The feast of Pentecost is considered the birthday of the Church, the day on which we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit and the infusion by that same Spirit of the apostles, thereby continuing the mission of Christ in the world. Last Sunday as we celebrated the feast of the ascension of the Lord we heard Christ promise: “I am with you always.” This Sunday, in the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the supernatural foundation of the Church at Pentecost, we see that promise fulfilled in the first moments of the Church’s life. Jesus stays with us, teaching, governing, and sanctifying us by his ongoing presence in the Church.
When we speak of the Church the first thing to come to mind is often its visible institutions. These are integral, even vital systems of the Church’s life, but they are only signs of life and not the life of the Church itself. The Church’s life is Jesus Christ. The Church, in fact, is Christ and Christ is the Church. This union, with the intimacy of spouses, is the reason that Saint Paul and others describe the Church as the bride of Christ, and why we speak of the Church as “she.” Just as a husband and wife are but one flesh, so also the union between Christ and the Church is profound and indissoluble; they are one and forever so. It is also for this reason that whenever we speak of the Church we are also speaking of Christ, and vice versa. Occasionally we hear this undermined when people speak of Church teaching as something distinct from what Jesus would do—“I know what the Church says, but is that really what Jesus would want?” This is a false distinction that at once undermines the authority of Christ and his Church, and (by extension) fails to recognise Christ’s divinity, reducing his teaching to that of a merely spiritual teacher. As Saint Joan of Arc, whose feast fell this week, tells us: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter” (CCC 795).
In other words, the presence of the Church in the world is the presence of Christ in the world, and our baptism—our incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church—joins us to that presence. Jesus Christ and the Church are one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter. Jesus Christ continues his presence in the world through the Church, and nor should we complicate that.
How does our knowledge of this truth affect us? How should it alter the way we live of our lives? Baptism, our rebirth into the life of Christ and (thus) the opening of our participation in the life of the Church, whilst a single event, is also the start of a process of initiation. The sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and the Most Holy Eucharist are, in this process, to be taken as a whole, and for this reason they are collectively called the sacraments of initiation. During the Easter season we have focussed on baptism, at Corpus Christi we will celebrate the gift of the Most Holy Eucharist in the First Holy Communion of 48 of our young parishioners. Today, on the feast of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we celebrate the gift of that Holy Spirit, which is given to us in a particular and unique way in the sacrament of confirmation. Confirmation is a moment for each of us to be renewed in our baptismal promises, and to be given new grace; strengthened to become soldiers for Christ, advancing his mission in the world as the Church; perpetuating his presence by being (as Saint Teresa of Avila has it) his hands, his feet, and his eyes.
As we celebrate this reality in today’s feast let us pray for a renewal of the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit first given us in confirmation—the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. At the same time may we pray for an increased awareness of these gifts already at work in our own lives, and in the lives of all those make up the Mystical Body of Christ. May the Holy Spirit descend powerfully on us once more today, and may the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes the Body of Christ present in our world, also be the true guide of the Church’s pastors and ministers, that Christ may be made known, and souls brought to that perfect union, not just in this world, but in the life of the world to come.