VATICAN CITY, DEC. 11, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is the Advent reflection delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Pontifical Household, for Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia. The talk was titled “Ministers of the New Covenant of the Spirit.”
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1. The Service of the Spirit
Last time we commented on the definition that Paul gives of priests as “servants of Christ.” In the Second Letter to the Corinthians we find an apparently different affirmation: he writes: “Our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, was so glorious that the Israelites could not look intently at the face of Moses because of its glory that was going to fade, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious?” (2 Corinthians 3:5-8).
Paul describes himself and his collaborators as “ministers of a new covenant in the Spirit” and the apostolic ministry as “service (diakonia) of the Spirit.” The comparison with Moses and the worship of the ancient covenant leaves no doubt, in fact, that in this passage, as in many other of the same letter, he speaks of the role of the leaders in the Christian community, namely the apostles and their collaborators.
Whoever knows the relationship that there is for Paul between Christ and the Spirit knows that there is no contradiction, but rather perfect continuity, between being servants of Christ and being ministers of the Spirit. The Spirit being spoken of here is in fact the Spirit of Christ. Jesus himself explains the role of the Paraclete in relations to him, when he says to the apostles: He will take it from me and will proclaim it to you, he will make you recall what I have told you, he will witness to me.
The complete definition of the apostolic and priestly ministry is: servants of Christ in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit indicates the quality or nature of our service which is a “spiritual” service in the strong sense of the term; not only, that is, in the sense that it has the spirit of man and his soul as its object, but also in the sense that it has as its subject and “principal agent” the Holy Spirit. St. Irenaeus says that the Holy Spirit is “our very communion with Christ.”
Just above, in the same Second Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle illustrated the action of the Holy Spirit in the ministers of the New Covenant with the symbol of anointing: “But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointend us; he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”
St. Athanasius comments this text thus: “The Spirit is called and is anointing and seal. […] The anointing is the breath of the Son, so that he who possesses the Spirit can say: ‘We are the perfume of Christ.’ The seal represents Christ, so that he who is marked by the seal is able to have the form of Christ.” As anointing, the Spirit transmits to us the perfume of Christ; as seal, his form or image. Hence, there is no dichotomy between service of Christ and service of the Spirit, but rather profound unity.
All Christians are “anointed”; their name itself means nothing other than this: “anointed,” in the likeness of Christ, who is the Anointed par excellence (cf. 1 John 2:20.27). However, Paul is speaking here of his work and Timothy’s (“we”) as opposed to the community (“you”); it is evident therefore that he is referring in particular to the anointing and seal of the Spirit, received at the moment of being consecrated to the apostolic ministry, for Timothy through the imposition of the hands of the Apostle (cf. 2 Timothy 1:6).
We must absolutely rediscover the importance of the anointing of the Spirit because in it, I am convinced, is enclosed the secret of the efficacy of the episcopal and presbyterial ministry. Priests are essentially the consecrated ones, namely, the anointed. “Our Lord Jesus — one reads in the ‘Presbyterorum ordinis’ — whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world (John 10:36), has made all his Mystical Body participate in that anointing of the Spirit that he has received.” The same conciliar decree, however, hastens to put immediately in the light the specificity of the anointing conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders. That is why it states that “priests, in virtue of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are marked by a special character that configures them to Christ the priest, so that they can act in the name of Christ, the Head.”
2. Anointing: figure, event and sacrament
The anointing, as the Eucharist and Easter, is one of those realities that are present in all the three phases of the history of salvation. It is present, in fact, in the Old Testament as figure, in the New Testament as event and in the time of the Church as sacrament. In our case, the figure is given by the various anointings practiced in the Old Testament; the event is constituted by the anointing of Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, to whom all the figures tended as to their fulfillment; the sacrament, is represented by that ensemble of sacramental signs that include an anointing as principal and complementary rite.
The Old Testament speaks of three types of anointing: royal, priestly and prophetic anointing. That is, anointing of kings, of priests and of prophets, even though in the case of prophets it is in general a spiritual and metaphoric anointing, namely, without a material oil. In every one of these anointings, a messianic horizon is delineated, namely, the expectation of a king, of a priest and of a prophet who will be the Anointed One par excellence, the Messiah.
