The Holy Spirit: Fire of Divine Mercy, Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, New York, NY
Pentecost Sunday 2016
Extraordinary Form of the Roman Missal
May 15, 2016
Acts 2:1-11, Jn 14:23-31


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following text guided today’s homily: 

Today’s Solemnity of Pentecost is unique in the annals of Church history. It’s the first ever to take place during an ecclesiastical holy year dedicated to the Mercy of God. Therefore it’s not just fitting but almost obligatory for us today to focus on and celebrate the Holy Spirit’s Mission of Mercy and to ask ourselves how docile we are to that great divine gift.

St. Paul begged the early Christians not to “quench” or “grieve” the Spirit of God (1 Thess 5:19, Eph 4:30). He wanted them — and us —to give the Spirit full reign, by allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us the same moral miracles he worked in the apostles and members of the early Church. Four times in the Gospel of St. John, including in the Gospel we just heard, Jesus says that he and the Father will send us “another Advocate” (Jn 14:16, Jn 14:26, Jn 15:26, Jn 16:7), the Greek word “Paraclete,” which is the term the ancient Greeks used to refer to a criminal defense attorney, somebody who would plead our case before the judge, someone who would try to prove us innocent if we were faultless or lessen our sentence if we were guilty. The Advocate sent to us by God the Father and the Son does a service for us far greater than those two activities: he seeks to wipe away the guilt from all our sins and help us to reform our lives to be so blameless that we will never fear going before any just judge in this world or the next. But just like some fools ignore the counsel of their expert attorneys or try to defend themselves, we need to ask ourselves on a spiritual level whether we take the counsel and follow the direction of this great Public Defender of all time?

Many times we can have a fanciful or limited understanding of the Holy Spirit and his work. Even though we received him in the Sacrament of Baptism and was sealed and strengthened by him in the Sacrament of Confirmation, for many of us he remains a stranger in both senses of the term: foreign to our daily life and a little weird. We can picture him basically as a strange white bird, or mysterious descending flame, or howling wind. We can treat him as a lesser known nobody included in a Trinitarian package deal with God the Father and God the Son. We can relate to him not as the greatest, most friendly, and most committed lawyer anyone has ever had but as “the Great Unknown,” as St. Josemaria Escriva called him, or “the most neglected member of the Blessed Trinity,” as Pope Benedict XVI did.

Today is a day in which that ought to change.

There are many ways to summarize and synthesize the Holy Spirit’s work. The clearest and most traditional is the work of making us saints, forming us to be as holy as the Lord our God is holy. We pray to Him during the Offertory, “Veni, Sanctificator, omnipotens aeterne Deus,” “Come, O Sanctifier, eternal and all powerful God,” and he seeks not only to bless and transform gifts of bread and wine into Jesus’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, but to bless and transform us more and more into God’s holy likeness. But that work of sanctification starts with God’s mercy, which is another way to understand the entirety of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying mission. In the formula of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, the Church repeatedly reminds us, in what are among the most consoling words human ears can ever hear: “God the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.” The Holy Spirit has been sent among us by God the Father and God the Son so that your sins and my sins may be forgiven. He is the purifying Fire of Divine Mercy, sent to communicate to us the full power of Jesus’ triumph over sin and the death to which sin leads us in this world and forever.

This is something Jesus himself stressed on the evening of the day on which he rose from the dead. He startled the apostles by appearing to them in the Upper Room, twice wished them peace, and then imparted to them the means by which they would be able to take his definite peace to the world. “Just as the Father sent me,” he told them, “so I send you,” and we know that the Father sent him as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world; he was sending them with that same mission. But since only God can forgive sins against God, if they were going to be Jesus’ instruments to take sins away, they needed to receive divine power. So Jesus breathed on them — a gesture imparting the divine “ruah” or breath signifying the third Person of the Trinity — and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” instructing them, “Whose sins you are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:21-23). The Holy Spirit is the one who makes the apostles capable of giving the Mercy God the Father sent God the Son to accomplish for us on Calvary. The Holy Spirit is the one who prepares us likewise to receive that mercy he wants to impart.

We can view everything the Holy Spirit does as a work of mercy.

  • On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down as tongues of fire on the members of the Church precisely to help them — and later us us — ardently “preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins… to all the nations” (Lk 24:47).
  • The Holy Spirit also helps us to learn how to pray, coming, as St. Paul says, “to the aid of our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us” (Rom 8:26). The Holy Spirit helps us in all our prayer, but we can focus in this Merciful Jubilee on how he helps us in the form of prayer the Catechism calls the prayer of contrition. The Holy Spirit helps us to pray for God’s mercy this, first, by helping us to examine our conscience in the light of God, by reminding us of all that Jesus taught us (Jn 14:26), leading us into all the truth (Jn 16:13), and convicting us about “sin and righteousness and condemnation,” (Jn 16:8). These lights all open us up to the various ways we need God’s mercy. But more profoundly the Holy Spirit helps us to pray for mercy not by putting words on our lips but by changing who we are as we pray, helping us to cry out “Abba, Father!” (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6), as true sons and daughters of God. All sin can be summarized as treating the relationship with God the Father as lifeless: Jesus describes this as the root of sin in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when the younger son anticipates his Father’s death by asking immediately for the inheritance that would pass to him at the Father’s demise (Lk 15:12). The Holy Spirit helps our relationship with the Father to come alive, helps us come to our senses and make the journey home, helps us to trust in the Father’s goodness, love and mercy.
  • The Holy Spirit, thirdly, assists us to live consistently with God’s mercy as a true “Temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). He strengthens us to put to death what St. Paul calls “life according to the flesh” so that we might live to the full the Christian “life according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4-12; Gal 5:16-25). Through his seven fold gift, he gives us the reverence we ought to have for God and his love in all things, the fear that we should have of ever displeasing one we love that much, the wisdom to know the difference between right and wrong, the knowledge of God’s truth and calling, the understanding necessary to apply the light of God’s teaching to our lives, the prudence to order our choices to God and his kingdom, and the courage to confess our sins, leave our old life behind and boldly follow Jesus with all our mind, heart, soul and strength.

