by Deacon Bill Brennan
A true Pentecost story. Several years ago I was invited to speak at a Serra Convention in an anonymous diocese somewhere in America. Actually there were three or four of us who had been invited to give presentations on various examples of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the church today. I was asked to speak on the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the experience that Pope John Paul II would one day describe as one of the ecclesial communities that have sprung up in our day and are signs of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the church today. In my presentation I shared a bit of my own testimony of how the grace of baptism in the Holy Spirit has affected my life: prayer came alive, scripture came alive, the sacraments came alive, the church came alive, and for me personally and most astonishingly, Jesus came alive as I had never known him before. I quoted the teaching of the church on the reality and use of the charisms of the Holy Spirit in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, the Decree on the Life of Priests and Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation to the Laity written in 1987. I quoted the scriptures that related to the subject.
When I finished, the group gave a half-hearted, unenthusiastic applause, which gave me the message that they were not buying any of this for one minute, and then they left the room, all but one of them. He came to me and looked me in the eyes and said words I have not forgotten: "I really liked what you said. It was really good. But come on, I was trained by the Jesuits forty years ago..." (so I knew that in whatever was about to be said I had already lost the argument!)..."and they taught me that everything you said is too good to be true." When he said that two things happened: one, the response I gave, and two what ran through my heart as I spoke. I said back to him, "Well, when you think about it, doesn't the entire gospel message sound like it's too good to be true?" As I said that, a look of anger flashed across his face, and he turned around and stomped off before I could say anything else. More important was what was running through my heart as I spoke: I had just quoted the teaching of the church, and if that part of the official teaching of the church is "too good to be true," the question becomes what other parts of the teaching of the church are "too good to be true," and how are we to know? Who is going to tell us? I had just quoted the scriptures, and if those verses are "too good to be true," the question becomes what other parts of the scriptures are "too good to be true," and how are we to know? Who is going to tell us?
Too good to be true? Ask yourself a question: why has the church invited us over the past fifty days, from Easter Sunday to this day of Pentecost, to reflect every day on stories from the Acts of the Apostles, stories which are Pentecost stories - Pentecost alive. Think about it. Every day, at every Mass all over the world, the readings have given us a story from Acts as the first reading and a gospel story of the resurrection or a story pointing to who this Jesus really is. At every Mass the connection is drawn between Easter and Pentecost to draw our attention to the faith of the church that both events did not stop two thousand years ago but continue to this day. For the Christian every day is Easter and every day is Pentecost.
So on this Pentecost Sunday, what can we say about Pentecost if we draw from those accounts given to us by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles? Well, first of all, Pentecost is alive and is the experience of the Holy Spirit that dramatically affected the lives of the apostles and disciples who were in that upper room. It was not a theory or an objective statement of faith. It was not a pious thought or image. And it was not a temporary event - here today and gone tomorrow. It was very, very real, and it so affected their lives that they were never the same again.
Beyond that, Pentecost is power, life-changing power. In the New Testament Greek, the word used for power is "dunamis," which is the root word for our English word "dynamite." This is dynamite power that makes things happen, that changes hearts and minds, that changes lives and even the direction of lives. This is power and it empowers (a derivative of power) a person to do what he or she may have thought he or she could never do. This is power that enables one to do the impossible (how many of us here right now have ever encountered the God of the impossible?). And this power is very real. It is not just theoretical. It is not just a pious word. It is not merely an objectively true statement of our faith (that is, something that is true even if we do not experience its reality). The Risen Christ instructed them to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them, and He promised that they would receive power.
Pentecost is fire - fire in the heart, fire in the belly, fire that burns in one's heart and soul. In scripture, the fire of the Spirit purifies a person, as gold and silver are melted so that the impurities rise to the surface and can be skimmed off until only pure gold or silver remain. This fire also gives light that shines from within (St. Paul wrote to the early Christians and to us that they and we are not just in the light; we are the light. And that has profound implications for us, for that light was intended to shine forth with everything we say and do and dispel the darkness around us). The fire of the Spirit is also very real. It is not merely a pious concept or a theoretical reality. "Were our hearts not burning within us as He explained the scriptures," the disciples on the Road to Emmaus said to one another after their encounter with the Risen Christ. These are the words of experience, the experience of God touching them, just as God has offered to do to us and for us today.
Pentecost is rushing wind - the wind of the Spirit, the breath of God. Jesus breathed on the apostles and said "Receive the Holy Spirit...." And He has breathed on every one of us starting with the moment of our baptism and has said the same to each of us: "Receive the Holy Spirit..." The wind symbolizes the currents of the Spirit who is calling us today to spread our wings and soar on those currents and to let them take us wherever the Spirit wills to take us.
