Sacred Liturgy - Advent 2010

"The Christian Response to Secular"
Advent Homily

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
December 12, 2010

1. Secularization and secularism

In this meditation we are concerned with the second obstacle evangelization encounters in the modern Western world: secularization. Stated in the motu proprio with which the Pope instituted the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization is that it "is at the service of the particular Churches, especially in those territories of Christian tradition where the phenomenon of secularization is more obviously apparent."

Secularization is a complex and ambivalent phenomenon. It can indicate the autonomy of earthly realities and the separation between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Cesar and, in this sense, not only is it not against the Gospel but finds in it one of its profound roots; however, it can also indicate a whole ensemble of attitudes contrary to religion and to faith; hence, the use of the term secularism is preferred. Secularism is to secularization what scientism is to scientific nature and rationalism to rationality.

Being concerned with the obstacles and challenges that faith meets with in the modern world, we refer exclusively to this negative sense of secularization. Even thus delimited, however, secularization presents many faces according to the fields in which it is manifested: theology, science, ethics, biblical hermeneutics, culture in general, daily life. In the present meditation I take the term in its primordial meaning. Secularization, as secularism, derives in fact from the word "saeculum," which in ordinary language has ended up by indicating the present time ("the present eon," according to the Bible), as opposed to eternity (the future eon, or "the forever and ever," of the Bible). In this sense, secularism is a synonym of temporality, of the reduction of the real only to the earthly dimension.

The fall of the horizon of eternity, or of eternal life, has the effect on Christian life of sand thrown on a flame: it suffocates it, extinguishes it. Faith in eternal life is one of the conditions of the possibility of evangelization. "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all," exclaims St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15:19).

2. Rise and fall of the idea of eternity

We recall briefly the history of belief in a life after death; it will help us to measure the novelty brought by the Gospel in this field. In the Hebrew religion of the Old Testament this belief was slow in coming. Only after the exile, in face of the failure of temporal expectations, the idea gained ground of the resurrection of the flesh and of an ultra-earthly recompense of the righteous, and even then not all accepted it (the Sadducees, it is known, did not share this belief).

This loudly denies the thesis of those (Feuerbach, Marx, Freud) who explain belief in God with the desire for an eternal recompense, as projection in the beyond of the disappointed earthly expectations. Israel believed in God, many centuries before it believed in an eternal recompense in the beyond! Hence, it is not the desire of an eternal recompense that produced faith in God, but it is faith in God that produced the belief of an ultra-earthly recompense.

The full revelation of eternal life is had, in the biblical world, with the coming of Christ. Jesus does not base the certainty of eternal life on the nature of man, the immortality of the soul, but on the "power of God," who is a "not God of the dead, but of the living" (Luke 20:27-38). After Easter, to this theological foundation the Apostles added the Christological: the resurrection of Christ from the dead. On it the Apostle bases faith in the resurrection of the flesh and in eternal life: But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? [...] But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:12,20).

Witnessed even in the Greek-Roman world is an evolution in the concept of the beyond. The oldest idea is that true life ends with death; after that there is only a semblance of life, in a world of shadows. A novelty is registered with the appearance of the Orphic-Pythagorean religion. According to it, the true "I" of man is the soul that, liberated from the prison (sema) of the body (soma), can finally live its true life. Plato gave this discovery a philosophic dignity, basing it on the spiritual nature, hence the immortal, nature of the soul.[1]

However, this belief would remain largely a minority belief, reserved to those initiated in the mysteries and to followers of particular philosophical schools. Persisting in the masses was the ancient conviction that true life ends with death. Noted are the words that the emperor Hadrian addresses to himself when near death:

"Little lost and gentle soul
Companion and guest of the body,
now you hurry to ascend to
dull, arduous and stripped places,
where you will no longer have the usual amusements.
One instant yet we look at the familiar shores,
the things that we will certainly never see again."[2]

One can understand with this background the impact that the Christian proclamation must have had of a life after death infinitely more full and joyful than the earthly; one can also understand why the idea and the symbols of eternal life are so frequent in the Christian sepulchers of the catacombs.

But what has happened to the Christian idea of an eternal life for the soul and for the body, after it triumphed over the pagan idea of "darkness beyond death" and after it permeated all aspects of life during the Middle age? As opposed to the present moment in which atheism is expressed above all in the negation of the existence of a Creator, in the 19th century this was expressed preferably in the negation of a beyond.

Taking up Hegel's affirmation according to which "Christians waste in heaven the energies destined for earth," Feuerbach and above all Marx combated the belief of a life after death, under the pretext that it alienates from the earthly commitment. To the idea of a personal survival in God is substituted by the idea of a survival in the species and in the society of the future.

