VATICAN CITY, DEC. 8, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The theme of the meditations that the Papal Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, is giving this Advent to John Paul II and his aides in the Roman Curia, in preparation for the celebration of Christmas, is: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3): Reflections on Christian holiness in the light of the experience of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.”
Following is Part 1 of the text preached last Friday in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, in the presence of the Holy Father.
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Father Raniero Cantalamessa
Advent 2003 in the Papal Household
“Go From Your Country and See”
Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, Brothers and Sisters:
The beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta last October 19 highlighted the fact that there is only one authentic greatness in the world: holiness. Looking at the multitude that filled every corner of St. Peter’s Square and the Via della Conciliazione at the moment that the blessed’s image was unveiled and the choir was singing the Alleluia, this truth was all together evident. What other person in the world has been so honored? Such a large crowd, which gathered spontaneously, without out being ordered to do so, as so often happens with totalitarian regimes, but simply out of admiration and love for the person.
It was a confirmation of the truth of Pascal’s well-known thought. There are in the world three possible orders or levels of greatness: the order of bodies, in which wealthy people, extraordinarily beautiful people or those of an imposing physical presence stand out; the order of intelligence and genius, in which artists, writers and scientists are distinguished; and the order of holiness in which, after Christ, the Virgin and the saints are outstanding (“Pensées” 793Br.).
Almost an infinite distance, Pascal writes, separates the second order from the first, but an infinitely infinite distance separates the third from the second order, the order of holiness from that of genius. “One drop of holiness,” musician Gounod said, “is worth more than an ocean of genius.” The glory of holiness does not end with time, but lasts eternally. The theory of the saints, which we have before us in the facade of this chapel reminds us precisely of this, and accompanies us in this meditation, encouraging us to follow them.
In the apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” the Holy Father says that holiness “is the perspective in which the whole pastoral endeavor of the Church should be situated.” This holiness, he explains, is above all an objective that Christ has made possible for us with his redeeming death, and that we have received at baptism, but, he adds, “the gift is translated in turn into a “commitment” that must govern the whole of Christian life.”
On other occasions I have reflected on the holiness of Christ as a free gift to be appropriated through faith, effecting what I like to call the “coup of audacity” in the spiritual life; this time, in the wake of Mother Teresa, I would like to emphasize the holiness of Christ as a model to “imitate” in life.
To this end, a thought of Mother Teresa is quoted in the invitation card to these Advent homilies. It says: “Today the Church needs saints. This calls for our combating our attachment to comforts that lead us to choose a comfortable and insignificant mediocrity. Each one of us has the possibility to be a saint, and the way to holiness is prayer. Holiness is, for each of us, a simple duty.”
At the source of holiness
In Mother Teresa’s life we discover what is the initial act from which the daring enterprise of holiness stems, the “first stone” of the building. For our consolation, we discover that this act can occur at any age in life. In other words, it is never too late to begin to be saints. St. Teresa of Avila lived quite an ordinary life for many years, not without compromises, when the change took place that made of her what we know.
The same happened in the life of her namesake, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Until the age of 36 years, she was a religious of the Congregation of Loreto, certainly faithful to her vocation and dedicated to her work, but nothing led to foresee something extraordinary in her.
It was during a train trip from Calcutta to Darjeeling for her annual spiritual retreat that the event that changed her life occurred. God’s mysterious voice addressed a clear invitation to her: Leave your order, your previous life, and put yourself at my disposition for a work that I will indicate to you. Among Mother Teresa’s daughters, that day — September 10, 1946 — is remembered with the name of “day of inspiration.”
Today, thanks to the documents that came to light during the process of beatification, we know the exact words Jesus said to her: “I want Indian religious, Missionaries of Charity, who will be my fire of love among the poorest, the sick, the dying, the children of the streets. I want you to bring me the poor. … Will you refuse to do this for me? And also: There are convents with many religious who take care of rich and privileged people, but for my indigents there is absolutely none.”
At that moment, the experience of Abraham was renewed in Mother Teresa’s life, to whom one day God said: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). The “Go!” addressed to Abraham is different from the order given later to Lot to go from Sodom (see Genesis 19:15). Nothing shows that Ur of the Chaldeans had a particularly corrupt environment and that Abraham could not be saved by staying where he was. In his “Roman Triptych,” the poetic text published this year, the Pope reflects on Abraham’s probable sentiments before the divine proposal: “Why must I go from here? Why must I leave Ur of the Chaldeans?”
