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May 19, 2024

Watch this homily! (Begins at 42:05)

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

     Words did not come first 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. Almost at once, those tongues of fire became a brushfire that rushed out of the doors of that upper room and into the city. Before long, quite incredibly, the fire began to spread throughout the then-known world. Two millennia later, and a world removed from that upper room, the fire goes on and we have been warmed by it. But my question today is: have we caught fire?

     I like this little story that speaks to me of Pentecost. One day, a monk came to his Father Abbot and said, “Father, as far as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast, and my little prayer. And, as far as I am able, 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. He answered 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: I think about Wesley sometimes and wonder what it was about him that burned. Was it the fire and brimstone he preached, or was it his soul on fire with God’s love? 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? Well, to be honest, it’s a scary thought. Fire spreads: 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 catching the wind.

     Pentecost is often called the Birthday of the Church. Is it the birthday of the Church as we know it? More than 60 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. Here was a Pope who was not afraid of fire, who believed that God would be in the fire speaking in new ways; who believed that truth was not a monopoly of the few but God’s gift to all the baptized. And Pope Francis has followed in his footsteps by calling us to become a synodal Church - a Church committed to prayerful listening and to painstaking dialogue – a Church open to the gentle guidance of the Spirit, who alone can change her – changes us – into fire!

     That’s what needs to happen, my friends. It’s what the Holy Spirit makes possible. And 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 growth to that gospel; 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 long history makes it clear that we have 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 twenty centuries are not hard to find, are they? But through it all – despite all the sinfulness and selfishness, the compromises and the cowardice, the repressions and the regressions, 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 reminds me of a little exchange that took place during the Napoleonic era in the early 19th century. It was between the Cardinal Secretary of State, Enrico Consalvi, and one of his trusted aides in the Roman Curia. 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, “Not even we have succeeded in doing that!”  A healthy bit of honesty, wouldn’t you agree? And humor. And humility!

     My friends, It’s Pentecost, and not just any Pentecost. We are about to become a family with two neighboring parishes and we need the Spirit’s guidance more than ever! Will you join me in picking up the red Worship Hymnal and singing hymn number 472, Come Down O Love Divine, a prayer to the Holy Spirit - that we will be totally changed into fire? Please stand.

 Come down, O Love divine,
seek now this soul of mine,
and visit it with you own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, your holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let your glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

And so the yearning strong,
with which the soul will long,
shall far outpass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace,
till Love create a place
wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.

Father Michael G. Ryan





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