February / March 2016 - Vol. 84

Father's embrace of the prodigal son
The Father will give you another Counselor”
John 14:16
The Holy Spirit Reveals the Merciful Father.
by Raniero Cantalamessa

1. A Year of the Lord's Mercy

Returning to his home in Nazareth after his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus solemnly applies the words of Isaiah to himself:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)

It was thanks to the anointing of the Holy Spirit that Jesus preached the good news, healed the sick, comforted the afflicted, and performed all his works of mercy. St. Basil writes that the Holy Spirit was “inseparably present” with Jesus so that his “every operation was wrought with the co-operation of the Spirit.”78 The Holy Spirit, who is love personified in the Trinity, is also the mercy of God personified. He is the very “content” of divine mercy. Without the Holy Spirit, “mercy” would be an empty word.

The name “Paraclete” clearly indicates this. In announcing his coming, Jesus says, “And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever” (John 14:16). “Another” here implies “after having given me, Jesus, to you.” The Holy Spirit is, therefore, the one through whom the risen Jesus now continues his work of “doing good and healing all” (Acts 10:38). The statement that the Paraclete “will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14) also applies to mercy: the Holy Spirit will open the treasures of Jesus’ mercy to believers in every age. He will make Jesus’ mercy not just be remembered but also experienced.

The Paraclete is active above all in the sacrament of mercy, Confession. “He is the remission of all sins,” says one of the Church’s prayers.79 Because of that, before giving absolution to a penitent, a confessor says, “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace.”

Some Church Fathers considered the oil the Samaritan poured on the wounds of the man who was robbed to be a symbol of the Holy Spirit.80 A beautiful African-American spiritual expresses this thought with the evocative image of the balm in Gilead: “There is a balm in Gilead, / to heal the sin-sick soul /. . . . / to make the wounded whole.” Gilead is a place mentioned in the Old Testament that was famous for its perfumed healing ointment (see Jeremiah 8:22). Listening to this song we could almost imagine a street vendor shouting out a list of his merchandise and their prices. The whole Church should be this “street vendor.” The balm the Church offers today is no longer the medicinal ointment of Gilead; it is the Holy Spirit. 

2. The Letter and the Spirit, Justice and Mercy

The Holy Spirit is the key to solving the very tricky problem of the relationship between the law and mercy. Commenting on Paul’s saying that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:3-6), St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “The ‘letter’ refers to every written law that exists outside of man, including the moral precepts of the gospel. The ‘letter’ of the gospel, even of its precepts, also kills without the inward presence of the grace of faith that heals us.”81 Shortly before that statement, the holy doctor explains what he means by “the grace of faith”: “The new law is primarily the same grace of the Holy Spirit that is given to believers.”82

This is a bold assertion that none of us would dare make if it did not come from two very great doctors of the Latin Church, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. It finds confirmation earlier in the very words of Christ and the experience of the apostles. If a proclamation of the beatitudes and the moral teachings of the gospel were enough for us to have eternal life, then there would have been no need for Jesus to die and be raised for us to receive the gift of the Spirit. That is why he tells the apostles it is good for him to go away so that he can send the Paraclete upon them (see John 16:7). Look at the experience of the apostles: they had listened to all the precepts of the very author of the gospel, but they were not able to put them into practice until the Holy Spirit came down upon them at Pentecost.

The conclusion that emerges from all this is clear: if even the gospel precepts without the Holy Spirit would be “the letter that kills,” what can we say about ecclesiastical laws, monastic rules, and the canons in the canon law, including those that regulate marriage? The Spirit does not abolish or bypass the law;83 he does, however, teach at what point the law should move aside and yield to mercy. Obviously, not every “letter” kills but only the one that claims, all by itself and once and for all, to regulate life or even substitute itself for life.

3. The Holy Spirit Reveals the Merciful Father

An essential work of the Holy Spirit with respect to mercy is also that of changing the picture people have in their minds of God after they sin. One of the causes—perhaps the main one—for the alienation of people today from religion and faith is the distorted image they have of God. It is also the cause of a lifeless Christianity that has no enthusiasm or joy and is lived out more as a duty than as a gift, by constraint rather than by attraction.

What is this “preconceived” idea of God in the collective human unconscious that operates automatically (in computer language, we would say “by default”)? To find that out, we only need to ask this question: “What ideas, what words, what feelings spontaneously arise for you before you think about it when you come to the words in the Lord’s Prayer ‘May your will be done’”? In general, people say it with their heads bent down in resignation inwardly, as if preparing themselves for the worst.

