As much due to the emerging influence of evangelical Protestantism as western society’s incapacity or unwillingness to stomach the language of the Christian religion, the Holy Spirit has, in recent times, been dealt a rather poor hand. We hear people speak of being “spiritual, but not religious”; of being “moved by the Spirit” to sit lightly (at best) and ignore (at worst) core teachings of the faith. We have even seen attempts in some quarters to label the Holy Spirit as some sort of feminine goddess (because, you see, the Hebrew noun Ruarch is feminine, even if the Latin Spiritus is masculine), as if the past two thousand years of Church history – littered as it is with the most spectacular examples of women saints – martyrs, virgins, and doctors of the Church – somehow sought to eradicate the fairer sex altogether from our collective memory.
What we come to understand on this great feast of Pentecost, however, is how misguided these contemporary trends can be. To speak, for example, of being “spiritual, but not religious” is to miss entirely the point, that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, of which we heard in the epistle from the Acts of the Apostles, was a profoundly religious, profoundly ecclesial moment. We speak of Pentecost as, in some sense, the birthday of the Church, because it is in that descent of God’s power that the apostles, given their mandate by the Lord – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28: 19) – are given the means to fulfill that task. The empowerment which those first apostles received in the Holy Spirit was to act in the name of Christ and his Church, proclaiming and promoting the faith they received, a faith that remains unchanged to this day, and will remain unchanged – because it is unchangeable – until the end of time.
To be “spiritual, but not religious” or to “want Christ but not the Church”, then, is somehow to ignore that life-changing Spirit which comes to us from the Father and the Son, and to listen rather to one’s emotions or feelings, centering one’s life not on God and his will, but ourselves and our will: setting up our very own Golden Calf of self-importance.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, on this great feast of the Holy Spirit, let us be clear that this way can lead only to unhappiness and un-fulfillment, because it is a path limited by our capacity to love in a merely finite way! Only God offers us the opportunity to open our hearts infinitely, expanding them to fill us to the brim – and then some – with the lavish sevenfold gifts of his Holy Spirit! That is why we pray, in that beautiful Pentecost sequence, Flecte quod est rigidum, fove quod set frigidum, rege quod est devium – bend what is rigid, melt what is frigid, rule what is deviant. May our hearts be open to God alone, then, and may he inebriate us with the outpouring of his love!
Secondly, when we hear talk of being “moved by the Spirit”, it is in that essential ecclesial way – that apostolic element of which we have just spoken – that we must root what we believe. In the life of the Church, and most especially when we come to the Eucharistic sacrifice in the liturgy of the Mass, those who are incorporated into Christ through baptism are, by that, caught up in the life of the Most Blessed Trinity. And in that, it is the Holy Spirit that gives wind-like motion to our part in that Trinitarian relationship. This is why we pray, most especially in the Canon of the Mass, to God the Father, in God the Son, through God the Holy Spirit. Thus, the authentic action of the Holy Spirit can only ever lead us more deeply into the life of the Trinity, and thus more deeply into the life of the Church: more fully towards the Father and more closely united to the Son.
And if this is true, and if the Holy Spirit can be found in any so-called “winds of change”, then it is a change that can only exist through a radical conversion of our hearts and lives to Christ and the way of life he demands and desires of us. Such winds cannot blow us off that course – and if they do they are false – nor are they a gentle breeze coaxing us toward mediocrity, but rather the rushing winds that come before a storm, preparing us, bracing us for the whirlwind that results from giving ourselves over entirely, in reckless abandon, to the will of God. If we discern the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, if we perceive God working in the institutional Church or the world, it can only ever be to bring us more deeply into the communion of the Blessed Trinity, and thus into closer union with the Church of Christ. As Pope Benedict XVI so beautifully put it, “The Holy Spirit is the one who makes us recognize the Lord in Christ and prompts us to speak the profession of the Church’s faith […] The Creed of the Church is nothing other than the development of what we say with this simple affirmation: “Jesus is Lord”. […] If we want to be in the Spirit, we must adhere to this Creed. By making it our own, by accepting it as our word we gain access to the work of the Holy Spirit”.
How, then, can we make this outpouring of the Holy Spirit a reality in our lives?
For those who live in the communion of the Church, and who rejoice already in the paschal sacraments of baptism and confirmation, it is particularly through the sacrament of penance, of confession, that we come to experience anew, in a very real and life-giving way, the breath of the Holy Spirit who ‘moved over the face of the earth’ in creation at the beginning of time, and comes now to ‘renew the face of the earth’ in our own (Gen. 1: 2; Ps. 103). It is in the confessional that we are renewed, and brought out from darkness and death to the light and life of Christ that is printed indelibly on our souls in the waters of the font. We can truly say that the confessional is our cenacle! The confessional is the place where Pentecost happens for us anew, renewing God’s creation by bathing us in his mercy and his love! The confessional is the place where we receive a fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit, and are brought back from our wayward human existence into the divine relationship of the Most Blessed Trinity.
Although this great feast of Pentecost marks the end of the paschal celebrations, we nevertheless continue to live in the light of Easter, rejoicing that the resurrection life of Christ is not a gift for a season, but an ongoing covenant in God’s love, for all eternity. May the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which we invoke in this and every Mass be for us a moment of true renewal and rejuvenation in that life of Christ. And may we experience – regularly and frequently in the gift of the confessional – that “blessed unction from above”, which is nothing less than the saving balm of God himself, and so be healed from all our iniquities and faults, and live forever in his mercy and peace.