2016-12-16 10:00:00

Papal preacher delivers third Advent Sermon

(Vatican Radio) The Papal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, delivered his third Advent Sermon on Friday to Pope Francis and members of the Roman Curia.

As preacher to the Papal Household, Capucin Father Cantalamessa gives a meditation to the Pope, Cardinals, and members of the Roman Curia every Friday morning in Lent and Advent in the Apostolic Palace’s “Redemptoris Mater” Chapel.

In the third Advent sermon, Fr. Cantalamessa continued his theme of the Holy Spirit’s action in the Church.

Please find below the full text English translation of the Sermon:


Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, ofmcap

Third Sermon for Advent 2016




1. Two Kinds of Intoxication

On the Monday after Pentecost in 1975 at the closing of the First World Congress of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Blessed Paul VI delivered an address to the ten thousand participants gathered in the St. Peter’s Basilica in which he defined the charismatic renewal as “a chance for the Church.” When he ended reading his official discourse, the pope added these words extemporaneously:

In the fourth-century hymn by St. Ambrose that we read this morning in the breviary, there is a simple phrase that is difficult to translate: Laeti, which means “with joy,” bibamus, which means, “let us drink,” sobriam, which means “sober” or “temperate,” profusionem Spiritus, which means “the outpouring of the Spirit.” Laeti bibamus sobriam profusionem Spiritus. This could be the motto for your movement: its plan as well as a description of the movement itself.[1]

The important thing to note immediately is that the words from Ambrose’s hymn were of course not written for the charismatic renewal. They have always been part of the Liturgy of the Hours of the universal Church. This is therefore a joyful exhortation addressed to all Christians. As such I would like to present it in this meditation, also as my humble greeting to the Holy Father for his 80th birthday.

To be more accurate, in St. Ambrose’s original text, instead of “profusionem Spiritus,” “the outpouring of the Spirit,” we find “ebrietatem Spiritus,” that is, “the intoxication of the Spirit.”[2] Tradition subsequently considered his original expression to be too audacious and substituted it with a milder and more acceptable word. In doing so, however, the meaning of a metaphor as ancient as Christianity itself was lost. In the Italian translation of the Breviary, the original text of the verse by St. Ambrose has been restored correctly. A stanza of the hymn at Lauds for the Fourth Week of the Breviary says,

And may Christ be food to us,

and faith be our drink,

and let us joyfully taste

the sober intoxication of the Spirit.[3]

What led the Fathers to take up the theme of “sober intoxication,” already developed by Philo of Alexandria,[4] was the text in which the Apostle exhorts the Christians in Ephesus that says,

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts. (Eph 5:18-19)

Starting with Origen, there are countless texts from the Fathers that illustrate this theme, alternating between the analogy and the contrast of physical intoxication and spiritual intoxication. The likeness lies in the fact that both types of intoxication infuse joy; they make us forget our troubles and make us escape ourselves. The contrast lies in the fact that while physical intoxication (from alcohol, drugs, sex, success) makes people shaky and unsteady, spiritual intoxication makes people steady at doing good. The first intoxication makes people come out of themselves to live below the level of reason; the second makes people come out of themselves to live above the level of their reason. Both use the word “ecstasy” (the name recently given to a deadly drug!), but one is an ecstasy downward and the other is an ecstasy upward.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes that those who thought the apostles were drunk at Pentecost were correct; they were mistaken only in attributing that drunkenness to ordinary wine, whereas it was  “new wine” pressed from the “true vine,” who is Christ. The apostles were intoxicated, yes, but with that sober intoxication that puts to death sin and brings life to the soul.[5]

Drawing on the episode of water flowing from the rock in the desert (see Ex 17:1-7) and on Paul’s comment about it in the First Letter to the Corinthians (“All drank the same supernatural drink . . . and all were made to drink of one Spirit” [1 Cor 10:4; 12:13]), Saint Ambrose wrote,

The Lord Jesus poured out water from the rock and all drank from it. Those who drank it only symbolically were satisfied; those who drank it in very truth were inebriated. Inebriation of this sort is good and fills the heart without causing the feet to totter. Yes, it is a good inebriation. It steadies the footsteps and makes sober  the mind. . . . Drink Christ, for he is the vine; drink Christ, for he is the rock from which the water gushes forth. . . . Drink Christ, that you may drink His words. . . . Divine scripture is imbibed, divine scripture is eaten when the juice of the eternal word runs through the veins of the mind and enters into the vital parts of the soul.[6]

2. From Intoxication to Sobriety

How do we appropriate this ideal of sober intoxication and incarnate it in our current historical and ecclesial situation? Where, in fact, is it written that such a strong way of experiencing the Spirit was the exclusive prerogative of the Fathers and of the early days of the Church, but that it is no longer for us? The gift of Christ is not limited to a particular era but is offered to every era. There is enough for everybody in the treasure of his redemption. It is precisely the role of the Spirit to render the redemption of Christ universal, available to every person at every point of time and space.

