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Pentecost and the Fires in Our Cities

The Spirit draws all of the followers of Jesus together in unity, and the Church’s missionary task is to overcome division, wherever it might be found.

A scene from riots in Minneapolis on May 30, 2020. (CNS photo/Lucas Jackson, Reuters)

It is in a way providential that the Feast of Pentecost arrives this year just as our country is going through a convulsive social crisis. For the Holy Spirit, whose coming we celebrate on Pentecost, is a power meant to transform the world, or in the language of Psalm 104, “to renew the face of the earth.” Pentecost, accordingly, is never simply for the Church; it is for the world by means of the Church.

One of the principal biblical metaphors for the Spirit is the wind, and indeed, on Pentecost morning, the Apostles heard what sounded like a strong driving wind as the Spirit arrived. But the wind, elusive and unpredictable, is never really known in itself, but only through its effects. On the scriptural reading, the first effect of the Holy Spirit is the formation of an ekklesia (a church), which in turn is designed to transform the wider society into the Spirit’s image. In the words of the Nicene Creed—accepted by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians—this ekklesiais “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The wind of the Holy Spirit produces these qualities, and therefore, it is by them that the Spirit’s action is discerned. So let us analyze them one by one.

The Acts of the Apostles gives us the great icon for the unity of the Church in the picture of the Apostles gathered in prayer in one place with the Virgin Mary on Pentecost morning. The Holy Spirit is nothing other than the love that connects the Father and the Son, which explains why one of his great titles in the tradition is vinculum amoris (chain of love). Thus the Spirit draws all of the followers of Jesus together in unity. This is not an oppressive or imperialistic oneness, for indeed there is a marvelous variety of personalities, theological schools, and pastoral emphases in the Christian community. But in essentials, the community of Jesus is meant to be united, and in that unity to find its power to unify the world. Origen of Alexandria said “ubi divisio ibi peccatum” (where there is division, there is sin). Consequently, the Church’s missionary task is to overcome division, wherever it might be found. The night before he died, Jesus prayed “that they might be one, as you, Father, and I are one” (John 17:22). In this prayer, he intended not just the Church to become one, but the world by means of the Church.

Secondly, the Church is meant to be holy, and it achieves this quality precisely in the measure that it is filled with the Holy Spirit. And since the Holy Spirit, as we saw, is none other than the love the connects the Father and the Son, holiness consists in love, which is not an emotion, but the act of willing the good of the other. Everything in the life of the Church—sacraments, the Eucharist, the liturgy, preaching, the witness of the saints, etc.—is meant to inculcate love. I will confess that I frequently shake my head ruefully when I come across Catholics on the internet, who profess passionate commitment to the sacraments, doctrines, and practices of the Church, and who yet are obviously filled with hatred. I want to tell them, “You know, all of your devotions are fine, but in your case, they’re not working!” Did not Jesus himself say, “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35)? Willing the good of the other is the great flag of the Holy Spirit.

In the third place, the Church is marked by catholicity, a word derived from the Greek phrase kata holos (according to the whole). By its very nature, the ekklesia of Jesus is universal in scope and mission, for it is meant to bring the whole world to Christ. Jesus said, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), and that when the Son of Man is “lifted up,” he “will draw all people” to himself (John 3:14, 12:32). To be sure, there is a terrible history regarding attempts to achieve this unity through violence and imposition, but that is simply the story of how nominal Christians refused to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. What is most important to see in this regard is that the Church’s task is to be light, salt, and leaven for the whole society (kata holos), never suppressing the plurality of cultures, but at the same time, bringing them under the influence of the divine love.

And finally, the Church is apostolic. The word “apostle” is derived from the Greek apostelein, which means “to send.”  The original twelve Apostles were empowered by the Holy Spirit and then sent into the world to evangelize. Though they received the Spirit while they were hunkered down in the Upper Room, they were never meant to stay hunkered down. From the beginning, there has been an expulsive, centrifugal energy to the ekklesia, an instinct for the ends of the earth. The original flame of the Holy Spirit was meant to become a conflagration, for Jesus said, “I have come to light a fire on the earth” (Luke 12:49). One of the principal themes in the writing and sermonizing of Pope Francis is precisely this missionary nature of the Church. He wants believers in the Lord to leave their sacristies and get out onto the streets, to stir things up, even to overturn what needs overturning.

