Sunday, May 19, 2013

Reflection: May All Divisions Cease


Pentecost is my favorite Holy Day.  I have always loved birthdays, and when I was told long ago that Pentecost could be considered the Birthday of the Church, I gained a special appreciation for this day.  First Jesus dies for our sins, then He rises to give us new life, and then He ascends to the Father’s right hand to constantly intercede for us.  But He goes beyond even all that and sends His own Spirit to us!  We not only receive the gift of salvation ourselves, but, by the Holy Spirit, we can in some small way become like Christ in helping others toward their own salvation.

It’s all good stuff, to be sure, but I want to focus on what I think is a major, if not THE major, theme of Pentecost.  This theme can be called unity, or the ending of division, or reconciliation; however it is phrased, it is about things that were separate being brought together.  And it is expressed in several different ways.

I am a student of the Old Testament, so the first way in which this theme seems expressed to me relates to the Tower of Babel story from Genesis 11.  In that story, God confuses the languages of the people of earth because they attempt to build a tower that reaches into heaven.  The story has many layers of meaning and it is not my purpose to explore them here beyond saying that the Tower of Babel was built for the glory of man, not God, and that arrogance is what I think resulted in the division of humanity in the context of the story.

Pentecost heals that division.  Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims from many nations at the time of Pentecost.  When Peter proclaims the Gospel to them, they hear his words in their native languages.  The message of Christ crucified and risen brings all of them together, and their experience of unity causes them to convert.  In today's divisive culture, Christians would do well to remember that experiences of unity facilitate conversion.  We often forget that people who we consider ideological opponents are looking for the same encounter with Divine Love we claim to experience.  If Christians became a force for unity today, would not many be converted in part through the experience of that unity?

Of course I am not suggesting a watering down of the Gospel for the sake of niceness.  I mean the exact opposite.  Peter proclaimed the Good News boldly.  We must do the same.  But such proclamations must be followed by the creation of loving relationships, for it is only in the context of a loving relationship that real unity can be experienced.  Christians have to love those they wish to convert to the faith.

Christians also have to love one another, and that is a second point I’d like to present.  Leading up to Pentecost, the readings spoke of division within the early Church.  Paul and Barnabas had to bring a question to the apostles in Jerusalem, and the apostles rendered a decision that was binding for all Christians.  This decision was reached, the apostles said, in accord with the will of the Holy Spirit, and followers of Christ were expected to abide by it.

So we come to the idea that division can be healed by obedience to the Spirit, and we cannot fail to note that obedience to the Spirit was bound up with obedience to the apostles.  Today the successors of the apostles continue to teach with the Spirit’s authority, but obedience to their teaching is sometimes hard to discern among Christians.  I speak as a Roman Catholic, and the Catholic Church in particular is suffering from divisions among its members.  Many Catholics will reference the primacy of conscience to justify their dissent from the Magisterium.  Others will point to The Scandal and say that the bishops lost their moral authority.  And still others will say that, while they privately agree with the Church, they cannot live out Church teaching publicly.  All of these causes of division are obstacles that Catholics must overcome to enjoy the fullness of unity in the Spirit.  It is my belief that a sincere response to these frequently heard objections is a good place to begin the effort to heal these divisions.

To those who speak of the primacy of conscience, I would say that I agree with them: conscience must be obeyed.  I then would remind them of their obligation to form their consciences in light of Church teaching.  I would further suggest that, since we hopefully always are drawing closer to Christ, so too are our consciences becoming ever more conformed to Christ’s will.  Therefore, it is beneficial to always be in a dialogue with Christ’s Church and Sacred Scripture so that conscience formation can continue and not ‘reach a plateau,’ so to speak.  Complacency cannot be part of the spiritual life.  But perhaps most importantly, I would say that humility is a virtue that all Christians need (I often feel that I could use a double or triple helping), and sometimes humble submission to a difficult teaching is what will draw a person closest to Christ; after all, though Jesus questioned His Father’s will in Gethsemane, He then obediently accomplished it.

To Catholics who object to following certain Church teachings because of the bishops’ perceived lack of moral authority I would say, “It isn't their teaching.”  Their personal moral authority may indeed be compromised to one degree or another.  But they did not invent the Church, nor did they conjure Church teaching out of their own minds.  They simply safeguard it and pass it down through the ages, perhaps presenting new applications of it as circumstances warrant; or they are supposed to do so, at least.  If a few, many, or all of the bishops failed to live up to the teachings of the Church, then shame on them.  But the Holy Spirit has not failed.  The Holy Spirit has not lost any moral authority.  And the Holy Spirit is still working powerfully in the Church, and speaks through the Magisterium.

Of course, reckoning with The Scandal is not accomplished by making a distinction between the bishops and the Holy Spirit.  People have suffered unspeakably because of what happened, and the Church, particularly the hierarchy, must respond with unstinting pastoral care.  This care must be offered out of love, not for reasons relating to Church politics.  It is in this instance in particular that loving relationships must be created and sustained to bring about reconciliation.

As for those Catholics who say they adhere to Church teaching privately but not publicly, I would ask them if they are familiar with Mathew 10:32-33 and Luke 10:16, and what they think about those verses in context.  Perhaps a fruitful dialogue could result from serious consideration of those verses.

The final point I want to consider in this already lengthy post is that of personal reconciliation.  It seems to me that the Holy Spirit wants nothing more than to reconcile humanity with God.  So, then, it would appear that going to confession would be an excellent way for Catholics to celebrate Pentecost.  Penance services where several priests make themselves available for confession are frequently offered during Advent and Lent; why not after Pentecost?  It would be an ideal time to provide catechesis on the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Sacraments, and it would emphasize the Spirit’s role in the economy of salvation.

Another good practice for Christians to adopt in celebration of Pentecost would be to offer forgiveness to and seek forgiveness from those with whom they live and work every day.  Even if it were done only silently within the heart at first, such a practice would be a good first step toward a real healing of divisions and increase in unity.

I know that the divisions that afflict humanity cannot be solved completely before the Second Coming, but as I look at the state of the world and the Church today, it seems like Christians can do a much better job than they have been doing recently.  Today is an excellent day to begin the attempt at improvement, and perhaps I can say nothing better than to ask that you join me in praying the invocation below:

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful,
And kindle in them the Fire of Your Love.
When You send forth Your Spirit, they are created,
And You renew the face of the earth.