Father Cantalamessa's 1st Advent Sermon

«The First Wave of Evangelization»

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ROME, DEC. 8, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the first Advent sermon delivered last Friday, Dec. 2, by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the pontifical household.

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«Go into all the world»

The first wave of evangelization

In response to the Supreme Pontiff’s call for a renewed commitment to evangelization and by way of preparation for the 2012 synod of bishops on the same issue, I intend to identify in these Advent meditations four waves of evangelization in the history of the Church, that is, four moments in which we witness an acceleration or a taking up again of the missionary commitment. These are:

1) The spread of Christianity in the first three centuries, until the eve of Constantine’s edict, which is led by, first, the itinerant prophets, and then the bishops;

2) The 6th to 9th centuries in which we witness the re-evangelization of Europe after the Barbarian invasions — evangelization led by the work above all of monks;

3) The 16th century, with the discovery and conversion to Christianity of the peoples of the «New World» — the work above all of friars;

4) The present age, which sees the Church committed to a re-evangelization of the secularized West, with the decisive participation of the laity. 

In each of these moments I shall attempt to illumine what we can learn in the Church of today: the errors that must be avoided and the examples to be imitated and the specific contribution that pastors, monks, religious of active life and the laity can make to evangelization. 

1.The spread of Christianity in the first three centuries. 

We begin today with a reflection on Christian evangelization in the first three centuries. There is a reason that makes this period a model for all times. It is the period in which Christianity gains grounds by its own strength. There is no «secular arm» that supports it; conversions are not determined by external, material or cultural advantages; to be Christian is not a custom or fashion, but a decision to swim against the current, often at the risk of one’s life. In some ways, it is the same situation that is happening again in many parts of the world. 

The Christian faith was born with a universal openness. Jesus had said to his Apostles to go into «all the world» (Mark 16:15), and «make disciples of all nations» (Matthew 28:19), and be witnesses «to the end of the earth» (Acts 1:8), and «that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached to all nations» (Luke 24:47).

This universality was already lived out in principle during the apostolic generation, though not without difficulties and struggles. The first barrier, race, was surmounted on the day of Pentecost (the 3,000-some converts belonged to different nations, but they were all Jewish believers); in Cornelius’ house and in the so-called Council of Jerusalem, especially at Paul’s prodding, the most difficult barrier of all was surmounted — the religious one, which divided the Jews from the Gentiles. The Gospel had before it the whole world, although momentarily this world was limited in men’s knowledge to the Mediterranean basin and to the borders of the Roman Empire. 

It is more complex to follow the expansion of Christianity in fact or geographically in the first three centuries which, however, is less necessary for our objective. The most complete and so far unsurpassed study in this respect is that of Adolph Harnack, «Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries.»[1]

A strong intensification of the Church’s missionary activity took place under the rule of Emperor Commodus (180-192), and then afterward, in the second half of the 3nd century, that is, until the eve of the great persecution of Diocletian (302). Apart from sporadic local persecutions, this was a period of relative peace that enabled the nascent Church to consolidate herself interiorly, carrying out a missionary activity in a new way. 

Let us see in what this novelty consisted. In the first two centuries the propagation of the faith was entrusted to personal initiative. There were itinerant prophets, of which the Didache speaks, who went from place to place; many conversions were due to personal contact, fostered by the common work in which individuals were engaged — journeys and commercial relations, military service and other circumstances of life. Origen gives us a moving description of the zeal of these first missionaries. 

«Christians make every possible effort to spread the faith on earth. To this end, some of them pose formally to themselves as a duty of their lives to go from city to city, also from village to village, to win new faithful to the Lord. It cannot be said that they do it to benefit themselves, because they often reject even what is most necessary to live.»[2]

Now, that is in the second half of the 3rd century, these personal initiatives were increasingly coordinated — and substituted in part — by the local communities. The bishop, reacting also to the disintegrating effects of the Gnostic heresy, took the lead over the teachers as the director of the internal life of the community and the propelling center of its missionary activity. The community was the evangelizing subject to such a point that a scholar such as Harnack, not suspected of sympathy for the institution, stated: «We must take as certain that the sole existence and constant work of the local communities was the principal coefficient in the propagation of Christianity.»[3]

Toward the end of the 3rd century, the Christian faith virtually penetrated every level of society, had its literature in Greek and, although just beginning, in Latin; it had a solid internal organization; it began to build increasingly larger buildings, a sign of the growth of the number of believers. Diocletian’s great persecution, apart from the numerous victims, did no more than demonstrate the insuppressible strength of the Christian faith. The last confrontation between the Empire and Christianity had given the proof of that.  

Constantine did no more than confirm the new relationship of forces. It was not he who imposed Christianity on the people, but the people who imposed Christianity on him. Affirmations such as Dan Brown’s in the novel «The Da Vinci Code» and of other writers, according to whom it was Constantine who, for personal reasons, transformed with his edict of tolerance and with the Council of Nicaea, an obscure Jewish religious sect into the religion of the Empire, are based on total ignorance of what preceded these events.  

