The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Today’s saint was the only woman to have founded a religious Order, that is a family of consecrated life with both men and women. The Bridgittines were established in Vadstena in 1346 which became the heart of Swedish Catholicism. She was a mystic and received revelations of Christ’s Passion known as the ‘Fifteen Prayers of St Bridget’. She was consulted by theologians and kings, and like St Catherine of Siena, wrote to the popes in Avignon to try and persuade them to return the Papacy to Rome. She travelled the breadth of Europe, going on pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem, and finally to Rome where she died in 1373 at the age of 70.
For these reasons, St Bridget is a worthy Patron of Europe; one of six. But most of this St Bridget did in her years of widowhood from 1344, what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “second period” of her life. Today I wish to just draw attention, instead, to the first period of her life, which is no less saintly, no less worthy of emulation by Christians today.
St Bridget had been happily married for 28 years to Ulf Gudmarsson, a governor of an important district of the Kingdom of Sweden. So, she lived a courtly life, and she had been born into the Swedish royal clan. With the wealth and influence at her disposal she built a hospital, engaged in charitable works for the good of the poor, and was invited by the Swedish king to go to court and introduce his French queen to Swedish culture. We often see this pattern of holiness for courtly women of this time. St Margaret of Scotland, St Elizabeth of Hungary and other such royal saints follow the same pattern. What they teach us today is that money and power are not obstacles to holiness. Rather, they can be a means to sanctity if we use what we have for the good of others, for God’s work. I am reminded of Mrs Charlotte Jefferson-Tytus, for example, who in her widowhood was encouraged by fr Bede Jarrett OP to become benefactress to the Order. Together with him she was the foundress of Blackfriars Oxford, and even of this Edinburgh priory.
However, charity begins at home. Hence, St Bridget’s goodness also had a positive effect on her husband and children. Through her influence, Ulf began to take his faith more seriously and with her he became a Franciscan tertiary. They went on pilgrimage to Compostela, and towards the end of his life, he retired to a Cistercian monastery, having agreed with Bridget to live as ‘brother and sister’. In the context of its time, this is seen as a deepening of one’s desire for God, and so St Bridget offers us an example of a Christian wife, who thus helps her husband to grow in holiness. In this way she loves God and her first neighbour, her spouse, and she shows us how the vocation of marriage is a path of sanctification.
St Bridget was also a mother. With Ulf, she had four boys and four girls. One of her daughters, Catherine (Karin) would travel with her to Rome and is also a canonized saint, and this can be seen as a mark of how effective a teacher she was, how positive the influence of this saintly woman. From St Bridget, then, we learn how beautiful and important the work of a mother and a wife is; how vital mothers are for handing on the Faith, for their civilizing effect, and making a domestic Church, a home. We are grateful!
But all this can make St Bridget’s life seem quite charmed and fortunate. However the lady who founded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, with a special devotion to the Lord in his Passion, and who first received a vision of the Crucified Lord when she was just 7 was no stranger to suffering. At the age of 12 her mother died, so she had to be given into the care of an aunt. Her four sons died young, two of them while on Crusade. And when her husband died, when she was just 41, she grieved deeply for the one whom she said she’d loved “like my own body”. So many wives endure widowhood, and so many mothers know the pain of losing a child. St Bridget, then, shares their experience and sorrow. How did she cope? By abiding in Christ’s love. As we hear in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20). Thus, as the Gospel says, we are filled with Christ’s joy, with faith in the Resurrection which St Bridget knew would follow on after she’d suffered the Cross with Christ.
This year marks the 740th anniversary of the death of St Bonaventure, and also, incidentally of St Thomas Aquinas who was a good friend of his. There is much that these saints share in common. Both died in connection with the Council of Lyons: St Thomas had died on the way to the Council; Bonaventure, who was instrumental in preparing for the Council as a bishop, theologian and cardinal died during it. Both were mendicant friars and had defended the friars movement in Paris; both had studied and taught in the University of Paris. However, one incident (which echoes a similar one in the life of St Thomas Aquinas) shows us St Bonaventure’s priorities. When asked by St Thomas what was the source of his learning and insight, he pointed to an image of the Crucified One, and said: “This is the library, wherein I find all that I teach to others”. Thus, St Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church, says to us: “If you learn everything except Christ, you learn nothing. If you learn nothing except Christ, you learn everything”.
