SPECIAL: 2nd Advent Sermon From Fr. Cantalamessa

‘The Holy Spirit and the Charism of Discernment’

© PHOTO.VA - Osservatore Romano

Today, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the pontifical household, gave the the second Advent sermon of this season.

Here is a translation of the text:

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Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, ofmcap

Second Advent Sermon

The Holy Spirit and the Charism of Discernment

Let us continue our reflections on the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian. Saint Paul mentions a specific charism called “discernment of spirits” (see 1 Cor 12:10). This phrase originally had a very specific meaning: it indicated the gift that made it possible to distinguish from among the inspired or prophetic messages given during an assembly those that came from the Spirit of Christ and those that came from other spirits, such as the spirit of man, or a demonic spirit, or the spirit of the world.

For Saint John this is its fundamental meaning as well. Discernment consists in testing “the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn 4:1). For Paul the fundamental criterion for discernment is confessing Christ as “Lord” (1 Cor 12:3); for John, it is confessing that Jesus “has come in the flesh” (1 Jn 4:2), meaning, the Incarnation. In John, discernment already begins to take on a theological function as the criterion by which to discern true doctrines from false ones, orthodoxy from heresy, which would become pivotal later.

  1. Discernment in ecclesial life

There are two areas in which this gift of discerning the voice of the Holy Spirit needs to be exercised: the ecclesial and the personal.In the ecclesial area, discernment of spirits is carried out by the authority of the magisterium, which, however, must take into account, along with other criteria, the “sense of the faithful.”

But I would like to dwell on one point in particular which may be helpful in the discussionche taking place today on certain moral problems: the discernment of the signs of the time. The Second Vatican Council declared,

In every age the church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the time and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, if it is to carry out its task. In language intelligible to every generation, it should be able to answer the ever-recurring questions which people ask about the meaning of this present life and of the life to come, and how one is related to the other.[1]

It is clear that if Church has to discern the signs of the times in the light of the gospel, it does not do so by applying long-standing measures and rules to the “times,” that is, the problems and situations that emerge in society, but rather by giving new responses, “intelligible to every generation” starting each time from the gospel. The difficulty that is encountered on this path—and which must be taken seriously—is the fear of compromising the authority of the magisterium by admitting changes in its pronouncements.

There is a consideration, I believe, that can help overcome this difficulty in the spirit of communion. The infallibility that the Church and the pope claim is certainly not of a higher level than that which is attributed to revealed Scripture. Biblical inerrancy ensures that the Scripture writer expresses truth in the way and to the degree in which it could be expressed and understood at the time he wrote it. We see that many truths are articulated slowly and gradually, like the truth about the after-life and eternal life. In the moral sphere as well, many prior customs and laws are abandoned later to make way for laws and criteria that are more in accordance with the spirit of the Covenant. One example from among many: Exodus affirms that God will punish the children for the iniquities of the fathers (see Ex 34:7), but Jeremiah and Ezekiel say the opposite, that God will not punish the children for the sins of the fathers but that each person will be held responsible for his or her own actions (see Jer 31:29-30; Ez 18:1ff).

In the Old Testament the criterion by which people move beyond earlier proscriptions is a better understanding of the spirit of the Covenant and of the Torah. In the Church the criterion is a continuous re-reading of the Gospels in the light of new questions that are put to it. “Scriptura cum legentibus crescit,” said St. Gregory the Great: “Scripture grows with those who read it.”[2]

We know that the constant rule for Jesus’ actions in the Gospels, in moral questions, can be summarized in seven words: “No to sin, yes to the sinner.” No one is more severe than he is in condemning unjustly acquired wealth, but he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, and simply by going there to meet him he brings a change. He condemns adultery, even that of the heart, but he forgives the adulteress and gives hope back to her; he reaffirms the indissolubility of marriage, but he engages in conversation with the Samaritan woman who has already had five husbands, and he reveals to her the secret he had told no one else in such an explicit way: “I who speak to you am he [the Messiah]” (Jn 4:26).

If we ask ourselves how to justify theologically such a clear-cut distinction between the sinner and sin, the answer is very simple: sinners are God’s creatures, created by him and made in his image, and they maintain their dignity despite all their aberrations; sin is not the work of God: it does not come from him but from the enemy. It is the same reason why the Son of God became everything human beings are, “except sin” (see Heb. 4:15).

