the business-card of the Church
“The Son of God, dead and Risen and returned to the Father, now breathes with untold energy the divine breath upon humanity, the Holy Spirit. And what does this new and powerful self-communication of God produce? Where there are divisions and estrangement the Paraclete creates unity and understanding. The Spirit triggers a process of reunification of the divided and dispersed parts of the human family. People, often reduced to individuals in competition or in conflict with each other, when touched by the Spirit of Christ open themselves to the experience of communion, which can involve them to such an extent as to make of them a new body, a new subject: the Church. This is the effect of God’s work: unity; thus unity is the sign of recognition, the “business card” of the Church throughout her universal history.”
Pope Benedict XVI Pentecost Homily 2010
If you were asked: “when did Pentecost happen?” you would probably answer, ‘around two thousand years ago.’ You would be right, but you would not be telling the full story. This is a point that Pope Benedict has repeated at every opportunity since he became pope in 2005. Yes, the major feasts of our faith do commemorate events that happened in the life of Jesus and his followers in the first Christian century. But this is not the complete reality. Remember the Ascension last Sunday: it is a misunderstanding to see this feast as a commemoration of Jesus’ departure. The Ascension is the celebration of Jesus entry into every moment, every event, every encounter and every breath of every human life in every age. When we Christians celebrate Christmas, we are not simply remembering the birth of God into human existence as the child Jesus in a Bethlehem stable. Christmas is not a nostalgia-trip around a candle-lit nativity scene. Our annual celebration of the Incarnation rejoices that God chooses to become incarnate every day. God is present anew in the complex, confused and sinful reality of my own human life, today! Pentecost: an embracing of the Spirit of God alive today It is important that we look back to remember – but the reason we mark these moments of Christmas, Easter, Transfiguration, Ascension and Pentecost is that the initial impact and power of these events is fully available to us today. So at Pentecost we are right to recall as a fact of faith that the closest friends of Jesus “had all met in one room, when suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven… they were all filled with the Holy Spirit”. (Acts 2). From this moment, these intimate friends of Jesus were changed. They were timid no more. Their sin was no longer a deathly pre-occupation for them. From this point on they could not rely on (or be satisfied with) their personal talents, abilities and achievements. They had been re-born. They were new people. The reality is that while this Pentecost event did happen a couple of millennia ago, the fullness of the life of the Spirit of God is fully available to us today. Do we appreciate the impact of the Spirit of God unleashed in our lives today through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation? Pentecost 2011: an opportunity for evaluation As we celebrate this Pentecost 2011, let’s take the opportunity to evaluate our response to the life of the Spirit of God in our families, our communities of faith, the groups in our parishes, the parishes and chaplaincies of our diocese, and our schools. Have our parishes become pre-occupied with a politically-correct need for ‘inclusiveness’. Do we rely on a compulsive need for apparent success to motivate our efforts for the Gospel? Are our conversations and meetings taken up with human pastoral planning and re-structuring? Or are we seeking above all else to be faithful to the person of Jesus and the life of His Spirit within the Church? Have our Catholic schools have become shy about the passion for the life of Jesus Christ that is at the heart of all educational endeavour? Some of our schools no longer promote themselves primarily as Catholic schools. Are our schools seen to have the special character that comes only from living the life of Jesus Christ who is our Saviour and God? Catholic schools might be more likely to reframe their “special character” as being a community after the mind and practice of the founders of religious orders. While these leaders were often saintly people, they do not have the power to save us. Jesus Christ is the only saviour. Pentecost: a transforming event It is clear from the scriptures that the Pentecost event caused a remarkable transformation in the lives of the disciples. Before they received the Holy Spirit, the lives of the followers of Jesus looked much like the lives of the pagans: they were fearful and timid. Sin occupied and pre-occupied them. After Pentecost, the Christians stood above the crowd because of their passion for Christ. So much so that the non-believers were “amazed and astonished”. A helpful evaluation question for our Catholic communities might be: To what extent does my (our) Catholic Christian faith cause me (us) to ‘stand above the crowd’ because of my (our) passion for Christ? Let’s take a moment to compare the lives of Catholic Christians with those of our non-Christian friends, workmates and family members. You might find it helpful to ask if a NZ climate of political-correctness has served to silence our Catholic voice. Fear of upsetting family and friends may have left them thinking that we too think that Church teaching on matters of justice and morality is an optional extra for a Catholic. We are even nervous about giving books of bible stories to our non-baptised grandchildren and nephews and nieces. We do not want to upset – but is our caution depriving the needy of the message of eternal life? Let’s be specific: one practical Pentecost challenge Let us focus on one fact from the life of the first Christian communities. Others were moved to embrace the Christian life for themselves and their children by one significant factor: people said of the Christians, “see how they love one another.” There is no greater compliment that could be given to a family, a parish, or a school. Today this love is threatened in many ways. Perhaps these subtle infections have the power to become the most deadly. In the Press last week I noticed a headline suggesting that “gossip” was filling the gaps in peoples’ knowledge of planning for post-earthquake Christchurch. Then on Monday we learnt that a “gossip” columnist was honoured in the Queen’s Birthday list. “Gossip”: “Casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.” (Google definition) I fear that the evil spirit is delighting in the readiness of Catholics to casually chatter about the lives of their sisters and brothers in the Catholic community. We rarely know the full story and we might use gossip to fill the gaps in facts that may not be ours to know. The reputations of good people suffer. We are rarely aware of the evil work we are engaging in. Such practice has all too often become habitual for us. We are trapped. And the evil spirit can relax for we have become his agents. There is no place for gossip of any kind in the community of faith. Neither can we tolerate it in our families, our workplaces or among our friends. As we celebrate the Pentecost feast today, let us help one another to overcome this subtle and fatal evil. Instead, let it be said of us: “see how they love one another.” Let unity be our business-card.
