Papal preacher reflects on Sacrosanctum Concilium for Lent

2016-02-19 Vatican Radio

(Vatican Radio) On Friday of the First Week of Lent, the Preacher to the Pontifical Household, Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., offered the first Sermon for Lent 2016.

Father Cantalamessa’s sermon continued his reflections on the Second Vatican Council, speaking on the theme, "The Second Vatican Council, 50 years later: A revisitation from a spiritual point of view."

After focusing during Advent on the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium (on the Church), Fr Cantalamessa turned his thoughts to the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

The full text of Father Raniero Cantalamessa’s sermon can be found below.

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
First Lenten Sermon 2016

Reflections on Sacrosanctum Concilium

1. The Second Vatican Council: a tributary, not the river

After having meditated on Lumen gentium in Advent, I would like to continue reflecting in these Lenten meditations on other great documents of Vatican II. I think, however, that it would be useful to make an introductory statement. Vatican II is a tributary, not the river. In his famous work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Blessed Cardinal Newman strongly asserted that stopping the development of tradition at a certain point, even if it was an ecumenical council, would be to make it a dead tradition and not a “living tradition.” Tradition is like music. What kind of melody would it be if it stopped on one note and repeated that note endlessly? That happens when a disk is damaged, and we know the result it produces.

St. John XXIII wanted the Council to be like “a new Pentecost” for the Church. That prayer was granted at least on one point. After the Council there was a revival of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is no longer “the unknown Person” of the Trinity. The Church became more clearly aware of his presence and action. In his Homily for the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday in 2012, Benedict XVI stated,

Anyone who considers the history of the post-conciliar era can recognize the process of true renewal, which often took unexpected forms in living movements and made almost tangible the inexhaustible vitality of holy Church, the presence and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit.[1]

This does not mean we can do without the Council texts or go beyond them. It means rereading the Council in light of its fruit. The fact that ecumenical councils can have effects that are unintended at that time by those who are participating in them is a fact Cardinal Newman brought to light after the Council Vatican I,[2] but it has been witnessed many times in history. The Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, with its definition of Mary as Theotokos, “Mother of God,” was intending to affirm the unity of the person of Christ, not to increase devotion to the Blessed Virgin, but in fact its clearest fruit was precisely the latter.

If there is an area in which the theology and life of the Catholic Church has been enriched in the fifty years since the Council, it is without doubt in regard to the Holy Spirit. All the major Christian denominations in recent times have affirmed what Karl Barth coined as “the Theology of the Third Article.”[3] The theology of the third article is a theology that does not end with the article on the Holy Spirit but begins with it; it takes into account not just the end product but the sequence by which the Christian faith and its creed were formed. It was in fact by the light of the Holy Spirit that the apostles discovered who Jesus truly was and his revelation of the Father. The current creed of the Church is perfect and no one would dream of changing it, but it reflects the final product, the last stage reached by faith, but not the path that led to it. In view of a renewed effort in evangelization, however, it is vital for us also to know the path that leads to faith, and not just its definitive codification in the creed that we recite by memory.

In this light the implications of certain affirmations by the Council appear more clearly, but equally clear appear some omissions that need to be filled in, particularly concerning the role of the Holy Spirit. Saint John Paul II was already aware of this in 1981 when, on the occasion of the 1600th Anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, he wrote the following in his Apostolic Letter: “The whole work of renewal of the Church, so providentially set forth and initiated by the Second Vatican Council, . . . can be carried out only in the Holy Spirit, that is to say, with the aid of His light and His power.”[4] 

2. The place of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy

This broad premise proves to be particularly useful in dealing with the document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium. This text arose from a need that was felt for a long time from many sides for a renewal of the forms and rites of the Catholic liturgy. From this perspective, it has had much fruit and, as a whole, has been very beneficial for the Church. Less felt at the time, however, was the need to look at what, after Romano Guardini, is called “the spirit of the liturgy,”[5] which, in a sense that I will explain, I would call “the liturgy of the Spirit” (“Spirit” with a capital “s”!).

In line with the intention I stated for these meditations to underscore some spiritual and interior aspects of the Council’s texts, I would like to share some reflections specifically on this point. Sacrosanctum concilium devoted only a brief initial text to it, which was the fruit of the debate that preceded the final editing of the constitution:[6]

Christ indeed always associates the Church with Himself in this great work wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is His beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father. Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members. From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.[7]

It is in the subjects, or the “actors,” in the liturgy that we are able to note a lacuna in this description today. There are only two protagonists highlighted here: Christ and the Church. There is no mention whatsoever of the role of the Holy Spirit. In the rest of the constitution as well, the Holy Spirit is never directly spoken about but is only mentioned here and there and always “obliquely.”