Together with the official and juridical investiture, by which the king becomes the Anointed of the Lord, the anointing also confers, according to the Bible, a real interior power, it entails a transformation that comes from God and this power, this reality is ever more clearly identified with the Holy Spirit. In anointing Saul as king, Samuel says: “Has not the Lord anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? […] Then the spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man” (1 Samuel 10:1.6). The link between the anointing and the Spirit is above all brought into light in the well-known text of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me” (Isaiah 61:1).
The New Testament does not hesitate to present Jesus as the Anointed One of God, in whom all ancient anointings have found their fulfillment. The title of Messiah, or Christ, which means in fact Anointed, is the clearest proof of that.
The moment of historical event to which this fulfillment refers is the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. The effect of this anointing is the Holy Spirit: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power (Acts 10:38); Jesus himself, immediately after his baptism, would declare in the synagogue of Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me” (Luke 4:18). Jesus was certainly full of the Holy Spirit from the moment of the Incarnation, but it was a personal grace, linked to the hypostatic union, and because of this, incommunicable. Now, in the anointing, he received that fullness of the Holy Spirit that, as head, he will be able to transmit to his body. The Church lives from this capital grace (gratia capitis).
The effects of the triple anointing — royal, prophetic and priestly — are grandiose and immediate in the ministry of Jesus. In the strength of the royal anointing, he brings down the kingdom of Satan and establishes the kingdom of God: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28); in the strength of the prophetic anointing, he “proclaims the good news to the poor”; in the strength of the priestly anointing, he offers prayers and tears during his earthly life and in the end offers himself on the cross.
After being present in the Old Testament as figure and in the New Testament as event, the anointing is now present in the Church as sacrament. The sacrament takes from the figure the sign and from the event the meaning: it takes from the anointings of the Old Testament the element — the oil, the chrism or perfumed unguent — and from Christ the salvific efficacy. Christ was never anointed with physical oil (apart from the anointing of Bethany), and he never anointed anyone with physical oil. In him the symbol was replaced by the reality, by the “oil of gladness” that is the Holy Spirit.
More than a unique sacrament, the anointing is present in the Church as an ensemble of sacramental rites. As separate sacraments, we have the chrismation (which through all the transformations undergone, refers, as the name attests, to the ancient rite of anointing with chrism) and the anointing of the sick; as part of other sacraments we have: the baptismal anointing and the anointing in the sacrament of Holy Orders. In the chrism anointing that follows baptism, explicit reference is made to the triple anointing of Christ: “He himself consecrates you with the chrism of salvation; inserted in Christ priest, king and prophet, be always members of his body for eternal life.”
Of all these anointings, of interest to us at this moment is that which accompanies the conferring of Holy Orders. In the moment in which the bishop anoints the palms of each of the ordained kneeling before him, he pronounces these words: “May the Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Father consecrated in the Holy Spirit and power, keep you for the sanctification of his people and for the offering of the sacrifice.”
Yet more explicit is the reference to the anointing in Christ in the episcopal consecration. Anointing with perfumed oil the head of the new bishop, the ordaining bishop says: “May God, who has made you share in the high priesthood of Christ, shed upon you his mystical anointing and with the abundance of his blessing give fruitfulness to your ministry.”
3. Spiritual Anointing
There is however a risk, which is common to all the sacraments: that of staying with the ritual or canonical aspect of ordination, with its validity and lawfulness, and not giving enough importance to the “res sacramenti,” to the spiritual effect, to the grace itself of the sacrament, in this case the fruit of the anointing in the life of the priest. The sacramental anointing, enables us to carry out certain sacred actions, such as govern, preach, instruct; we are given, so to speak, the authorization to do certain things, not necessarily the authority and a real power in doing it; it ensures the apostolic succession, not necessarily apostolic success!
The sacramental anointing, with the indelible character (the “seal”!) which it imprints in the priest, is a resource for which we can reach every time we feel the need, that we can, so to speak, activate in every moment of our ministry. We know from our theology the idea of the “reviviscence” of a sacrament. A sacrament, received in the past, comes anew to life (reviviscit) and emit its grace, in some cases because the obstacle of sin (the obex) is removed, in other cases because the patina of habit is taken away and faith is intensified. It happens as with a bottle of perfume. We can keep it in our pocket or clutch it in our hand as long as we want but if we do not open it the perfume is not spread, it is as if it was not.