2. Reasons for the Success

A subject that has always impassioned historians is the reason for the triumph of Christianity. A message born in a contemptible corner of the empire, among simple people, with no culture or power, spread in less than three centuries throughout the known world, subjugating the most refined culture of the Greeks and the imperial power of Rome!

Among the different reasons for the success, there are those that emphasize Christian love and the active exercise of charity, to the point of making it «the most powerful individual factor of the success of the Christian faith,» to the point that later it induced the Emperor Julian the Apostate to endow paganism with similar charitable works to compete with this success.[4]

For his part, Harnack gives great importance to what he calls the «syncretistic» nature of the Christian faith, namely, the capacity to reconcile in itself opposite tendencies and different values present in the religions and culture of the time. Christianity presents itself at once as the religion of the Spirit and of power, that is, supported by supernatural signs, charisms and miracles, and as the religion of reason and of the integral Logos, «the true philosophy,» as Justin Martyr said. Christian authors are «the rationalists of the supernatural,»[5] states Harnack quoting St. Paul’s saying on the faith «as rational worship» (Romans 12:

Thus Christianity brings together in itself, in perfect balance, what the philosopher Nietzsche describes as the Apollonian and Dionysian element of the Greek religion, the Logos and Pneuma, order and enthusiasm, measure and excess. It is, at least in part, what the Fathers of the Church understood by the «sober intoxication of the Spirit.»

«From the beginning, the Christian religion,» writes Harnack at the end of his monumental research, «presented itself with a universality that enabled it to seize in itself the whole of life, with its functions, its heights and depths, sentiments, thoughts and actions. This was the spirit of universality that assured its victory. This is what led it to profess that the Jesus it proclaimed was the divine Logos … Illumined thus with a new and seeming almost as a necessity also is the powerful attraction with which it even absorbs and subordinates Hellenism in itself. All that was capable of life entered as an element in its construction … Could this religion not conquer?»[6] 

The impression one has on reading this synthesis is that the success of Christianity was due to a combination of factors. Some have gone further in the search of reasons for such success to the point of specifying 20 reasons in favor of the faith and as many others that acted in a contrary way, as if the final success depended on the first prevailing over the second. 

I would now like to show the inherent limit to such a historical focus, including when it is done by believing historians as those I have already taken into account. The limit, due to the same historical method, is that of giving more importance to the subject than the object of the mission, more to the evangelizers and the conditions in which it is carried out, than to its content. 

The reason that drives me to insist on this point is that this is also the limit and the danger inherent in so many present and media focuses, when there is talk of a New Evangelization. A very simple thing is forgotten: that Jesus himself gave, in anticipation, an explanation of the spread of his Gospel, and we must go back to it again every time a new missionary commitment is assumed. 

Let us hear again two brief Gospel parables, that of the seeds that grow also at night and that of the mustard seed. «And he said: The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come» (Mark 4:26-29).

This parable on its own says that the essential reason for the success of the Christian mission does not come from the exterior but from the interior, it is not the work of the sower and not even primarily of the earth but of the seed. The seed cannot sow itself and yet, it germinates by itself. After having sown the seed, the sower can go to sleep because the life of the seed no longer depends on him. When this seed is «the seed that falls to the earth and dies,» that is Jesus Christ, nothing will be able to impede its bearing «much fruit.» One can give all the explanation one wishes for these fruits, but they will always remain superficial and will never reach the essential.

It was the Apostle Paul who perceived with lucidity the priority of the object of the proclamation over the subject: «I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.» These words seem to be a commentary to Jesus’ parable. It is not a question of three operations of the same importance. In fact, the Apostle adds: «So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth» (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). The same qualitative distance between the subject and the object of the proclamation is present in another of the Apostle’s statements: «But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us» (2 Corinthians 4:7). All this is translated into the exclamations: «We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus Lord!» and again «We preach Christ crucified.»

Jesus pronounced a second parable based on the image of the seed that explains the success of the Christian mission and that today must be taken into account, given the great task of re-evangelizing the secularized world.

«And he said, with what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade» (Mark 4:30-32). 

The teaching Christ gives us with this parable is that his Gospel and his very person are the smallest that exist on earth because there is nothing smaller or weaker than a life that ends in death on a cross. However, this small «mustard seed» is destined to become an immense tree, which is able to shelter in its branches the birds that take refuge in it. This means that the whole of creation, absolutely all of it, will go to seek refuge there. 

What a difference in regard to the historical reconstructions mentioned earlier! There everything seemed uncertain, accidental, suspended between success and failure. Here everything is decided and assured from the beginning! As the conclusion of the episode of the anointing of Bethany, Jesus pronounced these words: «Truly, I say to you, wherever this Gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her» (Matthew 26:13): the same tranquil awareness that one day his message would spread «to the whole world.» And it is certainly not about a «post eventum» prophecy, because at that moment everything seemed to presage the contrary. 

Also on this occasion the one who grasped «the hidden mystery» was Paul. There is an event that always calls my attention. The Apostle preached in the Areopagus of Athens and witnessed a rejection of the message, courteously expressed with the promise to hear him on another occasion. From Corinth, where he went immediately after, he wrote the Letter to the Romans in which he said he received the commission to bring about «the obedience of faith among all the nations» (Romans 1:5-6). Failure did not discourage his confidence in the message: «For I am not ashamed of the Gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek» (Romans 1:16).