In the past the order in which this dynamic was generally taught was that which went from sobriety to intoxication. In other words, the way to attain spiritual intoxication, or fervor, was sobriety, that is, abstinence from things of the flesh, fasting from the world and from one’s desires—in a word, mortification. This understanding of the concept of sobriety was deepened in particular by Orthodox monastic spirituality and linked to the so-called “Jesus Prayer.” According to this path sobriety means “a spiritual method” consisting of “vigilant attention” to free oneself from passions and evil speech, removing and leaving behind all carnal satisfactions, and having the only activity be repentance for sin and prayer.[7]

Under different names—detachment, purification, mortification—this is the same ascetic doctrine found in the Latin saints and Doctors of the Church. Saint John of the Cross speaks about the soul’s need to “detach and strip itself for God’s sake of all that is not God.”[8] These stages of spiritual life are called purgative and illuminative. Here the soul painstakingly frees itself of its natural habits to prepare for union with God and for His impartations of grace. These things constitute the third stage, the “unitive path,” which the Greek authors call “divinization.”

We are heirs of a spirituality that conceived of the road to perfection in this sequence: First we need to remain in the purgative stage for a long time before entering into the unitive stage; it is necessary for a person to practice sobriety for an extensive period before being able to experience intoxication. Every expression of fervor that manifests itself before that time is regarded as suspect. Spiritual intoxication, with all that it signifies, thus comes at the end and is reserved for the “perfect.” The others, called “proficients,” should especially engage in mortification, without making claim to a strong and direct experience of God and of his Spirit while they are still struggling with their weaknesses.

There is great wisdom and experience underlying all this, and it would be wrong to consider these things outdated. It must be said, however, that such a rigid plan also marks a slow, gradual shift from a focus on grace to a focus on human effort, a shift from faith to works, sometimes verging on Pelagianism. According to the New Testament, there is a circularity and simultaneity between the two things: sobriety is necessary to achieve intoxication of the Spirit, and intoxication of the Spirit is needed to attain the practice of sobriety.

An ascetic path, undertaken without a strong initial impulse of the Spirit, would be a deadly labor and would produce nothing except “boasting in the flesh.” According to Saint Paul, it is “by the Spirit” that we must “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13). The Holy Spirit is given to us so that we are able to mortify ourselves rather than being given as a reward for having mortified ourselves.

According to an early Church Father, a Christian life full of ascetic efforts and mortification but without the life-giving touch of the Spirit would be like a Mass in which there were many readings, many rites performed, and many offerings brought forward, but in which there was no consecration of the elements by the priest. Everything would remain as it was before. That Church Father concluded,

One must look on the life of the Christian in a similar way. He may have fasted, kept vigils, chanted the psalms, carried out every ascetic practice and acquired every virtue; but if the mystic working of the Spirit has not been consummated by grace with full consciousness and spiritual peace on the altar of his heart, all his ascetic practice is ineffectual and virtually fruitless, for the joy of the Spirit is not mystically active in his heart.[9]

This second path—from intoxication to sobriety—was the path that Jesus led his apostles to follow. Even though they had Jesus as their teacher and spiritual master, they were not in a position before Pentecost to put into practice hardly any of the gospel precepts. But when they were baptized with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, then we see them transformed and capable of enduring all kinds of hardships for Christ, even martyrdom. The Holy Spirit was the cause of their fervor rather than its effect.

There is another reason that impels us to rediscover this path from intoxication to sobriety. The Christian life is not only a matter of growing in personal holiness, it is also ministry, service, and proclamation. To accomplish these tasks we need “power from on high,” the charisms or, in a word, a profound Pentecostal experience of the Holy Spirit.

We need the sober intoxication of the Spirit even more than the Fathers did. The world has become so averse to the gospel, so sure of itself, that only the “strong wine” of the Spirit can overcome its unbelief and draw it out of its entirely human and rationalistic sobriety, which passes itself off as “scientific objectivity.” Only spiritual weapons, says the Apostle, “have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:4-5).        

