Father Cantalamessa's 2nd Advent Sermon

«The Second Wave of Evangelization»

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ROME, DEC. 15, 2011 (ZENIT.org).- Here is a translation of the second Advent sermon by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the pontifical household. It was delivered last Friday, Dec. 9.

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«There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free.»

The second, great wave of Evangelization, after the Barbarian invasions.

In this meditation I want to talk of the second great wave of Evangelization in the history of the Church, that which followed the fall of the Roman Empire and the mix of nations caused by the Barbarian invasions. I want to do this with a view to how we can learn from this today. Given that vast historical period under examination and the brevity imposed on a sermon, I am able to treat this only as a broad overview.

1. An epoch-making decision

At the official end of the Roman Empire in 476, Europe had been showing, for some time already, a new face. Instead of a single Empire, there were many kingdoms called Roman-barbarian. Broadly speaking, and starting from the North, the situation was as follows: instead of the Roman province of Britannia, there were Anglos and Saxons and in the ancient provinces of Gaul, the Francs; to the east of the Rhine, the Frisians and Germans; in the Iberian peninsula, the Visigoths; in Italy the Ostrogoths and later the Lombards; in northern Africa the Vandals. In the East was still resisting the Byzantine Empire.

The Church found itself before an epoch-making decision: What attitude would she adopt in front of this new situation? The determination which opened the Church to the future was not immediately arrived at without scars. It repeated, in part, what had happened at the moment of separation from Judaism and the welcoming of the Gentiles into the Church. With the sacking of Rome in 410 by Alaric, king of the Visigoths, the general confusion among Christians was at its apex. It was thought to be the end of the world since the ‘world’ was identified with the Roman world and the Roman world with Christianity. St. Jerome is the most representative voice of this general disarray. «Who would have believed,» he wrote, «that this Rome, built through the victories attained throughout the entire universe, had to fall one day?»[1]

From an intellectual point of view, with his work, The City of God, St. Augustine contributed most to taking the Faith to this new world. His vision, which marks the beginning of the philosophy of history, distinguishes the City of God from the earthly city, identified (somewhat forcing his own thought), with the city of Satan. By earthly city, he understands every political order, including that of Rome. Therefore, the fall of Rome was not the end of the world, but just the end of a world!

In practice, the determining factor in opening the Faith to the new reality that confronted it was a coordination of initiatives of the Roman Pontiff. St. Leo the Great was convinced that Christian Rome would survive pagan Rome and would even «preside with her divine religion more broadly than she had with her terrestrial domination.»[2] Little by little the attitude of Christians towards the Barbarians changed; from inferior beings, incapable of civilization, they would begin to be considered possible brothers in the Faith. From permanent threat, the Barbarian world begins to appear to the Christians a new, large field of mission. Paul had proclaimed the end of the distinctions of race, religion, culture, social class brought about by Jesus, «Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all» (Colossians 3:11). But how difficult it was to translate this revolution into practice! And not just then!

2) The re-evangelization of Europe

Confronted by the Barbarian nations, the Church found herself fighting two battles; the first was against the Arian heresy. Many of the Barbarian tribes, above all the Goths, before penetrating the heart of the Empire as conquerors, had had exposure to Christianity in the East and had embraced it in its Arian version, booming at that time, especially through the work of Bishop Ulfila (311-383), the translator of the Bible to the Goths. Once introduced to the Western territories, they took with them this heretical version of Christianity.

Arianism had no united organization, not even a culture or theology comparable to that of the Catholics. Throughout the 6thcentury, one after another, the Barbarian kingdoms abandoned Arianism to adhere to the Catholic faith, thanks to the great work of a few bishops and Catholic writers and also, at times, for political reasons. A decisive moment was the Council of Toledo in 589, called for by Leandro of Seville, which marked the end of the Visigoths Arianism in Spain and practically in the entire western world.

The battle against Arianism however was nothing new, having begun much earlier in the year 325. Evangelization of the pagans became the true new work of the Church after the fall of the Roman Empire. This took place in two directions, that is to say, ad intra and ad extra, in the regions of the old Empire and in those that had more recently appeared on the scene. In the territories of the old Empire, Italy and the provinces, the Church up till then had established itself mostly in the cities. It now extended its presence into the countryside and villages. The term «pagan,» as we know, comes from «pagus,» village, and took its current meaning from the fact that evangelization of the villages, in general, came long after that of the cities.

