VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Even those who spend their lives serving the church must recognize that faith alone will save them, the preacher of the papal household told Pope Benedict XVI and his closest aides.
"Christianity does not start with that which man must do to save himself, but with what God has done to save him," Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa said in his Dec. 16 Advent meditation.
The preacher told the pope and top Vatican officials that they, like St. Paul, must avoid any temptation to think that the good works they have accomplished will guarantee their salvation.
"Gratuitous justification through faith in Christ is the heart" of St. Paul's preaching "and it is a shame that this has been practically absent from the ordinary preaching of the church," he said.
Father Cantalamessa said that the Protestant Reformation debate over the role of faith and works led the Catholic Church to focus so much on the need for the demonstration of faith in actions that it practically ignored the need for faith in the first place.
St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians, warned believers of the "mortal danger" of putting their own good works between them and Christ, as if the works would save them, Father Cantalamessa said.
Conversion to the fact that faith in Christ is the only means of salvation "is the conversion most needed by those who already are following Christ and have lived at the service of his church," the Capuchin said.
"It is a special conversion that does not consist in abandoning the bad, but abandoning the good, in a way," he said. "It means detaching oneself from everything one has done, repeating to oneself, 'We are useless servants; we have done only what was required.'"
Father Cantalamessa told a familiar Italian story about the shepherds near Bethlehem going to visit the newborn Jesus, each of them trying to outdo the others with the beauty of the gifts they offered.
One poor shepherd had nothing and was ashamed.
"Mary could not figure out how to accept all the gifts, since she was holding the baby in her arms," he said. "So, seeing the poor shepherd with his hands free, she handed Jesus to him."
"Having his hands free was his fortune and it should be ours as well," Father Cantalamessa said.
- Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops