Peace of The Holy Spirit: Pentecost is depicted in a painting by Stephen B. Whatley, an expressionist artist based in London. Whatley's depiction of the descent of the Holy Spirit provides an alternative to religious art that shows Pentecost as a neat and orderly event.


Peace of The Holy Spirit: Pentecost is depicted in a painting by Stephen B. Whatley, an expressionist artist based in London. Whatley's depiction of the descent of the Holy Spirit provides an alternative to religious art that shows Pentecost as a neat and orderly event.

June 9, 2014

The feast of Pentecost has traditionally been seen as the third most important feast in the Church, more important than any feast other than Easter and Christmas.

Perhaps the importance of Pentecost is creeping back into our imagination. But when it is raised to higher importance, it is often domesticated as the "birthday" of the Church. Religious art depicting the descent of the Holy Spirit also tends to be static showing Mary and a collection of disciples neatly sitting in orderly rows or in a semi-circle while little flames sit above their heads.

Pentecost, however, was a wild day, a day of a great wind and tongues of fire descending from heaven. The disciples began inexplicably to be heard speaking in many languages, and 3,000 people in Jerusalem were converted in that one day to following Jesus.

If this was the birth of the Church, it was a very different sort of Church being born than we experience today in our Canadian parishes. It was a day unlike virtually anything the Church has seen since then.

With the fathers of the Church, I am inclined to see the Church as born on Calvary when the Roman soldier thrust his spear into the side of the body of the dead Christ and blood and water poured forth onto the earth giving us the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism. This was an image also used at Vatican II to describe the Church as sacramental.

Pentecost accomplished something else. Yes, it did give life and power to the Church. The disciples, previously confused about the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Christ and fearful of the authorities, now gained both clarity of mind and firmness of purpose. Their words and actions had an effectiveness beyond human power.

Pentecost, however, was also the fulfillment of God's promise spoken through the prophet Joel: "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions" (2.28). The Holy Spirit would come for all and make his presence felt through the endowment of charismatic gifts.

In a world, not unlike ours, in which the yearnings for material fulfillments such as money, prestige and power were predominant, Pentecost showed the awesome power of the Holy Spirit.

With ever-increasing speed over the past several centuries, spirit has been drained out of the Western world. Cardinal Walter Kasper, in his book The God of Jesus Christ, maintains that the crisis of the West is a crisis of spirit. The world has turned its back on the spirit, and even in the Church, the Holy Spirit is not central to our awareness.

Sometimes, it may seem that Christians of our day are like those early followers of Jesus that St. Paul encountered in Ephesus who said, "We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit" (Acts 19.2). Yet, when Paul laid hands on those disciples, they too received ecstatic gifts of the Spirit.


The message and presence of the Holy Spirit, Kasper wrote, provides "a super-abundant answer" to the crisis of our age. Jesus was clear that the world cannot receive the Holy Spirit "because it neither sees him nor knows him. You [the apostles] know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you" (John 14.17).

Great literature, such as the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Franz Kafka, has been pointing for 150 years to the eclipse of the spirit and its replacement by bureaucracy, materialism and terror. The great crises of our time – the environmental crisis, the crisis of loneliness and the lack of love, the crisis of treating people like things – result from this crisis of spirit.

The leading contemporary Lutheran theologian, Jurgen Moltman, rails against the Church's expropriation of the Holy Spirit for its own purposes while ignoring the Spirit's freedom to move among God's people and among humanity at large:

"The continual assertion that God's Spirit is bound to the Church, its word and sacraments, its authority, its institutions and ministries, impoverishes the congregations. It empties the churches, while the Spirit emigrates to the spontaneous groups and personal experience.

"Men and women are not being taken seriously as independent people if they are only supposed to be 'in the Spirit' when they are recipients of the Church's ministerial acts and its proclamation."

Moltman overstates his point. The Spirit does act through the Church, its sacraments and proclamations. But both Popes John XXIII and Francis have been clear that the Spirit's primary mission is not to preserve the status quo. Au contraire. The Spirit is the spirit of renewal that sometimes blows away treasured accomplishments and institutions in order to make all things new.