Pentecost is living water, not just a small trickle, but fountains and rivers of water. Jesus promised that He would give His disciples "fountains of living water" that would well up within them. Pentecost makes that happen, brings it to life in you and in me. In scripture, the image of water invokes visions of new life, of plants and trees bearing abundant fruit, of deserts blooming. It satisfies the thirsty and, paradoxically, makes them long for more at the same time. And it is our heritage to be filled with living water.
Pentecost is passion - a passion for the things of God, a passion for being in the company of the Messiah, for listening to His words and living His life, a passion for doing whatever He commands and a passion for becoming all that He has called us to be as individuals but also as the His body, the church. This passion is the stuff of which genuine zeal is made. Yes, that word, zeal, makes a lot of us nervous, but think about what it means: according to the dictionary, zeal is a burning, driving, compelling force within a person that compels that person to do something. When it is alive within us, it compels us to go forth and proclaim everywhere that Jesus is alive and is Lord. We have to do it; we cannot not do it. The church teaches in the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People that we do not need less zeal than they had in the first century; we need more, because the needs of the world are so much greater today.
Pentecost is boldness and confidence in the use of the power of God. This is the boldness and confidence of Peter and John when they encountered the crippled beggar at the gate of the temple. There was no hesitation, no debating with God over what they should do, no questioning themselves about whether or not they should act. They just did it. "Look at us," Peter said,..."silver and gold I have none, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise up and walk." Healed, the man went walking and leaping into the temple, praising God, and the people who recognized him were astonished. The problem with us today is that we no longer go walking and leaping and praising God (figuratively speaking of course) in the temple and we are certainly seldomly astonished by the workings of God.
Pentecost is about being sent. We have been told since childhood that every one of us has been sent by the Lord; yet how many of us really believe it way down deep inside? It really does make a difference to know, and to know that you know, that you and I have been sent by God to do something and to be something. We have been sent to be His witnesses everywhere, to share in the work and ministry of Jesus as King, Prophet and Priest, to work for the salvation of the world, to do the works of the Messiah, the very works that the apostles and disciples were commissioned by Jesus to do, and to build up thereby the Kingdom of God. That is what Pentecost is about, and that is what you and I are supposed to be about.
The list could go on...
Pentecost alive is what the church in our day desperately needs at every level. It is what you and I desperately need in our own lives and hearts. Anyone who says we don't need this or it is not possible or it isn't for everyone does not know what is happening in the church today or in the world for that matter. We are in a major crisis of confidence in the Catholic Church right now, at this very moment. We are in the midst of a scandal that reaches all the way to the top, and it is not over yet. The attacks against the church are from all sides. And everyone of us has received the same commission given to one Francis of Assisi during another time of great corruption and sin in the church: "Rebuild My church!" Only the Holy Spirit can equip us for the task. Don't tell me that we don't need Pentecost alive, because I know the truth, and the truth is without the power of the Spirit released, we will never get out of this mess. Listen to the words of a friend of mine received just yesterday via email. He is an average guy, a family man and a businessman, and he would be the first to say "I'm not a theologian or a scripture scholar," but as I read his words I thought to myself, "He is absolutely right! He's hit the nail on the head!" This is what he wrote: "We are in a time where the practice of our traditional faith needs an infusion of the power of the Holy Spirit to enkindle a passion for Jesus, his gospel and his church. We need to stir up the fan of faith to ignite an apostolic ardor for the gospel as was done in the first century. Yes, we need a new evangelization. Yes, we need to rekindle a new Apostolic zeal."
This renewed gift of Pentecost is precisely what is needed today in every heart, in every parish and in every diocese. So on this day of Pentecost, I urge all of us, myself included, to pray-to pray with gusto, with passion and with everything we have in us: Come Holy Spirit! Today I urge all of us to pray with confidence in the God who always hears the prayer of His people and always answers the prayer of His people: Come Holy Spirit! Today I urge all of us to pray from the depths of our beings: Come Holy Spirit, enkindle within us again the fire of your love, empower us with your gifts and charisms to do the works of Jesus, and mold us into His image so that everything we say and do will bring ever more glory to your name and ever more of your love to your people. Come Holy Spirit! Come Holy Spirit! COME HOLY SPIRIT and renew your wonders in our midst today as of a new Pentecost. Come Holy Spirit, we need you.
Bill Brennan is the Chairman of NCRC, and a past member of the National Service Committee of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.