Slide 15 Slide 2 Foto di Filippo Maria Gianfelice

“I AM THE WAY AND THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE” - Fifth Sermon, Lent 2024

Friday March 22nd, 2024

In our journey through the Fourth Gospel to discover who Jesus is for us, we have reached the last stage. We enter into what are usually called “the farewell speeches” of Jesus to his apostles. This time I won’t even attempt to summarize the context and highlight its different units and subdivisions. It would be like trying to draw boxes and distinguish sectors in a lava flow descending from the crater. Let us therefore go directly to the word that we intend to meditate upon in this meditation:
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where [I] am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (Jn 14: 3-6).

“I am the way, the truth and the life”: words that only one person in the world could and did pronounce. Christ is the way and the destination of the journey. As the eternal Word of the Father, he is the truth and the life; as the Word-made-flesh, he is the way.
We had the opportunity to contemplate Christ as Life, commenting on his words: “I am the bread of life;” and as Truth, commenting on his other words: “I am the light of the world.” Let us now focus on Christ the Way. After having contemplated Christ as a gift, we have the opportunity to contemplate him as a model. “Since,” writes Kierkegaard, “the Middle Ages had increasingly gone astray in accentuating the side of Christ as a model, Luther accentuated the other side, stating that he is a gift and that is up to faith to accept it.” But now, added the same author, we must also insist on Christ as the model, if we do not want the doctrine on faith to turn into a fig leaf that covers the most anti-Christian omissions.
Jesus continues to say to those he meets – that is, to us, at this moment – what he said to the apostles and to those he met during his earthly life: “Come after me,” or “Follow me!” The following (in Greek, akolouthia) of Christ is a boundless theme. The most beloved and most read book in the Church, after the Bible, namely The Imitation of Christ, was written about it. We limit ourselves to speaking since we need to move on to some practical applications, always of a spiritual and personal nature, the goal we set ourselves in these meditations.
The theme of following Christ occupies an important place in the Fourth Gospel. Following Jesus is almost a synonym for believing in him. Believing, however, is an attitude of the mind and will; the image of a “way” highlights an important aspect of believing, which is “walking,” that is, the dynamism that must characterize the life of the Christian and the repercussion that faith must have on the conduct of life. “Following” – unlike “believing” and “loving” –not only indicates a particular attitude of the mind and heart, but outlines a life program for the disciple. It implies a total sharing: of the way of life, of the destiny, and of the mission of the Lord.
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With the emphasis given to the episode of the washing of the feet, John wanted to underline a specific priority in the following Christ, that of service (Jn 13:12-15). But I am not going to talk about service. I dedicated the final sermon of last Lent to that theme and there is no need to repeat myself. After all, I am the least qualified to talk about service, since in my life I have almost exclusively devoted myself to “the service of the Word” which, however important, is also relatively easy and more rewarding than many other services in the Church.
I would rather like to talk about what characterizes the following of Christ and distinguishes it from any other type of following. It is common to say of an artist, a philosopher, a man of letters, that he trained at the school of this or that renowned master. Even of us religious it is said that we were trained at the school, some of Benedict, some of Dominic, some of Francis of Assisi, some of Ignatius of Loyola, and some of other men or women. But there is an essential difference between this following and that of Christ. It is expressed, as could not be done better, by the words of John himself, at the end of the Prologue of his Gospel: “The law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:17).
For us religious this means: the rule was given to us through our founder, but the grace and strength to put it into practice comes to us only from Jesus Christ. For us and for all Christians alike, that word of John also means something even more radical: the Gospel was given to us by the earthly Jesus, but the ability to observe it and put it into practice comes to us only from the risen Christ and his Spirit!
In this regard, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote words that on the lips of a doctor less authoritative than him would leave us perplexed. Commenting on the Pauline saying “The letter kills, the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3.6), he writes:
By letter we mean every written law that remains outside of man, even the moral precepts contained in the Gospel; therefore even the letter of the Gospel would kill, if the grace of faith that heals were not added within it.
Shortly before, he had explicitly said that “the grace that heals us” is nothing other than “the same grace of the Holy Spirit that it is given to believers.” Saint Augustine understood this from personal experience and therefore invented his extraordinary prayer: “Lord, you command me to be chaste. Well, give me what you command me and then command me what you want.”
This is why so much of Jesus’ speeches at the Last Supper have as their object the Paraclete whom he would send upon the apostles. Let’s remember some of his promises in this regard:
I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you (Jn 16:12-14).