One important factor in accomplishing this task is the collegiality of the bishops, which the Council itself emphasized. Collegiality allows the bishops “to reach agreement on questions of major importance, a balanced decision being made possible thanks to the number of those giving counsel.”[3] The effective exercise of collegiality brings to bear on discernment and the solution to problems the diversity of local situations, points of view, insights and different gifts, which are present in every church and with every bishop.

We have a moving example of this in the first “council” of the Church, the Council of Jerusalem. That meeting allowed ample opportunity to both of the opposing points of view, those of the Judaizers and those who favored an openness to the pagans. There was “much debate,” but in the end they all agreed to announce their decision with this extraordinary formula: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .” (Acts 15: 28; see Acts 15:6ff).

We can see from this how the Spirit guides the Church in two different ways: sometimes in a direct, charismatic way through revelations and prophetic inspirations, and at other times in a collegial way, through the painstaking and difficult confrontation, and even compromise, between the different parties and points of view. Peter’s discourse on the day of Pentecost and at Cornelius’s house is very different from the one he later gave to justify his decision in front of the elders (see Acts 11:4-18; 15:14).

We need, therefore, to have confidence in the ability of the Spirit to achieve that accord in the end, even if at times it can seem as if the whole process is getting out of hand. Whenever pastors of the Christian churches gather together at the local or international level to discern or to make important decisions, each one should have a heartfelt, confident certainty of what the Veni Creator sums up in two verses: Ductore sic te praevio / vitemus omne noxium, “So shall we not, with Thee for guide, / turn from the path of life aside.”

  1. Discernment in our own lives

Let us move on to discernment in our own lives. As a charism applied to individuals, the discernment of spirits underwent a significant evolution over the centuries. Originally, as we have seen, the gift functioned to discern the inspirations of others, of those who had spoken or prophesied in an assembly. Later, it functioned mainly to discern one’s own inspirations.

This was not an arbitrary evolution of the gift: it was in fact the same gift even though it was used for different purposes. A large part of what spiritual authors have written concerning the “gift of counsel” also applies to the charism of discernment. Through the gift, or charism, of counsel, the Holy Spirit helps us to evaluate situations and to orient our choices based not only on human wisdom and prudence but also in the light of the supernatural principles of faith.

The primary and fundamental discernment of spirits is the one that allows us to distinguish the “the Spirit of God” from “the spirit of the world” (1 Cor 2:12). St. Paul offers an objective criterion for discernment that is the same Jesus gave: the fruit. The “works of the flesh” demonstrate that a given desire has come from the old sinful nature, while “the fruits of the Spirit” reveal that a desire has come from the Spirit (see Gal 5:19-22). “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh.” (Gal 5:17)

At times, however, this objective criterion is inadequate because the choice is not between good and bad but between one good and another good, and the question is to discern what God wants in a specific circumstance. It was precisely in response to this need that Saint Ignatius of Loyola developed his teaching on discernment. He invites us to consider one thing above all: our own interior dispositions, the intentions (the “spirits”) that lie behind a choice. In so doing, he was aligning himself with an already established tradition. One medieval author had written,

No one can test the spirits to see if they are from God unless God has given him discernment of spirits to enable him to investigate spiritual thoughts, inclinations and intentions with honest and true judgment. Discernment is the mother of all virtues; everyone needs it either to guide the lives of others or to direct and reform his own life. . . . This then is true discernment, a combination of right thinking and good intention.[4]

St. Ignatius proposed practical ways to apply these criteria.[5] For example, when you have two possible choices before you, it is good to select one of them as though you were about to follow it, and to remain in that stance for a day or more. You then evaluate your inner reaction to that choice to see if it brings peace, if it is in harmony with other choices you have made, if there is something within you that encourages you in that direction, or, on the contrary, if it leaves you with a cloud of uneasiness. Then you repeat that process with your other potential choice.

At the root of Saint Ignatius’s teaching on discernment is his doctrine of “holy indifference.”[6] It consists in placing oneself in a state of total willingness to accept the will of God, giving up all personal preference, like a scale ready to tip to the side where the greatest weight is. The experience of interior peace thus becomes the main criterion in all discernment. After long consideration and prayer, the choice that is accompanied by the greatest peace of heart must be the one retained.

It is essentially a question of putting into practice the ancient advice that Moses’ father-in-law gave him: “present the questions to God” and wait in prayer for his response (Ex 18:19). A deep-seated habitual disposition to do God’s will in every situation puts a person in the most favorable position for good discernment. Jesus said, “My judgment is just because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 5:30).

