Receive the Holy Spirit

“Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22 )

Today we come to the climax of our Easter celebration, Pentecost Sunday. 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 Primary agent of Mission; and third, that the goal of mission is to create a unity that embraces diversity. A few brief words on each of these points.

The Church is essentially missionary or, as The Second Vatican expresses it, “missionary by its very nature” (AG, no. 9). Witnessing to and proclaiming the Gospel is the very reason for the existence of the Church. This means all her members, all who are baptised in the Spirit, are called to be missionaries.  A Church that turns in on itself and stops being missionary is no longer the Church of Christ but simply a sodality, a group of like-minded people who simply enjoy each other’s company. In his first Encyclical Letter, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis reminds us that 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, expresses this truth memorably when he says that ‘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.

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 for nothing to do with the Reign of God. 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 our 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?   We need to remember, as our Constitutions tells us, that ‘we are at the service of a task which, despite our most generous commitment and most advanced techniques, transcends our human capabilities” (SMA Constitutions, no. 26).

Today incidentally, is also the Feast of the Visitation and, while we do not celebrate it because of the clash with Pentecost Sunday, we should not ignore it either. Indeed we have much to learn from Mary, our Missionary Mother. She is the perfect model of a patient and humble mode of missionary presence, not forcing God’s hand, but bearing Jesus with ‘love beyond all telling’ (2nd Advent Preface), and allowing the space and time for his presence to evoke that leap of recognition and joy in the hearts of those we meet. 

The goal of Mission is to create a unity that respects diversity. Pentecost reverses the confusion of Babel (Cf. Gen. 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) came together for this major Jewish feast but were unable to communicate with one another. However, through the gift of the Sprit, they were all able to understand the message of the 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 that 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, something we are becoming more aware of in our current ‘Lockdown’ situation. Love is the language of the Spirit, the only language capable of creating a unity that respects diversity.

Michael McCabe SMA