Cardinal Inspirations for the Word of God

COMMENTARY: Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa stood out in a most unusual Consistory of Cardinals on Nov. 28.

Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa receives the red hat from Pope Francis on Nov. 28, 2020.
Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa receives the red hat from Pope Francis on Nov. 28, 2020. (photo: Divisione Produzione Fotografica)

The 2020 consistory for new cardinals was one of the strangest in history due to the pandemic. 

The new cardinals traveling to Rome had to quarantine for 10 days prior to the ceremony in the Domus Sanctae Marthae where Pope Francis lives. But they did not see him. They were confined to their rooms, with meals, towels, laundry and linens delivered to their doors. It may have been the first time since Pope Paul III created St. John Fisher a cardinal while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London that cardinals-designate were confined. The new cardinals eventually got out; St. John Fisher was beheaded. 

“Don’t send the red hat to London,” King Henry VIII is supposed to have said in 1535. “I will send the head to Rome.”

Two cardinals did not make the trip to Rome, either due to pandemic travel restrictions or a lack of enthusiasm for the 10-day confinement. Cardinal Jose Advincula of the Philippines and Cardinal Cornelius Sim of Brunei both stayed in Asia. Brunei’s first cardinal represents a flock so tiny that his apostolic vicariate — not even an official diocese — has three priests. 

Every consistory has its “star” and this time around it was certainly Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, 86, the Capuchin friar who has been preacher of the papal household for 40 years. An outstanding scholar and preacher, he is by custom the only priest who preaches to the Holy Father. 

Whether Pope Francis enjoyed the turnabout of preaching to the newly-created Cardinal Cantalamessa, he may have had the Capuchin in mind when he reminded the new cardinals about the centrality of the Word of God.

“[Sacred Scripture] reveals the truth about Jesus and about us,” the Holy Father said. “We too, pope and cardinals, must always see ourselves reflected in this Word of truth. It is a sharpened sword; it cuts, it proves painful, but it also heals, liberates and converts us.” 

Cardinal Cantalamessa, after an “interior inspiration” in the 1970s, left the world of academic theology behind to devote himself entirely to preaching the Word of God. 

“My only service to the Church has been to proclaim the Word of God, so I believe that my appointment as cardinal is a recognition of the vital importance of the Word for the Church, more than a recognition of my person,” Cardinal Cantalamessa said ahead of the consistory.

In addition, Cardinal Cantalamessa’s recognition includes something of a particular recognition for a U.S. institution at the heart of a renewed devotion to the Word of God — Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Call it the “Steubenville consistory.” Cardinal Sim got his master’s in theology from Steubenville in 1988. He was the first graduate of Franciscan’s priestly discernment program to be ordained a priest.

Cardinal Cantalamessa’s ties to Franciscan go much deeper than his honorary doctorate in 2011. A long-time friend of the university, the Capuchin cardinal has spoken at its famous summer conferences and appeared on its EWTN program, Franciscan University Presents

With the presence of Scott Hahn, a professor at Franciscan since 1990, and the St. Paul Center, Steubenville has become a powerhouse of biblical study, bringing alive the Word of God. It has become the preeminent home of preachers and the faithful who desire to read the Scriptures with the eyes of faith, according to the mind of the Church. Cardinal Cantalamessa, like Hahn, is a first-rate biblical scholar, expert in the various technical disciplines required. He has put that expertise toward making the Bible a true book of God’s Word for the faith of the people. 

Pope St. John Paul II was aware of the mid-century crisis in biblical studies, which had come to treat the Word of God as an archaeological or philological enterprise, too often emptying it of its capacity to inspire, understood literally as a work of the Holy Spirit. Three key appointments the late Holy Father made in 1980-81 sparked a reversal of that trend. 

Father Carlo Martini was appointed archbishop of Milan, where he began leading lectio divina in the city’s famous Duomo, seat of Sts. Ambrose and Charles Borromeo. That initiative, in what was then the world’s largest and most prestigious diocese, had enormous impact, especially as the texts were published in a neverending series. Cardinal Martini, a biblicist of the first order, did not only take the text apart to analyze it, but he beautifully put it back together to nourish the faith of the reader. 

That same year, John Paul made Cardinal Cantalamessa preacher of the papal household. And the following year, 1981, he called Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to Rome, from where he taught the Church how to read the Bible, culminating in his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, published when he was pope.

The favorable turn in biblical studies over the past 40 years has several causes, but the sheer prominence and brilliance of Cardinals Ratzinger, Martini and Cantalamessa were powerful factors in returning the Word of God to the life of the Church. 

Of the three, Cardinal Cantalamessa is the only one still active, scheduled to give his first Advent homily to the papal household and the Roman Curia this Friday, still taking and giving inspiration from the Word of God.