When and how did this idea of an actual anointing appear? An important stage is constituted, once again, by Augustine. He interprets the text of the First Letter of John: “The anointing which you received teaches you everything” (cf. 1 John 2:27), in the sense of a continuous anointing, thanks to which the Holy Spirit, as an interior teacher, enables us to understand within what we hear from without. From Augustine comes the expression “spiritual anointing,” spiritalis unctio, contained in the hymn Veni creator. As in many other things, Saint Gregory the Great, contributed to rendering popular, for the whole of the Middle Ages, this Augustinian intuition.
A new phase in the development of the subject of anointing opens with Saint Bernard and Saint Bonaventure. Affirmed with them is the new meaning, spiritual and modern of anointing, not linked so much to the topic of knowledge of the truth, but to that of the experience of the divine reality. Beginning to comment on the Canticle of Canticles, Saint Bernard says: “Only anointing teaches such a canticle, only experience makes it understood.” St. Bonaventure identifies anointing with devotion, conceived by him as “a gentle feeling of love towards God awakened by the memory of the benefits of Christ.” It does not depend on nature, or on science, or on words or books, but “on the gift of God who is the Holy Spirit.”
Used ever more often in our days are the terms anointed and anointing to describe the behavior of a person, the quality of an address, of a homily, but with a difference of accent. In traditional language, anointing suggests, as we have seen, above all the idea of gentleness and sweetness, so much so as to give place, in the profane use, to the negative accession of speech or a mellifluous and insinuating attitude, often hypocritical, and to the adjective “unctuous,” in the sense of “person or attitude unpleasantly ceremonious and servile.”
In the modern use, closer to the biblical one, the anointing suggests rather the idea of power and force of persuasion. A speech full of unction is a speech in which is perceived, so to speak, the throb of the Spirit; a proclamation that reaches people’s heart and convinces one of sin. It is an exquisitely biblical component of the term, present for example in the text of Acts in which it is said that Jesus “was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).
The anointing, in this sense, seems more like an act than a state. It is something that the person does not possess permanently, but that comes on the person, “invests” him at the moment, in the exercise of a certain ministry or in prayer.
If the anointing is given by the presence of the Spirit and is his gift, what can we do to have it? Above all pray. It is an explicit promise of Jesus: “the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13). Then we also should break the alabaster jar as the sinful woman in Simon’s house. The jar is our I, at times our arid intellectualism. To break it means to deny oneself, to give over to God, with an explicit act, the reins of our life. God cannot give his Spirit to one who does not give himself wholly to Him.
4. How to obtain the anointing of the Spirit
Let us apply to the life of the priest this very rich biblical and theological content linked to the subject of anointing. Saint Basil says that the Holy Spirit “was always present in the life of the Lord, becoming his anointing and inseparable companion,” so much so that “all of Christ’s activity unfolded in the Spirit.” To have the anointing therefore means to have the Holy Spirit as “inseparable companion” in life, to do everything “in the Spirit,” in his presence, with his guidance. This entails a certain passivity, a being activated, moved or as Paul says, a letting oneself to be “led by the Spirit” (cf. Galatians 5:18).
All this is translated, on the outside, now in softness, calm, peace, sweetness, devotion, emotion, now in authority, force, power, authoritativeness, according to the circumstances, the character of each one and also the office held. The living example is Jesus who, moved by the Spirit, manifests himself gentle and humble of heart, but also, according to the moment, full of divine authority. It is a condition characterized by a certain interior luminosity which gives facility and mastery in doing things. Somewhat as “form” is for the athlete and inspiration for the poet: a state in which one succeeds in giving the best of oneself.
We priests should make it a habit to request the anointing of the Spirit before setting about an important action at the service of the kingdom: a decision to be taken, an appointment to be made, a document to write, a commission to preside over, a homily to prepare. I came to it at my expense. At times, I have found myself having to speak to a large auditorium, in a foreign language, often just having arrived from a long trip. Total darkness. The language in which I had to speak it seemed to me I had never known, I was unable to concentrate on a scheme, a topic. And the initial hymn was about to end … Then I remembered the anointing and in haste I made a brief prayer: “Father, in the name of Christ, I ask you for the anointing of the Spirit!”
At times, the effect is immediate. One feels almost physically the coming on oneself of the anointing. A certain emotion goes through the body, clarity of mind, serenity of soul, exhaustion, nervousness disappear, as do every fear and every timidity; one experiences something of the calm and the authority itself of God.
