Homily for Pentecost Sunday, 2012
Today as we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, we have an opportunity to reflect a bit on the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and on what that means for you and I who are members of the body of Christ that is animated by the Spirit. In other words, we have the opportunity to reflect on the Church as a Spiritual reality, to speak of Catholic Spirituality.
For a number of reasons, it seems that we don’t hear about Catholic spirituality or the Catholic spiritual life all that often. I think that part of the reason is that we’ve been influenced by a culture that promotes a concept of the spiritual that is opposed to the religious or to the institutional. How many times we hear people use that kind of reasoning when they attempt to rationalize not going to Mass: “Well, I don’t need to go to Mass to be a spiritual person.” “Mass doesn’t do anything for my spiritual life.”
When we hear this kind of idea expressed, we might have a tendency to just react: “Well heck, if that’s what it means to be spiritual, then we had better not encourage that in our kids. No spirituality for you. You are going to church. None of that pie in the sky spirit mumbo jumbo. Next thing we know you’ll be smelling like patchouli and wearing crystals and getting piercings.
But what a horrible loss for the Church, to lose the sense that who we are, at our most profound depths, is a spiritual reality, a spiritual body. That what ties us together is not so much that we do the same things or believe the same things, although those are important expressions of our unity, but that we have the same life dwelling within us.
So we must address this opposition of the religious to the spiritual: this common impression that the spiritual is opposed to a church, to an organization. How can we, on this great feast of the Holy Spirit, articulate Catholic Spirituality, explain what it means to be both a religious and a spiritual people?
The first way, I think, is to make sure that we understand all of the sacraments and religious experience of the Church as profoundly spiritual in nature. In other words, celebrating Mass on Sunday is the most spiritual thing that we do. It can be easy to lose the deeper awareness that here as we come together, the Holy Spirit moves within us and around us with great power and freedom. The Holy Spirit allows the word of God to enter into our hearts and minds, calling us to deeper conversion. The Holy Spirit dwells is at work during the celebration of the Eucharistic prayer to consecrate the bread and wine so that they become for us Jesus’ body and blood and to consecrate us so that we become his body alive in the world. The Holy Spirit is at work within us, helping us to receive and to respond to the gift of Jesus’ very life in the Eucharist.
Now, all of this working of the Holy Spirit happens in mystery, invisibly and we have to work to become more perceptive and responsive to the life of the Spirit. And so I think that it is important that we prepare for Mass well. The Church asks us to fast for an hour, but I think it is also important to set aside for a time before Mass the concerns and distractions of daily life – to prepare ourselves mentally so that we can enter into what it is that we are doing. It’s hard to make a shift from crazy life into Mass mode in 2 seconds flat – you end up sitting in the pew or up here, and maybe your body is still, but your mind is going 100 miles an hour. Well we are not going to be as receptive to the Holy Spirit at work if we haven’t prepared a bit. That is what Vatican II meant when it spoke of the active participation of the people – first and foremost it means an interior participation or openness to what the Holy Spirit is doing here: a receptivity. That means that in general it is incredibly important that we nurture a tone of the sacred here – a tone that helps us remember that God is at work among us, that his Spirit is alive in this time that we spend together in a particular and unique way. We have been brought here for a purpose – we are here to be fed and strengthened and given the grace that we need to be able to live holy, virtuous lives in the world. The challenge for each of us is to really take with due seriousness what is happening here at Mass or when we celebrate any sacrament. That doesn’t mean being overly nervous or stiff or stern, but to be reflective and attentive to the deeper, spiritual movements and realities that are unfolding around us, trying to let go of distractions and worldly concerns.
But I think the greater challenge, for most of us, is figuring out how to retain an authentic Catholic spirituality for the rest of the week so that when we show up here we don’t feel like we’re landing on Mars. To be alive in the spirit, truly alive in the Spirit, means that the relationship must endure beyond these walls. Love is not true love if it is only alive when we are with the beloved. No, true love persists, it is faithful, it pines for the beloved, is always reflecting on the beloved, remembering, scheming, meditating.
How do we bring the life of the Holy Spirit with us from this place into the rest of our lives so that when we come here, to this upper room, we are drawing upon a relationship with the Holy Spirit that is ongoing and alive during the rest of the week? Mass is meant to build and strengthen a people who are alive in the spirit – it is not meant to resurrect us from the dead. That is confession.
And so on a feast like Pentecost it is a good opportunity to look at our interior lives, look at our prayer. To recommit ourselves as we enter ordinary time to maintaining a daily prayer life, to going to confession on a regular basis, so that Mass can be the source and summit of our spiritual life, but not the totality of it. Yes, without a daily spiritual regiment we can find some benefit at Mass, we can enjoy certain elements of the community and prayer, but the deep spiritual intimacy that the Lord wants to strengthen and grow within us is not be possible if we are not spending a substantial amount of time with him throughout the week. Mass can only be a spiritual experience for spiritual people, and the way that you become a spiritual person is by spending time and effort learning to listen and cooperate with the promptings of the Holy Spirit during the rest of the week.
Our celebration of the Eucharist is meant to be an intensified encounter that happens in an existing and committed relationship of love between God and his son or daughter. We are meant to come to Mass as spiritual people, men and women with active and flourishing spiritual lives. St. Bernard of Clairveau spoke of a sacrament as a kiss from God. But in order for a kiss to be authentic, in order for it to be beautiful, it must occur in a relationship where faithful love exists well before lips meet and well after they part. And that means for us that we must strive each day to carve out and nurture a real and genuine spiritual life. Because it is this life of the Spirit that gives meaning to everything else: that must be at the heart of every Catholic endeavor. Religion is not true religion, is not authentic, unless it is rooted in spiritual lives: and that means men and women, you and me, each day in our homes and workplaces and community faithfully working to live with and in the Holy Spirit we have received in baptism.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.