The primacy of Christ in all things, and thus, the priority given to the Word of God, is central to St Bonaventure’s thought. As Minister General of the Franciscans he’d had to grapple with notions that St Francis had inaugurated a new, more spiritual and charismatic age for the Church. But St Bonaventure insisted that Jesus Christ is God’s final Word to humanity. There can be no further new revelation for in Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, God had said all, giving himself entirely to humanity, even giving us his Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
Hence, Bonaventure said that if we seek truth, especially concerning eternal salvation, we needed to look to Christ in faith, to love him through prayer, and only then can we truly understand God’s words in Sacred Scripture. As he says: “This faith is the foundation of the whole Bible, a lamp and a key to its understanding”. And this faith, of course, comes to us as a gift from Jesus Christ; it is an ecclesial faith that we receive from Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. Thus, as Minister General, St Bonaventure strived to unite the Franciscans more closely to the hierarchy of the Church. For this reason, I think, Bonaventure (unlike St Thomas) accepted being made Archbishop of York and a cardinal.
As a Scholastic, St Bonaventure (like St Thomas) firmly believed in the unity of faith and reason in the human quest for true knowledge. For, ultimately, God is the source of all wisdom; Jesus is Truth itself. Therefore, as a theologian, Bonaventure stressed that if we desired to know truth concerning our salvation, we needed to depend on God’s Word, and to learn from Christ. As he says: “The source of sacred Scripture was not human research but divine revelation”. For Bonaventure, then, the motivation for genuine theology was a love for Christ and a desire to know him better. Against this, he warned of the danger of intellectual pride which subjected the Scriptures to merely human reasoning and research. St Thomas, likewise, warned that “in knowledge and in every other endowment that belongs to greatness, Man finds occasion to trust in himself rather than to give himself over completely to God”.
The sanctity of these men, then, came not from their learning or formidable intelligence, as such, but from their humility and love for the Word of God. This enabled them to use their human reason to understand divine revelation, to accept God’s Word in faith and to conform their lives to it rather than to rationalize the Faith away or relativize God’s Word. This intellectual pride is the temptation in every age. Currently, we must wonder if some churchmen have not fallen into such temptation through arguing in support of the Assisted Dying Bill, or in favour of divorce and remarriage, or allowing for the ordination of women – positions which all contradict the teaching of Scripture and of sacred Tradition. The positions they advance all sound reasonable but we must always beware, as St Bonaventure teaches us, that the pride of human reason does not take precedence over the Word of God; over the divine Wisdom and knowledge that is only known through the grace of the Holy Spirit – that same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures and continues to guide, inspire, and animate Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As such, her Magisterium cannot teach error in matters of faith and morals when it concerns our salvation.
St Bonaventure, therefore, said that only “the pious and the humble, the contrite and the devout” can learn from divine Wisdom. So, let us imitate his docility to the Word of God, and so, by God’s grace grow closer to Jesus Christ, the “Way, the Truth, and the Life”.
A ruler, that is, a leader of the local community, one who is in the elite core comes to Jesus. Another who is at the very margins of the community, ostracized by society because she suffered the flow of blood, haemorrhaging for the past 12 years, comes to Jesus. One a man, another a woman. Both come to Jesus for help, and they represent all of humanity, both the powerful and the dispossessed, male and female, young and old. For they come to Jesus bearing the conditions that are common to us all: our mortality. The woman comes to Jesus suffering from a debilitating illness; the man comes to Jesus on behalf of his child who has suffered the last and greatest illness that afflicts Mankind, death itself.
And often it is sickness and death that challenges and tests our faith, isn’t it? So, these people in the Gospel represent us who are prone to the suffering that they have, who sorrow and grieve even as the father does for his dead daughter. What are we to do when we endure these mortal pains? We’re encouraged to go to Jesus.