People unconsciously link God’s will to everything that is unpleasant and painful, to what in one way or another is seen as destroying individual freedom and development. It is as though God were the enemy of every celebration, joy, and pleasure. People do not take into account that in the New Testament, the will of God is called “eudokia” (see Ephesians 1:9; Luke 2:14), meaning, “goodwill, kindness.” When we pray, “May your will be done,” it is really like saying, “Fulfill in me, Father, your plan of love.” Mary said her fiat with that attitude, and so did Jesus.

God is generally seen as the Supreme Being, the Omnipotent One, the Lord of time and history, as an entity who asserts his power over an individual from the outside. No detail of human life escapes him. The transgression of the law, disobedience to the divine will, inexorably introduces a disorder into the order willed by God from all eternity. As a consequence, his infinite justice requires reparation: a person will need to do something for God so as to reestablish the order that was disturbed in creation, and this reparation will involve a deprivation, a sacrifice. However, since people are never able to be certain that the “satisfaction” is enough, anxiety arises over facing death and judgment. God is a taskmaster who requires being paid back in full!

Of course, these people do not leave out the mercy of God! But for them, mercy functions only to moderate the necessary rigors of justice. It rectifies the situation, but it is an exception, not the rule. In practice, then, they believe God’s love and forgiveness depend on the love and forgiveness they have for others: if you forgive whoever offended you, God will be able in turn to forgive you. It leads to a relationship of bargaining with God. Isn’t it true that people think they need to accumulate merits to get into heaven? And don’t people attribute great significance to their efforts—to the Masses they attend, to the candles they light, and to the novenas they make?

Since all these practices have allowed so many people in the past to demonstrate their love to God, they cannot be thrown out the window but need to be respected. God makes his flowers bloom in all climates and his saints in all seasons. We cannot deny, however, that again there is a risk here of falling into a utilitarian religion of “do ut des,” “I give so that you can give, so that I can receive.” Behind all of this is the presupposition that a relationship with God depends on human beings. People unconsciously presume to “pay God his price” (see Psalm 49:7); they do not want to be debtors but creditors to God.

Where does this twisted idea of God come from? Let us leave aside individual and incidental factors like a bad relationship with one’s earthly father, which, in some cases, puts a strain on the relationship with God the Father. The basic reason for this terrible “preconception” about God clearly appears from what we have just said: the law, the commandments. As long as people live under the reign of sin, under the law, God seems to be a severe Master, someone who is opposed to the fulfillment of a person’s earthly desires with his mandates of “You should . . . You should not” that comprise the commandments: “You should not covet other’s goods, others’ spouses,” and so on. In this situation, carnal human beings store up bitterness against God deep in their hearts. They see him as an adversary to their happiness, and if it depended on them, they would be very happy if God did not exist.84

The first thing the Holy Spirit does when he comes to dwell in us is to reveal a different face of God to us. He shows him to us as an ally, as a friend, as the one who “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). In brief, the Holy Spirit shows us a very tender Father who has given us the law not to stifle our freedom but to protect it. A filial sentiment then arises that makes us spontaneously cry, “Abba, Father.” It is like saying, “I did not know you, or I knew you only from hearing about you. Now I know you, I know who you are, and I know that you truly wish good for me and that you look upon me with favor!” A son or daughter has now replaced a servant; love has replaced fear. This is what happens on the subjective and existential level when a person is “born anew of the Spirit” (see John 3:5, 7-8).

In addition to the law, there has been another reason in recent times for resentment against God: human suffering, and especially the suffering of the innocent. A nonbeliever has written that human suffering “is the rock of atheism.”85 The dilemma is that either God can overcome evil but does not want to, so he is not a father; or that he wants to overcome evil but he cannot, so he is not omnipotent. This is a very old objection, but it has become deafening in the wake of the tragedies of World War II. “No one can believe in a God as Father after Auschwitz,” someone has written.

I attempted to explain in the first chapter the answer the Holy Spirit has given the Church about this problem, which is that God suffers alongside people. He is not a far-off God who looks with indifference at a person suffering on earth. To the objection above, one can thus respond that God can overcome evil but does not choose to do it (at least in a general or normal way) so as not to remove people’s free will. God wants to overcome evil—and he will—but with a new kind of victory, the victory of love in which he takes evil upon himself and converts it to good for all eternity. It would be a magnificent fruit of the Year of Mercy if it served to restore the true picture of God that Jesus came to earth to reveal to us.

