Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
It’s Pentecost this Sunday, the birthday of the Church, therefore our birthday! If you’ve missed someone’s birthday throughout the past year, this is a good time to make up and reconnect. A few pointers might help us understand this better and how important Pentecost is for us all.

First, it may be surprising to some Catholics to think we are the Church. Isn’t “the Church” that place over there in the Vatican? Aren’t its members those who are in hierarchical positions? Vatican II preferred to speak of “the Church” as the People of God rather than in terms of rank and position. What constitutes a person as a member of the Church is Baptism. This is clearly stated in Canon Law and is scripturally rooted in the Great Commission by which every member is asked to spread the Good News (Gospel), baptizing those who hear it and assent to it. 

Second, it was on Pentecost that the Holy Spirit descended and was sent into the lives of all believers, sanctifying them and imparting many diverse gifts to build up the Body of Christ, which the Church is. St. Paul is particularly fond of this image of the Church as Christ’s body. His descriptions can be quite graphic, as we heard last Sunday, especially as he makes the point that each one of us is a part of that body and, therefore, has a role to play. He wants us not to shy away by thinking we are unworthy, any more than certain parts of the human body, while less presentable, are no less essential to the body’s health, fulfillment and identity.

Third, since all members are part of the Body of Christ and since Christ is holy, then each, sanctified through Baptism and empowered by the Holy Spirit, has a vocation to be holy. One of the most common errors — I won’t quite call it a heresy, but it’s close — is for some members of Christ’s body to think they are less worthy of participating in the life of the Church because they are not ordained or do not have the advantage of a theological education. Not all saints are canonized, nor are their lives written of in the lives of the saints. Yet even if one should read of the famous ones, there are loads of examples of saints who were not particularly distinguished by their learning, preaching or teaching skills. Stories abound of saints who lived very simple, often obscure lives, some never moving far from the village in which they were born, such as the Curé of Ars and Thérèse di Lisieux (the Little Flower). Some were quite sinful, vain or materialistic in their earlier days, including St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. One cannot credibly use one’s “past” as an excuse for excluding themselves from the universal call to sanctity. God wants everyone in heaven!

Fourth, it is no excuse either to say, “I just don’t fit in.” Yes, I know, we all can probably come up with a story of feeling unwelcome, excluded or even bullied by someone with whom we had a bad experience in the Church. This is a great scandal. By that I mean “scandal” in the most literal sense of the Greek word: stumbling block. Some have had encounters that left the most searing scars, memories that often well up like those who have been traumatized in battles, physical and emotional, and that lead to symptoms very much like PTSD. For healing to come there must be justice and for justice there must be truth. We cannot deny those who have been so wounded the accompaniment that they deserve, whatever may be the extent of our individual responsibility. We are all members of the same body and when we look to bring about healing to those so wounded, we need to see them not as outsiders, but as members of Christ, as we all are by Baptism. We must help all survivors find a place in the Body of Christ, if they so choose, and with respect to the time and degree to which they may be willing or able.

Fifth, since it is often close to impossible to figure out how we all can fit in, with so many different talents and abilities, desires and aspirations — and deficiencies — we can easily become discouraged as we strive to work together in a harmonious or non-chaotic way. This is exactly why we rely on the Holy Spirit! In fact, it is precisely the role of the Holy Spirit to be the spiritual glue that binds us together. There is sound theological basis for this. The Holy Spirit is the Love between the Father and Son, the eternal emanation of that love bond so strong that it forever generates this Person who is Love itself. Hence, the Holy Spirit is the Master of relationships! If one is seeking to start, strengthen, grow or mend a relationship, go to the Holy Spirit! How much more stable a friendship, a marriage, a family, a community can become when prayer to the Holy Spirit and trust in the indwelling grace the Holy Spirit brings is at the heart of it all.

Sixth, everyone can find their true identity through the action of the Holy Spirit. Just as the inner dynamism of the Most Holy Trinity is the interplay among three divine persons, with none losing their personal identity, yet so one that none are separable in dignity or divinity, so the Holy Spirit will teach and enable us to reach our full potential as persons, without losing our identity, yet without becoming disconnected from the whole Body of Christ. This is a great mystery, but it helps us live and express our unity without need for lockstep uniformity. As a historical and practical example, the Church has, over centuries, expressed its liturgical worship in varying forms, in different languages, with different rites and rituals evolving in the course of time. These have produced a great cultural richness as anyone can experience, even today, within almost any diocese. I was privileged recently to participate at a Mass celebrated in Arabic, with colorful music and many young families, in Haifa (Church of St. Joseph) on Palm Sunday.

Seventh, Pentecost is, above all, a moment in which the Church affirms its apostolic courage to go into the world without fear and to proclaim the joy of the Gospel. Prior to the first Pentecost, the Apostles and other disciples of Christ were very intimidated and racked with fear in the face of the traumatic experience of the crucifixion. Even reports of witnesses to the Resurrection fell on deaf or skeptical ears. Come Pentecost Sunday, they were jumping in the streets for joy, enough to speak in tongues and go to the four corners of the earth to tell the message of universal salvation. The same Peter who hid and denied his master the night before he died went on to be crucified — upside down! — and to lead the Church onto a remarkable path that would change the world. And the Church is young. We have only just begun.

I suppose seven is a good enough number to pause on — seven being a numerical symbol of perfection in the Semitic mind — and recalling that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are enumerated as seven: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. I hope you enjoyed this little catechesis. By no means does it exhaust the richness of what the Holy Spirit brings to the Church and to each of us personally. In closing, you might want to imagine that what the Apostles experienced as a flame hovering over their heads, is the same fire that will inflame hearts and set the world on fire as we accompany one another as disciples of Christ in a world he loves so much. So happy birthday and keep the candles burning!