3. The Penetrating Rain of the Spirit

Where are the “places” in which the Spirit acts today in this Pentecostal way? Let us listen once again to the voice of Saint Ambrose who was the cantor par excellence, among the Latin Fathers, of the sober intoxication of the Spirit. After discussing the two classic “places” in which one could receive the Spirit—the Eucharist and Scripture—he hints at a third possibility, saying,

There is, too, the inebriation that follows on the penetrating rain of the Holy Spirit. We read in the Acts of the Apostles . . . of those who spoke in foreign tongues and appeared, to those who heard them, to be drunk on new wine.[10]

After noting the “ordinary” ways of being intoxicated by the Spirit, Saint Ambrose adds a different way with these words, an “extraordinary” way (extraordinary in the sense that it is not predetermined or instituted), that consists in re-living the experience the apostles had on the Day of Pentecost. He obviously did not add this third possibility to tell his audience that it was closed to them and had been reserved only for the apostles and the first generation of Christians. On the contrary, he intended to inspire the faithful to desire the experience of this “penetrating rain of the Spirit” that occurred at Pentecost. Also for St. Ambrose Pentecost was not a close event, but a possibility always open in the Church.

The possibility is therefore open also for us to draw upon the Spirit in this new way that depends solely on God’s sovereign and free initiative. We should not fall into the error of the Pharisees and scribes who said to Jesus, “There are six days for us to work, so why heal and do miracles on the Sabbath?” (see Luke 13:14). We could be tempted to say to God or to think, “There are seven sacraments that sanctify and confer the Spirit, so why go beyond them into new and unfamiliar ways?”

One of the ways in which the Holy Spiriti is acting today, outside the institutional channels of grace, is the Charismatic Renewal. The theologian Yves Congar, in his address to the International Congress of Pneumatology at the Vatican in 1981 on the sixteenth centenary of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, said,

How can we avoid situating the so-called charismatic stream, better known as the Renewal in the Spirit, here with us? It has spread like a brushfire. It is far more than a fad. . . . In one primary aspect, it resembles revival movements from the past: the public and verifiable character of spiritual action which changes people’s lives. . . . It brings youth, a freshness and new possibilities into the bosom of the old Church, our mother. In fact, except for very rare occasions, the Renewal has remained within the Church and, far from challenging long-standing institutions, it reanimates them.[11]

The principal instrument by which the Renewal in the Spirit “changes people’s lives” is the baptism in the Spirit. I mention it in this place without of course any intention of proselytism, but because I think it is important that a reality which touches millions of catholics around the world be known at the center of the Church.

The expression itself comes directly from Jesus who before ascending into heaven, referring to the future Pentecost, said to his apostles: “John baptized with water but you, not many days from now, will be baptized in the Holy Spirit” (Ac 1:5). This is a rite that has nothing esoteric about it but rather occurs with gestures of great simplicity, peace, and joy and is accompanied by attitudes of humility, repentance, and willingness to become like children so as to enter the kingdom.

It is a renewal and an actualization not only of baptism and confirmation, but also of the whole of Christian life: for spouses, a renewal of the sacrament of marriage; for priests, a renewal of their ordination; for consecrated people, a renewal of their religious profession.  People prepare themselves for this, in addition to making a good confession, by participating in catechesis meetings by which they are put in vital and joyful contact with the principal truths and realities of the faith: love of God, sin, salvation, new life, transformation in Christ, the charisms, and the fruits of the Spirit. The most common and beautiful fruit is the discovery of what it really means to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. In the catholic understanding Baptism in the Spirit is not an arrival point, but a starting point toward Christian maturity and service to the Church.

A decade after the charismatic renewal appeared in the Catholic Church, Karl Rahner wrote,

Even an objective and rational theology does not have to reject all these enthusiastic experiences [of grace] out of hand. . . . . Here we are certainly confronted with especially impressive, humanly affective, liberating experiences of grace which offer wholly novel existential horizons. These mold the innermost attitude of a Christian for a long time and are quite fit . . . to be called “baptism in the Spirit.”[12]

