Raniero Cantalamessa in the predication of the Day to pray for the care of creation


Father Cantalamessa's 1st Lent Homily 2019


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Here is the first Lenten homily given this year by the preacher of the Pontifical Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.
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Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, ofmcap
First Sermon, Lent 2019
Last Advent we started meditating on the verse from the psalm: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps 42:2). In this first Lenten sermon I would like to reflect with you on the essential condition for “seeing” God. According to Jesus, it is purity of heart: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8).
We know that in the Bible the words “pure” and “purity,” like in everyday language, have a very broad range of meanings. The gospel stresses two areas in particular: the righteousness of intentions and purity in morals. The opposite of purity of intentions is hypocrisy, and the opposite of purity in morals is the abuse of sexuality.
In the moral sphere, the word “purity” commonly designates a certain behavior in the area of sex, in accordance with the will of the Creator and the intrinsic purpose of sexuality. We cannot enter into contact with God, who is spirit, other than by means of our own spirit. But disorder or, worse, aberrations in this area have the effect observed by everyone of darkening the mind. It is like feet stirring up a pond: the sludge at the bottom is churned up and muddies all the water. God is light and a person who chooses this “hates the light.”
The sin of impurity blocks us from seeing the face of God or, if it is seen, it is seen as completely deformed. He becomes not a friend, an ally, and a father but the antagonist, the enemy. The carnal person is full of concupiscence and desires the goods and spouses of others. In this situation God appears to such a person as the one who is blocking the path to wicked desires with his peremptory commands, “You shall!” and “You shall not!” Sin arouses a secret bitterness against God in people’s hearts to the point that if it depended on them, they would wish that God did not in fact exist at all.
On this occasion, however, rather than the purity of morals I would like to focus more on the other meaning of “pure of heart,” that is, on the purity or righteousness of intentions, which in practice is the opposite of hypocrisy. The liturgical season we are in right now also orients us in this direction. We began Lent on the Ash Wednesday listening again to the insistently repeated admonitions of Jesus:
When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do. . . . When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. . . . And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites. (Mt 6:1-18)
It is surprising how much the sin of hypocrisy—the sin most denounced by Jesus in the Gospels—enters so little into our ordinary formulations of examinations of conscience. Not having found in any of them the question, “Have I been a hypocrite?” I had to add it in there myself, and rarely have I been able to go past it to the next question without being convicted. The greatest act of hypocrisy would be to hide one’s own hypocrisy—hiding it from ourselves and from others, since it is not possible to hide it from God. Hypocrisy is in large part overcome the moment it is recognized. And this is what I propose to do in this meditation: to recognize the hypocritical part, which can be more or less conscious, of our actions.
A person, wrote Blaise Pascal, has two lives: One is his true life and the other is the imaginary one he lives in his own mind and in the minds of other people. We work hard to embellish and conserve our imaginary being and we neglect our true being. If we have some virtue or merit, we are careful to make it known somehow so as to attach it to that imaginary existence. We would rather separate a virtue from our true life and join it to the imaginary one: we would willingly be cowards in order to acquire the reputation of being brave, even to the point of giving up our life as long as people would talk about it.[1]
Let us try to discover the origin and the meaning of the word “hypocrisy.” It comes from the language of the theater. At first it simply meant “recitation, acting on stage.” The intrinsic element of falsehood that occurs in every stage production did not go unnoticed by the ancients in spite of its acknowledged high moral and artistic value. This was the source of the negative judgment on the acting profession, which was restricted during certain periods to slaves and even directly prohibited by Christian apologists. The sorrow and joy represented and emphasized are not real sorrow and joy but appearance, a fiction. The exterior words and attitudes do not correspond to the inner reality of the heart. What appears on one’s face is not what is in one’s heart.
We use the word “fiction” in a neutral or even positive sense. (It refers to a literary and entertainment genre that is very popular today!) The ancients gave it the meaning that it really has: pretense. What was negative in stage fiction was transferred to the word “hypocrisy.” After originally being a neutral term, it became one of the few words whose meanings are exclusively negative. There are people who brag about being proud or dissolute, but no one brags about being a hypocrite.