It would be very interesting to follow also this kind of evangelization that gave birth to the development of the system of parishes, as sub divisions of dioceses, but given the objective I have set myself, I must limit my discourse to the other direction of evangelization, that ad extra, destined to take the Gospel to the Barbarian territories situated in the aisles and in central Europe, that is to say, England, Holland, France and Germany.

In this new task, the conversion of the Merovingian King Clovis on Christmas Eve of 498 or 499 baptized by the bishops of Reims, St. Remigius, proved a crucial moment. This decided, as was the custom of the time, not only the religious future of the Francs, but also of other peoples on both sides of the river Rhine. There is a famous phrase pronounced by Bishop Remigius at the moment of Clovis’ baptism: Mitis depone colla, Sigamber; adora quod incendisti, incende quod adorasti: «Humbly bow your head, wild Sicamber, adore what you have burned, and burn what you adored.»[3] To this event the French nation owes her title of » the eldest daughter of the Church.»

Thanks to the work of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the Christianization of the continent culminated in the 9th century with the conversion of the Slavic peoples who had occupied Eastern Europe and the territories left freely by the preceding waves of migrants who had moved to the West.

The evangelization of the Barbarians presented a new condition, with respect to the previous Greco-Roman world. There, Christianity had before it a highly educated world, well organized, with an order, a common law and a common language; it had, in short, a culture with which to dialogue. Now it finds itself having to civilize and evangelize at the same time, having to teach reading and writing while teaching Christian doctrine. Inculturation presented itself in an entirely new form.

3) The monastic epic

This gigantic work, which I have only traced in broad outline, was completed with the participation of all the faithful of the Church. In first place, the Pope who promoted the first mission to the Anglos and played an active role in the evangelization of the Germans (through the work of St. Boniface) and of the Slavic peoples through the work of Sts. Cyril and Methodius; afterwards, the bishops, the parish priests, in the measure local communities were formed. A silent but decisive role w
as exercised by some women. Behind the great conversions of the Barbarian kings, we frequently find the influence exercised by their respective wives: St. Clotilde, in the case of Clovis; St. Theodolinda, in the case of the Lombard king Autari; the Catholic wife of King Edwin, who introduced Christianity to the north of England.

But the leading protagonists of the re-evangelization of Europe after the Barbarian invasions were the monks. In the West, monasticism, beginning in the fourth century, spread rapidly in two distinct periods and directions. The first wave starts from middle and central Gaul, especially Lerin (410) and Auxerre (418), and thanks to St. Patrick who formed himself in those two centers, Christianity arrived in Ireland whose whole future religious life was shaped by him. From here, in a first phase, the Irish monks went to Scotland and England and afterward returned to the Continent.

The second monastic wave, destined to absorb and unify the different forms of Western monasticism, had its origin in Italy from St. Benedict (+547). From the 5th to the 8th centuries Europe would be literally covered by monasteries, many of which developed a primary task in the formation of the Continent, not just of its faith but also of its art, culture and agriculture. For this reason, St. Benedict was proclaimed the patron of Europe and the Holy Father in 2005 chose Subiaco for his lesson on the Christian roots of Europe.

The great evangelizing monks of our period belong, almost all of them, to the first of the two mentioned currents, that which returns to the Continent from Ireland and England. The most representative names are those of St. Columbanus and St. Boniface. The first, starting from Luxeuil, evangelized numerous regions of the north of Gaul and the tribes of middle Germany, arriving at Bobbio in Italy; the second, considered the evangelizer of Germany, extended his missionary work from Fulda to Frisia, today’s Holland. To him, the Holy Father Benedict XVI dedicated one of his catecheses during the public audiences of Wednesday, on March 11, 2009, highlighting his close collaboration with the Roman Pontiff and the civilizing work among the peoples evangelized by him.

Reading their lives one has the impression of reliving the missionary adventure of the Apostle Paul; the same longing to take the Gospel to every creature on Earth, the same courage to confront every type of danger and inconvenience and, for St. Boniface and many others, also the same end, martyrdom. The weak points of this evangelization of such wide embrace are well known, and the comparison with St. Paul highlights the most serious one. The Apostle, together with Evangelization, established everywhere a Church that assured its continuity and development. Often, for lack of resources and the difficulty of acting in a society still in a state of magma, these pioneers were not capable of assuring a follow-up to their work.

