Public speaking is listed as one of man's greatest fears, more so even than death. Now imagine that you are preparing to speak before some of the most influential men in the Catholic Church. In the congregation is none other than Pope Francis himself! This is the regular task of the Apostolic Preacher.
Since 1980, the Office of Apostolic Preacher has been held by Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa. How intimidating is it to preach to the Pope? In a recent article by Catholic News Service, Fr. Cantalamessa described the first time he ever climbed the steps to preach at the papal altar in St. Peter's Basilica: "It felt like I was climbing Mount Everest!"
Established by Pope Paul IV in 1555, the position of Apostolic Preacher was initially shared among the mendicant orders. The preacher's task was to remind the Papal Household of their respective duties. In 1753, Pope Benedict XIV, in his brief Inclytum Fratrum Minorum
, reserved the office of Apostolic Preacher exclusively to the Capuchin Franciscans. In the brief, the Pope stated that the reason for reserving this office to the Capuchins was due to "the example of Christian piety and religious perfection, the splendor of doctrine and the Apostolic zeal [found in the order]."
At 80 years of age, Fr. Cantalmessa continues to preach to the Pope and the Papal Household each year on the Fridays of Advent and Lent. He estimates that he has given about 280 Advent and Lenten talks to the Curia, including St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. His meditations usually last about 30 minutes. Reflecting humorously on his role, he stated, "I've been responsible for having taken up a good 140 hours of the last three popes' precious time."
Where does Fr. Cantalamessa get his inspiration for preaching to the Pope? In prayer. Although he travels frequently, giving talks to various Catholic groups, he disappears for large periods of time to a hermitage run by the Capuchin Poor Clares in the town of Cittaducale. There, in a hermit's isolation, he prays for guidance and inspiration. "I try to understand," he said, "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." While his message is certainly spiritual in nature, the Apostolic Preacher says that the needs of the world are always in his heart and mind. "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."
Fr. Cantalmessa likes to tell the humorous story of a discussion he once had with a confrere who, "a bit jokingly and a bit seriously," reflected to Cantalamessa that he must not be a very good preacher. "You've been preaching to the Roman Curia for years," he said, "and there's still no sign of conversion." Responding in his light hearted, but humble fashion, Fr. Cantalamessa stated: "The most difficult thing isn't to convert those who are listening, but to convert the preacher."