The theme of Father Raniero Cantalamessa’s first Lenten homily is Evangelii Gaudium, in which the Papal Household Preacher points out first of allthe thread that unites several post-Council Popes on the subject of evangelization.
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis reminds that the starting point of any sort of evangelization is Baptism: an affirmation that is “not new” said Blessed Paul VI in Evangelii nuntiandi, and Saint John Paul II in Christifedels laici, while Benedict XVI emphasized the special role of the family in it.
However, in Evangelii Gaudium there is a new element, which is evangelization understood as an “encounter with a person, Jesus Christ.” This concept, by now somewhat absorbed by post-Conciliar Catholicism, is not, however, entirely taken for granted.
There was a time, in fact, when the “idea’ was favored of an “ecclesial encounter, which occurs, namely, through the Sacraments of the Church,” whereas the expression “personal encounter” had “to our Catholic ears vaguely Protestant resonances.”
For his part, Pope Francis “is not thinking obviously of a personal encounter that substitutes the ecclesial; he wishes to say that the ecclesial encounter must also be a free, desired, spontaneous encounter, and not purely nominal, juridical or habit-bound,” said Father Cantalamessa.
The Papal Household Preacher then reviewed Christian initiation in the course of the centuries, where early Christianity, underground and persecuted for at least two centuries under the Roman Empire, made the choice of Baptism in adult age, with the catechumenate, “and it was the fruit of a personal decision, in addition also risky because of the possibility of martyrdom.”
During the Middle Ages, with the coming of the first Christian kingdoms – beginning with Clovis’ Franks – Christianity itself was affirmed with the relative inculturation of the masses and Christianity became the hegemonic religion, practiced by almost the totality of the population and transmitted with Baptism, from early childhood, no longer being the consequence of a personal choice.
The advent of modernity, which began with humanism and evolved with the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, marks the progressive process of secularism, with the lost of faith or at least of religious practice in ever larger sectors of the population.
“Hence the urgency of a New Evangelization, namely of an evangelization that moves from bases different from the traditional and that takes into account the new situation,” putting the men of today in conditions of making ”a free and mature personal decision,” precisely as the early Christians who were baptized as adults, thus being “real and not just nominal Christians.”
An answer to this challenge came first of all with “the innumerable Ecclesial Movements, lay aggregations and renewed parish communities that appeared after the Council,” in which Saint John Paul II perceived “signs of a new spring of the Church.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also pointed out the “dynamic of true renewal” in the “unexpected forms” assumed by “Movements full of life and which renders almost tangible the inexhaustible vivacity of the Holy Church, the presence and effective action of the Holy Spirit.”
Returning to reflect on Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Father Cantalamessa singled out “a nexus between the personal encounter with Jesus and the experience of joy of the Gospel.”
In the Scriptures, the word euangelion (“happy news) appears for the first time when, shortly after John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus exhorts: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). It is the same phrase that accompanies the Rite of Ashes at the beginning of Lent.
John also called to conversion, while previously this term meant “to turn to the violated covenant, through a renewed observance of the law,” therefore, it had a above all a penitential meaning. With Jesus, rather, to be converted means “to take a leap forward and enter, through faith, in the Kingdom of God that has come among men.”
And, despite Jesus affirming that his following is along the way of the cross (Cf. Matthew 16:24), the passage of death “constitutes the penultimate stage, never the last”: after the cross, in fact, there is the “resurrection,” “life” and “joy without end.”
However, Christianity does not live only of faith but also of works, in the sense that “without works, faith dies,” just as a newborn cannot come into the world without the mother, but needs nourishment to survive. “We are not saved by good works, but we are not saved without good works,” says Father Cantalamessa, summarizing what the Council of Trent said on this point.
For its part, Evangelii Gaudium “reflects this synthesis between faith and works,” especially when it recalls all the great “no’s” that the Gospel pronounces against egoism, injustice, idolatry of money, and all the great “yes’s” that it spurs us to do at the service of others, to social commitment and to the poor.”
Therefore, the personal encounter with Christ “is altogether other than an intimistic and individualistic experience; on the contrary, it becomes the mainspring for evangelization and personal sanctification.” The joy promised by the Gospel “is not maintained without constant contact with Him.”
Father Cantalamessa concluded his homily with a metaphor formulated by Pope Francis at the meeting with the Charismatic Fraternities on October 31, 2014. Christian life is somewhat like breathing: we inhale oxygen, which is the Holy Spirit, through prayer, meditation of the Word of God, the Sacraments, mortification, silence: we diffuse the Spirit when we go out to others, in the proclamation of faith and in works of charity,” affirms the Papal Household Preacher, reminding that Lent, which has just begun, is “par excellence, time of inhalation.