East and West Before the Mystery of the Trinity

In His Second Lenten Homily, Father Cantalamessa Reflects on the Different Ways that Catholics and Orthodox Express the Trinitarian Mystery and the Common Need to Adore It

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We should have no obsessive insistence on our differences but rather bring together what we have in common and what unites us in one faith. This is the ecumenical theme that runs through this Friday’s Lenten meditations of Father Raniero Cantalamessa. The Preacher of the Papal Household said he was convinced he should make this choice following Pope Francis’ recent meeting in Turkey with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, and especially the Pontiff’s exhortation “to share fully the common faith of the Christian East and the Latin West.”

A desire to share that is not “new,” says Father Cantalamessa. Glancing at the more or less recent past, he refers in particular to Vatican Council II’s Unitatis redintegratio, and to John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Orientale lumen of 1995.

Father Cantalamessa recalled that St. John Paul II promoted the invitation “to put in common the many things that unite us and which certainly are more than those that divide us.” The priest points out that in today’s world, in which questions and interests are posed that are different from those of the past and that “no longer understand the meaning of many of our subtle distinctions,” it is necessary to “reverse the tendency” to insist on what distinguishes us for the benefit of an ecumenism based on the following formula: “To share what we have in common to then resolve the differences, with patience and mutual respect.”

Father Cantalamessa noted that “the most surprising result” of this change of perspective is that the doctrinal differences, rather than appearing as “errors” or “heresies,” “begin to appear ever more often as compatible with one’s position and often, in fact, as a necessary corrective and an enrichment of it.” However, quoting Quinto Aurelio Simmaco, a pagan thinker of the 4thcentury, the Capuchin Friar reminded: “one cannot come to such a great mystery just one way.”

Therefore, Father Cantalamessa showed “the beauty and joy of meeting again at the summit (Orthodox and Catholics ndr) to contemplate the same wonderful panorama of the Christian faith, even if reached from different slopes.” And the first ascent begins addressing the mystery of the Trinity, what the Capuchin Father calls “the highest mountain, the Everest of the faith.”

However, among the mainstays of the faith of Christians of the East and West, the mystery of the Trinity is expressed in a different way. Father Cantalamessa synthesized the question thus: “In the consideration of the Trinity, the Greeks and the Latins move from opposite slopes; the Greeks begin from the Divine Persons, namely, from plurality to arrive at the unity of nature. The Latins begin vice versa from the unity of the Divine Nature, to come to the three Persons.”

Preferred usually today is the Greeks’ expression of the Trinity, which Father Cantalamessa describes in the following words: “The Father is the source, the absolute origin of the movement of love. The Son cannot exist as Son if, first of all, He does not receive from the Father all that He is.” Therefore, “the Father is the only one, also in the realm of the Trinity, who does not need to be loved to be able to love. Only in the Father is the perfect equation realized: to be is to love; for the other Divine Persons, to be is to be loved.”

Greek Theology has described thus “the scheme and the right approach to speak of the Trinity,” reflects Father Cantalamessa, who adds, however: “With Augustine, the Latin thought has ensured the underlying content of this and the spirit, which is love. The well-known Bishops of Hippo based his discourse on the Trinity on the definition ‘God is love,’” therefore, he sees “in the Holy Spirit the mutual love between the Father and the Son, according to the loving triad lover, beloved, love.”

According to the Papal Household Preacher, the Church has the need to “keep open and passable both ways to the Trinitarian mystery.” Said schematically: the Church is in need of accepting fully the approach of Orthodoxy to the Trinity in its internal life, namely in prayer, in contemplation, in the liturgy, in mysticism; she needs to keep the Latin approach present in her evangelizing mission ad extra.”

However, to evangelize contemporary society by speaking of the Trinity the way theologians speak about it would mean, “to put on people’s shoulders a weight they are incapable of bearing.” Therefore, “the Church must find a way of proclaiming the mystery of the One and Triune God with appropriate and comprehensible categories for the men of their time,” highlights Father Cantalamessa. To do this, she can draw on Saint Augustine’s thought, which has love as its pivot.

From love, the Papal Household Preacher went on to explain adoration. The need to adore the Trinity is what unites East and West “without any other differentiation.”

“To adore the Trinity, according to a stupendous oxymoron of Saint Gregory Nazianzen, is to elevate to it ‘a hymn of silence,’” affirms Father Cantalamessa, who added: “To adore is to recognize God as God and ourselves as creatures of God. It is to ‘recognize the infinite qualitative difference between the Creator and the creature,” to recognize it, however, freely, joyfully, as children, not as slaves.’”

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Federico Cenci

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