And this takes courage; faith requires courage, hence Jesus says to the woman, “Take heart” or in other translations, simply “Courage!”. The same Greek word, in fact, is used later on in St Matthew’s Gospel when there is a storm at sea and the apostles cry out in fear. Jesus appears to them, walking on the sea in the midst of the storm, and he says: “Take heart, courage, it is I; have no fear” (Mt 14:27). The storms of the human life are its trials and sufferings: illness, grief, death. These stir us up. But God is Lord of the storms, he is able to reach out in the midst of them, and he comes to us, calling out to us to go to him in faith and hope. And this takes courage.
The woman who is not allowed to come into the city had to overcome her fear of social conventions and customs, of public disapproval and even violence if she was caught, to approach Jesus. And even so, she reaches out to just touch the tassels of his garment from behind, not daring to be seen by others. But this is enough. She has done a very brave thing, risking further social exclusion and harm just to touch his garment. And the man who had rushed out to find Jesus when his daughter had died – he must have risked humiliation. For if the crowd laughed at Jesus, they would also have ridiculed the father of the dead girl. So, he too has done a brave thing, risking reputation and public esteem to go to Christ.
They go – perhaps because they’re desperate, but hope often springs from such conditions – and they go nevertheless because they have faith. And faith takes courage. Because with courage, the man and woman in the Gospel are able to manage their fears and so go to Jesus and ask for what they need: health, well-being; salus in Latin, which becomes also salvation.
Their faith and their courage thus gains for them salus – not just physical health and healing from Christ, but above all, salvation, eternal life in God. And this is promised us too if we keep faith with Christ. So, “Courage! Take heart!”, Jesus says to us too. As a cancer patient I read about said so pithily: “Those who go to Jesus Christ find in him a cure for death”.
- preached to the Lay Dominican Fraternity in Edinburgh
Today we speak, rather unusually, of St Thomas and mean, not our brother Aquinas, but the apostle who first brought the Faith to Syria and Persia and then India; to this day Keralan Christians, still happily flourishing, are also called ‘Thomas Christians’. The Church in Syria, too, has survived until now and until recently Syria had, reputedly, the only village to still speak the mother tongue of Christ, Aramaic. But, it seems, no longer. The ancient Christian community in Syria is struggling now for its survival, and in the persecuted Christian communities of the Middle East, the Body of Christ is bleeding, wounded and raw.
We can see, if we choose to look on the internet – or occasionally in the mainstream Media when they’re interested – the wounds in Christ’s Mystical Body, the “print of the nails” (cf Jn 20:25), so to speak, imprinted in Syria and Iraq, as well as the former lands of Persia. These lands, which St Thomas had once evangelized, and so, united to the Body of Christ, are now scarred by persecution.
As Dominicans, we have even more reason to know this pain and suffering because we have family, brothers and sisters in St Dominic, who are trying to live out their Dominican vocation in Syria, in Iraq; indeed, they are trying to survive. You who will make profession tonight as lay Dominicans, or even you who will become a candidate, a ‘novice’, are joined to them.
In the words of St Paul, “you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens” (Eph 2:19) – a fitting enough word, I suppose, given the oft-cited ‘democracy’ of our Order. But if you are no longer strangers, then ‘they’, those around the world who share your profession are no longer just ‘them’, either; not strangers any more but fellow Dominicans, brothers and sisters in St Dominic and, more fundamentally, in Christ. The blood that flows in our veins, as Christians, flows in theirs too: the precious blood of Christ. And Christ’s blood, now, doesn’t just flow but bleeds out from the wounds in his Body the Church, our Body.
The first challenge for us today, then, is to, as it were, see the wound in Christ’s side and put our finger in it (cf Jn 20:27). Many in our world, tired and perplexed, would turn their faces away, but we Dominicans must look and see the suffering of our brothers and sisters; must feel the pain and tragedy of the situation; and we need to be wounded by the injustice and outrage of what is happening to our fellow Christians – and not just in the Middle East but all over the world. As Pope Francis said recently, there are more martyrs and persecuted Christians in our day than at any other time in history. Only when we truly feel the enormity of what is happening can we be moved enough to act for justice and peace, both through socio-political action and through ardent prayer.