The origin of the word puts us on track to discover the nature of hypocrisy. It turns life into a stage where we perform for the public; it means putting on a mask and ceasing to be a person in order to become a character. A fictive character is nothing but a corruption of an authentic person. A person has a face; a character wears a mask. A person is completely bare; a character is completely wrapped in clothes. A person loves authenticity and reality; a character lives a life of fiction and artifice. A person follows his or her own convictions; a character follows a script. A person is humble and gentle; a character is cumbersome and unwieldly.
This innate tendency in human beings has been increased dramatically by the current culture dominated by images. Films, television, and Internet—they are now all based predominantly on images. René Descartes said, “Cogito, ergo sum,” “I think, therefore I am,” but today that tends to be substituted by “I appear, therefore I am.” A famous moralist defined hypocrisy as “a homage vice pays to virtue.”[2] It sets traps for pious and religious people in particular. A rabbi during the time of Christ said that 90 percent of the hypocrisy in the world could be found in Jerusalem.[3] The reason is simple: wherever spiritual values, piety, and virtues are most highly esteemed, the strongest temptation is to pretend to have them so as not to seem to be without them.
Another danger comes from the multitude of rituals that pious people are supposed to perform and the rules they are supposed to observe. If these rituals are not accompanied by a continuous effort to establish them within one’s soul out of love for God and neighbor, they become empty shells. St. Paul, speaking of external rites and precepts, says, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23). In this case, says the apostle, people are “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it” (2 Tim 3:5).
When hypocrisy becomes chronic it creates, both in marriage in and in consecrated life, a “double life”: one that is public and well known while the other is hidden—often one during the day and another at night. It is the most dangerous spiritual state for a soul, and it becomes extremely difficult to exit from it unless something from outside intervenes and shatters the wall behind which a person is sealed off. It is the condition that Jesus describes with the image of whitewashed tombs:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. (Mt 23:27-28)
If we ask why hypocrisy is such an abomination to God, the answer is clear. Hypocrisy is a lie. It obscures the truth. In addition, hypocrisy deposes God and puts him in second place while putting creatures—the public—in first place. It is as though someone in the presence of a king turns his back on him in order to focus only on the servants. “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7): to cultivate outward appearance more than the heart automatically means giving more importance to human beings than to God.
Hypocrisy, then, is essentially a lack of faith, a form of idolatry in which creatures are assigned the place of the Creator. Jesus attributes his enemies’ lack of ability to believe in him to this: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44). Hypocrisy is also a lack of charity toward one’s neighbor because it tends to reduce others to being admirers. It does not recognize the dignity that is properly theirs, because it sees others only in connection to one’s own image. What is important is the size of the audience and nothing else.
One type of hypocrisy is duplicity or insincerity. In being hypocritical one aims to lie to God, but with duplicity in thinking and speaking, a person aims to lie to other people. Duplicity is saying one thing and thinking another, saying something good about a person in his or her presence and then speaking ill of that person as soon as his or her back is turned.
The judgment of Christ on hypocrisy is like a flaming sword: “Receperunt mercedem suam,” “they have their reward” (Mt 6:2). They already have a signed receipt, so they cannot expect anything more. It is a reward, however, that is illusory and counterproductive even on the human level because the saying is very true that “glory flees the one who pursues it and pursues the one who flees it.”
It is clear that our victory over hypocrisy will never be a victory at the outset. Unless we have reached a very high level of perfection, we cannot instinctively avoid feeling the desire to appear in a good light, to make a good impression, and to please others. Our weapon is the correction of our intentions. Righteous intention is attained through constant, daily correction of our intentions. The intention of the will, not an inner feeling, is what makes the difference in God’s eyes.
