Preacher and pope compelled by the Spirit

Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa preaches during the 2014 Good Friday liturgy led by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pay attention later this week when Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa gives his annual Good Friday homily at the papal liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica.

No doubt he will have something challenging to say.

The 80-year-old Italian Capuchin, an avowed apostle of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, has been the official preacher of the papal household for the last 35 years.

And while it's easy to argue that the popes have not always heeded his ever-spirited -- and sometimes radical -- advice, none of them has dismissed him for speaking boldly like an Old Testament prophet.

But of the three popes he has served, Padre Raniero seems particularly "on message" in the pontificate of Francis, bishop of Rome.

He certainly was on Good Friday in 2013, when the Argentine pope was one of the few people in the tradition-laden Vatican hierarchy who did not gasp when the fiery preacher said the church needed to emulate the "courage" of St. Francis of Assisi and get rid of the "the residue of past ceremonials, laws and disputes [that are] now only debris."

The bearded friar said many of these old customs and practices could "no longer meet the current needs, but rather are an obstacle." The pope would drive that point home even more forcefully several months later in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

Cantalamessa has echoed another theme dear to the pope. Last year, he denounced what he called the "cursed hunger for gold," saying it was the cause of the world's financial crisis and the outrageously huge gulf between rich and poor.

"Is it not also a scandal that some people earn salaries and collect pensions that are sometimes 100 times higher than those of the people who work for them and that they raise their voices to object when a proposal is put forward to reduce their salary for the sake of greater social justice?" he said.

Good Friday may be the brown-habited priest's most noted speaking appointment at the Vatican, but it is not the only one. Over the past three and a half decades, he's also offered "meditations" to the pope and top Roman Curia officials each Friday during the seasons of Advent and Lent.

His talks and homilies are substantiated by advanced studies in theology and classical literature. He earned a doctorate at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland in 1962 on the Christology of the third-century church father Tertullian.

But the experience that has most obviously influenced and continues to undergird Cantalamessa's charismatic preaching style was a "difficult and reluctant surrender" to the grace of the Holy Spirit, which he dates back to 1976 during a trip to Kansas City, Mo.

This was evident once again in his most recent Lenten reflection on Friday, when he compared the different ways the churches in the East and West have developed their spiritual understanding of the incarnation of Christ and the mystery of salvation.

His final point was that the Pentecostal movement and various charismatic renewals have ushered in a "current of grace" that continues to sweep through the Western part of the church.

"It is no longer possible to ignore, or to consider as marginal, this phenomenon that in more or less profound ways, has reached hundreds of millions of believers in Christ from all Christian confessions and tens of millions just in the Catholic Church," he told Pope Francis and his aides.

"The important thing is not to remain outside of the current of grace that is flowing under different forms through all of Christianity," he said. Rather, the papal preacher urged that we see this movement "as God's initiative and a chance [emphasis his] for the Church and not as a threat or an outside infiltration into the Catholic faith."

This is a message that Pope Francis has appropriated. First of all, he clearly has a deep trust in the way the Holy Spirit works through others, demonstrated in the way he's encouraged free and fearless speech by bishops gathered in synod.

"The synod is not a parliament; it is an ecclesial, protected space where the Holy Spirit can work," he has said.

He also trusts that the grace of the Spirit can be conveyed through all the People of God, evidenced by his unprecedented decision to canvass the views of lay Catholics on the issues the synod is treating.

"There is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills," Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium.

"The Holy Spirit knows well what is needed in every time and place. This is what it means to be mysteriously fruitful!" he says.

But the 78-year-old Jesuit pope is also truly convinced that the Holy Spirit works far beyond the boundaries of the Roman church. This is clear through his surprising meetings with evangelical Christians, an outreach that even extends to groups like TV preachers that most of his fellow bishops likely view with great suspicion, if not disdain.

"If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another! It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us," he writes in another section of the apostolic exhortation, the blueprint of his pontificate.

The reform and renewal of the church for which so many Catholics are hoping and praying will only be real and lasting if it originates in the Holy Spirit.

The challenge is how to discern what is truly of the Spirit and then to channel that in ways that do not domesticate it or deplete its originality, creativity and freedom.

Discernment requires patient attentiveness, and channeling demands foresight and sensitivity -- all attributes Pope Francis has shown he possesses.

But time is also required. And many, including him, worry that's something he may not have enough of.

It may be why his most repeated request is, "Please don't forget to pray for me."

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

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