And because we pray and are a people of faith, we also believe that nothing is beyond our Lord and God’s power to save and raise up, even if from the grave. The situation in Syria and Iraq is grave, and we may well not see the way forward. But Jesus says: “Do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). At this time, then, we Christians are called to join with our persecuted brothers and sisters in a great act of faith and hope: to pray unfailingly. For we believe that although Christ died and was buried, he rose from the dead. For God did not allow the Body of Christ to suffer decay but he was raised to new life. Can not the same be said for Christ’s Mystical Body? God will also vindicate Christ’s Church in Persia, in Iraq, in Syria, and so on. Christ’s Mystical Body will rise from the dead, with the scars from the many wounds inflicted on her members in these places, but she will be, ultimately, victorious, forgiving, and bring peace.
For this is what the apostle St Thomas was a witness to. “Peace be with you”, the Risen Lord said (Jn 20:26). So, this was the Gospel that Thomas first preached in those lands: a Gospel of hope in the resurrection; a Gospel of peace through Christ’s saving death; a Gospel of the final triumph of divine love. May this Gospel sustain our brothers and sisters in faith and hope. May it move us Dominicans to action on their behalf, as a ‘holy preaching’ for the salvation of souls, and may St Thomas – both of them! – pray for us all.
It is by coincidence that today’s Gospel is being read on the eve of the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, but it is a most fitting preparation for this great feast. Because the celebration of the feast of the Sacred Heart actually has two elements: consecration and reparation. So, tomorrow we will hear of the depths of Christ’s love for all humanity, a sacrificial love that redeems us, and we are called to meditate on this saving love made visible in the Eucharist, and to consecrate ourselves to the Christ by acknowledging him as ‘Lord’.
And as today’s Gospel warns us, our consecration to Christ, our calling him ‘Lord’, cannot be just lip service. We need to do the Father’s will, which means that our heart will be transformed by grace until we, too, have a sacrificial heart of love like Christ’s. Because for Christ to do the Father’s will means that he freely offered himself on the Cross, in loving obedience to the Father’s will, for the sake of Mankind’s salvation. So, we are also called to offer our hearts, our lives, our whole will to God in obedience.
But how do we obey God and listen to the Father’s will? Only with Christ’s Church, only by listening to, seeking understanding, and, then, obeying her teachings for, as Pope Francis said yesterday, “to be Christians means belonging to the Church”, and so, we are committed to the faith and teaching of the Church in its entirety. As the Holy Father went on to say: “At times one hears someone say: “I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, but I don’t care about the Church…”. How many times have we heard this? And this is wrong. There are those who believe they can maintain a personal, direct and immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside the communion and the mediation of the Church. These are dangerous and harmful temptations. These are, as the great Paul VI said, absurd dichotomies.”
So, what we heard in today’s Gospel, from Christ himself can be related to what his Vicar on earth said yesterday. For there are those who call Jesus ‘Lord’, and claim to do great things in his name – even taking ‘prophetic’ stances – but, by setting themselves and their own teachings up against Christ’s Church, they risk having these words from Jesus said to them: “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Mt 7:23)!
Here, then, is a call to repentance which is a necessary part of consecration to the Sacred Heart. It is a call to genuine reform which is to open our hearts and minds to the fullness of the Christian and Catholic Faith, and to give it our full assent. The one who hears this call to repentance and heeds it, Jesus says, “will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Mt 7:28). It’s not accidental that this image alludes to St Peter who built the house of the Church upon the rock of Christ. So, we Catholics are likewise called to heed the wisdom of Peter and all his successors, to be receptive to “the truth revealed through Scripture and Tradition and articulated by the Church’s Magisterium” (cf Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the Bishops of England & Wales, 2010).
At the same time today’s Gospel can also refer to those of us who are priests and bishops, to the clergy who act in Christ’s name. We are being warned to practice what we preach, and to do the Father’s will faithfully and assiduously, to be close to Jesus and known to him through prayer and through a reverent attention to the sacred Liturgy; through love for the Eucharist. Thus, one of the key reasons for the feast of the Sacred Heart was to make reparation for the indifference and sins against the Eucharist of the clergy and religious especially, and then, more generally, to make reparation for the indifference and neglect of the Christian people towards the Eucharist.