All of which brings me back to the situation in which we find ourselves this Pentecost. The riots and unrest which are convulsing our country were prompted by the killing of George Floyd, to be sure, but their deeper cause is the racism—systemic and personal—that has bedeviled our society for over four hundred years. Though undoubted progress has been made in the course of these four centuries, there is still irrational hatred in the hearts of far too many in our country. And for all the years that racial tension and violence have endured—from slavery and segregation to the racism both overt and indirect that obtains today—the overwhelming majority of people in our land have been Christians—which is to say, people baptized into the divine life, filled, at least in principle, with the Holy Spirit. In the measure that the scourge of race hatred remains, therefore, we know that the ekklesia of Jesus has not been fulfilling its mission, has not been living up to its identity. If Christians have been the dominant presence in our country for all of these centuries, why isn’t there more unity? Why isn’t there more love? Why is it painfully obvious that so few of us have really gone on mission?

May I offer a challenge to all the members of the ekklesia today, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox? Celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit this Pentecost, but then get out of the Upper Room! Light the fire of love in the streets, in the halls of government, in the world of communication, in business and industry, in schools, and in the hearts of your friends and neighbors. The stubborn survival of the awful cancer of racism in the body politic proves—and I say it to our shame—that we have not been the ekklesia that the Holy Spirit wants us to be.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 184 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

24 Comments

  1. Another worthless bishop who thinks this country is racist. Get off it, already. Claims of racism are an excuse to commit mayhem.

    • Agree wholeheartedly. The Bishop writes:

      “The riots and unrest which are convulsing our country were prompted by the killing of George Floyd, to be sure, but their deeper cause is the racism—systemic and personal—that has bedeviled our society for over four hundred years.”

      This is utter nonsense. Let us ask ourselves, can a Black person vote, buy a plane ticket, call an Uber ride, attend any sporting event, or eat in any restaurant? Of course he can. America is not a racist nation. Are there racists in America? Yes, a very small minority, just like there are racists in all cultures but it’s incorrect to assert that America is racist.

      Kevin nails it when he writes, “Claims of racism are an excuse to commit mayhem.”.

      Come Holy Spirit, enlighten our Bishops to know and teach the truth while avoiding the foolishness of secular claims of racism, and the moral equivalency of climate change with abortion.

      Come Holy Spirit, come, and Make Our Bishops Great Again.

    • I’d be interested in your definition of a “worthy” bishop, and I wonder how many of Jesus’s hand-picked apostles would meet that definition.

      • They all did because they were holy, orthodox, chaste, continent, and humble. They were regarded as “worthy” by the God-Man Who as Divine Wisdom and Truth and as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, created, sustained, called, justified, and sanctified them. Their successors, as Christ himself warned, were frequently unworthy, as even a cursory review of ecclesiastical history demonstrates, and are frequently unworthy today, as this article evidences.

        • Paul, I try to distinguish between perspectives that confuse or drive me nuts and judging people to be unworthy or whatever word you want to use. Bishop Barron has reached out to a lot on the unconverted the way St. Paul did, and there were those among the early Jewish Christians who weren’t happy with this. He’s also trying to reconnect with fallen away Catholics in new and fresh ways. I admire this. Jesus said, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature (Mark).” This meant the pagan Romans, the brutal European barbarians, the Pharisees, everyone.

      • When you are afraid to send your grown children out in the world, when they start to drive and you have to teach them how to react then you know there is still racism. You can say it is limited because you do not experience it on a daily basis.

        • Or you can say it exists when it doesn’t because that’s what you want to see. If you’ve already made up your mind that life is a certain way, that’s exactly what you will see. Maybe the problem is you.

    • Kevin and others interested, I think you will find the situation is rather complex. I post this article written today by Dr. Curtis Ryan, who is a widely published scholar and globally respected professor of political science and terrorism;
      “Accelerationists, the Boogaloo, and other random thoughts: “There are several things you should pay attention to. Among them: accelerationists, Hawaiian shirts, the Boogaloo, and Pepe the Frog. Sounds goofy, I know. But please get what these are, and do it fast, because they will be deadly. That’s not a joke. So this is just a quick post and then I’m out. I’m exhausted by this. But also deeply alarmed.

