The Pope on Pentecost and True Unity

“Where men situate themselves in the place of God, they can only find themselves struggling one against the other. Where, on the other hand, they place themselves in the truth of the Lord, they open themselves to the action of His Spirit which sustains and unifies them”

—  Pope Benedict XVI, Pentecost Sermon, May 27, 2012.


The Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s was accompanied by the choir of the Academy of Saint Cecelia and its youth orchestra. In his homily, the Holy Father broached one of the most difficult of all Christian teachings: How is it possible, as we are commanded, to love everyone whereas we have neither the time, nor the opportunity, nor even the desire to do so? The pope wants to reflect on an aspect of Pentecost that remains true. 

Pentecost is the feast of the union of the Church, of the communion of all humanity with one another. Aristotle had insisted that the more friends we have, the fewer good friends we have. Yet, Christianity came along, without necessarily denying Aristotle’s point, to tell us that we should go out to everyone. We are also warned about friends who can corrupt us. We have to choose carefully. Plato’s idea of friends being friends with everyone needs careful distinctions, as Aristotle also said.

Benedict points out how modern means of communication seem to bring us closer together no matter where we are in the world. Yet, people choose to remain in their own “I”. Is there a place for a genuine “we”? We can learn something from the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, which account seems directly implied when, on Pentecost morning, the Apostles through the gift the Holy Ghost began to speak in different tongues. Benedict recalls that the men at the time of Babel wanted to challenge God with a tower what would do what only God could do. In order to pursue their construction, they needed to communicate with each other.

God’s response to this defiance was to give them all different languages so they could not understand each other. Obviously, the diversity of languages still seems both a curse and a blessing. It seems that all men should be able to understand each other. Yet, the diversity of languages is not only a thing of beauty, but also allows us to live in smaller groups. The pope tells us that Pentecost is the “feast of the union, comprehension, and communion of all men.”

We human beings have a common origin and destiny even when we do not understand each other’s language. Yet, it seems that the more we can communicate across the world in a few seconds, the less we understand about each other. People prefer to remain isolated in themselves. The essential element of a human being, however, is the capacity “to agree, to understand and to act together.” We cannot be content with simple otherness that denies a common nature and origin.


This biblical story of the Tower refers to a constant truth that recurs “throughout history.” With the progress of science and technology, we realize we can “dominate the forces of nature, to manipulate the elements, to reproduce living things, almost to the point of manufacturing humans themselves.” If we can do such extraordinary things, why do we need “to pray to God?” Benedict rhetorically asks. “We can construct any city that we want.” Yet, we fail to see that we are in fact simply “repeating” the account of Babel. We have made many devices whereby we can transmit words and sights. Yet have we increased or decreased our capacity to “understand” one another?

And so “can we truly be united, at concord? If so, how?” The scriptural answer to this question is the “gifts of the Holy Spirit.” What keeps us apart or unites us are not primarily tools and techniques. We need a new heart and tongue. It has to do with what we believe and love. We need the “fire” of the Holy Spirit” so that we can be “transformed.” 

“What kind of an answer is this?” we wonder. The pope takes the solution to our human problems out of our own hands, where we insist that they belong. At Pentecost itself, it was the Spirit that allowed the Apostles to speak in many tongues to announce the “good news” that Christ had died and risen. The inability of mankind to communicate is not a technical problem. It is a problem of the soul and of what man is.

Benedict next turns to a passage from John (16:13): “When you see Him, the Spirit of Truth, He will guide you to all truth.” Jesus says that the Church is the “place” where this truth is found. Our unity and disunity have to do with what we believe. When we speak as Christians, we do not speak just our own words from within our own “I”. This priority remains true today. “The whole truth is Jesus.” The deeper disunity of mankind has to do with how they stand to this truth.

This fact the Jesus is the Son of God is what the Holy Spirit witnesses to. The Spirit guides us to a deeper knowing and understanding of Jesus. We become capable of knowing and understanding others only in the ”we” of the Church. We need a profound humility to know what we are. It becomes clear, then, why Babel is Babel and Pentecost is Pentecost. “When men wish to make themselves to be God, they can only set themselves one against the other.” Where they have the truth of the Lord, they open themselves to the “action” of the Holy Spirit. 

To explain this difference between the spirit of Babel and that of Pentecost, Benedict cites Paul who tells us to “walk in the path of the Spirit.” Paul explains to us that our interior lives are full of conflicts, of division.” These are the works of the “flesh,” as Paul calls the effects of sin. It is not possible that we be both “egoists and generous; we cannot dominate others and have the joy of serving them disinterestedly.”


The pope notices also that Paul says the self is full of covetousness, immorality, discords, jealousies, and dissentions. These are not Christian actions. If we live in the Spirit, we experience joy, love, and peace. The Apostle used the plural when describing disorders of the soul but a singular word when referring to each gift of the Holy Spirit.  We need to pray that we follow the “Spirit of Truth.”

This truth is transmitted to us in the Church. As Christ ascended to heaven, the Apostles were asked to be prepared to receive the “Spirit of Truth.” This mission is still in the world and for the same reason. We should not be overly surprised at the nature and direction of mankind whose first premise at world building is exclusively in his own hands.

The mandate to love everyone is not intended to deny the reality of friendship in this life. It is rather to say with Paul that if we have the same Spirit, we can live at peace and concord with everyone. The more universal brotherhood is something for eternal life, but it is prefigured at Pentecost in the charge that the Spirit gave to the Apostles.

The truth that the Apostles taught about who Jesus is can be the only real basis of human unity even in this world. Mankind may strive to prove the opposite. In doing so, it will, like the builders of the Tower, find that men cannot reach God by their own methods. God did not neglect us. We often just choose not know what He did instead of encouraging us to build our own Tower. The great Christian teaching began, as the Church did, on the Day of Pentecost when Christ sent the “Spirit of Truth” to remain among us all days. 

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).