If hypocrisy consists in making a show of the good that one does not really do, an effective remedy to counter this tendency is to conceal the good that one does, to favor the hidden gestures that will not be spoiled by any earthly gaze and will keep all their fragrance for God. St. John of the Cross says, “God is more pleased by one work, however small, done secretly, without desire that it be known, than a thousand done with desire that men know of them.”[4] He goes on to say, “He who does a pure and whole work for God merits a whole kingdom for its owner.”[5]
Jesus persistently recommends this practice: “Pray in secret, fast in secret, give alms in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (see Mt 6:4-18). These are subtle acts before God that invigorate the soul. However, it is not a question of making this a rigid rule because Jesus also says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16). The issue is discerning when it is good for others to see and when it is better that they do not.
The worst thing one can do after hearing or reading a description of hypocrisy is to use it to judge others and to denounce the hypocrisy around us. It is precisely these people to whom Jesus applies the name of hypocrites: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Mt 7:5). This is truly a case for saying, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone” (Jn 8:7). Who can say that they are completely immune from this form of hypocrisy? Of being not a bit like a whitewashed tomb, different on the inside from what appears on the outside? Possibly only Jesus and our Blessed Mother are exempt, in a permanent and absolute way, from every form of hypocrisy. The comforting fact is that as soon as one says, “I have been a hypocrite,” one’s hypocrisy is overcome.
“If your eye is single”
The word of God does not limit itself to condemning the vice of hypocrisy: it also urges people to cultivate the opposite virtue, which is simplicity. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light” (see Mt 6:22). The word “simplicity” can have—and still has today—a negative meaning of gullibility, naiveté, superficiality, and foolishness. Jesus was careful to exclude this meaning: when he recommends that his disciples be “simple or innocent as doves,” he also adds the call to be “wise as serpents” (see Mt 10:16).
St. Paul takes up and applies the gospel teaching on simplicity to the life of the Christian community. In his Letter to the Romans, he writes, “If one contributes, one should do so in simplicity and generosity” (see Rom 12:8). He is referring, first of all, to those in the community who are responsible for works of charity, but the recommendation applies to all, not just to those who give money but also to those who give of their time and work. This means not to emphasize the good one does for others or through one’s office. Alessandro Manzoni in his novel The Betrothed has embodied the spirit of the gospel very well and has a very touching scene in this regard tht involves the good tailor of the village:
He interrupted himself, as if checked by some thought. He hesitated a moment; then filling a platter from the several dishes on the table, and adding a loaf of bread, he put it into a cloth, and taking it by the four corners, said to his eldest girl: “Here, take this.” He then put into her other hand a little flask of wine, and added: “Go down to the widow Maria, leave her these things, and tell her it is to make a little feast with her children. But do it kindly and nicely, you know; that it may not seem as if you were doing her a charity.” [6]
The apostle Paul also speaks of simplicity in another context that is of interest to us particularly because it is relevant to the Passover. Writing to the Corinthians, he says,
Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor 5:7-8)
The feast that the apostle invites people to celebrate is not just any feast but the feast par excellence, the unique feast that Christianity was familiar with and celebrated in the first three centuries of its history, the Passover. On the eve of the Passover, the 13th day of Nisan, the Jewish ritual required the housewife to scour the whole house by candlelight, cleaning every corner to remove even the smallest vestige of leavened bread so as to celebrate the Passover the next day with only unleavened bread. Leaven was actually synonymous for the Jews with corruption, and the unleavened bread was a symbol of purity, newness, and integrity. It is in this sense that Jesus calls hypocrisy “leaven” when referring to “the leaven of the Pharisees” (Lk 12:1).
St. Paul sees this Jewish ritual practice as a significant metaphor for Christian life. Christ has been sacrificed; he is the true Passover, which the ancient Passover foreshadowed. We need, then, to scour our interior homes—our hearts—and remove everything that is old and corrupt in order to become “a new lump,” to do a major spring cleaning within ourselves. The Greek word heilikrineia that is translated as “sincerity” contains the idea of the radiance of the sun (helios) and of testing and judgment (krino), so it therefore means radiant transparency, something that has been tested in the light and has been found pure.
