Pope's preacher offers ways to share Gospel

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa delivers the Anthony Jordan Lecture Series May 7 at St. Joseph's Basilica.


Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa delivers the Anthony Jordan Lecture Series May 7 at St. Joseph's Basilica.

May 16, 2011

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa focused on the need “to re-evangelize the secularized Western world” in delivering the annual Anthony Jordan Lecture Series May 7 at St. Joseph’s Basilica. Cantalamessa, the 76-year-old preacher to the papal household, singled out three obstacles that he said makes “countries of ancient Christian heritage, including Canada, immune to the Christian message.”

His three talks, attended by more than 300 people, focused on scientism, rationalism and secularism and spelled out a Christian response to each of those obstacles.

The Jordan Lecture Series is sponsored by Newman Theological College. It is named after Archbishop Anthony Jordan who founded the college in 1969.


The Challenge of Atheistic Scientism

Scientism, says Father Cantalamessa, is a philosophy that refuses to admit the existence of forms of knowledge other than the positive sciences. It relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy.

Scientism believes it has shown the non-existence of God or at least the non-necessity of God. The astrophysicist Stephen Hawkings, in his recent book The Grand Design, says the knowledge obtained by physics renders a belief in a supreme creator useless.

But Cantalamessa responds with the story of the little owl, a nocturnal bird whose eyes were meant to see only in the darkness. An eagle comes to visit a family of little owls and tells them that the nocturnal world would not exist without the sun.

But the little owl responds, “What you say is nonsense. I have never seen your sun. We do very well and get our food without it. Your sun is a useless theory and it doesn’t exist.”

The atheistic scientist is like the little owl, the preacher said. “To see God, one must open a different eye. One must venture outside the night.”

Cantalamessa maintains the Church must say “no” to scientism and “yes” to science and be willing to engage in “serene dialogue” with science.

Christian faith, he says, can rely on creation as “permeated by a sense of anticipation.” Through no fault of its own, creation has been dropped into a sense of godlessness. “But there is hope for creation, not because creation is capable of hoping, but because God intends to rescue it.”

This perspective, he says, provides the basis for dialogue with evolutionists. God can be found both at the beginning and at the end of creation.

Moreover, he says, Eastern Christianity emphasizes the notion of divinization – “the idea of man becoming God.” This vision is much different than that which views the human person as only a small bit of matter in a vast universe.


The Challenge of Rationalism

Cantalamessa quoted from some homilies by Blessed John Henry Newman that point to “the imperialistic tendency of reason” to try to make all of reality fit into its principles. Rationalism isolates reason by failing to recognize any field outside its own.

But reason, he said, “has the capacity to transcend itself.” Human knowledge has it within its power to know that there are things it cannot understand and to know what those things are.

Rationalism, however, cannot be fought with a Christian rationalism. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal pointed to a better approach when he wrote, “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.” Rationalism can be countered with the way “of experience and of testimony.”

Cantalamessa relied on the theology of Rudolf Otto, a 20th century Lutheran, who spoke of the experience of the numinous, that which is holy and outside the self.

For the mystics, “the first glimpses of eternal life reach us in this life,” Cantalamessa said. Ordinary people too have experiences of the numinous through falling in love, the birth of their first child or artistic inspiration. Even Immanuel Kant, the great 18th century rationalist, found signs of the divine in “the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.”

Rationalists argue against Otto saying these experiences of the numinous are self-induced and are similar to those of young people at a rock concert.

But Cantalamessa maintained that the experience of the divine is quite different from that of human events. The individual feels affected personally and not as part of the crowd. As well, “The rock singer needs the adulation of the public without which he would be nobody.”

Re-evangelization, he said, must include a rediscovery of the sense of the sacred in the world. “People must be helped to open their eyes and rediscover their ability to be amazed.”


The Challenge of Secularism

Secularization, Cantalamessa said, is an ambivalent phenomenon. There is a legitimate separation between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar. But it can also indicate “an ensemble of attitudes” that is opposed to the faith.

The word “secular” is derived from “saeculum,” which refers to the present time as opposed to eternal life. The loss of the horizon of eternity extinguishes the flame of faith. Cantalamessa noted the 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach taught that a belief in eternal life distracted people from their responsibilities in this world.

Another secular philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, wrote of his great need for the eternal: “I say that we have need of it, whether or not we merit it, and that’s all. I say that that which passes does not satisfy me, that I have thirst of eternity, and that without it everything is indifferent to me.”

The belief in eternal life is uniquely Christian, Cantamalessa said. Ancient Israel did not believe in an after-life until after the period of exile. Although Plato taught the immortality of the soul, that was a minority belief among the Greeks. For other ancient cultures, the human person passed from darkness through this life to more darkness after death.

Little wonder then that the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body was such a central part of evangelization in the early centuries of the Church. The catacombs are filled with images of eternal joy and it was that belief that drew many to the Church.

Cantalamessa said secularization affects even Christians today for whom the belief in eternal life is less central than it once was. But that belief should again fire our drive for holiness. We should have no eyes for things that are visible but only eyes for things that are invisible.

Every funeral should be seen as an opportunity for evangelization because it is there “we are reminded of our destiny.”