The Book of Revelation indicates for us the order and the complete number of the liturgical actors when it summarizes Christian worship: “The Spirit and the Bride say [to Christ the Savior], ‘Come’” (Rev 22:17). However, Jesus had already perfectly expressed the nature and innovation in worship that would be established by the New Covenant in his dialogue with the Samaritan woman: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23).

The phrase “spirit and truth” in Johannine vocabulary can mean only two things: either the “Spirit of truth,” which is the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:17, 16:13), or the spirit of Christ who is the truth (see Jn 14:6). One thing is certain: this “spirit of truth” has nothing to do with the subjective meaning that is favored by idealists and romantics who think that “spirit and truth” point to a person’s hidden interiority as opposed to any kind of external and visible worship. It is not a question here of going from the external to the internal but from the human to the divine.

If Christian liturgy is “an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ,” the best way to discover its nature is to look at how Jesus exercised that priestly function in his life and in his death. The role of the priest is to offer “prayers and sacrifices” to God (see Heb 5:1, 8:3). We know now that the Holy Spirit is the one who placed the cry “Abba!” in the heart of the incarnate Word—a cry that enclosed his every prayer. Luke explicitly notes this when he writes, “In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth . . .’” (Lk 10:21). The very offering of his body in sacrifice on the cross occurs, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb 9:14), that is, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. 

St. Basil offers an illuminating text on this point: “The way to divine knowledge ascends from one Spirit through the one Son to the one Father. [Conversely] natural goodness, inherent holiness, and royal dignity reaches from the Father through the Only-Begotten to the Spirit.”[8] In other words, on the level of being and the coming forth of creatures from God, everything comes from the Father, goes through the Son, and reaches us through the Holy Spirit. In the order of knowledge, or of the return of creatures to God, everything begins with the Spirit, goes through the Son Jesus Christ, and ends with the Father.

In the Latin Church Blessed Isaac of Stella (12th century) expresses it in words that are quite similar to Basil’s: “Just as divine gifts descend to us from the Father, through the Son and the Holy Spirit, or in the Holy Spirit, . . . so through the Spirit to the Son, and through the Son to the Father human gifts ascend.” [9].

It is not a question, as we can see, of being a fan of one or the other of the three Persons of the Trinity but of safeguarding the trinitarian dynamic of the liturgy. Silence about the Holy Spirit inevitably dilutes its trinitarian character. Because of this, the point made by St. John Paul II in Novo millennio ineunte seems to me particularly appropriate:

Wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, this reciprocity [in prayer] opens us, through Christ and in Christ, to contemplation of the Father’s face. Learning this Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer and living it fully, above all in the liturgy, the summit and source of the Church’s life, but also in personal experience, is the secret of a truly vital Christianity, which has no reason to fear the future, because it returns continually to the sources and finds in them new life [italics added].[10]

3. Worship “in the Spirit”

Let us draw some practical implications from these premises for the way we live the liturgy so that it can fulfill one of its primary goals, namely, the sanctification of souls. The Holy Spirit does not authorize the invention of new and arbitrary forms of the liturgy or the modification of existing forms on one’s own initiative (a responsibility that belongs to the hierarchy). He is the only one, however, who renews and gives life to all the expressions of the liturgy. In other words, the Holy Spirit does not do new things, he makes things new! Jesus’ saying that is repeated by Paul, “It is the Spirit that gives life” (Jn 6:63; see 2 Cor 3:6), applies first of all to the liturgy.

The apostle exhorted the faithful to pray “in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18; see also Jude 20). What does it mean to pray in the Spirit? It means letting Jesus continue to exercise his priestly office in his body, which is the Church. Christian prayer becomes the extension to the body of the prayer of the Head. The statement by St. Augustine about this is well known:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who prays for us, prays in us, and is prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest; he prays in us as our Head; and he is prayed to by us as our God. Let us therefore recognize him in our words and recognize his words in us.[11]

In this light the liturgy appears as an opus Dei, “a work of God,” not only because it has God as its object but also because it has God as its subject. God is not only prayed to by us but prays in us. The very cry “Abbà!” that the Spirit, coming upon us, addresses to the Father (see Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6) demonstrates that the one who prays in us through the Spirit is Jesus, the only Son of God. In fact, the Holy Spirit on his own could not address God by saying, “Abbà, Father,” because he is not “begotten” but instead “proceeds” from the Father. If the Spirit can do this, it is because he is the Spirit of Christ who continues his filial prayer in us.