If Jesus is “the Way” (in Greek, odòs), the Holy Spirit is “the Guide” (in Greek, odegòs, or odegìa). This is how Saint Gregory of Nyssa already defined him, and this is how the Latin Church invokes him in the Veni Creator. Together, the two verses “Ductore sic te praevio – vitemus omne noxium,” mean in fact, “with you as our guide (ductor), we will avoid all evil.”
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Among the various functions that Jesus attributes to the Paraclete in his work on our behalf, the one we want to focus on is that of Prompter: “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (14:26). “He will remind you”: the Latin Vulgate translated with ipse suggeret vobis: he will suggest to you.
The prompter, in the theatre, is hidden inside a pit invisible to the audience: just like the Holy Spirit who illuminates everything while remaining invisible and, so to speak, behind the scenes. The prompter pronounces the words in a low voice so as not to be heard by the audience, and the Spirit also speaks “in a low voice,” softly. Unlike human prompters, however, he does not speak to the ears, but to the heart; he does not mechanically suggest the words of the Gospel, as if from a script, but explains them, adapts them, applies them to situations.
We are talking, of course, about the “inspirations of the Spirit,” the so-called “good inspirations.” Fidelity to inspirations is the shortest and surest path to holiness. We do not know from the start what the concrete sanctity that God wants from each of us is. Only God knows it and reveals it to us as the journey continues. It is therefore not enough to have a clear program of perfection and then gradually implement it. There is no identical model of perfection for everyone. God doesn’t make saints in series, he doesn’t like cloning. Every saint is an unprecedented invention of the Spirit. God can ask of one the opposite of what he asks of another. It follows that to achieve holiness, a person cannot limit himself or herself to following general rules that apply to everyone. They must also understand what God asks of them, and only of them.
Now what God wants that is different and particular for each one can be discovered through the events of life, the word of Scripture, and the guidance of a spiritual director, but the main and ordinary means are the inspirations of grace. These are internal solicitations of the Spirit in the depths of the heart through which God not only makes known what he desires from us, but gives the necessary strength, and often also the joy, to accomplish it, if the person consents.
Let’s think about what would have happened if Mother Teresa of Calcutta had persisted in observing the canonical rules in force in religious institutes at the time. Until the age of 36, she was a nun in a religious congregation; she was faithful to her vocation and dedicated to her work, but nothing suggested anything extraordinary in her. It was during a train journey from Calcutta to Darjeeling for her annual spiritual retreat that the life-changing event occurred. The Holy Spirit “whispered” a clear invitation in her heart’s ear: Leave your order and your previous life, and place yourself at my disposal for a work that I will show to you. Among Mother Teresa’s religious daughters, September 10, 1946 continues to be remembered as “Inspiration Day.”
When it comes to important decisions for oneself or others, inspiration must be submitted and confirmed by authority, or by one’s spiritual father. In fact, this is what Mother Teresa did. You expose yourself to danger if you rely solely on your own personal inspiration.
