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7 Lessons from Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa

Last weekend, my family and I were blessed to attend the “Awakening the Domestic Church Conference” in Norfolk, VA .  There we were privileged to hear Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, who has been the preacher to the Papal Household for the past 30 years, deliver three powerful teachings. I have read many of Fr. Cantalamessa's books and articles and have learned so much from him. Being able to hear him in person, and to witness the joy and love of the Lord on his face, was such a blessing. Below are seven things that struck me most powerfully in the talks he gave.  

--- 1 ---
The world changes after we encounter Jesus.
Fr. Cantalamessa spoke of three scriptural accounts where the recognition of the risen Lord Jesus changed the lives of the people who encountered him.:
  • A despondent Mary of Magdala is seen on Easter morning weeping and pouring out her grief at the Lord's death to a man whom she initially believed was the gardener outside Jesus' tomb. This "gardener" spoke her name, and she immediately recognized him to be Jesus. Her sorrow disappeared and she instantly ran to joyfully share the good news with the Apostles. Her world is changed. (John 20:11-18)
  • On the road to Emmaus, two disciples, forlorn after the Lord's death, spend hours walking with the Risen Jesus and hearing him explain the scriptures to them, without actually recognizing him for who he truly is. It was only when Jesus blessed and broke the bread that they realized who he was. Their joy at this encounter led them to immediately return to Jerusalem, in spite of the late hour of the day, and seek out the Apostles to share what they had seen. (Luke 24: 13-35)  Their world is changed. 
  • The Apostles, who have returned to fishing after Jesus' death, see a figure on the distant shoreline. This figure calls to them to “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” Following his instructions, they caught a multitude of fish. In that moment, John and Peter recognize the figure to be the Lord. Here we see Peter, in his characteristic bold enthusiasm, plunge into the sea, half dressed to greet the Lord. (John 21:1-14) His world is changed.
In each of these three Gospel accounts we see a common denominator in the reactions of those who have encountered the Lord - they are each filled with joy and an energy that impels them to move forward - to share what they have received; to run towards the Lord with great enthusiasm. Likewise, when we experience this encounter with Jesus, our world will change radically from within. My prayer since the conference is to once again experience a new encounter with the Risen Jesus - to ask the Holy Spirit to continue to "change my world", that I may go forth with joy and witness to the glory of the Lord.

The transforming power of the Eucharist.
Fr. Cantalamessa, quoting from Pope John Paul II's encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia emphasized the need for us to discover a "Eucharistic amazement" - an attitude of awe and wonder at the reality that the Lord Jesus, the Son of God and Creator of the universe is really present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist. How do we stir up this "Eucharistic amazement" in our hearts? Through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Fr. Cantalamessa described the Eucharist as a marriage - in which the "body of the bridegroom (Jesus) belongs to the bride (the church - us) and, likewise, the body of the bride belongs to the bridegroom)." He explained, in some of the most powerful words of the weekend, that "In the Eucharist, there is a wonderful exchange - Jesus takes our body, our sin, our weakness and he gives us his holiness."

This exchange of myself, with all my failings, sins, and struggles, for the power, holiness and majesty of Jesus seems terribly unfair and unbalanced. What do I have to offer in such an exchange? Very little, it seems. What have I done to deserve this great gift? Not much. Yet, in Fr. Cantalamessa's words I heard an invitation from the Lord that said - Come to me, Debbie, give me all of you. I desire to give you all of me because I love you.

I continue to ponder these words and the mystery of this "wonderful exchange" and ask the Lord to help me to fully offer all of myself to him without reservation in the Eucharist and to open my heart, mind and soul to fully receive all of Him and in that way allow the power of the Eucharist to transform my life.

We all need a "perennial Pentecost."
Fr. Cantalamessa began his teaching on Pentecost by quoting from Pope Paul VI – “The Church needs a perennial Pentecost. She needs fire in her heart, words on her lips, prophecy in her outlook.” He went onto explain that every "new Pentecost" must be "renewed" - that life changes each and every day and to deal with these daily changes, we need a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit daily. Pentecost is not a one time deal - but a way of life.

Father's words led me to really examine my heart. It is tempting for me to look back on the "Pentecost experiences" of my life and think of them as past events. Giving into that temptation locks the work of the Holy Spirit into a nostalgic "photo album" in my soul. I am daily asking the Lord for the grace to make Pope Paul VI's desire for the church my own personal prayer - "Lord, let me be open to a perennial Pentecost - a daily outpouring of your Holy Spirit - your gift of transforming love. Let my life be transformed by your Spirit and let my actions reflect this transformation."

Knowing God as a loving Father is key to our Christian life. 
Fr. Cantalamessa began his discussion on the love of God the Father by asking a question of his listeners: "What feelings stir in us when we recite the Our Father and say the words 'thy will be done'"? You could hear chuckles ripple through the crowd as he posed the question, but this nervous laughter revealed how powerful Father's point was. Our answer to this question exposes our image of God the Father. If we bristle at these words of the Our Father, it is likely that our views of God the Father are colored by our own less-than-ideal human experiences of fatherhood and authority.

Father went on to assert that in his view the "main reason for a joyless Christianity among believers is a distorted view of God the Father."  What is the solution? How can we experience a true understanding of God the Father? The answer is the Holy Spirit. Father pointed out that what the Apostles experienced at what Pentecost and what we experience when the Holy Spirit touches our lives is precisely this: the transforming love of God the Father. Once we experience this love, life is different - we no longer "obey" God out of a joyless duty, but we earnestly seek do God's will out love for him.

In my own experience, I can remember the exact day and time when I powerfully experienced God the Father's love. Nothing was the same after that - the tangible flood of his love filled me with a sense of security and well-being that I had never experienced before. It enabled me to trust him in a new way and gave me the desire to fully surrender to him. It is the key to my own living out of the Christian life!

--- 5 --- 
We must be the Body of Christ.
Consider the following analogy Fr.Cantalamessa gave to illustrate what it really means to live as a member of the body of Christ. He said that although the hand and the eye are totally separate parts of our body and perform very different functions, if a rock were thrown at the eye, the hand immediately reacts by defending the eye from the danger of injury. The hand would not hesitate in its actions, or object that there was no need to react at all because its safety was not directly threatened. Do we react like our hand if another member of the Body of Christ is threatened? 

This analogy really hit me between the eyes (pun intended). More often than not, my reaction to a brother or sister in need is to utter a quick prayer, perhaps send a text with a vague offer of help, and be on my way without another thought. Fr. Cantalamessa's challenge was to do much more than that - his challenge was to view any struggle in another member of the body of Christ as something that merits a response from me as if it were happening to me. 

Rising to the challenge of truly living as the Body of Christ is something that I know will take a lifetime of effort and boatloads of God's grace. Come Holy Spirit and enkindle in my heart the desire to live as one with other members of the Lord's body and the grace to manifest that unity in my daily actions. 

Motive matters.
For me, the most profound and convicting lesson of the conference came when Fr. Cantalamessa described the Pentecost event as an undoing of the building of the Tower of Babel. In his description, he pointed out something I had never heard before. The sin of the people building the Tower of Babel was not that of erecting a tower, but that of trying to make a name for themselves.(Gen 11:4)  They were building a temple not for the glory of God, but for their own glory. By contrast, the apostles at Pentecost set out to build a tower as well, that of the Kingdom of God, not to make a name for themselves, but with the sole purpose of giving glory to God.

Fr. Cantalamessa explained that this same conflict exists in every single one of our actions and that we must examine our hearts to determine if our motive for doing something is to "make a name for ourselves" or to give glory to God. He bluntly stated: “If we want to build the kingdom of God, we must stop being self-centered and start becoming Christ-centered."

Tough talk, indeed. The temptation to receive accolades for our accomplishments is strong and not easily overcome. For me, it requires a moment by moment, conscious surrender of my plans, goals, and desires for human rewards - and it is not one that I am always able to do without considerable struggle. As with most of the convicting moments in Father's teaching, I find myself again asking the Holy Spirit to purify my motives in all my endeavors, so that I too, may build the kingdom of God through my actions.

God's plans are not our plans.
It was a great joy for everyone present to hear Fr. Cantalamessa share his personal testimony with honesty, humility and humor. Among the many highlights of his testimony was when he described how, after many years of serving as a professor of Theology at the University of Milan, he felt the Lord calling him to give up this prestigious post in order to become an itinerant preacher. He sought the counsel and approval of his superiors who advised him to wait and pray for a year before making any changes. Finally, after the year was up, he received his superior's permission and resigned his teaching post. He stressed that at this point, he had no idea where or how he was going to begin this new "career" and so he went on a retreat to prepare himself for whatever the Lord had in mind. While on that retreat, he received a phone call from his superior saying that Pope John Paul II had requested him to become the Preacher to the Papal Household, a position he has held ever since.

I learned several valuable lessons from this:
  • God's plans are not always our plans. As a "planner" I like to have my future neatly mapped out, with me solidly in control of everything that will happen. This rigid desire for control, however, throws up obstacles to the Lord's plans for my life and is something that I am working on surrendering every day. 
  • When we believe that the Lord is asking us to make a radical change in our life's direction, Fr. Cantalamessa stressed that we should submit those plans to a Spiritual Director or Confessor for their discernment. This discernment protects us from acting on our own impulses and helps us see God's hand in our lives. 
  • Life as a Christian is full of God's glorious surprises.  We can trust our loving Father to only allow what is best for us and with that attitude of trust, wait for these special moments of grace and thank the Lord when they come. 

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  1. Amen!! Praise the Lord!! Thank you for sharing and breaking down these radical and anointed teachings for us. I definitely can say from my own experience, we are NEVER the same once we encounter Jesus, and you are right, we need to pray and open our hearts to receive Him in a new way each day, that our encounters never run dry!

    1. Amen to that! Thanks for reading - it was a blessing to hear Father Cantalamessa speak and a joy to be able to share what we have received!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I enjoyed it and learnt a lot.

    God bless.

    1. Thanks for reading Victor - God bless you!

  3. I just came home from a prayer meeting led by David Peterman, Jr. who gave a workshop on parenting at the conference in Norfolk. Fr. Cantalamessa is a great teacher and many of his teaching will soon appear on our Community website. I especially found much inspiration in his words on the Eucharist. Thanks you so much for posting this.

    1. Thanks for commenting Nancy! He is such a great teacher - I have learned so much from his books - it was a gift to hear him in person! God bless you!

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  5. Debbie - I truly admire your blog! I have hit such a dry patch and have pulled back from writing - you are pouring out such great stuff. Keep inspiring me (and others) - I need it!

    1. Thanks so much for your encouraging words Cyndi! Praying that te Lord will strengthen you during your dry patch!

  6. Love Fr. Cantalamessa, he is my favorite preacher. He's got that rare mix of intellectual brilliance, hot burning fervor and down to earth clarity. I didn't know he was stateside.

    1. I agree 100% with your assessment of him, Carlos - a rare blend of gifts indeed! What a blessing to be able to hear him in person.


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