VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- For more than 38 years, Capuchin Father Raniero
Cantalamessa has preached to the pope and top officials of the Roman
Curia. In early January, he will lead the weeklong retreat of the U.S.
As they continue to study and discuss ways to respond to the clerical
sexual abuse crisis, the bishops will gather for the retreat Jan. 2-8
at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago.
Pope Francis suggested the bishops hold the retreat and offered the
services of the 84-year-old Father Cantalamessa, who has served as
preacher of the papal household since 1980.
In an email Dec. 6, the Capuchin declined to be interviewed about the
retreat, saying, "At this delicate moment in the life of the U.S.
church, I don't believe it would be opportune for me to give
The theme of the U.S. bishops' retreat will be "the mission of the
apostles and of their successors" and will draw from Mark 3:14, which
says Jesus "appointed 12 -- whom he also named apostles -- that they
might be with him and he might send them forth to preach."
In a follow-up email Dec. 15, Father Cantalamessa said, "I will not
talk about pedophilia and will not give advice about eventual solutions;
that is not my task and I would not have the competence to do so."
"The Holy Father asked for my availability to lead a series of
spiritual exercises for the episcopal conference so that the bishops,
far from their daily commitments, in a climate of prayer and silence and
in a personal encounter with the Lord, can receive the strength and
light of the Holy Spirit to find the right solutions for the problems
that afflict the U.S. church today," Father Cantalamessa wrote.
Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office, told Catholic News
Service, "You can see why the pope asked the bishops to make the retreat
together in what he told the bishops of Chile: without faith and
without prayer, fraternity is impossible."
"At a moment like this, the bishops need to be united in prayer, and
Catholics in the U.S. should see them at prayer," Burke said Dec. 13. "A
retreat is always a time for conversion, and perhaps there's been no
time in the U.S. with more need for conversion than now."
The job of "preacher of the papal household" is not a fulltime
position; each year it requires the priest to give an average of eight
meditations -- one each on most Fridays of Advent and Lent -- and the
homily during the pope's Good Friday celebration of the Lord's Passion.
The title, and the ministry, has a very long history. Superiors of
different religious orders took turns preaching to the pontiff and his
aides during Advent and Lent until the mid-1500s, when Pope Paul IV
appointed the first preacher of the papal household; his successors
followed suit, always choosing a religious-order priest for the job.
Pope Benedict XIV decided in 1743 to be more specific, decreeing that
the preacher of the papal household always be a Capuchin friar.
St. John Paul II asked Father Cantalamessa to take the job in 1980;
since then, the Capuchin has given more than 300 spiritual talks and
homilies to the popes and their closest aides in the Roman Curia.
When he is not preaching to the pope, Father Cantalamessa leads
retreats around the world, writes books and articles and works with
charismatic Catholics; in late October, he was named ecclesial adviser
of "Charis," the new international coordinating body for the Catholic
In a 2015 interview with CNS, he said the first time he climbed the
steps to the lectern in St. Peter's Basilica to preach to the pope on
Good Friday, "It felt like I was climbing Mount Everest."
But, he told TV2000, the Italian bishops' television station, "this
post of preacher of the papal household says more about the pope than
the preacher. He has the humility to set aside all his important tasks
on the Fridays of Advent and Lent to come listen to the preaching of a
The three popes he has preached to have given him the freedom to
choose the topics for his meditations, he told CNS in 2015. "I try to
understand, including with the help of prayer, what are the problems,
needs or even graces the church is living at the moment and to make my
little contribution with a spiritual reflection."
"Putting the word of God into practice must characterize all
preaching," he said. "Pope Francis gives us a stupendous example of that
with his morning homilies."
While focused on challenging and strengthening the faith of those he
is preaching to, Father Cantalamessa's homilies have touched on
religious persecution, Christian unity, signs of hatred and prejudice in
society, violence against women, war and peace, the defense of human
life and the abuse crisis.
His homily in St. Peter's Basilica on Good Friday in 2010 caused
controversy. At the service, presided over by Pope Benedict XVI, the
Capuchin focused on how Jesus broke the cycle of violence and
victimizing others by taking on the world's sins and offering himself as
He had noted that in 2010 the Christian Holy Week and the Jewish
Passover coincided, and he told the congregation the Jews "know from
experience what it means to be victims of collective violence," and they
recognize when other groups are being attacked simply because of who
He then read a portion of a letter he said he received from a Jewish
friend, who wrote that he was following "with disgust" attacks against
the church and the pope, including because of the abuse scandal. The
repetition of stereotypes and using the wrongdoings of some individuals
as an excuse to paint a whole group with collective guilt reminded the
Jewish author of "the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," the
Father Cantalamessa later said he was sincerely sorry if he offended
any members of the Jewish community or any victims of sexual abuse.
The Capuchin also has preached on the need for the Catholic Church to
be honest and transparent about the abuse crisis and to repent for it.
In December 2009, just a few hours before Pope Benedict XVI met with
Irish bishops to discuss the clerical sex abuse crisis, Father
Cantalamessa gave one of his Advent meditations. He told the pope and
other Vatican officials that, as a matter of justice, the church must
publicly admit the weakness of some of its priests.
However, he had said, acknowledging weakness is not enough to "launch
a renewal of priestly ministry." For that, he said, the prayers of
priests themselves and all the faithful are needed as is a renewed
commitment by all priests to devoting themselves totally to serving God
and their brothers and sisters.
And, in Advent 2006, leading a meditation on the passage from the
beatitudes that says, "Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be
comforted," Father Cantalamessa said the church's tears of shame for the
abuse crisis must be turned into tears of repentance.
Rather than mourning for the damage done to the church's reputation,
he said, the church must weep "for the offense given to the body of
Christ and the scandal given to the smallest of its members."