What follows is a recap of the talk given by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa at the Evening of Spiritual Renewal at Seton Hall University on February 21, 2007. Exact quotes (as best I was able to write them) from the talk are denoted not just by quotes, but with blue text as well.
Come, Creator Spirit!
Fr. Cantalamessa began by reminding us of the words of the prayer Veni, Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit). Creation, he said, renews us. Creation is an ongoing process, not something God completed eons ago, but something we see happening even today. Creation is recognized by the transformation of chaos into order: at the beginning of time, it was the creation of the whole cosmos. Today, some of the most profound creation is taking place in ourselves, in our hearts. Our hearts are chaotic, but the Holy Spirit is continually working within us to transform our hearts. The "cosmos of our hearts", so to speak, is Christian harmony.
Marking the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday reminds us of the call to repentance. The first reading at the Ash Wednedsay Mass this year, Joel 2:12-18, begins thus: Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. When we receive the ashes on our forehead, we hear one of two verses from Scripture; Fr. Cantalamessa focused on that of Mark 1:15: "Repent, and believe in the gospel." This call to repentance shows up at three key places in New Testament Scripture: at the beginning of the ministry of Christ, immediately after the Holy Spirit descends on the Apostles at Pentecost, and in the book of Revelation.
To repent means, broadly, to "make a U-turn". When we sin, we break the covenant -- the everlasting covenant -- God has made with us through the blood of Jesus Christ. In order to re-enter the covenant, we must choose the opposite of sin: the way of life. The Greek word used in Mark 1:15 is metanoia (μετανοῖεν), which means "a change of mind" and is translated most often in Scripture as "repent". To repent, in the context of Jesus Christ, does not mean "to go back", but rather, it means "to go forward and enter the kingdom".
Repent #1: Believe in the Gospel!
Christianity is the religion of grace. In the end, it is not about what we must do, but what God has already done for us, without which there would be no hope of salvation! Faith comes first (Mark 1:15); Jesus says that those who wish to enter the kingdom must "turn and become like children" (Matthew 18:3), referring to the total dependence of a child upon his parents: in the same way, we must have that same kind of dependence on our heavenly Father. Fr. Cantalamessa said that children ask for things, not as if they deserved them, but with the notion that they would receive them. In the same way, knowing we do not deserve anything from God, we must rely totally on His love and mercy, becoming "beggars in faith".
We are made by God in such a way that we can make an act of faith, one in which we open our hearts to Jesus and let him enter into our lives. For this reason, Fr. Cantalamessa focused our attention on Romans 10:9: if we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved! Penance, endurance in faith, doing God's will, yes, these things are important too, but they come later.
Before moving on to Repent #2, he likened Jesus to an unexpected visitor who drops by a house. The owner quickly closes the doors to the messy rooms and directs the visitor's attention to the neat and tidy living room, where the owner feels more comfortable (and less embarrassed). It cannot be so with Jesus: he "did not come to call the righteous but sinners" (Matthew 9:13). We must be willing to lead Jesus into the messy rooms of our lives, the ones in disarray and disorder. We must not be so ashamed of our brokenness that we deny it and refuse to fix it. This is what repentence means.
Repent #2: Pentecost
Fr. Cantalamessa said (eliciting applause from the crowd) that Peter promulgated a dogmatic and infallible statement on that Pentecost: "But God raised [Jesus] up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it." (Acts 2:24) The result of Peter's preaching was that 3000 people were convinced of sin by the Holy Spirit, and so they asked, "Brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37) In response, Peter says, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38)
Fr. Cantalamessa said that God is "powerless before a repentant heart", meaning (as I understand it) that God, as He is, has no other recourse than to forgive a repentant person of their sin. This repentance is not just substituting one mindset for another, of choosing A instead of B, it is taking on and accepting the mentality, exacting and absolute, of God. It is recognizing that God is Innocent, and that the evil and sin we see in this world depends on us.
He brought up Ezekiel 9 and spoke about how the "mark" on the foreheads of those who mourned for the abominations committed in Jerusalem (cf. Ezekiel 9:4). The Hebrew word for "mark" comes from the Hebrew letter taw (ת). It is understood that the shape of this letter has changed since antiquity and once was drawn similar in appearance to the tau of Greek (τ), a cross similar to a "T". Pope Innocent III, in opening the Fourth Lateran Council (in 1215), said "We are called to reform our lives, to stand into the presence of God as righteous people. God will know us by the sign of the tau, T, marked on our foreheads." The tradition of receiving ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the Cross is an application of this vision given to Ezekiel.
Repent #3: Churches in need of Revival
In Revelation 2-3, John records "letters" to seven churches. These letters contain praise... and reproach. "Wake up and repent!" is the message to the church in Sardis (cf. Revelation 3:2-3). This is a call for "revival" and "awakening".
Fr. Cantalamessa then went into his personal story of recognition of what is known as the "Charismatic Renewal" in the Catholic Church, which he says started in and with Vatican II. Some 30 years ago, he was at Convent Station (near Morristown, NJ), attending a retreat focusing on the Trinity. While there, he had an encounter with Jesus. He saw a vision of himself on a chariot, holding the reins: this indicated him, Fr. Cantalamessa, in control of his life. Then Jesus appeared next to him and asked, "Do you want to hand me the reins?" He was overwhelmed at first, but then assented to Jesus's simple request: to let Jesus have control of his life.
He then had a new-found respect and appreciation for the Charismatic Renewal, something of which, prior to his visit to Convent Station, he had been a critic and skeptic, even considering himself an "adversary". Upon his return to Italy, his change of heart was so noticed and well-received that his friends and family said they had sent Saul to the United States, and Paul returned to them!
Later, had had another vision: Jesus, coming from the Jordan, passed by him and said to him: "If you want to help me, leave everything and follow me." To Fr. Cantalamessa, this was confusing at first: here he was, a Capuchin Franciscan friar, who had taken a vow of poverty, and Jesus was asking him to "leave everything"? We all chuckled with him. Then he realized that he was still attached. He decided to resign his professorship at a university, and became an itinerant preacher, just as St. Francis of Assisi had been. This continued until 1980 when he accepted Pope John Paul II's invitation to him to be the Preacher to the Papal Household, a position he still holds today.
Fr. Cantalamessa concluded by asking a few questions. "Who shall wake us up? Who shall renew this renewal? The very newness must be renewed!" he said. We must pray to the Holy Spirit for the same zeal we had when first we were touched by God's amazing gift of grace in Jesus Christ. Drawing from Psalm 104:30, he closed with "Send out your Spirit, renew the face of the earth!"
He received a lot of applause, which became a standing ovation, which he, in his wisdom and humility, directed to God, turning toward the Crucifix on the wall behind him and joining in the standing ovation.
For more information on the evening, you can read article in the National Catholic Reporter.