Moreover, the Spirit of renewal, most often, blows not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up in our Church. The development of monasticism, religious orders and today's so-called new movements arose not out of some pastoral plan, but out of the Spirit moving among the laity. When the Church has tried to impose the Spirit from the top-down, it has tended to have a deadening, rather than an enlivening effect, on God's people.

Conversely, there have been several renewal movements in Church history that, claiming the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, put themselves above or outside the authority of the pope and the bishops. The result was not renewal, but heresy, schism and division.

Yet, Kasper points out that when the Church was too eager to clamp down on movements of charismatic enthusiasts, it became repressive and institutionalized the Spirit.

St. Paul was the great prophet of unity in the Church, and he saw the Spirit as one working against division as well as the glue that holds the Church together. Yet, Paul also wrote, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3.17).

Jesus made the same point in his dialogue with Nicodemus: "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3.8).

Pentecost is the birth into our world of the wild freedom of the Holy Spirit. It is a freedom that blows within the Church, although sometimes outside it too. The Spirit is present in the sacraments, in Scripture, and in the authority and teachings of the pope and bishops. However, if we try to restrict the movement of the Spirit to these pathways, we repress the Spirit whose wind blows in unexpected places and directions.

The Spirit, however, despite the wild freedom he brings is always the Spirit of truth. The freedom of the Spirit is anchored in truth; indeed, without truth, there is no Spirit.


This is clear in the five so-called Paraclete sayings of Jesus at the Last Supper, which culminate in the last of the sayings: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; . . . he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me for he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16.13-14).

For theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Spirit's guiding us into the truth involves, not simply an intellectual knowing that the Spirit gives to us, but a real participation in the life of the Trinity. When the Spirit guides one into truth – into a relationship with the Trinity – one is radically transformed, that is, made holy as God is holy.

At the centre of holiness is love, and the Spirit is God's gift of love par excellence. Through the Spirit, God's love overflows into our lives. The freedom of the Spirit, then, is not a self-centred freedom, but an availability for others.


Pope Francis, in his marvellous text The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium [EG]), proclaims, "The Church has to accept this unruly freedom of the word, which accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking" (EG 22).

The pope's apostolic exhortation encourages missionary outreach to those who have not heard the Gospel or for whom it is a dead letter. "Yet I realize no words of encouragement will be enough unless the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts" (EG 261). The winds of the Spirit will spread no fire unless there is already a spark.

The fire of the Holy Spirit need not produce charismatic gifts in us. The Spirit works internally, as well as externally, and the external gifts are no guarantee of inner transformation. The real fruits of the Spirit, St. Paul tells us, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5.22).

For those fruits to be realized, Pope Francis says the Catholic faithful are called to "prolonged moments of adoration" and "the deep breath of prayer" in order to become evangelizers filled with the Spirit (EG 262). Yet, we cannot remain in the sanctuary; we must open the doors of the Church so that we can move out and so others touched by the Spirit can come in. A focus on piety and prayer "can become an excuse for not offering one's life in mission."

This comes from a man who spends several hours a day in prayer – adoring Christ's presence in the Eucharist, celebrating Mass and meditating on Scripture. He is well aware of the futility of proclaiming the Good News with human energy alone. Yet he would not have us sacrifice the proclamation because we are fearful of reaching out or too comfortable in our meditation.


Moreover, the goal of missionary outreach is more than filling our churches; it is the transformation of the world. It is not about the self-preservation of the Church, but includes "working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty" and challenging "the socio-economic system [which] is unjust at its root" (EG 188, 59).

To many, this is confusing politics and religion. If so, we have had many confused popes over the last 125 years. Pope Francis is direct: "To evangelize is to make the kingdom of God present in our world. . . . The kingdom, already present and growing in our midst, engages us at every level of our being" (EG 176, 181).

Writes the pope: "An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it" (EG 183).

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was unleashed upon humanity. The Spirit gives us the power and the responsibility to make God's kingdom come alive in this world. He inaugurates us into truth, and it is in truth that our freedom is rooted.

When the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, we become free to proclaim God's word and to do God's work in ways that would make the wildfire of Pentecost an everyday reality.