Little by little, suspicion, forgetfulness and silence fell on the word eternity. Materialism and consumerism did the rest in the opulent society, making it seem inconvenient to still speak of eternity among educated persons. All this had a clear repercussion on the faith of believers, which became, on this point, timid and reticent. When did we hear the last homily on eternal life? Who dares any more to mention eternal life in front of the suffering of an innocent child?

We continue to recite the Creed: "Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum et vitam venturi saeculi": "I await the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come," but without giving too much weight to these words. Kierkegaard was right when he wrote: "The beyond has become a joke, such an uncertain need that not only does no one respect it anymore, but no one even expects it, to the point that we are amused even at the thought that there was a time in which this idea transformed the whole of existence."[3]

What is the practical consequence of this eclipse of the idea of eternity? St. Paul refers to those who do not believe in the resurrection from the dead: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (1 Corinthians 15:32). The natural desire to live always, distorted, becomes a desire or frenzy to live well, namely, pleasantly, even at the expense of others, if necessary. The whole earth becomes what Dante said of Italy of his time: "the flower-bed that makes us so ferocious." The horizon of eternity having fallen, human suffering seems doubly and irremediably absurd.

3. Eternity: a hope and a presence

As for scientism, speaking also of secularism, the most effective answer does not consist in combating the contrary error, but in making shine again before men the certainty of eternal life, appealing to the intrinsic force the truth possesses when it is accompanied by the testimony of life. An ancient Father wrote, "An idea can always be opposed by another idea and an opinion by another opinion; but what can one oppose to a life?"

We must also appeal to the correspondence of this truth with the most profound desire, even if repressed, of the human heart. To a friend who reproached him, almost as if his yearning for eternity was pride or presumption, Miguel de Unamuno, who was certainly not an apologist of the faith, answered in a letter: "I do not say that we merit a beyond, or that logic demonstrates it; 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. I have need of it, I have need of it! Without it there is no more joy in living and the joy of living no longer has anything to give me. It is too easy to affirm: 'It is necessary to live, one must be content with life.' And those that are not content with it?"[4]

It is not one who desires eternity, he added on the same occasion, who shows that he scorns the world and life here below, but on the contrary the one who does not desire it: "I so love life that to lose it seems to me the worst of evils. They do not really love life who enjoy it day after day without taking the trouble to know if they are to lose it altogether or not." St. Augustine said the same thing: "Cui non datur semper vivere, quid prodest bene vivere?" (What good is it to live, if it is not given to live forever?"[5] "Everything, except eternity, is vain to the world," sang our poet.[6]

To the men of our time who cultivate in depth this need of eternity, without perhaps having the courage to admit it to others or even to themselves, we can repeat what Paul said to the Athenians: "What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you" (cf. Acts 17:23).

The Christian response to secularism in the sense that we understand it here, is not based, as for Plato, on a philosophical idea -- the immortality of the soul -- but on an event. The Enlightenment posed the famous problem of how eternity could be attained, while one is in time and how there can be an historical point of departure for an eternal consciousness.[7] In other words, how one can justify the claim of the Christian faith of promising an eternal life and of threatening an equally eternal punishment for acts done in time.

The only valid response to this problem is that which is based on faith in the incarnation of God. In Christ, eternity entered into time, it manifested itself in the flesh; before him it is possible to make a decision for eternity. It is thus that the evangelist John speaks of eternal life: "We [...] proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us" (1 John 1:2).

For the believer, eternity is not, as we see, only a hope, it is also a presence. We have this experience every time that we make a real act of faith in Christ, because "you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God" (cf. 1 John 5:13); every time we receive Communion, in which "we are given the pledge of future glory" ("futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur"); every time we hear the words of the Gospel which are "words of eternal life" (cf. John 6:68). Also, St. Thomas Aquinas says that "grace is the beginning of glory."[8]

This presence of eternity in time is called the Holy Spirit. He is described as "the first installment of our inheritance" (Ephesians 1:14; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:5), and he has been given to us, so that, having received the first fruits, we long for the fullness. "Christ," wrote St. Augustine, "has given us the guarantee of the Holy Spirit with which he, who in any case cannot deceive us, wished to render us certain of the fulfillment of his promise. What did he promise? He promised eternal life of which the Spirit, which has been given to us, is the guarantee."[9]