The virtue of simplicity has the most sublime model that anyone can think of: God himself. St. Augustine wrote, “God is triune, but he is not triple.”[7] He is simplicity itself. The Trinity does not destroy the simplicity of God, because simplicity concerns nature, and the nature of God is one and simple. St. Thomas faithfully retains this legacy in making simplicity the first of God’s attributes. [8]
The Bible expresses this very truth in a concrete way through images: “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5). The absence of any kind of mixture is also one of the multiple meanings of the divine title Qadosh, Holy. Pure fullness, pure simplicity. The great mystic St. Catherine of Genoa pointed to this aspect of the divine nature, which she was enamored of, with the words “whole,” and “wholeness,” words that together indicate purity and completeness, absolute fullness and homogeneity. God is “all of one piece.” The simplicity of God is “sheer fullness.” Scripture says of him, “Nothing can be added or taken away” (Sir 42:21). Insofar as he is supreme fullness, nothing can be added to him; insofar as he is supreme purity, nothing should be taken away. The two are never united in us; one contradicts the other. Our purity is always obtained by removing something, by purifying ourselves, by “removing the evil of our deeds” (see Is 1:16).
Any kind of act, even if it is small, if done with a pure and simple intention, makes us be “in the image and likeness of God.” A pure and simple intention concentrates the energy dispersed in the soul, prepares the spirit, and unites it to God. This is the beginning, end, and adornment of all the virtues. Inclining only toward God and judging things in relation to him, simplicity pushes away and rejects pretense, hypocrisy, and every duplicity. This pure and righteous intention is the “single eye” that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel that gives light to the whole body, that is, to all the life and actions of a person, and keeps him or her immune to sin.
Simplicity is one of the most arduous and most wonderful achievements of the spiritual journey. Simplicity belongs to the person who has been purified by a true repentance, because it is the fruit of a total detachment from oneself and of disinterested love for Christ. One reaches it little by little, without being discouraged by slip-ups, but with a firm determination to seek God for his own sake and not for our sake.
If I may be permitted to make a suggestion at the end of this meditation, it would be to look for Psalm 139 in the Psalter or in the Liturgy of the Hours and to recite it slowly and repeatedly as if we were reading it for the first time, even as if we were composing it ourselves and were the first to speak it out. If hypocrisy and duplicity consist in seeking the gaze of men more than that of God, here we find the most effective remedy. Reciting this psalm is like undergoing a kind of radiography, like exposing ourselves to X-rays. One senses the gaze of God criss-crossing over every part of us. I always remember the impression I had when I first recited it the way I am describing it. It begins this way:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely. . . .
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
The wonderful things is that this awareness of being under God’s gaze does not create a feeling of shame and discomfort that a person can feel at being observed and having his or her most secret thoughts exposed. On the contrary, it creates a feeling of joy because we understand that it is the gaze of a father who loves us and who wants us to be perfect as he is perfect. The psalmist in fact ends his prayer with an exclamation of joy:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Yes, Lord, search us to see if we are following a path of lies, and guide us, during this Lent, on the path of simplicity and transparency. Amen.
English Translation by Marsha Daigle Williamson
[1] See Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 147, intro. T. S. Eliot, trans. W. F. Trotter (Franklin, PA: Franklin Library, 1979), p. 47.
[2] François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, 208, trans. Stuart D. Warner and Stephane Douard (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), p. 43: “L’hypocrisie est un homage que le vice rend à la virtue.”
[3] See Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus {The Gospel according to Matthew] (Munich: C. H. Beck’sche, 1926), vol. 1, p. 718.
[4] John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love, 20, in The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2017).
[5] Ibid., 21.
[6] Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed [I promessi sposi], ch. 24,  Harvard Classics, ed. Charles W. Emot (New York: P. F. Collier and Sons 1909), p. 409.
[7] St. Augustine, On the Trinity, 6, 7.
[8] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1, 3, 7.

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Raniero Cantalamessa

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