Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
May 20, 2001
Acts 15:1-2,22-29; Rev 21:10-14, 22-23; Jn 14:23-29
1) In the readings of today’s Mass, the Church begins the period of preparation for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. In preparation for Christmas, we have the four weeks of Advent. In preparation for Easter, we have the 40 days of Lent. In the 50 days of celebration for Easter, we generally spend the first five and a half weeks celebrating the greatest event ever, Christ’s resurrection from the dead; over the last two weeks of the Easter Season, however, we follow Christ’s directive to start praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit, into the Church, into our hearts, and into our whole lives.
2) The readings from today’s Mass get us to focus on one very important aspect of the Holy Spirit. This Thursday, Ascension Thursday, which is a holy day of obligation for Catholics, we’ll have the chance to focus on another. Next Sunday we’ll describe a third and finally on Pentecost we’ll bring all of them together. If we really want to experience the outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday, we should begin today taking his action in our lives and in the Church very seriously.
3) In today’s homily, I’d like to focus on one of the most important missions of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus describes in today’s Gospel, and then focus on what our reaction to it should be. Jesus says, “The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, whom the Father will send in my name, will instruct you in everything and remind you of all that I told you.” Jesus was our definitive teacher, he is the Word of the Father made Flesh, and yet he says that the Holy Spirit will instruct us in everything, guide us into all truth, and remind us of everything Jesus told us. This illustrates a very important truth of the faith. Jesus was not a micromanager of the Church. He didn’t give the apostles a handbook that would tell them what to do in every possible circumstance. Instead he gave them, by his words and by his actions and example, the principles that they would need to apply in all different types of circumstances, promising that he would send the Holy Spirit to help them remember his principles and lead them into all truth by helping them apply them to concrete circumstances.
4) We see this principle at work in today’s first reading taken from the Acts of the Apostles, detailing an event that occurred probably about 15 years after the Resurrection of Jesus and the birth of the Church on Pentecost. There was a huge dispute among Jewish and Gentile Christians about whether it was necessary, in order to be a good Christian, to be a good Jew first. In other words, whether it was necessary in order to be a faithful Christian, to keep all of the Mosaic law regarding circumcision, regarding all of the dietary laws, regarding the 613 commands of the Old Testament. Some so-called Christians, whom St. Paul called Judaizers, were saying that they had to, that an adult man would have to be circumcized, that they’d have to become Jews first in order to become Christians. Others, like St. Paul, were saying that the sacraments of Christ and faith in Christ was all that was needed, because Christ had fulfilled the whole law in his commandment to love God and neighbor with everything they had. So Paul and Barnabas, because they recognized there could only be One Truth — because there is only one God who is the source of that Truth — brought their case to the apostles in Rome. They knew for the sake of the Church and for the sake of the Truth there could only be one answer to this question. The apostles came together, debated the question, prayed, and finally came to the answer. Here’s what they said in their authoritative letter to the Church of Antioch — and it’s very important to note it carefully: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit, and ours too, not to lay on you any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary.” It is the decision of the Holy Spirit! Jesus had not given them explicit instructions how to settle such a dispute and what the conclusion should be. But he had given them the principles and told them to trust in the Holy Spirit to guide them to their proper application no matter what might come before them.
5) So the Holy Spirit led them to forbid only those things that would have been appalling to Jewish Christians, eating meat sacrificed to idols and of strangled animals, drinking animal blood, and from incestuous marriages and living with those who aren’t your spouses. It wasn’t as if the Holy Spirit was letting them off the hook. While they did not have to keep all of the other dietary prescriptions, etc. — in fact, neither did the Jewish converts any more — they still had to keep Christ’s command to love God with all of their mind, heart, soul and strength, and this, of course, was no easier for them than it is for us today.
6) And what was the reaction of the Christians in Antioch to this message from the Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We don’t find it in the passage that was read at today’s Mass, but we had it during one of the daily Masses this week, “Upon the arrival of the messengers in Antioch, they called the assembly together to deliver the letter. When it was read, there was great delight at the encouragement it gave.” There was great delight. Even though they were being asked to give up several things — which wouldn’t have been easy for them, like illicit sexual unions, etc. — they rejoiced at the message coming from the Holy Spirit.
7) Hence the reaction of the early Church to the action of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church into all truth provides us with an opportunity to examine what our reaction is to the continual action of the Holy Spirit in the Church doing just that. Do we believe that we’ve still got more to learn in the faith? That the Holy Spirit has anywhere to lead us? Or do we think we have all of the answers already, that the Holy Spirit has nothing left to say to us?
8 ) Many Catholics in our day don’t seem to pay much attention to the fact that the Holy Spirit continues to speak to the Church, continues to guide it. With many of the pressing issues of our day, what is the Holy Spirit saying? For example, we can look at in vitro fertilization and other genetic technologies. Jesus clearly didn’t condemn them explicitly, because the science didn’t exist 2000 years ago. But he clearly gave us the principles that the Holy Spirit eventually has helped us apply to say that all in vitro fertilization is wrong. All types of genetic engineering are wrong. But so many Catholics make no effort to find out these things. Same thing with vasectomies or contraceptive hysterectomies. If we were taking Jesus’ promise seriously, we’d be trying to stay up to date with the teachings of the Church. Priests can’t discuss them all in a typical homily.
9) Moreover, do we rejoice, like the first Christians, when we hear such a pronouncement of the Church? Many Catholics at universities, as soon as the Pope says something they don’t like, or that forces them to have to practice their faith, start to criticize the Pope for not respecting their freedom of speech, etc., whereas they’re trying to censor his ability to teach authoritatively in the name of God. Many resent the moral law. Many seem to think the teachings of the Church are just a bunch of man-made rules that they don’t have to follow. There was a study in 1999 when Pope John Paul II went to St. Louis that listed on the one-hand what the Catholic Church teaches and what the majority of US Catholics hold. There was a great difference. That’s not the phenomenon we’d expect if people thought they were hearing the Holy Spirit.
10) The truth is that the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Church is a great gift to allow us to trust the teaching of the Church in all circumstances, because it’s not just the decisions of some men, who might be holy, but the decision of the Holy Spirit. Jesus not only promised that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church into all truth but promised that, if those God has chosen to shepherd his Church here on earth, didn’t listen to him or heard him badly, God would prevent them from erring in matters relative to our salvation. That’s what the teaching of infallibility is all about.
11) So today let us ask ourselves honestly how much we rejoice in this gift and how much we try to hear the Holy Spirit’s voice speaking through the Church. That Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth and who will remind us of everything Christ told us, is at work in this Mass, calling us to remember what the Lord called us to do in his name. We’ll pray during this Eucharist for the Holy Spirit to overshadow the gifts of bread and wine and turn them into the body and blood of Christ and then, as we pray, make us one body in Christ.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love!