Permit me to begin by thanking so many for their prayers for me these last weeks since my mini-stroke. I am truly appreciative and now from experience encourage that when the signs of stroke are present seek out medical attention. It saves lives.
I also ask for your prayers as the bishops of the United States gather in Baltimore this week and seek to better address the horror of child sexual abuse and better accountability of bishops. Once again I apologize for our failings over the years and encourage victims to come forward to law enforcement and to the diocese so that pastoral support might be offered.
“Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth.” That is our psalm response on this the Solemnity of Pentecost. This feast celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles is often called the birthday of the Church. Our Lord ascended to the Father and instituted the Church to carry on his mission guided by the Holy Spirit until he comes again.
It is hard for us to envision the Holy Spirit. The dove, wind and bursts of fire are often used to reflect the presence of the Holy Spirit as sacred scripture inadequately does. Historically in some churches rose petals were dropped through the roof into the church to symbolize the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles. Those inside gathered up the petals and threw them into the air in celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. .
There are peonies aplenty planted around the Cathedral campus. The peony has been called the Pentecost rose. I suspect that is because its petals tend to blow all over the place with a strong South Dakota wind. There is no adequate way to describe the Holy Spirit nor do we need to but His presence is real and lasting.
Therefore on this feast day it is important for us to reflect on the significance of Pentecost. The brief Gospel reading details that special moment in the Upper Room when the resurrected Lord appeared and breathed the Spirit on those gathered there. This moment is worthy of our reflection not just an historic event, but for its practical meaning. First it declares the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah as the prophets had foretold to come to save us from our sins and to give new life. Secondly by showing his wounds, the marks of the cross, Our Lord makes clear that his passion and death were necessary for the Father’s plan to allow His love to come and remain in a new way, in the Spirit. And finally by the commissioning of the Apostles with power through the Holy Spirit, the possibility of our sins being forgiven today through the Church is made certain if we own up to them.
Clearly the Apostles who had hovered in fear and wonderment in the Upper Room were changed when the Spirit was breathed upon them. As a result they accepted their new mission to share the Good News with joy. It is more subtle for us.
St. Paul in the reading from the Corinthians reminds us that we are all differently gifted but we are also one in the Spirit. He was writing to reassure and encourage unity to a community, not unlike our own, arguing among itself as to who was the most gifted, who had the greatest stature, who was number one. In response he compared the church to the human body with its many parts. Each has its own yet essential function. The body would not be whole without each unique part, and each part would not be effective without all the rest. And so it is with the Church.
Our gifts are different, so our task in Christ’s Church will differ as well. Some are called to a specific vocation like the priesthood. Pray for Deacon Michael Kapperman and Father Timothy Cone ordained last past week. Others are called to the different but equally meaningful and important vocations of married life, single life and religious life. Within each of these there are differing ways of living for Christ guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The artist Whistler, known for his portrait of his mother, was a student at West Point. His father had been a career officer. The story is told that he was assigned in engineering class to draw a bridge. He drew a river with grassy banks and a beautiful stone bridge with two small children fishing from it. “Get those children off that bridge,” he was told. “This is an engineering project.” Whistler redrew the bridge, this time with the children fishing from the bank of the river. “I told you to get rid of those children, completely out. That’s an order.” The creative urge was too strong for the artist. His next version did have the children completely out of the picture. There on the river bank were two small tombstones. A military career was not his but he discovered his limits and his unique gifts, and created an icon to motherhood, the portrait of Whistler’s mother.
Some of you old folks like me may recall the great football player for Michigan named Tommy Harmon, whose son is the actor Mark Harmon of NCIS fame. He was piloting a bomber over a jungle in Brazil during World War II. He and three companions were forced to bail out. He landed safely in a tree but did not know where he was. With the help of a compass he struggled eastward in the direction of the sea through a jungle filled with twisted vines, snakes and swamps. Finally he spotted a path and followed it to a hut where a local showed him the way out. When asked how he survived when others had not, he said, “The Holy Spirit dwells in my soul. He was given to me when the bishop confirmed me. I kept praying to the Holy Spirit to lead me. I also prayed the rosary. I must have said a million Hail Mary’s. I was sure that the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Mother would lead me back to safety.” In this day of difficult challenges, dangers and doubts, direct and subtle, we can pray to the Holy Spirit and to the Blessed Mother to lead us to safety and to keep us there.
While we may be many in one body, we all share that opportunity to pray. On this Pentecost, this birthday of the Church, may we pray for unity in the Church, for the peace Our Lord offered the Apostles, and in a deeper and more personal way pray: Lord send out your spirit and renew each of us.