Preacher Reflects on Evangelization of Atheists

Father Cantalamessa Gives Advent Sermon to Pope and Curia

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 3, 2010 ( Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa is reflecting this Advent on the need for a new evangelization in a world rife with scientism, secularism and rationalism. And he says the positive exposition of the truth is often more effective than the refutation of the contrary error.

The preacher of the Pontifical Household offered this suggestion today during the first of three Advent sermons that he is giving in the presence of the Pope and the Roman Curia.

He proposed to single out some of the «obstacles which make many countries of ancient Christian tradition ‘immune’ to the evangelical message,» and he announced that he will «seek to give an answer of faith» to scientism, secularism and rationalism.

For today’s reflection, he took up the theme of scientism, the ideology that refuses «to admit as valid ways of knowing different from those that are proper to the positive sciences.»

«The refusal of scientism must not of course induce to the refusal of science,» the Capuchin clarified. But it does affirm that «[the atheist scientist] judges a world he does not know, applies his laws to an object that is beyond his capacity. To see God one must open a different eye, one must venture outside the night.»

Dehumanizing humans

Father Cantalamessa explained that the intention of his sermon was not a general criticism of scientism, but rather a bringing into the light of the «position that man occupies in the vision of atheist scientism.»

There is under way, he proposed, a sort of competition between non-believing scientists to affirm «the total marginality and insignificance of man in the universe and in the great sea of life itself.»

The preacher continued: «This vision of man also has practical reflections at the level of culture and mentality. Thus are explained certain excesses of ecologism which tend to equate the rights of animals and even of plants with those of man. It is well-known that there are animals that are looked after and fed much better than millions of children. […]

«In certain aspects, it is a return to the pre-Christian vision which had as its scheme: God — cosmos — man, and to which the Bible and Christianity opposed the scheme: God — man — cosmos. The cosmos is for man, not man for the cosmos.»

But even compared to this pre-Christian vision, there is a difference with proponents of modern scientism, Father Cantalamessa proposed: «[I]n ancient thought, above all Greek thought, man, though subordinated to the cosmos, has a very lofty dignity. […] Beyond an ‘atheist humanism,’ at least from this point of view, it seems to me that one should speak of anti-humanism, or, in fact, of atheist dehumanization.»

Acquiring the Holy Spirit

After highlighting Christian anthropology — totally opposed to scientism — in which man is an exalted creature, made in the image of God, Father Cantalamessa asked «how one could translate this Christian vision of the man-cosmos relationship on the plane of evangelization.»

Here, he advocated the «positive exposition of the truth» as «often more effective than the refutation of the contrary error.»

He called for the «exposition of the Christian vision, stressing the intrinsic force of it when it is accompanied by profound conviction and is done, as St. Peter inculcated, ‘with gentleness and reverence.'»

The Capuchin then went on to reflect on the «highest expression of the dignity and vocation of man, according to the Christian vision,» which he said is «crystallized in the doctrine of the divinization of man.»

He noted differences in emphasis among East and West in regard to this doctrine. And he forwarded this reflection: «Above all we can learn from the Eastern tradition not to reserve this sublime ideal of Christian life to a spiritual elite called to follow the way of mysticism, but to propose it to all the baptized, to make it the object of catechesis to the people, of religious formation in seminaries and novitiates.

«If I think of the years of my formation I perceive an almost exclusive insistence on an asceticism that pointed everything to the correction of vices and the acquisition of virtues. To the disciple’s question on the ultimate aim of the Christian life a holy Russian, St. Seraphim of Sarov, answered without hesitation: ‘The real end of Christian life, is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As regards prayer, fasting, vigils, almsgiving and every other good action made in the name of Christ, they are only means to acquire the Holy Spirit.'»

A Christmas message

The Pontifical Household preacher reflected that «Christmas is the ideal occasion» to take up this common patrimony of Christianity. «It is from the incarnation of the Word that the Greek Fathers derived the very possibility of divinization. St. Athanasius did not tire of repeating: ‘The Word was made man so that we could be deified.'»

Father Cantalamessa concluded: «In your book ‘Introduction to Christianity’ of many years ago, you, Holy Father, wrote: ‘It is only in the second section of the Creed that we come up against the real difficulty — already considered briefly in the introduction — about Christianity: the profession of faith that the man Jesus, an individual executed in Palestine round about the year 30, the Christus (anointed, chosen) of God, indeed God’s own son, is the central and decisive point of all human history. It seems both presumptuous and foolish to assert that one single figure who is bound to disappear farther and farther into the mists of the past is the authoritative center of all history.»
«To this question, Holy Father, we respond without hesitation as you do in the book and as you do not tire of repeating today, in the dress of Supreme Pontiff: Yes, it is possible, it is liberating and it is joyful, not by our efforts, but by the inestimable gift of faith that we received and for which we render infinite thanks to God.»

[ZENIT will publish a translation of the full text of the sermon on Saturday]
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