In all of these ways, the Holy Spirit acts as our Advocate, seeking to bring us God’s mercy, and helping us order our entire life in accordance with it.

One very helpful and beautiful way to ponder the Paraclete’s work of mercy is with the help of today’s famous Sequence, the theological depth of which grows on me year by year. In the Veni, Sancte Spiritus that we sang before the Gospel, we turned to the Holy Spirit under the merciful titles of “father of the poor,” “giver of gifts,” the “greatest consoler,” and invoked him as the one who brings us to rest in God in the midst of work, refreshment when feverish, solace when we’re mourning. We begged him to fill our hearts with his most blessed light so that we might grasp that without God’s mercy, there’s nothing good or non poisonous in us, but with God’s mercy all things are possible. And then we asked him to do six things for us, six different actions of mercy, which in turn can be six things he wants to do through, with and in us to bring God’s mercy to the world:

  • Lava quod est sordidum — “Cleanse in us that which is filthy,” so that we might in turn go out to wash the feet of an increasingly unclean world.
  • Riga quod est aridum — “Drench in us what is dry,” so that we might take the living water of God’s mercy out to those living in the spiritual desert and have them experience the Holy Spirit as a “river of living water … within” (Jn 7:38).
  • Sana quod est saucium — “Heal what is wounded,” so that we can go out as the nurses of the field hospital that is the Church to bring people to the Divine Physician so that he can cure their souls just as he has cured ours.
  • Flecte quod est rigidum — “Bend in us what is rigid,” so that we can go out to help others become truly docile to God’s work, and respond not with hardened but good soil to the seeds of the Word.
  • Fove quod est frigidum — “Ignite in us what is frozen” so that we might go out with tongues and hearts on fire to melt the coldness and indifference of so many in the world.
  • Rege quod est devium — “Correct what in us is misguided,” so that we might go out to help accompany all the lost sheep to the Good Shepherd who is the Way, Truth and Life, and journey with them on the narrow way that leads to life.

The Holy Spirit wants to work in us all of these acts of mercy — to wash, drench, heal, bend, warm and guide — and then wants to send and accompany us outward so that through us he may carry out these six complementary works of sanctification in all. Today he wants to advance that work so that this Pentecost during the Jubilee of Mercy will be not only liturgically unlike any other in Church history but personally different and more significant for each of us that any Pentecost up until now.

And that work takes place most at Mass. When the priest is incensed during the Offertory he says a beautiful prayer that is particularly relevant for us today. He prays, “Accendat in nobis Dominus ignem sui amoris et flammam aeternae caritatis.” “Ignite in us, O Lord” — notice that he’s praying not just for himself but for everyone present — “the fire of your love and the flame of eternal charity.” In response to that prayer, during the Mass, God the Father and the Son send us the Holy Spirit as that loving fire and eternally charitable flame. The Holy Spirit comes to fill the hearts of the faithful and enkindle in us the fire of his love. The Eucharist, as Pope Benedict XVI said in 2008, “is a ‘perpetual Pentecost’ since every time we celebrate Mass we receive the Holy Spirit who unites us more deeply with Christ and transforms us into Him.” When we in the epiclesis call down the Holy Spirit — “Veni, Sanctificator!” — he comes and carries out that work of sanctification, transforming us the Mystical Body of Jesus whom we prepare to receive. To say, “Come, Holy Spirit!” means that we want him to do this work. To say, “Veni, Sanctificator,” “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” is to give him our permission and full cooperation. Today, on this Pentecost of Pentecosts, within this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, we beg God the Father and God the Son to send the Holy Spirit to fill us with the fire of his merciful love, a fire that is meant to spread to all parts of our life, our existence may become like an inextinguishable burning bush that lights with the light and warmth of divine love the lives of our family members, friends, coworkers and fellow students, indeed the whole world. Today is the answer to our prayers and the long vigil prayers of the Church in the Upper Room throughout the centuries down to our own time, in which we’ve begged, “Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth” (Ps 104:30). The Holy Spirit, the Fire of God’s Mercy, the Sanctifier, the Advocate, has come today, here at Mass, to begin that renewal one-by-one as a tongue of fire that becomes a Mystical Body filled with the fire of divine love and the flame of eternal charity.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

The continuation of the Holy Gospel according to St. John
Jesus answered and said to him, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me. “I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe. I will no longer speak much with you, for the ruler of the world is coming. He has no power over me, but the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded me.