Editor’s note: The following homily preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., today, on the Solemnity of Pentecost (4 June 2017), at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
A few weeks ago a woman came up to me after Mass and said, “Father, you’re just wonderful; you’re the best priest I’ve ever met.” I immediately recognized her for a woman of exceptionally refined tastes.
Then she went on. “You’re such a good preacher and have such a wonderful personality; have you ever received the Holy Spirit?” Without batting an eyelash, I said, “Yes, on at least four occasions”
“Oh, really?” She asked, “When?”
“At Baptism, Confirmation and when I was ordained a deacon and a priest.”
“Oh, not that, I mean the real thing.”
I share this story with you today because I think it highlights a certain lack of understanding that many Catholics have about the role and work of the Spirit in the Church. On that first Pentecost nearly 2000 years ago, the Spirit came upon a frightened group of men and women and made them courageous public witnesses to the Christ-event. Ruah in Hebrew is a very interesting word which means many things: spirit, breath, wind. It was this same ruah that spoke to Elijah in the gentle breeze, the same ruah that mightily overtook the early Christian community. It is important to notice that whenever God’Spirit comes upon a person, something happens.
When God’s Spirit moved over the waters in Genesis, the poet-theologian tells us that the work of creation began. When God’s Spirit overshadowed the humble and obedient Virgin of Nazareth, the greatest event in history occurred. When God’s Spirit came crashing in on the apostles and disciples, the Church was born. The Spirit gives people a sense of mission. When God’s Spirit came upon you in Baptism and Confirmation, what happened to you?
Like the lady in the story I shared with you, are you still waiting for “the real thing,” or have you taken your visitation by the Holy Spirit seriously? Maybe better than asking what you have done, I should say< ‘What should you be doing because of God’s Spirit in your life?
Pentecost celebrates the day when the Early Church made its debut and entered into its first dialogue with the world. The early believers unashamedly preached a crucified and risen Lord Who could lead people into union with the Father. Because of their conviction and fervor, three thousand were added that day. When was the last time you preached the good news? I don’t mean setting up a soapbox on a street corner, but I do mean witnessing to Christ in your daily lives and letting people know how much Jesus means to you and how much you think He could mean to them. Sometimes your preaching will only be the silent testimony of your own good life.
Very often we hear people lament the fact that we don’t have as many converts today as e once did. Why is that the case? I believe it is because we don’t have the same kind of fervent convert-makers we once had among you, the laity. If your faith is not as strong as it once was, your effectiveness will be diminished. We tend to forget–if we ever knew–that in the pre-Vatican II era, the vast majority of converts came to faith because of the witness of committed lay folk. When the great English convert, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, was asked what he considered the place of the laity to be, he quipped, “The Church would like rather silly without them!” And we often do look “rather silly” to the world today, precisely because of a dearth of apostolically minded laity.
All too many forget that St. Paul taught that every Christian has received certain gifts which are given for the good of the entire community. Christianity can never be simply an affair between God and me; it must always involve other people. Therefore, I must ask myself what talents I have and how I have used them to further the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the Church. Am I a teacher? Do I use that charism or gift in a way that builds up the life of the Church? Do I have an especially keen mind for finances? Do I put that talent at the disposal of my parish community? If I have lots of time and could easily pray all day, do I ever pray for the needs of others, or do I simply burn up the wire asking for what I want? Do I have a way with the sick or elderly? Do I use that to aid those ailing members of Christ’s Body? I think this kind of an examination of conscience might be a fitting way to observe Pentecost, to determine whether or not you have ignited the spark of God’s Spirit given to you in Baptism and Confirmation.
We frequently refer to Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church.” And so it is. Birthdays are opportunities for celebration, reflection and re-commitment. When the Church was waiting to be born, a small group of nervous and timid people huddled together in an upper room in a spirit of prayer and expectancy. They were hoping for God to act in their lives. And He did. He sent them the Spirit of Christ’s love, forgiveness and peace. Because they took the Spirit and His gifts seriously, they were able to renew the face of the earth. We need a new Pentecost today, and we need every member of Christ’s Church to be the agents of God’s great conspiracy to renew once more the face of the earth.
A nineteenth-century hymn prays for a new Pentecost to take place within the heart of every believer. Reflect on some of that hymn’s verses:
Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love the things you love,
And do what you would do.
Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with you I have one will,
To live and to endure.
Breathe on me, breath of God,
My soul with grace refine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with your fire divine.
The prayer of the hymn-writer, like that of the Church, is that each one of us will open ourselves up to the life-giving breath of God, Who is the Spirit of Christ among us.