4. Who are we? From whence do we come? Where are we going?

Between the life of faith in time and eternal life there is a relationship similar to that which exists between the life of the embryo in the maternal womb and that of the baby, once he has come to the light. Cabasilas wrote: "This world bears in gestation the interior man, new, created according to God, so that he, molded and made perfect here, is generated in that perfect world that does not grow old. Like the embryo that, while it is in the dark and fluid existence, nature prepares for life in the light, so is with the saints [...]. For the embryo, however, the future life is absolutely future; no ray of light reaches him, nothing of what is of this life. Not so for us, from the moment that the future world is as though poured and mixed with this present one [...] Because of this it is already granted to saints not only to dispose and prepare themselves for life, but to live and operate in it."[10]

There is a little story that illustrates this comparison. There were two twins, a boy and a girl, so intelligent and precocious that, still in the mother's womb, already spoke to one another. The girl asked her brother: "According to you, will there be a life after birth?" He answered: "Don't be ridiculous. What makes you think that there is something outside of this narrow and dark space in which we find ourselves?" The girl, gaining courage, insisted: "Perhaps a mother exists, some one who has put us here, and who will take care of us." And he answered: "Do you, perhaps, see a mother anywhere? What you see is all that is." She replied: "But don't you feel at times a pressure on the chest that increases day by day and pushes us forward?" "To tell the truth," he answered, "it's true: I feel it all the time." "See," concluded his sister triumphantly, "this pain cannot be for nothing. I think it is preparing us for something greater than this small space."

We can use this pleasant little story when we must proclaim eternal life to persons in whom faith has been lost, but who keep the nostalgia and perhaps expect the Church, as the girl, to help them believe in it.

There are questions that men have not ceased to pose themselves since the world began and the men of today are no exception: "Who are we? From whence do we come? Where are we going?" In the "Ecclesiastical history of the English people", the Venerable Bede recounts how the Christian faith came to the north of England. When the missionaries who had come from Rome arrived in Northumberland, king Edwin convoked a council of dignitaries to decide whether they would allow them, or not, to spread the new message. One of them stood up and said:

"The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."[11]

Perhaps the Christian faith will return in England and in the European continent for the same reason for which it made its entry: as the only one that has a sure answer to give to the great questions of earthly life. The most propitious occasions to make this message reach are funerals. In them people are less distracted that in other rites of passage (Baptism, marriage), they wonder about their own destiny. When one weeps over a deceased loved one, one weeps also for oneself.

I once heard an interesting program of the English BBC on so-called "secular funerals," with the live recording of the unfolding of one of them. At one point one heard the person officiating say to those present: "We must not be sad. To live a good, satisfying life, for 78 years (the age of the deceased woman) is something for which we must be grateful." Grateful to whom? I wondered. Such a funeral does no more than make more evident the total undoing of man in face of death.

Sociologists and men of culture, called to explain the phenomenon of secular or "humanistic" funerals, see the cause of the spread of this practice in some countries of Northern Europe, in the fact that religious funerals imply in those present a faith that they do not feel they share. The proposal they advanced was: in funerals the Church must avoid any reference to God, to eternal life, to Jesus Christ dead and risen, and must limit its role to that of "natural and experienced organizer of rites of passage!" In other words, be resigned to the secularization also of death!

5. Let us go to the house of the Lord!

A renewed faith in eternity does not only serve for evangelization, that is, for the proclamation to be done to others; it serves, even before that, to give a new impetus to our journey towards sanctity. The weakening of the idea of eternity acts also on believers, diminishing in them the capacity to face suffering and the trials of life with courage. We are no longer accustomed in front of a difficult situation to repeat what St. Bernard and Ignatius of Loyola used to say: "Quid hoc ad aeternitatem?" (what does this matter compared to eternity?).

Let us think of a man with a scale in hand: one of those scales that are held with one hand and have on one side the dish on which to put things to be weighed and the other a graduated bar that holds the weight or measure. If it falls down or loses the measure, all that is put on the plate makes the bar rise and makes the scale incline to earth. Everything has superiority, even a handful of feathers. That is how we are when we lose the weight, the measure of all that is eternity: earthly things and sufferings easily pull our soul down. Everything seems too heavy, excessive. Jesus said: "And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands and two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire" (cf. Matthew 18:8-9). But we, having lost sight of eternity, already find it excessive if we are asked to close our eyes to an immoral spectacle. Saint Paul dared to write: "For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). The weight of tribulation is light precisely because it is momentary, that of glory is immeasurable precisely because it is eternal. Because of this, the Apostle can say: "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us" (Romans 8:18).