«Each tree, Jesus says, is known by its own fruit» (Luke 6:44). This is true of all trees, except for the one born from him, Christianity (in fact he speaks here of men); this unique tree is not known by its fruit, but by its roots. In Christianity plenitude is not at the end, as in the Hegelian dialectic of becoming («only the entire is true»), but it is at the beginning; no fruit, not even the greatest saints, add something to the perfection of the model. In this sense, those are right who say «Christianity is not perfectible.»[7]

3. Sow and … Go to Sleep

What the historians of the Christian origins do not recount or give little importance to is the indestructible certainty that the Christians of that time had, at least the best of them, of the goodness and final victory of their cause. «You can kill us but you cannot destroy us,» the Martyr Justin said to the Roman judge who sentenced him to death. In the end it was this tranquil certainty that assured them of victory and that convinced the political authorities of the uselessness of the efforts to suppress the Christian faith. 

This is what we most need today: to awaken in Christians, at least those who attempt to dedicate themselves to the work of re-evangelization, the profound certainty of the truth of what they proclaim. «The Church, Paul VI once said, needs to take up again the yearning, the pleasure and the certainty of her truth.»[
8] We must believe, we first of all, in what we proclaim; but really believe it, «with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind.» We must be able to say with Paul: «since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, I believed, and so I spoke, we too believe, and so we speak» (2 Corinthians 4:13).

The practical task that Jesus’ two parables assign to us is to sow. To sow widely «in season and out of season» (2 Timothy 4:2). The sower of the parable who goes out to sow is not worried by the fact that part of the seed ends up on the road or among thorns. And to think that the sower, outside the metaphor, is Jesus himself! The reason is that in this case one cannot know which terrain is the adequate one, or which will be hard as asphalt and asphyxiating as a bush. In between is human liberty that man cannot foresee and that God doesn’t want to violate. How many times among people who have heard a certain preaching or have read a certain book, we discover that the one who has taken it most seriously or has changed his life is the person we least expected, one who, perhaps, was there by chance and against his will. I myself could count a dozen cases.

Sow and then … go to sleep! That is, sow and do not stay there the whole time looking to see where the seed arises and how many centimeters it grows by the day. Its rooting and growth is not our concern but God’s — and the one who listens. Jerome Klapka Jerome, a great English humorist of the 19th century, said that the best way to delay the boiling of water is to look over it and wait for it with impatience. 

To do the contrary is the inevitable source of disquiet and impatience: all the things that Jesus does not like and that he never did when he was on earth. In the Gospel he never seems to be in a hurry. «Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day» (Matthew 6:34).

Related to this, the believing poet Charles Péguy puts in God’s mouth some words that we would do well to meditate:

«I am told that there are men

Who work well and sleep badly,

Who do not sleep. What a lack of faith in me!

It would almost be better if they did not work but slept, because laziness is not a more serious sin than anxiety …

I am not speaking, God says, of those men who do not work and do not sleep.

These are sinners, of course …

I am speaking of those who work and do not sleep.

I feel sorry for them. They have no confidence in me …

They govern their affairs very well during the day.

But do not want to entrust to me their governance during the night …

He who does not sleep is unfaithful to Hope …»[9]

The reflections developed in this meditation drive us, in conclusion, to put at the base of the commitment to a New Evangelization a great act of faith and hope and to shake off every sense of impotence and resignation. We have before us, it is true, a world enclosed in its secularism, inebriated by the successes of technology and the possibilities offered by science, which rejects the Gospel proclamation. But, perchance — was the world in which the first Christians lived, the Greeks with their wisdom and the Roman Empire with its power, less certain of itself and less refractory to the Gospel?

If there is something we can do, after having «sown,» it is to «irrigate» with prayer the seed sown. This is why we end with the prayer that the liturgy brings us to recite in the Mass «for the evangelization of peoples»:

«O God, you who will all men to be saved,

And come to the knowledge of truth;

See how great is the harvest and send your laborers,

So that the Gospel is proclaimed to all creatures

And your people gathered by the word of life

And molded by the strength of the sacrament,

Will proceed on the path of salvation and love.

Through Christ our Lord. Amen


[1] A. von Harnack.

[2] Origen, C. Cels. III, 9.

[3] Op. cit. p. 321- s.

[4] H. Chadwick, The Early Church, Penguin Books 1967, pp. 56-58.

[5] A. von Harnack, Mission and Propagation of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Rist. Anast., Cosenza 1986, p. 173.

[6] Harnack, op. cit., p. 370.

[7] S. Kierkegaard, Diary, X5 A 98 (ed. C. Fabro, Brescia II, 1963, pp. 386 ff).

[8] Address at the general audience of November 29, 1972 (Teachings of Paul VI, Vatican Polyglot Typography, X, pp. 1210f.).

[9] Ch. Péguy, Le porche du mystère de la deuxième vertu, Paris, La Pleiade 1975.

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