Spending Lent with Cardinal Cantalamessa

The longtime papal preacher offers profound wisdom for Lent in this collection of Good Friday sermons.

Cover of ‘The Power of the Cross’
Cover of ‘The Power of the Cross’ (photo: Word on Fire)

“For today, as in the early Church, the Gospel will not make headway in the world as a result of ‘the wisdom of discourses,’ but through the mysterious power of the cross.”

So writes Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household, in the introduction to his new book, The Power of the Cross: Good Friday Sermons from the Papal Preacher. The text, which features his Good Friday sermons in the Vatican going back to 1980 (before I was born!), is an excellent resource for those looking for a new source of inspiration and wisdom this Lent.

One of the most striking qualities of Cantalamessa’s homilies is their impressive relevance — remarkable given that they span the height and end of the Cold War, the Church’s sex abuse scandal, 9/11, and even the recent coronavirus pandemic. That relevance is a demonstration not only of humanity’s inability to overcome its sinful nature, but the cardinal’s ability to distill his reflections into truths that transcend generations. In that first 1980 sermon, Cantalamesa writes:

While alive, he [Christ] heard only proclamations of hatred. The genuflections made before him were ones of ignominy. Let us not add to this with our indifference and superficiality.

I’d offer that such an exhortation is worthy as a slogan for our entire Lent.

How should we overcome this indifference and superficiality, which despite our desires for deeper union with Christ, seep into our minds and daily habits? We must ready ourselves to be with and hear him:

The awareness of the risen Lord’s presence is like an inner illumination that can provoke a complete change of heart.

As much as we often talk of the spiritual power of Lenten practices, it is a season of profound weakness. We acknowledge that despite our efforts we are not self-reliant, that we are incapable of saving ourselves.

Whoever proclaims Jesus as Lord must bend their knee in doing so. … And this means we accept our weakness, humiliations, and defeats — to allow God’s power and wisdom to triumph again.

Doing this is not solely a detached intellectual exercise, as if it is only a matter of orienting our minds toward impersonal eternal truths. Rather, in Christ, God has come to humanity. He is among us, as the name Immanuel so clearly articulates. Cantalamessa explains in his 1981 homily:

Compared to what came before, an enormous qualitative difference has taken place. Unlike the prophets before him, Jesus is not confined to speaking about God’s love — he is the love of God, because ‘God is love’ and Jesus is God!

Through the incarnation, God no longer speaks at a distance, through intermediaries, but up close and personal.

He speaks to us from within our human condition.

We can easily overlook how truly incredible this is. We humans can be pretty nasty to one another, even to those closest to us, whom we daily profess to love. We are stubborn, selfish, callous, cruel, arrogant and sometimes just plain annoying. And yet, after more than 30 years living among us, Jesus’ love for humanity was not exhausted. Rather, it drove him to the cross.

Cantalamessa cites Jesus’ words to St. Angela of Foligno: “My love for you was not a joke!” In response to that inexhaustible grace, the papal preacher urges us to consider the words of an ancient Church hymn: “How can we not love one who has so loved us?”

Yet the trials of this world have a way of obscuring that transcendent, divine love. Cantalamessa observes:

We don’t really believe that God loves us. It is increasingly more difficult to believe in love in this world. There is too much unfaithfulness, too many disappointments. Anyone who has ever been betrayed or hurt is afraid to love again and to allow themselves to be loved.

In 2023, isn’t that why we so often turn not to God, but to distraction, to entertainment, to anything that might force us to contemplate who we are, what we are truly feeling, what we know of our real selves? And to think God would still love us in spite of all that?

In his 1984 homily, Cantalamessa presses home the arresting potency of divine love, of indelible grace:

Why belittle your God by saying all of this doesn’t interest you? You may not be interested in God, but God is interested in you, so much so that he willingly died for you.

In the silence of our churches, perpetual adoration chapels, or even a quiet room in our homes, we must intentionally present ourselves to Christ, and give him the opportunity to speak with us, to be with us:

Do not be heartless to him or to yourself. Like the Prodigal Son, prepare in your heart what you want to tell him, and approach him. He is waiting for you.

This is only a brief taste of Cantalamessa’s hortatory excellence. Indeed, the papal preacher is capable not only of rhetorically drawing us into an experience of Christ, but of offering great intellectual and cultural insight. He writes in his 1984 sermon:

Many of those who remain at a distance from God based on the suffering of the innocent are those who have the luxury of writing essays and speculating about life. It is not so much the unacceptability of suffering that causes the loss of faith as it is the loss of faith that makes suffering unacceptable.

Alternatively, in his 2003 homily, Cantalamessa converses with John Lennon and Bob Dylan, directing his audience to consider a very different “song” of peace and unity, that found in the second chapter Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, where Christ himself is described as “our peace,” through the redemptive power of his death on the cross.

In my own Lenten weakness, caused not only by fasting but an appreciation of my own inadequacies, I’ll be spending my Lent with the venerable Cantalamessa, who has now served three successive pontiffs. Those yearning for a Lenten guide who is both intellectual and inspirational and will not be disappointed.