The danger in some modern approaches to understanding and practising discernment is an emphasis on its psychological aspects to the point of forgetting the primary agent in each discernment, the Holy Spirit. Saint John sees the decisive factor in discernment in being “anointed by the Holy One” (1 Jn 2:20). Saint Ignatius also mentions that in certain cases only the anointing of the Holy Spirit allows us to discern what we should do.[7] There is a profound theological reason for this. The Holy Spirit is himself “the substantial will of God,” so when he enters into a soul, this “Will of God . . . makes himself known to the person into whom he pours himself.”[8]

Discernment, in its essence, is not an art or a technique but a charism, a gift of the Spirit! Its psychological aspects are of great importance, but they always come second. One of the ancient Fathers wrote,

Only the Holy Spirit can purify the mind. . . . So by every means, but especially by peace of soul, we must try to provide the Holy Spirit with a resting place. Then we shall have the light of knowledge shining within us at all times, and it will show up for what they are all the dark and hateful temptations that come from demons, and not only will it show them up: exposure to this holy and glorious light will also greatly diminish their power. That is why the Apostle says: Do not stifle the Spirit. [1 Thess 5:19].[9]

The Holy Spirit does not normally shed his light in our soul in an extraordinary or miraculous way but very simply through the words of Scripture. The most important exemples discernment in the history of the Church have come about this way. It was in hearing the saying from the Gospel,If you want to be perfect . . . ,” that the Desert Father Anthony understood what he needed to do, and he founded monasticism.

This was also the way that Saint Francis of Assisi received the inspiration to initiate his movement of a return to the Gospel. He writes in his Testament, “After the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I had to do, but the Most High himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel.”[10] It was revealed to him during Mass after listening to the passage from the Gospel in which Jesus tells the disciples to go into the world and “take nothing for your journey: no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics” (Lk 9:3).[11]

I myself remember a small example of this same sort of thing. A man came to me during a mission and shared his problem with me. He had an eleven-year-old son who had not been baptized. He said, “If I baptize him, there will be trouble at home because my wife has become a Jehovah’s Witness. If I do not baptize him, my conscience will be uneasy because when we were married, we were both Catholic and promised to raise our children in the Church.” I told him to come back the next day because I needed time to pray and reflect. The next day he came to me radiant and told me, “I found the solution, Father. I was reading in the Bible about Abraham, and I saw that when he took his son Isaac to be offered in sacrifice, he didn’t mention anything to his wife!” The Word of God enlightened him better than any human advice could have. I baptized the boy myself, and it was a great joy for everyone.

Alongside listening to the Word, the most common practice for exercising discernment on a personal level is the examination of conscience. This practice should not be limited, however, only to preparation for confession but should become a continuous excercise of placing ourselves under God’s light to let him “search” our innermost being. If an examination of conscience is not done or not done well, even the grace of confession becomes problematic: either we do not know what to confess or we are too full of psychological or voluntaristic efforts, that is, we are aiming only at self-improvement. An examination of conscience limited to preparing for confession identifies some sins, but it does not lead to an authentic one-on-one relationship with Christ. It easily becomes just a list of imperfections that we confess so that we can feel better without the attitude of real repentance that makes us experience the joy of having “so great a Redeemer” in Jesus.

  1. 3. “Led by the Spirit”

The concrete fruit of this meditation should be a renewed decision to entrust ourselves completely and for everything to the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit as a kind of “spiritual direction.” It is written that “whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would go onward; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not go onward” (Ex 40:36-37). Neither should we undertake anything unless the Holy Spirit moves us (according to the Fathers, the cloud was a figure for him[12]) and unless we have consulted him before every action.

We have the most vivid example of this in Jesus’ life itself. He never undertook anything without the Holy Spirit. He went into the desert with the Holy Spirit; he returned in the power of the Spirit and began his preaching; he chose his apostles “through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2); he prayed and offered himself to the Father “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb 9:14).

We need to guard against a certain temptation, the temptation of wanting to give advice to the Holy Spirit instead of receiving it. “Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, / or as his counsellor has instructed him?” (Is 40:13). The Holy Spirit directs everyone and is himself directed by no one; he guides and is not guided. There is a subtle way of suggesting to the Holy Spirit what he should to do with us and how he should guide us. We even make our own decisions at times and then attribute them flippantly to the Holy Spirit.

Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks about this inner leading of the Holy Spirit as a kind of “instinct of the righteous”: “As in bodily life the body is not moved save by the soul, by which it has life, so in the spiritual life all of our movements should be through the Holy Spirit.”[13] This is how the “law of the Spirit” works; this is what the Apostle calls being “led by the Spirit” (Gal 5:18).

We need to abandon ourselves totally to the Holy Spirit, like the strings of a harp to the fingers that pluck them. Like good actors, we need to listen attentively to the voice of the hidden prompter, so that we may recite our part faithfully on the stage of life. This is easier than some might think because our prompter speaks within us, teaches us everything, and instructs us about everything. At times we need only a simple glance inward, a movement of the heart, a prayer. We read this beautiful eulogy about a saintly bishop who lived in the second century, Melito of Sardis, that we would hope could be said of each of us after we die: he “lived entirely in the Holy Spirit.”[14]

Let us ask the Paraclete to direct our minds and our whole lives with the words from a prayer recited in the Office for Pentecost in the Syrian Rite:

Spirit, dispenser of charisms to everyone;

Spirit of wisdom and knowledge, who so loves us all,

you fill the prophets, perfect the apostles,

strengthen the martyrs, inspire the teachers with teaching!

To you, our Paraclete God,

we send up our supplication along with this fragrant incense.

We ask you to renew us with your holy gifts,

to come down upon us as you came down on the Apostles in the upper room.

Pour out your charisms upon us,

fill us with knowledge of your teaching;

make us temples of your glory,

let us be overcome by the wine of your grace.

Grant that we may live for you, be of one mind with you, and adore you,

you the pure, you the holy, God Spirit Paraclete.[15]

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English translation by Marsha Daigle-Williamson

[1]Gaudium et spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World], n. 4, in The Documents of Vatican Council II, ed. Austin Flannery (Northport, NY: Costello, 1995), p. 165.

[2] Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel 1.7, 8 (CCC 94).

[3]Lumen Gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church], n. 22, p. 29.

[4] Baldwin of Canterbury, “Treatise 6,” Second Reading for Friday of the Ninth Week of Ordinary Time in The Office of Readings, pp. 334-335; see also PL 204, p. 466.

[5]See The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, Fourth Week, trans. Anthony Mottola (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 101-128.

[6] Cf. G. Bottereau, “Indifference, ” in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, vol. 7, coll. 1688 ff.

[7] Saint Ignatius Loyloa, The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, 141, 414, trans. and comm. George E. Ganss (St. Louis, MO: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1969), p. 126, 204.

[8] See William of St. Thierry, The Mirror of Faith, 61, trans. Thomas X. Davis (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1979), p. 49; see also SCh 301, p. 128.

[9] Diadochus of Photice, On Spiritual Perfection, 28, Second Reading for Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time, in The Office of Readings, p. 227, italics original; see also SCh 5, p. 87 ff.

[10] Francis of Assisi, “Testament of Saint Francis,” in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1: The Saint, eds. Regis J. Armstrong et al. (New York: New City Press, 1999), p. 124. See also Fontes Franciscanas, p. 356.

[11] See Thomas of Celano, First Life, 22, trans. Christopher Stace (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2000), p. 24; see also ED, I, p. 201.

[12] See St. Ambrose On the Holy Spirit, III, 4, 21 (N.p.: Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2014), p. 177; and On the Sacraments, I, 6, 22, in “On the Sacraments” and “On the mysteries,” trans. Tom Thompson (London: S.P.C.K., 1950), p. 56.

[13] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter to the Galatians, V, 5, n. 318, in Commentary on the Letters of Saint Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, eds. John Mortensen and Enrique Alarcón, trans. Fabian R. Larcher and Matthew Lamb (Lander, WY: Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2011), p. 150; see also V, 7, n. 340, and Commentary on the Gospel of John, VI, 5, 3.

[14] Eusebius of Caesarea, The History of the Church, V, 24, 5, ed. Andrew Louth, trans. G. A. Williamson (New York: Penguin Books, 19650, p. 172.

[15]Pontificale Syrorum, in Emmanuel-Pataq Siman, L’expérience de l’Esprit par l’Église d’après la tradition syrienne d’Antioche (Paris: Beauchesne, 1971), p. 309.

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