You might like to take some time reflecting on these excerpts from Pope Benedict’s Pentecost Homilies over the past five years.
Excerpts from Pentecost homilies of … the Spirit opens borders. The Church must always become anew what she already is; she must open the borders between peoples and break down the barriers between class and race. In her, there cannot be those who are forgotten or looked down upon. In the Church there are only free brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. The wind and fire of the Holy Spirit must continually break down those barriers that we men and women continue to build between us; we must continually pass from Babel – being closed in on ourselves – to Pentecost. We continually close our doors; we continually want to feel secure and do not want to be disturbed by others and by God. And so, we can continually implore the Lord just for this, that he come to us, overcoming our closure, to bring us his greeting: “Peace be with you” In people, notwithstanding all of their limitations, there is now something absolutely new: the breath of God. The life of God lives in us. The breath of his love, of his truth and of his goodness. To his breath, to the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Lord joins the power of forgiveness. We heard earlier that the Holy Spirit unites, breaks down barriers, leads us one to the other. The strength that opens up and overcomes Babel is the strength of forgiveness. Evil can be overcome only by forgiveness. Prior to the Ascension into Heaven, he ordered them “not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father” (cf. Acts 1: 4-5); that is, he asked them to stay together to prepare themselves to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And they gathered in prayer with Mary in the Upper Room, awaiting the promised event (cf. Acts 1: 14). To stay together was the condition laid down by Jesus in order to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; the premise of their harmony was prolonged prayer. In this way we are offered a formidable lesson for every Christian community. Some think at times that missionary effectiveness depends primarily on careful programming and its subsequent intelligent application through a concrete commitment. The Lord certainly does ask for our collaboration, but before any other response his initiative is necessary: his Spirit is the true protagonist of the Church. The roots of our being and of our action are in the wise and provident silence of God. Human pride and egoism always create divisions, build walls of indifference, hate and violence. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, makes hearts capable of understanding the languages of all, as he re-establishes the bridge of authentic communion between earth and heaven. The Holy Spirit is Love. Today, we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, in which the liturgy has us relive the birth of the Church, according to what St Luke narrates in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (2: 1-13).
Fifty days after Easter, the Holy Spirit descended on the community of disciples – “with one accord devoted themselves to prayer” – gathered with “Mary, the mother of Jesus” and with the Twelve Apostles (cf. Acts 1: 14; 2: 1). We can therefore say that the Church had its solemn beginning with the descent of the Holy Spirit. In this extraordinary event we find the essential and qualifying characteristics of the Church: the Church is one, like the community at Pentecost, who were united in prayer and “concordant”: “were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4: 32). St Luke places the account of the event of Pentecost that we heard in the First Reading in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The chapter is introduced by the words: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2: 1). These words refer to the previous setting in which Luke described the small company of disciples that had gathered perseveringly in Jerusalem after Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven (cf. Acts 1: 12-14). It is a description rich in detail: the place “where they were staying” – the Cenacle – was an “Upper Room”; the 11 Apostles are listed by name and the first three are Peter, John and James, the “pillars” of the community; mentioned with them are “the women” and “Mary the Mother of Jesus, and “his brethren”, already an integral part of this new family, no longer based on blood ties but on faith in Christ. “Societas Spiritus”, a society of the Spirit, is what St Augustine calls the Church in one of his homilies (71, 19, 32: PL 38, 462). However, prior to him St Irenaeus had already formulated a truth which I would like to recall here: “Where the Church is, there also is God’s Spirit; where God’s Spirit is, there is the Church and every grace; and the Spirit is the truth; to distance oneself from the Church is to reject the Spirit”, and thus “exclude oneself from life” (Adversus Haereses III, 24, 1). Beginning with the event of Pentecost this union between Christ’s Spirit and his Mystical Body, in other words the Church, was fully manifest.