Cardinal Newman, whom we chose as special teacher in this Advent, obliges us to add a truth that is lacking in the reflections made up to now on eternity. He does so with the poem "The Dream of Gerontius," put to music by the great English composer Edgar Elgar. A real masterpiece for the depth of thoughts, lyrical inspiration and choral dramatization.

He describes the dream of an old man (this is what the name Gerontius means) who feels himself close to the end and we know that this man was Newman himself at a certain point of his life. To his thoughts on the meaning of life, of death, on the abyss of the nothingness into which he is being precipitated, are superimposed the comments of the bystanders, the praying voice of the Church: "Depart from this life, Christian soul" ("proficiscere, anima christiana"), the contrasting voices of angels and demons that weigh down his life and claim his soul. Particularly beautiful and profound is the description of the moment of the passage and of the awakening in another world:

"I went to sleep; and now I am refreshed.
A strange refreshment: for I feel in me
An inexpressive lightness, and a sense
Of freedom, as I were at length myself
And ne'er had been before. How still it is!
I hear no more the busy beat of time,
No, nor my fluttering breath, nor struggling pulse;
Nor does one moment differ from the next.[12]

The last words that the soul speaks in the poem are those with which he starts out serenely, even impatiently, to Purgatory:

There will I sing my absent Lord and Love:
Take me away,
That sooner I may rise, and go above,
And see Him in the truth of everlasting day."[13]

For the emperor Hadrian, death was the passage from reality to shadows, for the Christian John Newman it was the passage from shadows to reality, "ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem," as he wished to have written on his tomb.

What is, then, the missing truth that ¬¬Newman obliges us not to be silent about? That the passage from time to eternity is not straight and equal for all. There is a judgment to face and a judgment that can have two very different results, hell or paradise. Newman's is an austere spirituality, even at times rigorous, as that of the "Dies irae," but how healthy at a time inclined to take everything lightly and as a joke, as Kierkegaard said, with the thought of eternity!

Let us direct our thoughts then with renewed impetus towards eternity, repeating to ourselves with the words of the poet: everything, except the eternal, to the world is vain." In the Hebrew Psalter there is a group of Psalms called "Psalms of the ascension," or "canticles of Sion." They were the Psalms that Jewish pilgrims sang when they went out on pilgrimage towards the holy city, Jerusalem. One of them begins thus: "I was glad when they said to me, 'let us go to the house of the Lord!'" These Psalms of the ascension then became the Psalms of those that, in the Church, are journeying towards the heavenly Jerusalem; they are our Psalms. Commenting on those initial words of the Psalm, St. Augustine said to his faithful:

"Let us run because we will go to the house of the Lord; let us run because this course does not exhaust; because we will arrive at an end where there is no exhaustion. Let us run to the house of the Lord and our soul rejoices for those who repeat these words. They have seen the homeland before us, the Apostles saw it and have said to us: 'Run, hurry up, follow us! We are going to the house of the Lord!'" [14]

We have before us, in this chapel, a splendid mosaic representation of the heavenly Jerusalem, with Mary, the Apostles and a long procession of Eastern and Western saints. They repeat this invitation to us silently. Let us receive it and take it with us on this day and throughout life.


[1] Cf. M. Pohlenz, "L'uomo greco," Florence, 1967, p. 173ss.

[2] "Animula vagula, blandula."

[3] S. Kierkegaard, "Postilla conclusiva," 4, in "Opere," edited by C. Fabro, Florence, 1972, p. 458.

[4] Miguel de Unamuno, "Cartas inéditas de Miguel de Unamuno y Pedro Jiménez Ilundain," ed. Hernán Benítez, Journal of the University of Buenos Aires, Vol. 3, No. 9 (January-March 1949), pp. 135-150.

[5] St. Augustine, "Homilies on St. John," 45, 2 (PL, 35, 1720).

[6] Antonio Fogazzaro, "A Sera," in "Le poesie," Milan, Mondadori, 1935, pp. 194-197.

[7] G.E. Lessing, "Über den Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft," ed. Lachmann, X, p.36.

[8] St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa theological", II-IIae, q. 24, art.3, ad 2.

[9] St. Augustine, "Sermons," 378,1 (PL, 39, 1673).

[10] N. Cabasilas, "Vita in Cristo," I,1-2, edited by U. Neri, Turin, UTET, 1971, pp.65-67.

[11] Venerable Bede, "The Ecclesiastical History of the English People," II, 13.

[12] "The Dream of Gerontius," John Henry Newman, 1865.

[13] Ibid.

[14] S. Agostino, Enarrationes in Psalmos 121,2 (CCL, 40, p. 1802).


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