It is this lukewarmness of the Christian heart that the Sacred Heart of Jesus, ablaze with love and mercy, seeks to inflame. May the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus have mercy on us all, and may he stir up in us the grace of repentance and conversion to love him more and more.
It’s midsummer which means, for us in Scotland, long days and beautiful drawn-out evenings, often accompanied by a spectacular celestial display as the sun sets. Last night, St John’s eve, was one such evening. However, as the longest day has come and gone, so we know that the days are already getting shorter and, up here in Scotland, darker. For this is what midsummer spells for us, and this, too, is what St John’s birthday heralds.
And this is fitting because it reminds us of St John’s words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). So, the advent of the holy Forerunner’s birth brings with it the decrease in the hours of daylight until we reach the winter solstice, until that time of year when we will celebrate the Saviour’s birth. The natural daylight decreases from the time of St John’s birth even as the supernatural light of grace increases until Christ, the light of the world, shines forth in the darkness and quiet of midwinter. Then, as the book of Wisdom says, “while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone”, that is, when we are half way through the night of winter, Thy all-powerful Word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne” (Wis 18:14f). So, today’s feast and the birth of the herald looks forward to that holy night when our Saviour is born.
Now, the thought of Christmas already in June might fill some of us with dread because of the worry of preparations and gift-buying, and so on. However, today’s feast reminds us of the only preparation that is truly necessary if we wish to celebrate Christ’s birth. Today’s second reading reminds us that “before [Christ’s] coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel” (Acts 13:24). So, we prepare for Christ’s coming through repentance, and it’s never too early or inopportune a moment for this.
For repentance, metanoia, is an on-going activity. It means, really, conversion, as I decrease so that Christ can increase in my life. Repentance means less and less of the sinful self that limits and restricts us so that we open our hearts and minds to make room for God’s possibilities and graced activity; so that Christ can be born in us, and his grace can flourish within us. We see this movement in Zechariah, for example, who has to repent of his doubt in the angel’s word, and so open his mind in faith to God’s loving plan of salvation, which is always greater than we can imagine. If we do so, trusting in God’s word and his plans for our good, then, what is said of St John the Baptist can also be said of us: “the child grew and became strong in Spirit” (Lk 1:80). For an on-going conversion to Christ means that we grow as God’s children, and become strong in grace until we are matured in Christ and transformed into his image; until we love and trust God our Father like he, the beloved Son, does. Then, even if our days grow darker and colder, we have the light of Christ and the warmth of God’s love.
This work of God’s transforming grace is thus heralded and preached by St John the Baptist. Thus he is given a new name: John, which means ‘God has been gracious’. And John’s mission of proclaiming God’s gracious activity will come to its climax when he points to Jesus Christ, to the One who is divine grace itself, and he says: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). With this proclamation, John’s mission will be completed, for as St Augustine says: “John is a voice [only] for a time, but Christ is the eternal Word from the beginning”. Then, the daylight will have decreased and faded for the true Light is come (cf Apoc 21:23).
Every day we hear stories of mounting violence and terror around the world, of grave evils done, particularly against Christians. The terrible story of Naboth who is falsely accused and stoned to death; his inheritance, a vineyard, taken from him is another tale of evil done. And yet, Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “Do not resist one who is evil” (Mt 5:39). How are we to make sense of this?
Our instinct, I think, is to defend ourselves against evil and to seek to prevent evil done. Recently, one of the offices in our chaplaincy was broken into so we have been seeking to secure the building more effectively. But does this mean that we are resisting evil? Does Jesus forbid self-defense and preventative measures against possible evils? One might come to such an erroneous conclusion if we read this teaching in isolation, which is why it is so dangerous to quote Scripture selectively. Rather, we need to read this teaching in its context.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus saying: “You have heard it said…” So, where have we heard it said “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Mt 5:38)? In the legal codes found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and also in the Code of Hammurabi and in Roman Law. Hence, in Jewish, pagan and Roman law, we have heard this said. This alerts us to the fact, then, that Jesus is addressing the legal practices of his time, and these laws regulated revenge and retaliation for damages suffered. If I am injured, how much compensation does the law allow me to sue for? This is the question being addressed by Christ, and the attitude underlying it is, in part, a desire for justice, but moreover a desire for vengeance and retaliation. And the law allowed this because it sought to limit the degree of vengeance one exacted, to make revenge proportionate. So, the law “an eye for an eye” was seen as an advance in public morality because it put an end, in theory, to an endless cycle of vengeance. In ancient China, by comparison, it was not unheard of for an entire clan to be wiped out for a single harm done.
