Rorate Caeli

Sermon for Pentecost 2014

From the Acts of the Apostles: “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind…and there appeared to them tongues on fire…and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues.”

Quite a scene, quite a bash, hard to follow this with anything.  Tongues of fire, hurricane force winds within the room, and the babbling in many languages.  No wonder the people outside thought that they were listening to a drunken party.  But they were outside. And those inside, Mary and the apostles, had been waiting for something or someone, not quite sure, remembering Jesus’ words about sending the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Paracelete, they sat there with a remembrance of that holy fear they felt on Easter day when Jesus appeared to them and breathed on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit: Whose sins you forgive are forgiven in heaven and earth and whose sins you  hold are held in heaven and earth.” That power of Christ, the power of the Cross, but specific. This and nothing else.  But they knew they had to wait, for it was not over, the event still had not happened. Peter was still Peter, not understanding, earnest, but not getting it, lacking a college degree, not used to public speaking.  And then it happened in a way that no one would have expected, in a way that the curse of the multiplication of languages at the Tower of Babel becomes now the sign of the missionary calling of the Church to the whole world. 

So today is the feast of Pentecost, the answer of God to his Church, after the answer of the Ascension to the Life, Passion, Resurrection of his only-begotten Son.  And the answer of God is to empower the Church with the Holy Spirit, with the presence of God himself, to lead the Church into all truth, that is, to guarantee that the preaching of the Church about Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, as the source of eternal life through faith: that this preaching will be true and efficacious, that it will do something, will do what has to be done, to inspire repentance, turning away from sin, and to inspire a turning to the Lord Jesus Christ and to have faith in his Death, Resurrection and Ascension that are the hope, the only hope of mankind.

This is the fundamental role of the presence of the Holy Spirit within the Church: to bear truthful witness to the person of Jesus Christ and what this means not only for the individual but for the world for which Christ died.   And this witness, this truth, is guided and witnessed by the presence of the Holy Spirit within the Church.  But this cannot be understood in a magical way, nor in a way that can be claimed to be seen clearly by men at every instant of human history-- and human history is part of Church history. 

When we look at the history of the patristic Ecumenical Councils—that is, what happened in detail at the first seven Ecumenical Councils of the Church in which the basic questions about Jesus Christ, who he is and the meaning of who he is, were hammered out on that gold foil that we call the Nicene Creed which we will sing in a few minutes—that history is messy. It is full of intrigue, full of dissension, full of manipulation. It is a messy process.  It is marked by heroes like St. Athanasius who refused to accede to the light and easy version of Christian faith of Arianism.  But it is also marked in real instances by a failure by those entrusted with the passing on of the Tradition handed down from the Apostles, namely the bishops, to see the truth clearly about the person of Jesus Christ.  But it is also marked by the refusal of the faithful, the man and woman at the Mass, their refusal to water down the person of Jesus Christ.  It is the laity in this crucial time in Church history that played such an important role in the Spirit-led understanding of the person of Jesus Christ as true God and true man. 

Now what does this mean?  It does not mean that we cannot trust the bishops who have been chosen in Apostolic Succession to transmit the Tradition of the Church in which is contained the Truth about Jesus Christ and the salvation of the world.  It is the bishops who are the successors of the Apostles and who are the transmitters of the Tradition and who are given the grace to be who they are called to be.  And among these bishops in the Bishop of Rome who is the successor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles to whom a special charism was given within the Church: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of heaven will not prevail against it,"  And it is to the one who is elected to be the Pope, that the charism of infallibility, a charism that is also given to the whole Church, that this charism is given in a special way to the Pope as the head of the Church on earth to be the guardian and defender of the faith.  All this is true and therefore must be believed by all Catholics.

But once again, the working of the Holy Spirit must be always seen in the context of human history, that is, must be seen within the messiness that is human history.  And if this is true, and it is, then we always have to remember that the truth that is the mark of the activity of the Spirit is most often seen in retrospect, that is, when the Church looks back and sees what has really happened and how the Church has been brought to a particular understanding of the Faith or to a particular path in her relationship to the world in which she lives. 

One of the now long-standing problems within the Church of the past century is precisely to refuse to step back and view things from an unfolding historical perspective.  There is a desire to be able to see the working of the Holy Spirit within the Church immediately and then to claim that this particular understanding or implication of the Faith that is being expounded at a particular time is the work of the Holy Spirit and therefore must be true and accepted by all.  What was decided at those first Ecumenical Councils that hammered out the orthodox understanding of the person of Jesus Christ was not accepted by many in the Church at that time. It took time for the whole Church to see the presence of the Spirit of Truth in the declarations of these Councils. It was not a matter of calling a Council and then declaring that all that was said at that Council is defined to be the voice of the Spirit and then have everyone believe it.  Truth does not come in that neat way. It took over 1800 years for the Church to recognize the truth of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The Dominicans, including St Thomas Aquinas, opposed this doctrine, and the Franciscans were the champions of this doctrine concerning our Lady. This debate was necessary.  And only when the truth of Mary’s Immaculate Conception was seen to be believed by all in the Church could it be infallibly defined in 1850 by Pope Pius IX. 

And Pius IX could define the doctrine as true because of the Spirit based and led promise made to St. Peter and his successors that what they define as true in matters of faith and morals is protected from error by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Office they hold within the Church.  The definition is the culmination of an historical process guided by the Holy Spirit within the Church.  There has been a tendency to forget that the role of the Pope in the Church is not to be an oracle that delivers new truths every day.  The words of the Pope must be listened to and respected at all times, but we must never fall into that hyper-papalism that reduces the teaching office of the Church to the papacy, that runs the risk of blurring the Petrine Ministry by a cult of personality of a particular pope, that, in other words, loses that historical perspective that is a mark of the work of the Holy Spirit within the Church. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which is real and which is the Advocate of Truth, does not mean that Ecumenical Councils or magisterial pronouncements are mechanical purveyors of a Truth that is always accessible in an immediate way.  They are binding, but as Blessed John Henry Newman said, they are the beginning of a conversation.  And it is that conversation that is missing in the Church today. That conversation has been eclipsed by shouting over and over again, in the context of the post Second Vatican Council years, the preposterous notion that whatever happens in the Church must be the work of the Holy Spirit and cannot be questioned in a conversation.  This is not only irrational.  It is not Catholic.

What we must remember on this feast of Pentecost is that the Spirit we received in Baptism and Confirmation, the Spirit that makes the Church the living organism of the Body of Christ, the Spirit that whispers and prods us as we live our lives open to the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that informs our conscience and saves us from sentimental subjectivism, the Spirit that breathes upon the Pope and bishops and priests and religious as well as on every member of the body of Christ:  it is this Spirit that enables us to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, and it is this Spirit that enables us to come here to worship God in Spirit and in Truth in this offering up of the Body and Blood of Christ to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is this same Spirit that makes it possible for each of us, even in our fallen state,  to love, to love God, to love each other and to love Truth.   What more can one ask?

Father Richard G. Cipolla