A few evenings ago I called to a house in Oylegate to visit a woman who was ill. On the way out her husband handed me a piece of timber carving saying, ‘would you have any use for that’. My heart leapt when I saw that it was a beautiful carving of a man that I had never met but who had the most profound influence in my life. In fact if it hadn’t been for Pope John XX111 there is no way I would ever have been a priest.
In 1958 he was aged 79 and elected as a caretaker pope for a few years because the cardinals couldn’t make up their mind who they wanted and he was seen as a safe pair of hands. They hadn’t reckoned on the unpredictability of the Holy Spirit.
This man looked at the fossilized state of an archaic institution that was the Catholic Church and saw clearly that all was not well. It was out of touch with the times and was not meeting the needs of the people. Something fundamental was missing which he believed to be the Holy Spirit. So for his 5 years as Pope he made this his central prayer, ‘Lord renew your wonders in this our day as by a new Pentecost.’ He was a visionary pope who could see quite clearly the absence of Spirit in our churches and when the younger generation were saying that religion was boring and them drifting away they were pointing to a basic truth of an absence of Spirit.
He then called the Second Vatican Council that made sweeping changes like no longer having liturgies in Latin, having the priest facing the people and reintroducing the Bible as the foundation of all our beliefs. Had those changes not happened I could never imagine myself as a priest.
One of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is Joy. Yet when it comes to Pentecost and preaching on the Holy Spirit the emotion I feel is more sadness than joy. Like JohnXX111 when I look at what the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles was like and then see the kind of Church we take so much for granted today we are still so far removed from that reality.
The word Church in Greek is ecclesia and means the gathering. In those early churches the emphasis was totally on the gathering. The focus was the people and not the building. For far too long the understanding of us being the Church has not been part of the way we think in spite of being reminded since Vatican 2 that the Church is The People of God.
In the early church prayer and worship was very much centered on the Holy Spirit. Those early followers knew what transformation had come about as a result of Pentecost where they had been transformed from a bunch of frightened individuals to a group of fearless followers who were capable of taking the world by storm. The Jesus they had known in the flesh had ascended to the Father but the promise of his spirit to remain with them was real and he was still very much alive in their hearts and experience.
As a result of his presence the ministry of Jesus was an everyday reality in that early church. Miracles and healings were the norm rather than the exception. Lives were being transformed and people were going away from gatherings very different from the way they came. Growth was evident. New followers came flocking with up to 5000 being added in a single day.
When we come to Church when was the last time we witnessed a miracle. Do we come with any expectant faith that something wonderful might happen either to ourselves or to someone else? Do we expect the Word of God to have any impact on our lives or do we expect to leave exactly the way we came in. Remember in the Gospels where Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, the place of greatest familiarity, he was amazed at their lack of faith and could not work any miracles there. Should we not ask ourselves if we have become the Nazareth of familiarity and complacency and resistant to any suggestion of change?
Could you imagine that early Church as a place where people came together to worship but never got to know each other. The meeting at the human level and offering support and friendship was essential to their worship. One of the big differences between churches at present that are doing okay and those that are in decline is where they have a facility close by in order to socialize and connect with each other. That is something that is so badly lacking in so many parishes throughout Ireland with the result that so many don’t get to know each other or don’t ever have the opportunity to do so. Hopefully our New Community Centre will help address that issue because isolation is fast becoming the curse of society today. It was as if in the past we were expected to worship as disembodied human beings with the emphasis on saving our souls and to heck with everyone else. There was no real sense of connection between Communion, Communication and Community.
Could you imagine that early Church as a spirited group of people who came to worship but who rarely smiled or laughed and never opened their mouths in case someone might hear them. Yet that is the reality in countless churches. Going to church was never meant to be a spectator sport where we turn up, pay up and shut up! It is, as the hymn says, All that we have and all that we are,’ that we bring to our worship.
When we think of the younger generation who are not here its no harm to ask ourselves a few serious questions. Like have we failed them? What kind of Church have we offered them? What was the quality of our worship? Could they see anything there for them? Faith and life is infectious so did we have enthusiasm? The word comes from the Greek enthuas and means God within. Did or do we come across to them as being more dead than alive in relation to our faith? One thing for sure is that only life attracts life and unless the light of life is shining from here there will be lots of other lights to attract their attention.