23 May 2021
Acts 2:1-11 1Cor 12:3-7 John 20: 19-23
“Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22)
Today we celebrate the final climactic moment of our Easter cycle, the great feast of Pentecost. It may not be quite accurate to speak of this day as the birthday of the Church, but it is certainly the birthday of the Church’s mission – the Church as a Spirit-filled community sent out, in the name of the Risen Christ, to transform the world. The readings today remind us of three important truths about the Church and its mission: first, that the Church is essentially missionary; second, that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of Mission; and third, that the goal of mission is to create a unity that embraces diversity.
The Church is essentially missionary or, as The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) expresses it, “missionary by its very nature” (AG, no. 9). Witnessing to and proclaiming the Gospel is the fundamental reason for the existence of the Church. All her members, all who are baptised in the Spirit, are called to be missionaries, not just priests and religious. If the Church ever stopped reaching out to others to witness and proclaim the Gospel of Love, it would cease to be the Church of Christ. In his first Encyclical Letter, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis reminds us that the true Church ‘is a Church that is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security’ (EG, n. 49). The great Protestant theologian, Emile Bunner, employed a striking simile to express this truth when he wrote: ‘the Church exists by mission just as fire exists by burning” (The Word and the World, p. 108). And the fire that burns in the heart of the Church and keeps her alive in mission is the fire of the Holy Spirit as today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles makes clear.
The Holy Spirit is the principal agent of this mission. We, the members of the Church, are simply instruments in her hands. We forget this truth at our peril, at the risk of becoming agents of an enterprise that has little or nothing to do with the the promotion of God’s Reign of justice, peace and love. Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch woman famous famous for sheltering Jews from the Nazis during World War II, uses the image of the hand in the glove to express our dependence on the action of the Spirit. She writes: ‘The glove cannot do anything by itself, but when my hand is in it, it can do many things. True, it not the glove, but my hand in the glove that acts. We are gloves. It is the Holy Spirit in us which is the hand, who does the job. We have to make room for the hand so that every finger is filled. The question on Pentecost is not whether God is blessing our own plans and programmes but whether we are open to the great opportunities to which his Spirit calls us’.
Catholics have been accused of sometimes paying mere token respect to the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church. So we should ask ourselves: Do we put more trust in our resources and expertise than in the action of God’s Spirit in our lives and in the lives of those among whom we work? Do we leave enough room in our various ministries for the Spirit, the ‘God of surprises’, the God who chooses the weak to confound the strong, the God whose light invariably enters through the cracks in our lives rather than through our successes and achievements? Pope Francis reminds us that ‘there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting her enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever she wills. The Holy Spirit knows well what is needed in every time and place’ (EG 280).
The goal of Mission is to create a unity that respects and embraces diversity. Pentecost reverses the confusion of Babel (Cf. Genesis 11: 1-9). On the day of Pentecost, as the first reading tells us, people of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds (Persians, Asians, Romans, Egyptians, Libyans, Cretans and Arabs) were gathered together for Jewish Harvest feast (Shavuot). Because they spoke different languages they were unable to communicate with one another. However, they were all able to understand the message of the Spirit-filled apostles. ‘Surely, they said, all these men speaking are Galileans? How does it happen that each of us hears them in his own language?’ (Acts 2:7-8).
The miracle of Pentecost was a miracle of mutual understanding, a restoration of the unity humanity lost at Babel. Today we might ask what gift of the Spirit, what language do we need so that everybody can understand no matter what their ethnic or linguistic background? Yes, there is such a gift, such a language. It is the language of Love. This is a language that all people understand. For example, everybody understands when you smile. Love is the language of the Spirit, the one language capable of creating a unity that respects diversity.
Fr Michael McCabe SMA, Cork, May 2021