4. Making Ourselves Paracletes

The title “Paraclete” not only speaks about God’s mercy toward us but also opens for us a whole new field of acts of mercy for one another. We need, in other words, to become paracletes ourselves! If it is true that the Christian needs to be an alter Christus, “another Christ,” it is just as true that he or she needs to become “another paraclete.”

The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (see Romans 5:5), whether it be the love with which God loves us or the love that has made us in turn capable of loving God and our neighbor. When applied to mercy—which is the form love takes in the face of the suffering and sin of a person who is loved—the following saying from the apostle tells us something very important: the Paraclete not only comforts us; he also comes to comfort others and makes us able to comfort them and be merciful. St. Paul writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God [italics added]” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). The Greek word from which “Paraclete” is derived appears five times in this text, sometimes as a verb and sometimes as a noun. It contains the essential elements for a theology of consolation. Consolation comes from God who is “the Father of all comfort”; he comes to whoever is afflicted. But he does not stop with that person; his ultimate goal is reached when those who have experienced consolation use that experience in turn to comfort others.

But console how? This is the important point. With the very consolation with which we have been consoled by God—a divine, not human, consolation. That does not happen when we are content to repeat empty words about circumstances that leave things the way we found them: “Don’t worry; don’t get upset; you’ll see that everything will turn out for the best!” We need instead to communicate authentic consolation, which comes from “the encouragement of the scriptures [so that] we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). This also explains the miracles that a simple word or gesture in an atmosphere of prayer can accomplish at the bedside of a sick person. God is giving comfort through you.

In a certain sense, the Holy Spirit needs us in order for him to be the “Paraclete.” He wants to comfort, defend, and exhort, but he has no mouth, hands, or eyes to “embody” his consolation. Or better, he has our hands, our eyes, our mouths. Just as our soul acts, moves, and smiles through the members of our body, so the Holy Spirit does the same through the members of “his” body, the Church and us. St. Paul recommends to the early Christians, “Therefore encourage one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11); translated literally the verb here means “make yourselves paracletes for one another.” If the consolation and the mercy we receive from the Spirit do not flow from us to others, if we selfishly want to keep it for ourselves, then very soon it stagnates.

Let us ask for grace from Mary, whom Christian devotion honors with two titles that together signify “paraclete”: “Consoler of the Afflicted” and “Advocate for Sinners.” She has certainly made herself a “paraclete” for us! A text from the Second Vatican Council says, “The Mother of Jesus shine[s] forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come (cf. 2 Peter 3:10), as a sign of sure hope and solace to the people of God during its sojourn on earth.”86

78 St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, XVI, 39, in Letters and Select Works, trans. Blomfield Jackson, vol. 8, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 25; see PG 32, p. 140.
79 Roman Missal, Tuesday after Pentecost.
80 Origen, Homilies on Luke, 34, trans. Joseph T. Lienhard, vol. 94, Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), pp. 139-140; see SCh 87, p. 401.
81 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I–IIae, q. 106, a. 2.
82 Ibid., q. 106, a. 1; see also St. Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter, 21, 36, pp. 221–222.
83 St. Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter, 19, 34: “The law was given that grace might be sought; grace was given that the law might be fulfilled” (p. 220).
84 See Martin Luther, “Sermon for Pentecost,” The Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book, 2000), pp. 273–287.
85 The phrase comes from a 1835 drama by the nineteenth-century German author Georg Büchner, Danton’s Death [Dantons Tod], trans. Howard Brenton and Jane Margaret Fry (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 43. In Act 3, a character asks, “Why do I suffer? That is the rock of atheism.”
86 Lumen gentium, n. 68

Excerpt from The Gaze of Mercy: A Commentary on Divine and Human Mercy, © 2015 Raniero Cantalamessa, published by The Word Among Us Press. Used with permission.

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap. (born July 22, 1934) is an Italian Catholic priest in the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. He has devoted his ministry to preaching and writing. He is a Scripture scholar, theologian, and noted author of numerous books. Since 1980 he has served as the Preacher to the Papal Household under Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. He is a noted ecumenist and frequent worldwide speaker, and a member of the Catholic Delegation for the Dialogue with the Pentecostal Churches.

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