Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Charismatic Gifts of the Holy Spirit

My sister, my mother and I sometime in the late 1980s.

(Pentecost 2008 (A): This homily was given on May 11, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 2: 1-11; 1 Corinthians 12: 3-13; John 20: 19-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Pentecost 2008]

For most preachers here in the United States, this Sunday brings with it a big challenge: How do you connect the religious feast we’re celebrating in the Church (Pentecost) with the secular feast we’re observing in the wider culture (Mother’s Day)?

But for me, it’s relatively easy—not because I’m a great preacher, but rather because of who my mother was.

The connection between my mother and Pentecost is ultimately rooted in her Baptism and Confirmation (both of which happened in the 1930s), since she received a sacramental outpouring of the Holy Spirit on both those occasions. But the connection is also rooted in another event in her life which happened when she was in her early 40s, and which is similar in many ways to the Pentecost event as St. Luke describes it to us in today’s first reading from Acts, chapter 2.

It was 1972, as I recall. My father had died just the year before, and my mom was visiting a couple from our parish at their home, which was two streets over from ours in Barrington.

There were several other people present at this gathering, including 3 non-Catholics, who began to talk about things like “the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit” and a phenomenon they referred to as “the baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Some of it was confusing—and I’m pretty sure most of the Catholics there thought these 3 Pentecostal Protestants were absolutely crazy—but my mom listened intently, and was really intrigued by what she was hearing.

When they finally finished their sharing, they asked if anyone wanted to be prayed with. Well, not surprisingly, none of the other Catholics present volunteered (I’m sure most of them couldn’t wait to get out of there!); but my mother—in her typically bold fashion—spoke up. She said, “Listen. I try to love Jesus Christ with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. I don’t do it perfectly, but that’s what I try to do. But if what you have can help me to love Jesus Christ more, [she put out her hands and said] then I want it!”

The young man who was the leader said, “Well, okay, come right here to the middle of the room and kneel down.”

So she did. He then led her in a brief prayer of repentance and commitment, in which she asked the Lord to forgive her for her sins, and in which she professed her faith in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. At that point he and his friends put their hands on her head and shoulders and they began to pray—not formal prayers, but very spontaneously. Some of it was in English, and some of it was in this strange language that she didn’t understand. And my mom experienced what she believed to be the presence of God.

After a few minutes the leader said, “Dolores, open your mouth and begin to praise Jesus.”

She did, and some words came out that she didn’t recognize, but she felt very peaceful, so she continued to do it.

When it was over several minutes later, they told her that she had just experienced the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” and had prayed in tongues, as Peter and the apostles had done on the very first Pentecost.

Now just in case some of you are thinking, “Fr. Ray what are you talking about? This sounds really ‘Protestant’ to me!” let me make myself perfectly clear: The Catholic Church recognizes as valid not only the theological gifts of the Holy Spirit (faith, hope and charity) and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11 that we usually associate with Confirmation (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord). She also recognizes as real and valid the so-called “charismatic gifts of the Spirit” mentioned by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12: gifts like healing and miracles and prophecy and tongues.

In fact, you can find these gifts—which are sometimes referred to as “charisms”—mentioned in the Catechism, in paragraph 800 to be exact. There it says that these “charisms are to be accepted with gratitude by the person who receives them and by all members of the Church as well. They are a wonderfully rich grace for the apostolic vitality and for the holiness of the entire Body of Christ . . . “

It’s interesting, probably more teenagers than adults in our parish have been exposed to these gifts. I say that because the teens see at least some of these charisms in operation at the Steubenville Youth Conferences we attend every July. Most adults haven’t experienced them unless they’ve come to our monthly prayer meeting. Although I will tell you that I pray in tongues at every Mass I say—just not out loud for people to hear. I find it to be a very helpful way to pray when my own words fail me.

I mention this today for two reasons:

First of all, so that we will all take the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit seriously in our lives—because I fear that many Catholics don’t.

And secondly, I mention it as a way of saying thanks to my mom. She’s been gone now for almost 18 years—she passed away back in 1990—but I trust that where she is she can still hear me.

My mom taught me a lot of things, but one of the most important lessons I learned from her was to be open to “everything that is true, everything that deserves respect, everything that is admirable, pure, honest, decent, virtuous and worthy of praise”—to quote a line from St. Paul.

And that includes the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit!

She taught me that by her example, as I’ve hopefully just made clear.

Which is simply another way of saying that my mom taught me to be “Catholic” in saying yes to truth—all truth—and no to error. And I really needed to learn that lesson because when she was first baptized in the Holy Spirit and began to go to prayer meetings at St. Augustine’s Church in Providence, I was very uncomfortable with it. I was 15 years old, and it all seemed a bit strange to me, to be perfectly honest.

But it wasn’t.

In this context I should also mention that even after she became part of the Charismatic Renewal, my mother’s favorite type of prayer was what they call “contemplative prayer”—the quiet kind you find in monasteries. In fact, one day a month she used to go to the Carmelite Monastery in Barrington to spend the day in silent meditation and contemplation.

And yet, at a prayer meeting, she could “cut it loose” and praise God as enthusiastically as anyone.

She was open to all different types of prayer—everything from the charismatic to the contemplative—provided the Church approved of them.

“So mom, if you can hear me—and I believe you can—thank you. Thank you for your love, and for teaching me—by your own actions—what it means to be Catholic. I pray that everyone here can say something similar about their mother. Thank you for teaching me to get out of my personal ‘comfort zone’ and to be open to the power of the Holy Spirit in my life. Thank you for teaching me that the most important gifts of the Spirit—the ones that I should pursue each and every day without fail—are faith, hope and charity, as St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13. But thank you also for showing me that I need to be open to all the Spirit’s gifts, if I’m going to be the disciple that Jesus Christ wants me to be. And thank you, mom, for persevering in teaching me all these things, even when I called you weird!”