Today we celebrate the moment when the Holy Spirit became the soul of the Church. This is, to say the least, significant because it puts Catholics squarely in the middle of a great spiritual battle. Jesus told us: “in this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) The current pandemic, for instance, is just one among many of the works of “the prince of this world.” And if we are not going to allow the Devil to dictate what our lives in this world are going to be, we cannot let ourselves obsess over worldly evils. Jesus also told us, with good reason: “you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world.” (John 15:19)
To have been chosen “out of the world,” however, has multiple dimensions. On Pentecost, it’s useful to remember a distinction that Cardinal Charles Journet once made between “Christ [who] is the visible center of the Church and the Holy Spirit [who] is the invisible center, heart and soul of the Church.”
When the Second Vatican Council spoke about the Holy Spirit and the Church, it said in a general way that “the Holy Spirit was sent on the day of Pentecost in order that He might continually sanctify the Church, and thus, all those who believe would have access through Christ in one Spirit to the Father.”
The Holy Spirit dwells in the Church. This indwelling brings about many things. The Spirit brings the Church to “all truth.” In other words, the Church knows what creation and salvation are all about. Individual Catholics can and do get it wrong, but the deposit of faith is all there, guaranteed by Christ’s own testimony.
The Holy Spirit unifies the Church, a communion in grace and truth. This actually came about once the apostles began to speak in the different tongues of the Roman Empire, “as the Spirit enabled them.” (First Reading) The people in the crowd from various nations all understood what they were saying.
But even beyond the community established via this speaking in tongues, the Spirit inspired a unity that can be seen in the various ministries of the Church, which are all, however, pointed towards one goal. The Church is not just a voluntary organization where we pay our dues and get some benefits.
Furthermore, the Council said: The Holy Spirit “both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with His fruits.” The Second Reading today explains the gifts and effects of the Spirit in greater detail. The Holy Spirit thus forms the Church into the Body of Christ with all of Christ’s characteristics: his integrity, grace, truth, authority, and divine ministry. When the Holy Spirit does this he is “renewing the face of the earth.” (Psalm 104)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church adds further detail to the work of the Spirit in the liturgy: “The Holy Spirit prepares [us] for the reception of Jesus Christ.” It is the Holy Spirit who gathers the community together for worship. The Spirit prepares the hearts of people to hear the readings and join in the prayers.
The Spirit guides people to a spiritual awakening so that:
By means of the words, actions, and symbols that form the structure of a celebration, the Spirit puts both the faithful and the ministers into a living relationship with Christ, the Word and Image of the Father, so that they can live out the meaning of what they hear, contemplate, and do in the celebration.
This is somewhat like the apostles’ experience of Jesus in the Gospel. They meet the glorified Lord and he pours out his Spirit upon them, forever afterward forging them into the Church.
Not mentioned nearly enough is that, with the coming of the Spirit, as the psalmist says: “I will be glad in him.” There is a great and rich quality of eternal life from the Spirit that does not require the addition of passing things such as the usual material goods and worldly honors.
Indeed, the ancient Sequence in the liturgy today, speaking about us, strikingly says, “melt the frozen, warm the chill.” So, the Spirit is not a mere add-on to what I might imagine would be my “perfect” human life. In fact, the Sequence goes on: “Where you are not, we have naught, nothing good in deed or thought, nothing free from taint of ill.”
Only when the Spirit completely reworks us can we be true followers of Christ. There is no place here for Pelagianism, the heresy that people have no need of grace to do good. No place, either, for Christians to feel superior – to anyone. This is a crucial matter in a desperately class-conscious society.
The Holy Spirit dwells in individual believers and aids them in myriad ways. One particular gift is that “in them, He prays on their behalf and bears witness to the fact that they are adopted sons.” (Vatican II) The world may think that this diminishes us as free and independent beings. But for the Spirit to pray in us and for us reveals a reality far truer and richer than anything we may do solely out of our own resources.
The liturgy of Pentecost raises us, once again, into the new life in the Spirit, so that we can worship God in truth and oppose in the fulness of faith the spirit of this world.
*Image: Pentecost by El Greco, c. 1600 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]