Good inspirations have something in common with biblical inspiration, apart, of course, from the authority and scope which are essentially different. “God said to Abraham …”, “The Lord spoke to Moses.” This speaking of the Lord was not, from the point of view of phenomenology, something different from what happens in the inspirations of grace. The voice of God, even on Sinai, did not resonate outside, but inside the heart in the form of clarity, of impulses, originating from the Holy Spirit. The Ten Commandments were not engraved by the finger of God on stone tablets (it is difficult for us to even imagine that!), but on the heart of Moses who then engraved them on stone tablets. “Human beings moved by the Holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God” (2 Pt 1:21); they were the ones speaking, but moved by the Holy Spirit; they repeated with their mouths what they heard in their hearts. God, says the prophet Jeremiah, writes his law in their hearts (Jer 31:33).
Every loyalty to an inspiration is rewarded by increasingly frequent and stronger inspirations. It is as if the soul were training to achieve an ever clearer perception of God’s will and greater ease in carrying it out.
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The most delicate problem regarding inspirations has always been that of discerning those that come from the Spirit of God from those that come from the spirit of the world, from one’s own passions, or from the evil spirit. The theme of the discernment of spirits has undergone a notable evolution over the centuries. Originally it was understood as the charism that served to distinguish – among the words, prayers and prophecies pronounced in the assembly – which ones came from the Spirit of God and which ones did not. In its community exercise, the charism of prophecy must be accompanied, for the Apostle, by that of the discernment of spirits: “to one prophecy [is given], to another discernment of spirits” (1 Cor 12:10).
The original meaning of this charism, as understood by Paul, seems to be very precise and limited. He focuses on the reception of the prophecy itself, its evaluation, by one or more members of the assembly, also endowed with a prophetic spirit. This too, however, is not done on the basis of a rational analysis, but rather of the inspiration of the Spirit himself. The sense of discerning (diakrisis) therefore oscillates between distinguishing and interpreting: distinguishing whether it was the Spirit of God who spoke or a different spirit, interpreting what the Spirit wanted to say in a concrete situation. The Apostle’s well-known recommendation refers to this same gift of discernment: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil” (1 Thess 5:19-22).
If we must take into account the current experience of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, we must think that this charism consisted in the ability of the assembly, or of some people in it, to actively react to a prophetic word, a biblical quotation, or a prayer, expressing approval with the exclamation “I confirm!”, or with other small signs of the head and voice, or on the contrary, with silence and moving on to something else – indicating a negative judgment. In this way, true and false prophecy comes to be judged “by the fruits” it produces (or does not produce) as Jesus recommended (see Mt 7:16). This original meaning of the discernment of spirits, incidentally, could be very relevant today in debates and meetings, like those we are beginning to experience in the synodal dialogue.
In subsequent times, in both Eastern and Western spirituality, the charism of discernment of spirits served, above all, to discern the inspirations of the disciple by an elder (as in monasticism), and more generally to discern one’s own inspirations. This evolution is not arbitrary; it is in fact the same gift, even if applied to different subjects and contexts: the community context in the first case, the personal one in the second.
There are criteria of discernment that we could call objective. In the doctrinal field they are summarized for Paul in the recognition of Christ as Lord: “Nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be accursed.’ And no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). For John they are summed up in faith in Christ and in his incarnation:
Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God. This is the spirit of the anti-Christ that, as you heard, is to come, but in fact is already in the world (1 Jn 4:1-3).