I think that many of my prayers, as those of every Christian, remain unheard, except for this one for anointing. It seems that before God we have a sort of right to claim it. At times I even take advantage of this possibility. For example, if I must speak of Jesus Christ, I make a secret covenant with God the Father, without letting Jesus know, and I say: “Father, I must speak of your Son Jesus that you so love: give me the anointing of your Spirit to reach the heart of the people.” If I must speak of God the Father, I do the contrary: I make a secret agreement with Jesus … The doctrine of the Trinity is wonderful also for this.
5. Anointed to spread in the world the good odor of Christ
In the same context of 2 Corinthians, the Apostle, always referring to the apostolic ministry, develops the metaphor of anointing with that of the perfume which is its effect; he writes: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God” (2 Corinthians 14:15).
This is what the priest should be: the good perfume of Christ in the world! But the Apostle puts us on guard, adding immediately after: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7). In the end we know too well, from the recent painful and humiliating experience, what all this means. Jesus said to the Apostles: “You are the salt of the earth; But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? t is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). The truth of this word of Christ is painfully before our eyes. Also the anointing, if it loses its odor and is spoiled, transforms itself into its contrary, into stench and, instead of attracting to Christ, it alienates from him.
Also to respond to this situation the Holy Father has proclaimed the present Year of Priests. He says so openly in the letter written for the occasion: “There are also, sad to say, situations which can never be sufficiently deplored where the Church herself suffers as a consequence of infidelity on the part of some of her ministers. Then it is the world which finds grounds for scandal and rejection.”
The Pope’s letter does not stop with this observation; it adds in fact: “What is most helpful to the Church in such cases is not only a frank and complete acknowledgment of the weaknesses of her ministers, but also a joyful and renewed realization of the greatness of God’s gift, embodied in the splendid example of generous pastors, religious afire with love for God and for souls, and insightful, patient spiritual guides.”
The revelation of the weaknesses is also necessary, to render justice to the victims, and the Church now recognizes it and acts as best she can, but it must be done in other moment; in every case, it is not from it that the impulse will come for a renewal of the priestly ministry. I have thought of this series of meditations on the priesthood precisely as a small contribution in the sense desired by the Holy Father. I would like to make my Seraphic Father Saint Francis speak in my place. At a time in which the moral situation of the clergy was without a doubt sadder than today’s, he wrote in his Testament:
“The Lord gave me and gives me so much faith in priests who live according to the way of the Holy Roman Church, because of their ordination, that if they were to persecute me I would take recourse to them. And if I had so much wisdom, as Solomon had, and I found myself a poor priest in this world, in the parishes where they live, I would not wish to preach against their will. And these and all the others I wish to fear, love and honor as my lords. And I do this because, from the most High Son of God I see nothing else physically in this world other than his most holy Body and blood which they alone consecrate and they alone administer to others.”
In the text quoted in the beginning, Paul speaks of the “glory” of the ministers of the New Covenant of the Spirit, immensely higher than the ancient one. This glory does not come from men and cannot be destroyed by men. St. John-Mary Vianney certainly spread around him the good odor of Christ and it was because of this that the crowds ran to Ars; closer to us, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina spread the perfume of Christ, at times even a physical perfume, as was attested by innumerable persons worthy of faith. So many priests, unknown by the world, are in their environment the good odor of Christ and of the Gospel. The “Country Priest” of Bernanos has innumerable companions spread around the world, in the city no less than in the country.
Father Lacordaire sketched a profile of the Catholic priest, which today might seem a bit too optimistic and idealized, but to rediscover the ideal and the enthusiasm for the priestly ministry is precisely the thing that is most needed at this moment. Let us listen therefore to him again at the conclusion of the present meditation:
“To live in the midst of the world without any desire for its pleasures; to be a member of every family, without belonging to any of them; to share every suffering, to be made a part of every secret, heal every wound; to go every day from men to God to offer Him their devotion and their prayers, and to turn from God to men to take to them his forgiveness and his hope; to have a heart of steel for chastity and a heart of flesh for charity; to teach and forgive, console and bless and to be blessed forever. O God, what kind of life is ever like this? It is your life, o priest of Jesus Christ!”
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 Saint Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. III, 24, 1. Saint Athanasius, Letter to Serapion, III, 3 )PG 26, 628 f.).
[Translation by ZENIT]