But Jesus, the divine Lawgiver, comes among us, and in his Sermon on the Mount gives a new law for a new redeemed humanity. It is the law of Love, and the most perfect practitioner of this law is also the one who preaches it: Jesus Christ. Christ’s law of love seeks to put an end to the attitude that underlies the old law; an attitude that could be so destructive, and even consume the person who is wronged. Indeed, the rise of violence in our world in our time can be said to be due to this. This attitude is the human desire not just for justice or self-preservation but for vengeance, revenge and retaliation. And this sinful attitude is in all of us; deep down we want ‘them’ to pay and, at the very least, to suffer as we have suffered. So, St Jerome comments on Christ’s new law of love, saying that “Our Lord, by doing away all retaliation, cuts off the beginnings of sin”. Personal vengeance and vindictiveness, then, is stemmed by love. And this is Our Lord’s first concern, that we should not risk, even for the sake of justice or some other good, falling into sin.
However, we might still ask, is the evil-doer to be simply unchallenged and uncorrected, then? No. The answer is found in God’s response to the evil done to Naboth, which we’ll read tomorrow. But, if I may give away the story, God says to Ahab: “Behold, I will bring evil upon you” (1 Kgs 21:21). Hence, St Paul says: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Rom 12:19). For the Lord is just and will not allow evil and injustice to have the final word.
Rather, it is his Word, risen from the dead, who will vindicate the saints, judge and punish the evil-doers, and conquer evil. Indeed, St Thomas says that the exercise of divine justice is the “direct cause of the joy of the blessed” in heaven. However, this response, in which we wait for God’s justice to be done, calls for faith and hope. Thus Christ’s law schools us in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
People sometimes say that Jews, Muslims and Christians worship the same God. And there is some truth in this for we can all say: “I believe in one God”. However, this is not the complete truth. For the one God who we Christians worship and profess in the Creed, who is revealed to us by Jesus Christ, and who is expounded in Scripture and Tradition, is the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this truth, this great mystery matters. For truth matters, especially when it concerns the highest truths about God and our salvation. Hence the Church struggled and theologians argued for centuries to understand and express its meaning, and the difference it makes is of such import that it would set Christians apart from Judaism, and gave St John of Damascus cause to consider the emerging religion of Islam in the 7th-century to be a heresy. For there is a strict monotheism present in both Islam and Judaism that we Christians cannot profess as the full truth; something essential is lacking. So, from this point of view, we do not worship the same God. Rather, as the prayers of today’s Mass say, we profess “the true faith”, of God the “eternal holy Trinity and undivided Unity”.
In fact, you have probably already professed this truth several times today. Whenever we make the sign of the Cross we invoke the Holy Trinity. And at the same time, in tracing the Cross over ourselves we say that God saves us through the Cross of Jesus Christ. So, this one action, which we probably don’t consciously take much note of, says what matters most about the God we worship and about Mankind’s salvation. Indeed this action expresses what Jesus says in today’s Gospel: that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. (Jn 3:16).
St Paul, in today’s Second Reading, refers to the Triune God as “the God of love and peace” (2 Cor 13:11), and this can be related to the Gospel. For the Father is the God of love, who so loved us that he sent Jesus to reconcile sinful humanity to himself. The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer puts it like this: “When through disobedience [Mankind] had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death… And you so loved the world, Father most holy, that in the fullness of time, you sent your Only Begotten Son to be our Saviour”. The Son, then, is the God of peace, who puts an end to the disturbance and rebellion that is sin, and restores Mankind to peace and friendship with God. Indeed, Christ gives his Church his peace, which is freedom from sin and a share in his divine Sonship, union with God. In the Mass it is put this way: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you: look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity…”. But what about the Holy Spirit? He is present, I think, in this: St Paul says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12).
