Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Many Works of the Holy Spirit

(Pentecost 2020 (A): This homily was given on May 31, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31,34; Romans 8:22-27; 1 Corinthians 12:3-13; John 20:19-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Pentecost 2020]

The Holy Spirit—the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity who descended upon Mary and the apostles at the very first Pentecost—does not have a body.  He’s a pure spirit, and pure spirits by definition are just that—purely spiritual beings. 

And yet, as Catholics, we say we believe that the Holy Spirit is still present with us.  But how exactly do we know that?

Think about it: When the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity came into this world it was easy to recognize his presence among us, since he had a human body!  People could see Jesus with their eyes; they could reach out to him and take hold of his hand or touch his face (believe it or not, people used to be able to do that kind of thing!  Yes, people could actually reach out and touch one another!). 

My point here is that people were able to experience Jesus in a direct manner with their senses because he had a body.

But the Holy Spirit doesn’t!  He has no physical attributes.  So how do we know he’s around?  How do we know he’s here on earth with us?

The answer is: By his works.

We know the Holy Spirit by his works, by what he does in us and in the world.

Now some works of the Spirit are relatively easy to recognize.  For example, have you ever known someone who’s had a radical conversion to Jesus Christ, and then remained strong in their faith?  Hopefully you have!  That type of deep and lasting conversion is definitely a work of the Holy Spirit.  And it’s easy to see.  It’s clearly evident.

In 1 Corinthians 12 (our second reading today) it says, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” 

That, of course, doesn’t simply refer to the act of speaking the words!  As we all know, even a parrot can be trained to say, “Jesus is Lord.”  This text refers to a human being who says those words and truly means them!  When a person of faith affirms the Lordship of Jesus Christ, it’s a work of the Spirit dwelling within him—a work which is easily recognized.

I remember when “The Passion of the Christ” came out back in 2004, there were news reports that a number of criminals around the country saw the film and turned themselves in to the police afterward!

Since one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of our sins, I would say that the repentance of those criminals was the result of the Spirit working in their consciences, moving them to take responsibility for their evil actions.

These are just some of the works of the Spirit which are fairly easy to see and comprehend.

However, other works of the Spirit are not so easily recognized, specifically because they’re taken for granted. 

It’s the Holy Spirit, for example, who enables us to pray from the heart.  St. Paul says in Romans 8, “The Spirit . . . helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be expressed in speech.” 

The grace of sincere prayer—which has its source in the Holy Spirit—is something we can easily take for granted, is it not?  We normally don’t think twice about it.  But it is a work of the Spirit nonetheless! I’m sure a lot of sincere prayer has been offered up since this pandemic began several weeks ago.  I know for a fact that many of our parishioners have been doing that.

And how about the sacraments?  It’s the Holy Spirit who makes us children of God in Baptism; it’s the Spirit who gives a priest the power to forgive sins in the confessional.  No Spirit, no forgiveness!  As Jesus said to the apostles in John 20 (today’s Gospel), “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”  It’s by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Eucharist is consecrated at Mass.  During every Eucharistic prayer there is a special moment known as the “epiclesis.”  It’s when the priest calls down the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine, so that they will be changed at the consecration into the Body and Blood of Christ.  (This is also the moment when the altar server rings the bell for the first time—if the server is paying attention and not asleep!)

These are all sacramental works of the Holy Spirit which are very familiar to us—so much so that we can easily take them for granted.

There are also some works of the Holy Spirit that are hard to recognize except in hindsight.  Forty years ago, for instance, the experts were saying that Soviet Communism was here to stay.  But it wasn’t.  And it all collapsed without a devastating nuclear war or some other terrible military conflict.  In hindsight, I—and many others—believe it happened that way by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The relatively peaceful collapse of the Soviet bloc was due to 70-plus years of persistent prayer and redemptive suffering, as inspired by the Spirit. 

Have you ever gone through a personal trial and wondered where God was?  Many people have had that experience—some of them, I’m sure, in recent weeks. 

But so often, after they’ve passed through the difficulty, these men and women will look back on the situation and say, “I know God was with me.  He gave me what I needed.  Even though I wasn’t aware of his presence when I was in the middle of the storm, I now see that his grace got me through that difficult time.” 

That’s the work of the Spirit being recognized in hindsight.

Recognizing the presence of the Holy Spirit can be difficult at times—but it is never impossible.  On that note, I read a great article this past week about Rebecca Maslow, a 28-year–old nurse who works in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Not surprisingly, in recent weeks, Rebecca’s been giving nursing care to many coronavirus patients, some of whom have died.  She said in the article that she constantly prays to the Holy Spirit to guide her in her ministry to the sick—and especially to the dying.  Here’s a brief excerpt from the article:

One of the most powerful movements of the Holy Spirit [Rebecca] experienced was while caring for a man dying of respiratory failure. While in the room with him the day he died in early April, a doctor who had been seeing him told Maslow that the man was a Christian. This inspired Maslow to action as she walked over to his bedside.Like other patients, the man was dying alone, and Maslow wanted to offer him tangible comfort. She had been with him throughout the morning and even had prayed silently over him. Now, knowing he was a Christian, she offered something more….
"I just sat next to him and held his hand," she said. "And, I leaned in really close to his ear so he could hear me. And, I told him that I had heard that he was a Christian, that I was, too, and that I was going to pray over him. So, I traced the cross on his forehead. After that, I was able to just stay by his bed and hold his hand. I was not busy at all that day, which is very odd."She called it "such a blessing" to be with him for an hour and a half. She said he looked "calm and comfortable" after she prayed over him. He died a little while later, with Maslow still holding his hand.

The Holy Spirit often works like that: in extraordinary ways that can appear to be very ordinary.

Why do I share these thoughts with you today concerning the works of the Spirit—aside from the fact that it’s Pentecost Sunday?

It’s because the Holy Spirit tends to be the “forgotten” Person of the Blessed Trinity!  Because he’s a pure spirit, because he doesn’t have a body, most Christians don’t speak about him very often, and some may never even give him a passing thought!  And yet (as I hope I’ve made clear in my homily) this same wonderful—but ignored—Holy Spirit is at hard work every single day in the Church, in the world, and in our personal lives.

And so, may our common prayer on this Pentecost Sunday be: “Thank you, Holy Spirit.  Thank you for working so powerfully in the Church, in the world, and in my life.  Make me more aware of your presence in the future, so that I will be more open—and more responsive—to your many works.  This I ask through Christ, our Lord.  Amen.”