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June 9, 2019


    Pentecost is a feast that doesn’t require a lot of words. Pentecost speaks with its colors and sounds, its pervasive, almost electric sense that something new is afoot.

     Words weren’t paramount on the first Pentecost, either.  Before words came the sound of a mighty wind accompanied by tongues of fire which came to rest on the disciples. All were filled with the Holy Spirit, we are told. And soon, the tongues of fire became a brushfire flaming out of that upper room into the city. Before very long, the fire had spread throughout the then-known world. Two millennia later, and a world removed from that place, the fire still burns and we have been warmed by it. But my question today is: have we caught fire?

     This little story has always spoken to me of Pentecost. One day, a monk came to his Abbot and said, “Father, as far as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast, and my little prayer. And I strive to cleanse my mind of evil thoughts and my heart of evil intents. What more should I do?” The Abbot rose up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and said to the monk, “My dear brother, Why not be totally changed into fire?”

     Why not be totally changed into fire?  That’s the right question for Pentecost. Pentecost is not for the pale or the passive. Pentecost is for the passionate! I think of the great eighteenth century English evangelist and reformer, John Wesley, founder of Methodism who was, by all accounts, a fiery preacher. “I go into the pulpit,” he once said, “and the people watch me burn!”  Now there was a man “totally changed into fire!”  (A personal aside: When I think about Wesley, I wonder what it was about him that burned. Was it the fire and brimstone he preached, or was it his soul on fire with the love of God? I’m quite certain it was the latter, and I find myself praying that that same fire might burn in me…).

     Why not be totally changed into fire? Why not? Because it’s a scary thought. Fire is hard to control, it’s all-consuming. It may smolder for a time but once it flashes forth, it burns everything in its path. Stopping fire is like trying to catch the wind.

     Pentecost is often called the Birthday of the Church. Is it the birthday of the Church as we know it?  Sixty years ago, when the great and sainted Pope John XXIII started a fire by opening the Second Vatican Council, he very aptly referred to his Council as a New Pentecost. Pope John was not afraid of fire. He believed that God would be in the fire sparking new ideas. He also believed that truth was not a monopoly of the few but God’s gift to the many - to all the baptized - a gift to be discovered in prayerful listening and painstaking dialogue. A tightly regimented, totally top-down church, he knew, might be an orderly church but it was also a church lacking fire, and John XXIII was eager for the Church to be totally changed into fire!

      We’re not there yet, are we! If truth be told, we’re often a fearful, confused, divided and even angry Church. And for that reason this Pentecost has a unique urgency about it as we pray the great Pentecost prayer: “Come Holy Spirit!  Fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of Your love. Send forth your Spirit and they will be created and You will renew the face of the earth!”

     Renewing the face of the earth. We’ve made a start.  We have. Think of the long history of the Church. Think of the fearless preachers of the gospel beginning with the Apostles; think of the countless martyrs whose blood gave that gospel growth; think of the great teachers who kept alive the light of learning in dark times and whose brilliance illuminated entire cultures; think of the artists – painters, sculptors, architects, musicians – who have elevated and crowned those cultures by their genius; think of the saints, canonized and not: holy women and men of every age, including ours, who have taken to heart their baptismal calling and devoted their lives to teaching the young, healing the sick, comforting the dying, feeding and clothing and housing the poor, fighting for justice. Our history makes it clear that we have indeed made a start in renewing the face of the earth.

      But sometimes we have made a mess, too!  Whenever power or privilege or politics have become our passion, we have made a mess of things, and the instances of that over the centuries are not hard to find, are they? But through it all – despite all the sinfulness and selfishness, the compromises and the cowardice, and despite the fact that at times the Church has been its own worst enemy – through it all, the Spirit has continued to breathe, the gospel has been preached, and the fire has spread. 

      All of which puts me in mind of an exchange that took place during the Napoleonic era of the early 19th century between Enrico Consalvi, Cardinal Secretary of State, and one of his trusted aides. The aide was deeply concerned with Napoleon’s movements against the Church and he told the Cardinal, “Your Eminence, the situation is very serious. Napoleon wants to destroy the Church.” And the Cardinal replied, “My dear fellow, not even we have succeeded in doing that!” 

      A healthy bit of honesty, wouldn’t you agree? And humor. And humility! The Church is God’s holy people, but it is also God’s sinful people, always in need of renewal: deep and pervasive renewal. And that renewal can come about in only one way: through a New Pentecost - through the cleansing fire, the renewing wind of the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can totally change the Church into fire!

     So my friends, we have much to pray for on this Pentecost, don’t we? Will you join me in singing the hymn printed in your order of celebration, a prayer to the Holy Spirit that we will be totally changed into fire?  Please stand.

Father Michael G. Ryan




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