      “I’ve been teaching about terrorism for many years now, and there is a connection between that topic and these events. Specifically this word: accelerationists. Accelerationists are white supremacists who are trying to start a second civil war that will solidify a white fascist state in the U.S. Obviously, with an explicit racist in the White House, fascists and white supremacist groups have felt that their moment is now throughout the Trump presidency, but they are also afraid that their preferred leader may be ousted in November.

      “Hence all the urgency to create chaos and foment violence in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and other cities. Each of the major cities rocked by riots has claimed that people from outside are doing much of the property damage, commiting acts of arson, and — somewhat bafflyingly — targeting minority-owned businesses. But protesters, the overwhelming majority of whom have been peaceful until attacked by militarized police, have noted that these are usually single masked white men (you may have seen several on film, like the one people were calling ‘umbrella man’).

      “They were also well represented in the mainly white right wing MAGA rallies against COVID lockdowns, even storming state houses with AR-15’s and successfully shutting down the Michigan state legistature. Not that all those protesters fit that description, but that is not the point. The point is that in the latter instance, they could get away with pretty much anything, using their white privilege as a shield.

      “In the former instances, of protests against the murder of citizens of color, accelerationists and other white supremacists and far right groups are using protesters as their shield, while they foment chaos, destruction, and violence. Trump et al are already trying to shriek about antifa and leftists in general. But the online chatter on white supremacists site and other venues is at an overload point: they think it’s here. The big one they’ve been waiting and prepping for. And they encourage members to go and sow mayhem.

      “Many actually call this the Boogaloo. I know, this sounds like a joke, but sadly it’s not. Long story here. Too long for this post. Like most far right extremist terms, it began as a meme and an inside joke (4chan, 8chan, Stromfront, and other far fight forums were always awash in memes and inside jokes — from the white power symbol [originally a joke, now real] to pepe the frog [originally a cartoon, now used as a Nazi symbol].

      “So even such benign or bizarre combos like Hawaiian shirts or skull masks are now appropriated as Boogaloo and Nazi symbols respectively. If you’ve never heard of the Boogaloo, or accelerationists, or missed the deep connections of white supremacist groups to this White House, well now you know.

      “And please pay close attention, because there is also an ‘active measures’ cyber campaign, and yes, it’s from Russia, that seeks to amplify these voices and tensions, from COVID conspiracy theories to protests of police brutality and killings. That’s well underway too, so unfortunately much of what is out there on Twitter and the internet in general is nonsense.

      “But the broader threat is real, and it is currently attempting to hijack legimate protest and legimate anger at oppression, and turn it into civil stife within the US, while attempting to blame the victims themselves. So all I can say really is please pay very close attention and treat what you see critically, as we confront yet another horror of 2020.”

      • I might add the view expressed in the above article are not mine and
        are posted to shed light on the complexities involved in the nature of the current protests. I do think though that quick judgements and assumptions that group all protesters into one broad simmilar interest group are way too simplistic.
        Dr Curtis Ryan is from the Appalachian State University

        • More delusional foolishness. I guess you’ve moved on from the Pell case to other conspiracy theories. Who’s paying you to troll this site, I wonder?

        • C Hallam,
          I think most people agree that peaceful protests have been hijacked by agencies who seek to create violence & unrest to achieve an end. Assuming that’s being coordinated by white nationalists is an interesting idea but I doubt they have that sort of funding or support.

          You can go down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories with all this but we’ve seen nonstop efforts to remove Pres. Trump from office ever since he was elected. Overturning a democratic election & disregarding the votes of millions of Americans has been deeply troubling to me.
          If the Democrats have a better plan for the US, show us a better candidate. It should be that simple.

      • Laughable. The Deep State would love to have nothing more than real evidence of such action and to put it on display to discredit Trump.