In the moral field, a fundamental criterion is given by the coherence of the Spirit of God with himself. It cannot ask for something that is contrary to divine will, as expressed in Scripture, in the teaching of the Church, and in the duties of one’s state of life. A divine inspiration will never ask us to perform acts that the Church considers immoral, no matter how many specious contrary arguments the flesh is capable of suggesting in these cases; for example, that God is love and therefore everything that is done out of love is from God.
Sometimes, however, these objective criteria are not sufficient because the choice is not between good and evil, but between one good and another good, and it is a question of seeing what is the thing that God wants, in a specific circumstance. It was above all to respond to this need that Saint Ignatius of Loyola developed his doctrine on discernment.
I am almost ashamed to talk on this topic in this place…but let us say something nevertheless. Saint Ignatius invites us to observe the intentions – he calls them the “spirits” – that lay behind a choice and the reactions they provoke. We know that what comes from the Spirit of God brings with it joy, peace, tranquility, sweetness, simplicity, light. What comes from the spirit of evil, on the contrary, brings with it disturbance, agitation, restlessness, confusion, and darkness. The Apostle Paul highlights this by contrasting the fruits of the flesh (enmities, discord, jealousy, dissensions, divisions, envy) with the fruits of the Spirit which are instead “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness” (Gal 5:22).
It is true that, in practice, things are more complex. An inspiration can come from God and yet cause great disturbance. But this is not due to the inspiration which is sweet and peaceful like everything that comes from God; rather, it arises from resistance to inspiration or from the fact that it asks us for something that we are not ready to give. If the inspiration is welcomed, the heart soon finds itself in profound peace. God rewards every small victory in this field, making the soul feel his approval, which is the purest joy that exists in the world.
A field in which it is important to practice discernment – beyond that of intentions and decisions – is the field of feelings. Nothing is more insidious than love. Nature is very skillful at passing off as coming from the spirit what actually comes from the flesh. In this field it is more necessary than ever to take into account the advice the Latin poet Ovid gave precisely on the illnesses of love: “Principiis obsta”: ”Oppose the beginnings”. “Sero medicina paratur”: It is too late for the medicine when the illness, due to too many delays, has gained strength.”
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The concrete fruit of this meditation must be a renewed decision to entrust ourselves completely to the interior guidance of the Holy Spirit, as if for a sort of invisible “spiritual direction”. We must totally abandon ourselves to the inner Master who speaks to us without the clamor of words. Like good actors, we must keep our ears open, on large and small occasions, to the voice of this hidden “prompter” so as to faithfully play our part in the scene of life. This is what is meant by the expression “docility to the Spirit”.
It’s easier than you think, because the Spirit speaks to us, teaches us everything, and instructs us about everything. Sometimes a simple interior look, a movement of the heart, a moment of reflection and prayer is enough. John writes in his First Letter:
As for you, the anointing that you received from him remains in you, so that you do not need anyone to teach you. But his anointing teaches you about everything and is true and not false; just as it taught you, remain in him (1 Jn 2:27).
On these words, Saint Augustine establishes an unusual, lively debate with the Apostle. In his commentary on the First Letter of John, he writes:
I ask you, John: “Those to whom you addressed these words already had the anointing… Why then did you write this letter to them? Why instruct them?”… There is a great mystery here, brothers, on which we need to reflect. The sound of our words hits the ears, but the true teacher is inside… We can exhort with the sound of the voice, but if there is no one teaching inside, it is a useless noise.
If welcoming inspirations is important for every Christian, it is vital for those who have governance roles in the Church. Only in this way is the Spirit of Christ allowed to guide his Church through his human representatives. It is not necessary for all the passengers on a ship to be glued with their ears to the on-board radio, to receive signals on the route, on any icebergs, and weather conditions, but it is essential that the managers on board are. From a “divine inspiration” courageously accepted by Pope Saint John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council was born. In the same way, other prophetic gestures were born after him, which those who come after us will recognize.
This coming Easter, may the Risen Lord let resound in our heart one of his divine “I Am” sayings that we have meditated on in our Lenten meditations. Especially the one that proclaims his paschal victory:“I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26).
Holy Father, Brothers and Sisters: Happy and Holy Easter!

1.See S. Kierkegaard, Journal, X 1 A 154.
2.Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-IIae, q. 106, a. 2.
3.Ibid., q. 106, a. 1; cf Augustine, De Spiritu et littera, 21, 36.
4.Augustine, Confessions , X, 29.
5.Gregory of Nyssa, De fide (PG, 45, 141C).
6.Cf. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, Fourth Week.
7.Ovid, Remedia amoris, V,91.
8.Augustine, On the First Letter of John, 3, 13.