,» rather than conversion. There are those who would like the outright abolition of the feast of the conversion of St. Paul, as conversion indicates a detachment and a giving up of something, and a Jew who converts, as opposed to a pagan, must not give up anything, he must not pass from idols to the worship of the true God.[2]

It seems to me we are before a false problem. In the first place, there is no opposition between conversion and call: a call implies a conversion; it does not replace it, as grace does not replace freedom. However, above all we have seen that evangelical conversion is not about denying something or going back, but a reception of something new, a leap forward. To whom was Jesus speaking when he said: «Repent and believe in the Gospel»? Was he not speaking perhaps of the Jews? The Apostle referred to this same conversion with the words: «But when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed» (2 Corinthians 3:16).

In this light Paul’s conversion appears to us as the model of true Christian conversion that consists first of all in accepting Christ, in «turning» to him through faith. It is a finding, not a giving up. Jesus does not say: A man sold all he had and began to look for a hidden treasure; he said: A man found a treasure and because of this sold everything.

4. A Lived Experience

In the document of agreement between the Catholic Church and the World Federation of Lutheran Churches on justification through faith, presented solemnly in St. Peter’s Basilica by John Paul II and the archbishop of Uppsala in 1999, there is a final recommendation that seems of vital importance to me. In essence, it says this: The moment has come to make of this great truth a lived experience on the part of believers, and no longer an object of theological disputes between experts, as happened in the past.

The Pauline Year offers us the propitious occasion to live this experience. It could give a shove to our spiritual life, a breath and a new freedom. Charles Peguy recounted, in the third person, the story of the greatest act of faith of his life. A man, he said (and it is known he was speaking of himself) had three sons. On a bad day all three fell ill at the same time. Then he did something audacious. Thinking about it again admiringly, it must be said that it really was a daring act. Just as three children are sometimes gathered together and hoisted, almost jokingly, into the arms of their mother or nurse, who laughs and says to take them away because they are too many and too heavy, so he, daring man that he was, had taken — one understands with prayer — his three sick children and had peacefully put them into the arms of him who has charge of all the sorrows of the world. «Look,» he said, «I give them to you, I turn and run away, so that you will not give them back to me. I don’t want them any more, you see it well! You must be concerned with them.» (Apart from the metaphor, he had gone on foot on a pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres to entrust his three sick children to Our Lady). From that day on, everything went well, naturally, because it was the Holy Virgin who was involved. It is also curious that n
ot all Christians do as much. It is so simple, but no one ever thinks of what is simple.[3]

The story is useful to us at this moment because of the idea of the audacious act; because it relates to what is being discussed. The key to everything, it is said, is faith. But there are different types of faith: there is faith-assent of the intellect, faith-trust, faith-stability, as Isaiah calls it (7:9): of what faith does one refer to when speaking of justification «through faith»? It is a question of an all-together special faith: faith-appropriation!

Let us listen to St. Bernard on this point who says, «What I cannot obtain by myself, I appropriate (usurp!) with trust from the pierced side of the Lord, because he is full of mercy. My merit, therefore, is God’s mercy. I am certainly not poor in merits, as long as he is rich in mercy. If the mercies of the Lord are many (Psalm 119:156), I too will abound with merits. And what about my justice? O Lord, I will remember only your justice. In fact, it is also mine, because you are for me justice on the part of God.»[4] It is written, in fact, that «Christ Jesus … became for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption» (1 Corinthians 1:30) — for us, not for himself!

St. Cyril of Jerusalem expressed, with other words, the same idea of the audacious act of faith: «O extraordinary goodness of God toward men! The righteousness of the Old Testament pleased God in the toil of long years; but what they were able to obtain, through a long and heroic service acceptable to God, Jesus gives to you in the brief space of an hour. In fact, if you believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord and that God has resurrected him from the dead, you will be saved and introduced into paradise by the same one who introduced the good thief.»[5]

Imagine, writes Cabasilas, when developing an image of St. John Chrysostom, that an epic fight is taking place in the stadium. A courageous man has confronted the cruel tyrant and, with enormous effort and suffering, has beaten him. You have not fought, you have made no effort or suffered wounds. However, if you admire the courageous man, if you rejoice with him over his victory, if you weave a crown for him, stir and shake the assembly for him, if you bow with joy to the winner, if you kiss his head and shake his right hand; in sum, if you are so delirious for him as to consider his victory yours, I tell you that you will certainly have a part of the winner’s prize.

But there is more: Suppose the winner had no need of the prize he won, but desires, more than anything else, to see his supporter honored and considers the prize of his fight the crowning of his friend, in such a case, will that man, perhaps, not obtain the crown if he has not toiled or suffered wounds? Of course he will obtain it! Well, it happens in this way between Christ and us. Although not having yet toiled and fought — although not having yet any merit — nevertheless, through faith we extol Christ’s struggle, admire his victory, honor his trophy which is the cross and valuable for him, we show vehement and ineffable love; we make our own those wounds and that death.[6] Thus it is that salvation is obtained.

The Christmas liturgy will speak to us of the «holy exchange,» of the «sacrum commercium,» between us and God realized in Christ. The law of every exchange is expressed in the formula: That which is mine is yours and that which is yours is mine. It derives that, that which is mine, namely sin, weakness, becomes Christ’s; that which is Christ’s, namely holiness, becomes mine. Because we belong to Christ more than to ourselves (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20), it follows, writes Cabasilas, that, inversely, the holiness of Christ belongs to us more than our own holiness.[7] This is the thrust in the spiritual life. Its discovery is not done, usually, at the beginning, but at the end of one’s own spiritual journey, when all the others paths have been experienced and one has seen that they do not go very far.

In the Catholic Church we have a privileged means to have a concrete and daily experience of this sacred exchange and of justification by grace through faith: the sacraments. Every time I approach the sacrament of reconciliation I have a concrete experience of being justified by grace, «ex opere operato,» as we say in theology. I go out to the temple and say to God: «O God, have mercy on me a sinner» and, like the publican, I return home «justified» (Luke 18:14), forgiven, with a brilliant soul, as at the moment I came out of the baptismal font.

May St. Paul, in this year dedicated to him, obtain for us the grace of making like him this audacious thrust of faith.

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[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, S. Th., I-IIae, q. 113, a.4.

[2] Cf. J.M. Everts, «Conversione e Chiamata di Paolo,» in «Dizionario di Paolo e delle sue lettere,» San Paolo 1999, pp. 285-298 (summary of the positions and bibliography).

[3] Cf. Ch. Peguy, «Il portico del mistero della seconda virtù.»

[4] In Cant. 61, 4-5: PL 183, 1072.

[5] Catechesis 5, 10: PG 33, 517.

[6] Cf. N. Cabasilas, «Life in Christ,» I, 5: PG150, 517.

[7] N. Cabasilas, «Life in Christ,» IV, 6 (PG 150, 613).

[Translation by ZENIT]
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