It is above all when prayer becomes an effort and a struggle that we discover the enormous importance of the Holy Spirit for our prayer life. The Spirit then becomes the strength of our “weak” prayer, the light of our lifeless prayer; in a word, he becomes the soul of our prayer. Truly he “waters what is dry,” (“riga quod est aridum”), as we say in the sequence in the Spirit’s honor (Veni Sancte Spiritus).

All of this happens by faith. It is enough for me to think and say, “Father, you have given me the Spirit of Jesus; forming, therefore, ‘one Spirit’ with Jesus, I recite this psalm, I celebrate this Holy Mass, or I am simply silent in your presence here. I want to give you the same glory and joy that Jesus would have given you if he were the one still on earth praying to you.”

The Holy Spirit gives life in a particular way to the prayer of worship that is at the heart of every liturgical prayer. Its specific character derives from the fact that it is the only sentiment that we can foster solely and exclusively toward the divine Persons. It is what distinguishes latria (the supreme homage owed to God) from dulia (the reverence accorded to saints) and from hyperdulia (the special veneration reserved for the Blessed Virgin). We venerate the Blessed Mother, but we do not worship her, contrary to what some people think about Catholics.

Christian worship is also trinitarian. It is trinitarian in the manner in which it is carried out because it is adoration rendered “to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit”; it is also trinitarian in its goal because adoration is given “to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” together.

In Western spirituality, the one who most developed this theme in depth was Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle (1575-1629). For him, Christ is the perfect worshipper of the Father, to whom we need to unite ourselves to worship God with a worship of infinite value.[12] He writes, “From all eternity there was an infinitely adorable God, but there was still not an infinite worshipper. . . . You are now, O Jesus, that worshipper, that man, that servant who is infinite in power, in quality, and in dignity, and who fully satisfies that duty and renders that divine homage.”[13]

If there is something missing in this vision that has given the Church such wonderful fruit and has shaped French spirituality for centuries, it is the very fact that we noted in the constitution of Vatican II: the insufficient attention given to the role of the Holy Spirit. Moving from the incarnate Word, Bérulle’s discourse goes on to describe the “royal court” that follows and accompanies him: the Blessed Virgin, John the Baptist, the apostles, the saints. What is missing is the recognition of the unique role of the Holy Spirit.

In every movement of returning to God, St. Basil reminded us, everything begins with the Spirit, goes through the Son, and ends with the Father. It is not enough to recall every so often that there is also a Holy Spirit. We need to recognize his essential role both in the process of creatures coming forth from God and in the return of creatures to God. The gulf that exists between us and the Jesus of history is filled by the Holy Spirit. Without him everything in the liturgy is only remembrance; with him, however, everything is also presence.

In Exodus we read that on Sinai God showed Moses a cleft in the rock in which he could hide himself to contemplate God’s glory without perishing (see Ex 33:21). What is that cleft for us Christians today, that place where we can take refuge to contemplate and adore God? Commenting on this Exodus passage, St. Basil tells us, “It is in the Holy Spirit! How do we know that? From Jesus himself who said, ‘The true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.’”[14]

What perspective, what beauty, what power, what attraction all of this confers on the ideal of Christian worship! In the midst of the whirling vortex of this world, who does not at times feel the need to hide in that spiritual cleft to contemplate and adore God like Moses did?

4. Intercessory Prayer

Next to worship, an essential component of liturgical prayer is intercession. In all of its prayers, the Church is interceding for itself and for the world, for the just and for sinners, for the living and the dead. This too is prayer that the Holy Spirit wants to animate and strengthen. St. Paul writes about the Spirit, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:26-27).

The Holy Spirit intercedes for us and teaches us in turn to intercede for others. Doing intercessory prayer means uniting ourselves, by faith, to the risen Christ who lives in a perennial state of intercession for the world (see Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25; 1 Jn 2:1). Jesus offers us a sublime example of intercession in the great prayer that concluded his earthly life:

I am praying . . . for those whom you have given me. . . . Keep them in your name. . . . I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. . . . Sanctify them in the truth. . . . I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word. (Jn 17:9ff)

In Isaiah it is said of the Suffering Servant that God will reward him with “a portion among the great” because “he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Is 53:12). This prophecy found its perfect fulfillment in Jesus who, on the cross, interceded for those who crucified him (see Lk 23:34).