Every time that we celebrate the Eucharist we experience in faith the mystery that is accomplished on the altar, that is, we participate in the supreme act of love that Christ realized with his death and resurrection. The one center of the liturgy and of Christian life — the paschal mystery — then assumes specific “forms,” with different meanings and particular gifts of grace, in the different solemnities and feasts. in today’s solemnity Scripture tells us how the community must be, how we must be to receive the Holy Spirit. In his account of Pentecost the sacred author says that the disciples “were together in the same place.” This “place” is the Cenacle, the “upper room,” where Jesus held the Last Supper with his disciples, where he appeared to them after his resurrection; that room that had become the “seat,” so to speak, of the nascent Church (cf. Acts 1:13). Nevertheless, the intention in the Acts of the Apostles is more to indicate the interior attitude of the disciples than to insist on a physical place: “They all persevered in concord and prayer” (Acts 1:14). So, the concord of the disciples is the condition for the coming of the Holy Spirit; and prayer is the presupposition of concord. This is also true for the Church today, dear brothers and sisters. It is true for us who are gathered together here. If we do not want Pentecost to be reduced to a mere ritual or to a suggestive commemoration, but that it be a real event of salvation, through a humble and silent listening to God’s Word we must predispose ourselves to God’s gift in religious openness. So that Pentecost renew itself in our time, perhaps there is need — without taking anything away from God’s freedom [to do as he pleases] — for the Church to be less “preoccupied” with activities and more dedicated to prayer.
In the ancient world the tempest was seen as a sign of divine power, in whose presence man felt subjugated and terrified. But I would like to highlight another aspect: the tempest is described as a “strong driving wind,” and this brings to mind the air that distinguishes our planet from others and permits us to live on it. What air is for biological life, the Holy Spirit is for the spiritual life; and as there is air pollution, that poisons the environment and living things, there is also pollution of the heart and the spirit, that mortifies and poisons spiritual existence. In the same way that we should not be complacent about the poisons in the air — and for this reason ecological efforts are a priority today — we should also not be complacent about that which corrupts the spirit. But instead it seems that our minds and hearts are menaced by many pollutants that circulate in society today — the images, for example, that make pleasure a spectacle, violence that degrades men and women — and people seem to habituate themselves to this without any problem. It is said that this is freedom but it is just a failure to recognize all that which pollutes, poisons the soul, above all of the new generations, and ends up limiting freedom itself. The metaphor of the strong driving wind of Pentecost makes one think of how precious it is to breathe clean air, be it physical air without lungs, or spiritual air — the healthy air of the spirit that is love — with our heart.
Pentecost Sunday 2010
The account of Pentecost in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles we listened to it in the First Reading (cf. Acts 2: 1-11) presents the “new course” of the work that God began with Christ’s Resurrection, a work that involves mankind, history and the cosmos. The Son of God, dead and Risen and returned to the Father, now breathes with untold energy the divine breath upon humanity, the Holy Spirit. And what does this new and powerful self-communication of God produce? Where there are divisions and estrangement the Paraclete creates unity and understanding. The Spirit triggers a process of reunification of the divided and dispersed parts of the human family. People, often reduced to individuals in competition or in conflict with each other, when touched by the Spirit of Christ open themselves to the experience of communion, which can involve them to such an extent as to make of them a new body, a new subject: the Church. This is the effect of God’s work: unity; thus unity is the sign of recognition, the “business card” of the Church throughout her universal history. From the very beginning, from the Day of Pentecost, she speaks all languages. The universal Church precedes the particular Churches, and the latter must always conform to the former according to a criterion of unity and universality. The Church never remains a prisoner within political, racial and cultural confines; she cannot be confused with States nor with Federations of States, because her unity is of a different type and aspires to transcend every human frontier.
From this, dear brothers, derives a practical criterion for discerning Christian life: when a person or a community limits itself to its own way of thinking and acting, it is a sign that it has distanced itself from the Holy Spirit. The path of Christians and of the particular Churches must always coincide with the path of the one, catholic Church, and harmonize with it. This does not mean that the unity created by the Holy Spirit is a kind of egalitarianism. On the contrary, that is rather the model of Babel, or in other words, the imposition of a culture characterized by what we could define as “technical” unity. In fact, the Bible tells us (cf. Gen 11: 1-9) that in Babel everyone spoke the same language. At Pentecost, however, the Apostles speak different languages in such a way that everyone understands the message in his own tongue. The unity of the Spirit is manifest in the plurality of understanding. The Church is one and multiple by her nature, destined as she is to live among all nations, all peoples, and in the most diverse social contexts. She responds to her vocation to be a sign and instrument of unity of the human race (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 1) only if she remains autonomous from every State and every specific culture. Always and everywhere the Church must truly be catholic and universal, the house of all in which each one can find a place.