Church in transition
Special Coverage Index | NCR home page





Posted April 13, 2005 at 11:45 a.m. CDT
Two conclave preachers are open, ecumenical
Both stress simplicity, humility

By John L. Allen Jr.

Everyone these days is reading tea leaves as to which way the cardinals might be tending in the election of the next pope, and as part of that inexact science, here’s one interesting bit of data: the two clerics tapped by the cardinals to present meditations to them before they vote are open, ecumenically minded men who emphasize simplicity and humility rather than worldly power or theological discipline.

That might be some kind of indication, albeit indirect, about the sort of pope the cardinals may want.

Fr. Rainero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, will deliver his meditation tomorrow morning during the General Congregation, while Cardinal Tomáš Špidlík, a former professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, will speak on Monday morning just before the conclave opens.

Cantalamessa, 70, is an Italian member of the Capuchin Franciscans, who has been the official preacher for the papal household since 1979. He’s a native of Piceno, Italy, and was ordained a priest in 1958. He served in the 1970s as director of the department of religious sciences at the Catholic University of Milan, then resigned in 1979 to deliver lectures, conferences and retreats on a full-time basis. It was just weeks after that decision that Cantalamessa was informed of his appointment as the pope’s preacher.

“That might have been the first mistake the pope made,” he later joked.

Serving as the pope’s preacher has been a privilege of the Capuchin order since 1743.  Formally, Cantalamessa’s responsibilities including preaching sermons for the papal household during Advent and Lent, as well as preaching on Good Friday in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Cantalamessa is know for his good humor; he once explained that the first time he spoke in St. Peter’s Basilica, he had not counted on the echoes, and had to pause to let them ring out before moving on. His sermon went on longer than planned, making the pope’s master of ceremonies visibly impatient. At one stage he pointed at his watch. Cantalamessa saw the pope smiling, and later asked him what he thought. He quoted John Paul’s reaction: “When a man of God is speaking, we shouldn’t be looking at our watches!”

Cantalamessa, whose name in Italian means “sing the Mass,” is part of the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church, a broad movement that emphasizes the “gifts of the spirits” as described in the New Testament, including miracles, great passion for the faith, and speaking in tongues. He was “baptized in the spirit” in New Jersey, after attending a charismatic conference in Kansas City, Missouri.

Yet Cantalamessa is not simply a fiery, emotional preacher. He is also seen as a gifted scholar, especially with regard to the early fathers of the church, and the sacrament of the Eucharist. One spiritual expert in Rome compared Cantalamessa’s style to that of St. Augustine, based on his use of typology and analogy to make spiritual points.

One Capuchin said that Cantalamessa doesn’t think much about church politics, but in general would tend to hold center-left positions on many issues, and every now and then “one can see him gently trying to push the envelope in his sermons.”

For example, his Good Friday sermon in St. Peter’s Basilica in 2002 seemed to strike a somewhat different tone on religious pluralism than Dominus Iesus, the 2001 document from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, warning that non-Christians are in a “gravely deficient position,” and urging greater missionary efforts.

While acknowledging that one must avoid relativism, or the attitude that one religion is as good as another, Cantalamessa gently suggested in 2002 that conversion of heart is a more profound objective than conversion of creed. It is more important to help people in their walk with God, he suggested, than to sell them on a particular brand name in the religious marketplace.

“It is more important that men and women become holy,” Cantalamessa said, standing in the center of a magnificent basilica erected to celebrate the earthly might of Catholicism and the papacy, “than that they know the name of the one Savior.”

Cantalamessa knew, of course, that Ratzinger would be in the front row for his sermon that night.

Špidlík, 87, a Jesuit, is likewise known for his ecumenical openness, in this case especially toward the Orthodox churches of the East. Made a cardinal in October 2003, well after he had turned 80, Špidlík received the honor as a sign of Pope John Paul’s personal affection as well as his esteem for the Eastern churches, which are Špidlík’s special passion.

Špidlík was born in what is today the Czech Republic in 1917. He wanted to study philosophy, but after the Nazi occupation he was assigned to work on a railroad. He entered the Jesuits in 1940, and in 1946 went to Maastricht in the Netherlands for theological studies. He arrived in Rome in 1951 to work in Vatican Radio, and has remained in the city ever since. He developed a reputation as a gifted professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and the Gregorian, and was invited in 1995 to deliver the annual Lenten retreat for the pope and officials of the Roman Curia.

Špidlík’s sermons and spiritual meditations are typically studded with references to the Eastern fathers. In the run-up to the Jubilee Year in 2002, for example, he preached a mini-retreat for the Roman Curia in which he referred to the Eucharist as the “pharmacy of God,” building on Eastern images of the Eucharist as a sort of medicine for the sick soul. He is also known as a simple, unpretentious man; Jesuit sources said that when he has come to deliver meditations at the order’s headquarters, he has often preached from notes scrawled on scraps of recycled paper.

Špidlík was a contributor to a couple of John Paul II’s best-known ecumenical overtures. In that 1995 retreat, for example, he encouraged the pope to forge ahead with his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, which appeared on May 25, 1995. In it, John Paul invited other Christian bodies into a conversation about reform of the papacy so that it would be more acceptable ecumenically, while sacrificing nothing of its essence.

Špidlík was also a chief source of theological inspiration behind the redesign of the Redemptoris Mater chapel in the Apostolic Palace, refashioned at the pope’s request in 1996 to express the idea of Christianity “breathing with both lungs,” East and West. (The College of Cardinals gave the pope a gift of cash for his 50th anniversary as a priest, and this was how he chose to spend it). The chapel incorporates iconography from both Latin and Orthodox Christianity in a rather daring modern style, marking a dramatic break from the traditional design that generally characterizes papal chapels.

For whatever it’s worth, therefore, the two “outsiders” who will have the most direct access to the cardinals in this pre-conclave period are men who can be expected to present a simple, evangelical and ecumenical vision. While these will by no means be campaign speeches, the tone and vision may nevertheless have some impact on the imaginations of the cardinals heading into the conclave – with, at least potentially, very surprising results.


Top of Page   | Home
Copyright © 2005 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280