Dear friends, those here and those scattered in our global Church, may the Lord give us peace.
We gather on this Pentecost Sunday as we move into another phase of our pandemic, and also at a time of great social unrest. The pandemic itself and the consequences of our sequestration have now been added to the injustices in our society that anxious times reveal for all to see. Perhaps it is an appropriate time to utter the prayer we know so well: “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, en-kindle in them the fire of your love, and renew the face of the earth.”
This morning I would like to reflect on this feast of the Holy Spirit in the light of the difficulties our society is undergoing. It is time to ask the question: Since March 16th and our stay at home mandates, have we learned anything more about how God might be present in our world? For myself, three images in honor of the work of the Holy Spirit come to mind. The first is a story of one of our Franciscan friars, the second and third are two images from our experience of the pandemic. God is always present to us, if we look.
A Friar Story: The strength of the Spirit bestows the gift of perseverance.
I have always remembered with great admiration the life of one of our friars who had entered the Franciscan Order to become a Chinese missionary. This goal was the horizon of his world. It was a dream broken to bits when Mao defeated the nationalist troops of China after World War II. Instead, our friar was sent in the mid-1950s to a remote mission among the Apache Indians in northern Arizona. A rugged assignment awaited him; it was a world filled with poverty and historic injustices. At first the Apache people had such a hard time accepting the fact that he would come to live among them and remain. They had experienced a host of missionaries who simply could not stay. “How long will you remain?” they kept asking. “These beautiful people,” he told me, “are by their nature, their culture, their language, their history, distant from our world and suspicious of what we have done to them. I had never ever imagined the situation in which I found myself. For several years, I said daily and Sunday mass there; only a few people attended; as I waited outside the door, the few people paraded by without saying a thing. I was so lonely and poor, orphaned really in the middle of nowhere, grieving for a world that I had always known. I began to wonder if my work and labor made any difference at all. I started a school; the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament saved me. And then, one day, I walked outside the little chapel, and one of the elders spoke; after five years, he was the first Apache parishioner to say hello to me. “Father, we have determined that you are here to stay. Thank you for coming.”” I asked Father Bart how he managed this journey. His answer was simple. “The Holy Spirit. I knew the Holy Spirit was with me, and I prayed to the Holy Spirit every day.” Thirty years later, this friar was made an honorary chief in the tribe—a remarkable grace of perseverance followed by an equally remarkable gift of permanent belonging.
Two images from our experience of the pandemic.
The Gift of the Spirit leads us into communion with others.
I met someone on the street the other day; he said he loved the mass celebrated in the cathedral in Boston: “My wife and I go there every Sunday. She loves the music.” I talked with someone else here in California who is grateful to attend virtual Eucharist in his native tongue of Korean. A third person spoke to me about the pope’s celebrations in Rome. Every Sunday we have worshiped together with people we cannot see; and we take into this worship our real concerns for isolated family members we cannot touch, friends we cannot visit, suffering people to whom we cannot minister, unknown people with whom we share our fears and faith.
The experience of the pandemic has revealed to us that the community of our Church—its Pentecost birthday is today– is not only a building where we worship but also a vast network of people tied together by invisibly threaded connectors of belief, empathy, prayers, and presence. It is a community unfortunately at these times without visible priests or people but still gathered together in the invisible priesthood of the risen Christ. “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all things to myself.” (Jn 12.32, 3.14-15) Our community of the Church embraces in its heart and in its prayer the four corners of the world, global communities of people, all of whom speak different languages. (AA. 2.1-11) This experience of our response to the pandemic illuminates as does light in the darkness the reality of a God-created communion-in-the-Spirit. This communion is as strong and as deep as the bonds of love that unite us to family members we cannot touch. It is as tangible as the invisible presence in our hearts of all our loved ones who have passed away; as profound and as real, even if not as unique, as the presence in the transformed bread and wine we cannot now receive; as universal and as particular as the bonds of creature-hood that join us to everyone in the world. In this experience, in a world dominated by the visible, and now torn by injustice and civil strife, is not God teaching us something about the actions present in the now visible invisibility of the Holy Spirit? Is not this a revelation of a horizon of the Spirit to which we need give witness in a world focused only on that which can be measured, consumed, and individually possessed?
The Gift of the Spirit is the breath of life.
As we break our sequestration, we have been asked to mask ourselves when we walk outside, visit our neighbors, go to the store. We cover our mouth and nose lest we unknowingly breathe disease upon each other, lest we receive from others a breath mixed with a deadly virus. We are begged by our neighbors and our leaders not to reject this sign of our human solidarity in vulnerability. It is solidarity we should not break.
In the midst of this facial isolation, let us remember in our hearts and in our actions today’s Gospel. In the scene before us, God’s face in Jesus, now unveiled, appears in all its glory. Seeing our human weakness, he forgives us face to face; he breathes on us saying the wonderful words: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” His breath, is invisible to the eye; but it is taken in
by the lungs so as to nourish the heart and it has no trace of a virus: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” (Wis. 1.13) The breath of God fills the air on which all people depend with truth, mercy, goodness, forgiveness, gentleness, patience, justice, and mission. St. Paul also tells us in the second reading: this Spirit joins every baptized creature of God into a single body; this Spirit bestows on each person a gift-to-be-shared with others. (I Cor. 12.3-7). And most wonderful of all, this Spirit from the breath of the Lord will bring the very presence of God into the dwelling place of our hearts (14.24, Rom. 5.5); over time this Spirit will lead those often sequestered hearts openly to embrace our suffering neighbors. When we live in the Spirit, even though we are masked, we give life to others.
Strengthened and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, my brother Bart endured the world he was given. Living in the Spirit he found over time communion with the Apaches, and they with him. Our own experience of Covid-19 has helped reveal to us a new normal of the sheer beauty and wonder of the permanent face of God turned towards us, dwelling within and all around us. “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, en-kindle in them the fire of your love, and renew the face of the earth.”
Joseph P. Chinnici, OFM
Franciscan School of Theology at the University of San Diego