But is it right to expect that everyone should go through this experience? Is this the only possible way to experience the grace of Pentecost? If by the “baptism in the Spirit” we mean a certain rite in a certain context, we have to say no; it is not the only way to have a profound experience of the Spirit. There have been and are countless Christians who have had a similar experience without knowing anything about the baptism in the Spirit, receiving a spontaneous outpouring of the Spirit  at the occasion of a retreat, a meeting, a reading, or, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, when someone is called to a new and more demanding office in the Church.[13]

Having said that, however,  it must also be said that what is commonly called the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” or the “outpouring of the Spirit” has shown itself to be a simple and powerful way to renew the lives of millions of believers in almost all of the Christian churches. Even a normal course of spiritual exercises can be concluded very well with a special  invocation of the Holy Spirit, if the person leading it has experienced it and the participants desire it. I had that very experience last year. The bishop of a diocese south of London took the initiative to convene a charismatic retreat that was open to the clergy of other dioceses as well. About one hundred priests and permanent deacons were present, and at the end they all asked for and received the outpouring of the Spirit, with the support of a group of laypeople from the Renewal who had come for that occasion. If the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, and peace” (Gal 5:22) by the end they were almost touchable with hands among those present. 

This  is not a question of adhering to one movement rater than to other movements in the Church. Nor is it even a question, properly speaking, of a “movement” but of a “current of grace” that is open to all and is destined to lose itself in the Church like an electric discharge that  is dispersed within a mass and then disappears once it has accomplished its task.

Saint John XXIII spoke of “a new Pentecost”; the Blessed Paul VI went further, speaking of a “perennial Pentecost”. This is what he said during a general audience in 1972:

The Church needs her perennial Pentecost; she needs fire in her heart, words on her lips, prophecy in her outlook. [...] The Church needs to rediscover the eagerness, the taste and the certainty of the truth that is hers [...] And then the Church needs to feel flowing through all her human faculties a wave of love, of that love which is called forth and poured into our hearts ‘by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’ (Romans 5.5)”[14].

Let us conclude therefore with the words of the liturgical hymn recalled at the beginning:

May Christ be food to us,

and faith be our drink,

and let us joyfully taste

the sober intoxication of the Spirit.


English translation by Marsha Daigle-Williamson

[1] See “Pope Paul Addresses the Charismatic Renewal,” New Covenant, July 1975, p. 25.

[2] Sancti Ambrosii, Opera 22: Hymni, Inscriptiones, Fragmenta (Rome: Città Nuova, 1994), p. 38. The Latin stanza:  “Christusque nobis sit cibus, / potusque noster sit fides; / laeti bibamus sobriam /ebrietatem Spiritus.”

[3] St. Ambrose’s hymn “Splendor paternae gloriae” [“O Splendor of the Father’s Glory”], in Brian P. Dunkle, Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 222.

[4] See, among many examples, On the Creation of the World in Philo: Philosophical Writings, ed. Hans Lewy (Oxford: East and West Library 1946), p. 55.  See Legum allegoriae 1, 84, “methe nefalios.”

[5] See St. Cyril of Jerusalem, The Catechetical Letters of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 17, 18-19, reprint of Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 7 (N.p.: Veritatis Splendor, 2014), p. 592; see PG 33, p. 989.

[6] St. Ambrose, Commentary on Twelve Psalms, 1, 33, trans. ĺde M. NíRian (Dublin: Halcyon Press, 2000), p. 21; see also PL 14, pp. 939-940.

[7] See Hesychius, “On Watchfulness and Holiness: Written for Theodolus,” in The Philokalia, vol. 1 (London: Faber and Faber 1979), pp. 162-198.

[8] Saint John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel II, 5, 7, trans. E. Allison Peers (New York: Image Books, 1958), p. 96.

[9] Macarius of Egypt, “Love,” 113, in Philokalia, vol. 3, trans. and ed. G. E. Palmer et al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 334-335.

[10] See Saint Ambrose, Commentary on Twelve Psalms, 35, 19, p. 47.

[11] See Yves Congar, “Actualité de la pneumatologie,” in Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, ed. José Saraiva Martins, vol. 1 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983), p. 18, republished as “Pneumatology Today,” in American Ecclesiastical Review 167, no. 7 (1973): pp. 435-449.

[12] Karl Rahner, The Spirit in the Church, trans. John Griffiths (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), pp. 10-11.

[13] See St. Thomas Aquinas, S.Th. I,q.43,a.6 ad 2.

[14] Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, vol X, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, p. 1210 s. (Discourse of 29 Nov.1972); translation in E. O’Connor, Pope Paul and the Spirit, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana 1978, p.183).

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