  2. A real tragedy in this violence is that the message of Martin Luther King (and Jesus) of non-violence has been shoved aside. King wisely understood that a non-violent approach appeals to the conscience of the majority. The violent approach only strengthens prejudice and does nothing to solve the problems, but rather makes them worse. I think the coming elections will show this is true.

  3. Racism – Systemic. What would these people do without the word systemic. Is burglary, armed robbery, rape, etc. systemic, since we have a lot of it? The idea that there has not been great progress with the African Americans is ridiculous. We have recently had a Black president for 8 years, there are numerous black police chiefs in the news right now. Part of the problem is that Blacks are constantly told they are victims. It was reported that this past weekend there were 80 shootings in Chicago, with 17 of them murdered. This is Black on Black crime. Where is the leadership and outrage on this, both lay and episcopal?

    • Did you the the video about a woman in DC who said basically the same thing to a bunch of protesters? When they went on and on about systemic oppression she told them “I’m black and I’m not oppressed” and that they ignored the many black murder victims who were not killed by white people. They didn’t want to listen.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylAh9VjLTiU

      That’s leadership.

  4. “The riots and unrest which are convulsing our country were prompted by the killing of George Floyd, to be sure, but their deeper cause is the racism—systemic and personal—that has bedeviled our society for over four hundred years.”
    ***
    If you’re going back over 400 years, I think it’s more complicated.
    One “deeper cause” for the violence & unlawfulness we’ve seen appears to be orchestration by agencies that benefit from the current unrest. It’s an election year after all.

  5. “Though undoubted progress has been made in the course of these four centuries, there is still irrational hatred in the hearts of far too many in our country.”

    If we are talking about the sin of racism, which is an act of the will, how many people are actually racists? I doubt the bishop would appreciate Catholics or Christians being denounced as a group of the sin of “homophobia.” And yet he knows that the sin of racism is widespread?

    If we are talking about an emotional dislike of other people based on them not being part of our ethnic group, that’s something else, and may not be sinful at all so long as it does not lead to sinful acts. That is part of our instinct for self-protection. Only academics can blather about “the fear of the other” as if there were no natural basis for it.

  6. In all due respect dear Bishop I think you should take a course on evidence taught in most law schools to understand that evidence is crucial to arrive at finding facts. In this case there is not a shred of credible evidence that the crime was a hate crime based on race. Your rush to judgment is an assumption unworthy of your office.

  7. You know, slavery is still a huge problem in our country and around the world. People, mostly women and children of either gender are sold into slavery of one sort or another. Where is the outrage for sex/human trafficking? Father Baron, I have been nourished by your teachings for many years now and just purchased The Sacraments. I am a bit and maybe you can clarify that you are not comparing the criminal activity of mobs to the Holy Fire of God.

  8. I pray that the hypocrisy of all the church’s leaders will be self-evident to themselves first before making a public false statement accusing other of sins they are guilty of.
    The USCCB has exactly how many people of color as Bishops and Archbishops?????? How many people in the pews are people of color????? I think it is 25% or more, but I don’t think the USCCB has 25% of its Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals as persons of color. Ok, now the facts that establish the hypocrisy of the Bishops who themselves practice racial profiling for their own membership, should we listen to them calling ALL Americans as racist? I am afraid this will not work. Smoke-screen. We see the Emperor has no clothes.

    And what about the rights of Catholics to peacefully assemble in their churches and receive the sacraments? What hill is this Bishop willing to die on? I wish it were.

  9. There are two songs from the 1960’s that have fire references that have relevance to the current riots. The first one is by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention titled “Trouble Every Day” and the second one is by the Jimi Hendrix Experience titled “House Burning Down.” The Frank Zappa song dates from 1966 and the Freak Out! album liner notes say that it was written during the Watts riot. It contains a lot of social commentary that is still all too relevant in today’s world, especially commentary about the media and identity politics. I think that both songs can be found on YouTube and are hard driving rock.

  10. What happened to George Floyd was despicable, and those responsible need to be punished. But while police brutality in the US is a concern, it is irrelevant to the current crop of rioters; in fact they would have used any tragedy that could be interpreted in a racial manner as an excuse to burn, rape and pillage.

    • Johann du Toit ,
      Looting can happen no matter what issue folks may be rioting about. Looters take advantage of opportunities.

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