The Barbarian nations were inclined to put into practice only one part of the program indicated by St. Remigius to Clovis; they adored what they had burned, but did not burn what they had adored. Much of their idolatrous and pagan baggage would remain, and would surface at the first opportunity. The most long lasting work left by these great evangelizers was precisely the foundation of a network of monasteries and, with Augustine in England and St. Boniface in Germany, the erection of dioceses and the celebration of synods that assured a deeper and more durable evangelization in the future.

4) Mission and contemplation

Now is the time to extract some lessons for today from the historical overview we have made. To begin with, we note a certain analogy between the period we have covered and the situation today. Then, the movement of peoples was from East to West, today it is from South to North. Now again, the Church, through its Magisterium, has made its decision opening itself to the new reality.

The difference is that today, the new arrivals to Europe are not pagans or Christian heretics but often nations in possession of a well constituted self-conscious religion. Therefore the new element is the dialogue that does not oppose evangelization but rather determines its style. Blessed John Paul II, in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, about the perennial validity of the missionary mandate, expressed himself clearly: «Inter-religious dialogue is a part of the Church’s evangelizing mission. Understood as a method and means of mutual knowledge and enrichment, dialogue is not in opposition to the mission ad gentes; indeed, it has special links with that mission and is one of its expressions. … In the light of the economy of salvation, the Church sees no conflict between proclaiming Christ and engaging in interreligious dialogue. Instead, she feels the need to link the two in the context of her mission ad gentes. These two elements must maintain both their intimate connection and their distinctiveness; therefore they should not be confused, manipulated or regarded as identical, as though they were interchangeable.»[4]

What happened in Europe after the Barbarian invasions shows us above all the importance of the contemplative life in view of evangelization. With respect to this, the conciliar decree Ad Gentes, says about the missionary activity of the Church: «Worthy of special mention are the various projects for causing the contemplative life to take root. There are those who in such an attempt have kept the essential element of a monastic institution, and are bent on implanting the rich tradition of their order; there are others again who are returning to the simpler forms of ancient monasticism. But all are studiously looking for a genuine adaptation to local conditions. Since the contemplative life belongs to the fullness of the Church’s presence, let it be put into effect everywhere.»[5]

This invitation to look for new ways of monasticism with a view to evangelization, inspired even by ancient monasticism, has not been ignored.

One of the forms in which it has been realized is the «Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem,» known as the monks and nuns of the city. Their founder, Father Pierre-Marie Delfieux, after having spent two years in the Sahara desert, in the company only of the Eucharist and the Bible, understood that the true deserts today are the great secularized cities. These Fraternities which began in Paris on the Feast of All Saints 1975 are present already in various great cities of Europe, including Rome, where they are situated at the Trinita dei Monti. Their charism is to evangelize through the beauty of art and the liturgy. What is traditionally monastic is their habit, their style of life simple and austere, the balance between work and prayer; what is new is their location at the center of the cities, generally in ancient churches of grand artistic value, and the collaboration between nuns and monks in the liturgy, even within their total reciprocal autonomy insofar as living and juridical dependence is concerned. Not a few conversions of unbelievers or nominal only Christians have taken place around these centers.

Of a distinct type, but one which also forms part of this flourishing of new monastic forms, is the monastery of Bose in Italy. In the field of ecumenism, the monastery of Taizé in France is an example of the contemplative life also directly involved on the front lines of evangelization.

In Avila, on the 1st of November 1982, receiving in audience a wide representation of the feminine contemplative life, John Paul II expounded on the possibility, also in the feminine cloistered life, of a more direct involvement in the work of evangelization. «Your monasteries,» he said, «are communities of prayer amid Christian communities to which you give help, nutrition and hope. They are consecrated places and they can also be centers of Christian welcome for those, above all the young, who often seek a simple and transparent life in contrast to that which is offered by the consumer society.»

The calling was not ignored and has g
rown into original initiatives of the feminine contemplative life open to evangelization. One of these was able to give a presentation here in the Vatican at a recent Congress, organized by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization. All these new forms do not substitute the traditional monastic realities, many of which are also spiritual centers of evangelization, but they accompany and enrich them.