We know that Mother Teresa asked herself the same questions. It was an interior laceration. She confided to Archbishop Perier: “I have been and continue to be very happy as a religious of Loreto, to leave what I love and expose myself to new hardships and sufferings which will be great.” Turning to Jesus she said: “Why can’t I be a perfect Loreto religious? … Why can’t I be like all the others? … What you ask me is too great for me … Look for a more worthy and generous soul.”
Also repeated here is something constant in the Bible. Moses said: “I am not eloquent” (Exodus 10), and Jeremiah: “I am only a youth …” (Jeremiah 1:6). But God knows how to distinguish when the objections of those he calls stem from a resistance of the will, or when they stem, instead, from fear of being deceived or of not being up to the mission. So he is not offended by their requests for explanations.
He was not surprised by Mary’s question, “How shall this be?” while he reprimanded Zechariah and left him dumb for the same question (see Luke 1:18). Mary’s question did not stem from doubt, but from the legitimate desire to know what she should do to accomplish what God was asking of her.
In the end, Mother Teresa, like Mary, said her full “fiat” to God, “yes.” She said it with the deeds we know and she said it with joy. The Greek word translated into Latin as “fiat” is “genoito.” It is in the optative mood, not concessive as “fiat”: It does not express simple assent or resignation to something occurring, as if saying: “If it cannot be done any other way, I agree, ‘Fiat voluntas tua!'” On the contrary, it expresses desire, impatience, joy to have something occur. This is why it is called the optative mood. “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7): a word that Mother Teresa never tired of stressing to her daughters but above all that she showed all her life with her smile.
2. The seed of the pomegranate
On this point, the fundamental act is clear, that “first stone” on which Mother Teresa’s, and all Christian holiness, is founded: it is the response to a call, and obedience to a divine inspiration, discerned and recognized as such. Simone Weil, who was not a saint but absolutely admired holiness, spoke of the “consent that the soul gives in these moments to God, as something imperceptible, amid all the carnal inclinations, a miniscule seed of the pomegranate, which still decides its destiny for ever.”
All the great holy undertakings of the Bible and of the history of the Church hinge on a “yes” said to God at the moment he reveals his will personally to someone. From Abraham’s faith-obedience, Scripture has the whole subsequent history of the Chosen People depend: “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:18); from Mary’s faith-obedience, God willed to have the beginning of the new and eternal covenant depend.
In his autobiographical book “Gift and Mystery,” the Holy Father, John Paul II, writes: “In the autumn of 1942 I made my ‘final decision’ to enter the seminary” : the cursive in the text indicates many explanations that are not given, but are intuited. That decision was also preceded by a call; it was the decision to respond to an invitation, as every priestly vocation is. Now we know what God has built on that decision, on that “Here I am, I will go,” pronounced long ago in 1942.
I can imagine the amazement and wonder of Mother Teresa at the end of her life when she recalled that train trip. What God was able to do with her little and long-suffering “Yes”! What a grandiose plan he already had in mind that she did not know! I cannot think of her soul at the end of her life without singing an amazed and overwhelmed: “Magnify my soul, Lord … because the Almighty has done great things in me.”
At the beginning of this year the Missionaries of Charity gave me the honor of preaching the Spiritual Exercises in preparation for the General Chapter held in Calcutta — in reality, they were the ones who preached Exercises to me with their extraordinary seriousness, poverty, and incessant prayer.
It seemed to me from the first moment that, from heaven, Mother Teresa was advising that the first Chapter held after her death should be the occasion for a moving choral Magnificat to God from her daughters for that which he did in her life and continues to do in theirs. I said this with simplicity to those present and, after the Chapter had closed, Sister Nirmala, the Mother General, confided that the General Chapter had been, above all, precisely this.
In the life of each one of us, as in Mother Teresa’s life, there has been a call; otherwise we would not be here. Our “Yes” was, also, perhaps, a “Yes” in the dark, without knowing where it would lead us. Years later, we should not be afraid to acknowledge what God has been able to build on that little “Yes,” despite our resistances and infidelities, and we, too, should intone a moving and grateful “Magnify my soul” to the Lord.
[Tuesday: On good inspirations]
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1 “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” 30.
2 John Paul II, “Roman Triptych,” III. Mount in the Region of Moriah, 1 (Vatican Press Library), 2003, p. 35.
3. S. Weil, “Intuitions pré-chrétiennes,” Paris, 1967 (Italian translation, “La Grecia e le intuizioni prechristiane,” Turin, 1967, p. 113.s.).
4 John Paul II, “Gift and Mystery,” Vatican Press Library, Rome, 1996, p. 21.
[Translation by ZENIT]