The efficacy of intercessory prayer does not depend on “multiplying many words” (see Mt 6:7) but on the degree of unity that one succeeds in having with the filial attitude of Christ. What is more helpful than multiplying words of intercession, however, is multiplying intercessors, that is, invoking the help of Mary and the saints. In the Feast of All Saints, the Church asks to be heard by God through “the abundance of intercessors” (“multiplicatis intercessoribus”).

Intercessors also multiply when they pray for one another. Saint Ambrose says,

If you pray for yourself, you will be the only one praying for yourself, and if anyone prays only for himself or herself, the grace obtained will be less than the grace of the person who intercedes for others. Now if each person prays for everyone, then each is praying for the others. To conclude, if you pray only for yourself, you are alone in praying for yourself. If instead you pray for everyone, then everyone will pray for you since you are included in “everyone.”[15]

The prayer of intercession is thus acceptable to God because it is the most unselfish prayer; it more closely reflects divine gratuitousness and is in accord with the will of God “who desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4). God is like a compassionate father who has the duty to punish but who looks for all the extenuating circumstances to avoid doing it and is happy when the brothers of the guilty party restrain him from doing it.

When there are no brotherly arms raised toward him, God laments in Scripture that “he saw that there was no man, and he wondered that there was none to intervene” (Is. 59:16). Ezekiel conveys this following lament by God: “I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found none” (Ez 22:30).

The Word of God highlights the extraordinary power of the prayer of a person whom God has put at the head of his people and who has God’s own attitude. One psalm says that God would have decided to destroy his people because of the golden calf “had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath” (Ps 106:23).

I dare to suggest to pastors and spiritual guides, when you sense in prayer that God is angry with the people he has entrusted to you, do not immediately take sides with God but with the people! This is what Moses did, to the point of declaring that he was willing to be blotted out from the book of life with them (see Ex 32:32). The Bible lets us know that this is exactly what God wanted so that he could “abandon the plan of destroying his people.” When we are before the people, however, then we need to side with God whole-heartedly. Very soon after his intercessory prayer when Moses was before the people, it was then that he expressed his anger: he smashed the golden calf, scattered its powdered dust upon the water, and made the people drink it (see Ex 32:19ff). Only the person who has defended people before God and has carried the weight of their sin has the right—and will have the courage—to raise his voice later against them in defense of God as Moses did.

Let us conclude by proclaiming together the text that best reflects the place of the Holy Spirit and the trinitarian orientation in the liturgy, the final doxology in the Roman canon: “Through him, with him, and in him in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever. Amen.”


[1] Benedict XVI, Homily at St. Peter’s Basilica, April 5, 2012. All papal quotes are taken from the Vatican website.

[2] See Ian Ker, “Newman, the Councils, and Vatican II, Communio 28, no. 4 (Winter 2001): pp. 708-728.

[3] See Karl Barth, The Theology of Schleiermacher, ed. Dietrich Ritschl, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 278.

[4] John Paul II, “A Concilio Constantinopolitano,” n. 7, March 25, 1981.

[5] See Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. Ada Lane (London: Aeterna Press, 2015), and Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000).

[6] Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak (for the English version), eds., The History of Vatican II, vol. 3 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), p. 192ff.

[7] Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 7.

[8] St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit 18, 47, trans. David Anderson (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1997), pp. 74-75; see also PG 32, 153.

[9]  Blessed Isaac of Stella, Letter on the Soul, 23, in The Selected Works of Isaace of Stella, ed. Dániel Deme (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007), p. 157; see also PL 194, 1888.

[10] John Paul II, Novo millennio ineunte, n. 32.

[11] St. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, 85, 1, in Saint Augustine: The Complete Works, vol.III/18, trans. Maria Boulding, ed. John E. Rotelle (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2002), p. 220; see also CCL 39, p. 1176.

[12] See Michel Dupuy, Bérulle, une spiritualité de l’adoration (Tournai: Desclée de Brouwer, 1964).

[13] Pierre de Bérulle, Discours de l’état et des grandeurs de Jésus (1623; reprint, Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1996). See also Bérulle and the French School: Selected Writings, trans. Lowell M. Glendon (New York: Paulist Press, 1989).

[14] St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit 26, 62 (PG 32, 181ff).

[15] See St. Ambrose, On Cain and Abel 1, 39, vol. 42, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2020), p. 395; see also CSEL 32, p. 372.

(from Vatican Radio)