It is not enough in the Church that there be some dedicated to contemplation and some dedicated to mission; it is necessary that the synthesis between these two things be present in the same life of a missionary. In other words, it is not enough to pray «for» the missionaries, what is needed is the prayer «of» the missionaries. The great monks who re-evangelized Europe after the Barbarian invasions were men coming from the silence of contemplation who returned to silence as soon as circumstances permitted. In fact, with the heart they never left the monastery. They put into practice, in fact they anticipated, the advice that St. Francis of Assisi gave to his brothers before sending them to the streets of the world: «We have a hermitage always with us wherever we go, and every time we wish, we can, like hermits return to this hermitage. Brother body is the hermitage and the soul is the hermit which inhabits it to pray to God and meditate.»[6]

Of this however we have a much more authoritative example than the saints. The daily life of Jesus was an admirable conjoining of prayer and preaching. He did not only pray before preaching, he prayed to know what to preach, to receive in prayer the messages to proclaim to the world. «What the Father has told me is what I speak» (John 12:50). From there came that «authority» of Jesus that was so impressive in his speech.

The effort for a new evangelization is exposed to two dangers. One is inertia, laziness, of not doing anything and leaving everything to others. The other is launching into a feverish and empty human activism, with the result of losing little by little the contact with the source of the Word and of its efficacy. It is said: How can I pray in stillness when so many demands lay claim to my attention, how can I not run when the house is burning? It is true, but let us imagine a group of firefighters who would run to put out a fire and who discovered that they had not one drop of water in their tanks. This is how we are when we run to preach without first praying. Prayer is fundamental for evangelization because «Christian preaching is not primarily a communication of doctrine but of existence.» He evangelizes more who prays without speaking than he who speaks without praying.

5) Mary, star of evangelization

We end with a thought suggested by the liturgical time we are living and by the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, which we celebrated yesterday.

Once in an ecumenical dialogue a Protestant brother asked me, without being polemical, just to understand it, «Why do you Catholics say that Mary is the star of evangelization? What has Mary done to deserve this title?». For me it was an occasion to reflect about the subject and it did not take long to find the answer. Mary is the star of evangelization because she has brought the Word, not to this or that nation, but to the whole world!

And not only for this reason. She carried the Word in her womb not in her mouth. She was full, physically, of Christ and irradiated Him with just her presence. Jesus came out from her eyes, her face and her entire person. When one perfumes oneself it is not necessary to announce it; it is enough simply to stand near the person to sense it, and Mary, most especially during the time she carried Him in her womb, was full of the perfume of Christ. One can say that Mary was the first cloistered nun of the Church. After Pentecost, she entered as if into a cloister. Through the letters of the Apostles we come to know innumerable persons and also many women of the primitive Christian community. Once we find mentioned one called Mary (cf. Romans 16:6), but this is not her. Of Mary, the mother of Jesus, nothing. She disappears in a most profound silence. But what must it have meant for John to have her by his side while he wrote the Gospel and what it might mean for us to have her close while we proclaim the Gospel! «First amongst the Gospels,» writes Origen, «is that of John, the profound meaning of which cannot be understood by any who has not rested his head on the breast of Jesus and has not received Mary from Him as his proper mother.»[7]

Mary has inaugurated in the Church that second soul, or vocation, which is the hidden praying soul, together with the apostolic or active soul. It marvelously expresses the traditional icon of the Ascension, of which we have a representation to the right of this “Redemptoris Mother” chapel. Mary stands with open arms in an attitude of prayer. Around her the Apostles, all with a foot or hand elevated, that is to say in movement, they represent the Church active, missionary, which speaks and acts. Mary is motionless beneath Jesus, in the exact point from where he ascended into heaven, almost as if to preserve a living memory of Him and keep alive the hope of his return.

We end listening to the final words of Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi, in which for the first time in a pontifical document, Mary receives the title Star of Evangelization: «On the morning of Pentecost she watched over with her prayer the beginning of evangelization prompted by the Holy Spirit: may she be the Star of the evangelization ever renewed which the Church, docile to her Lord’s command, must promote and accomplish, especially in these times which are difficult but full of hope!»

— — —

[1] St. Jerome, Commentary on Ezekiel, III, 25, pref.; cf. Epistole LX,18; CXXIII,15-16; CXXVI,2

[2] St. Leo the Great, Sermon 82

[3] Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum, II, 31

[4] John Paul II Redemptoris Missio, 55

[5] A.G. 18

[6] Legenda Perugina, 80 (FF, 1636)

[7] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, I, 6,23 (SCh, 120, p. 70)

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