It’s the fiftieth and final day of the Easter season today but the Gospel takes us back to the first day, to the evening of Easter Sunday, when the Risen Christ first appeared to his apostles gathered together. So Christ comes to his Church and imparts his peace and mercy by giving the Holy Spirit, the grace of forgiveness for sins. Fifty days later, on Pentecost Sunday, the apostolic Church is gathered together again. Now, the Holy Spirit appears to the apostles, and gives to the Church the gift of tongues.
So, whereas on Easter Sunday, Christ the eternal Word breathes over the apostles, and gives the Holy Spirit, today on Pentecost Sunday, the Holy Spirit breathes over the apostles as they heard a sound “like the rush of a mighty wind” (Acts 2:2), and the Spirit gives them the eternal Word. Hence, as soon as the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, the Church catholic, in many different languages, begins to preach “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). For this is what the Church is for: she exists to communicate to all peoples what God has done.
What God has done, his mighty works – this is crucial. Because, very often it can seem that we Christians are here to do good works, to carry out works of social justice, of education, health care and so on. It is true that the Catholic Church is still the single largest charitable organization delivering humanitarian services and aid in the world, and all this good work, we must say, comes ultimately from God as we human beings co-operate with his grace and live out his commandments. As St Paul says: “there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” (1 Cor 12:6).
But, as we know all too well, the Church – or, really, the Christian people – often also fails to do good works. In fact, we Catholics have been complicit in some very bad works. This week’s news from the recent history of the Irish Church – at least, as the Press widely reported it – shocked and dismayed me, as I am sure it would have horrified you and so many other people too. And so, as we gather today for Pentecost, for this feast which is often called “the birthday of the Church”, some might wonder if we have much cause to celebrate. What do we, a Church of sinners, have to say to our world especially on Pentecost Sunday?
The long discourse from St John’s Gospel, which we’ve been listening to these past weeks of Eastertide, is a revelation of God the Son to his disciples during the Last Supper. In fact, it is the apostles, the pillars of his Church, to whom Christ is speaking, and he does so within the context of the Eucharist which is the heart and source of his Church. As such, Jesus is revealing to his holy Church what he will do for her. He says: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13).
Thus Christ promises that his Church will have the fullness of the revelation of the truth, that is to say, “everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God” (Dei Verbum, §8).
There is a tendency to think of Jesus like an absentee landlord who, after his Ascension, leaves the Church and her leaders to their own devices, to muddle along. But even if it is true that sinful human beings have often made a muddle of things, it is also true that Jesus promises his Church that he will send the Spirit to be with her, working with and through frail and fallible human instruments to teach Christ’s infallible truths concerning salvation. For as St Paul tells the men of Athens, the “times of ignorance” (Acts 17:30) have passed, and now God no longer wants us to just “feel after [God]” (Acts 17:27) but know God through the revelation that comes from Jesus Christ and his Mystical Body, the Church.
Hence in these days before the Ascension we hear again and again Jesus’ assurances that he will send “another Counselor” to his apostles, all of whom were such frightened, weak, and sinful men. Yet Jesus teaches us that the Spirit will faithfully “declare” to these apostles and their successors everything that comes from the Father and the Son (cf Jn 13f). Thus, through Christ’s Church, of which Christ is the Head and the Holy Spirit is her soul (see Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis, §57), all humanity until the end of time can be led into the complete truth.
As the Jesuit cardinal, Henri de Lubac, who had been a theological consultant at Vatican II said: “The Holy Spirit who guided the Apostle is the same who still guides the Church, and speaks by the voice of the modern popes. The path to which it commits us is the only safe one. To follow it is neither naïveté, nor syncretism, nor liberalism; it is simply Catholicism”.
But the path to which this commits us is also the path of faith. It requires that we believe Christ’s Word; that we trust Jesus’ promise that he will give the Spirit; that we have faith that God’s Spirit is actively and surely leading and guiding Christ’s Church into complete truth, despite our human failings. For we know that our God is always faithful even when we are unfaithful (cf 2 Tim 2:13). This is the God we know and worship – not an unknown god as the Athenians did – but One who we know is Risen from the dead, and who is with us now, here, in the Breaking of Bread.