Sunday, May 23, 2021

When you say, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit,’ what do you mean?


(Pentecost 2021 (B): This homily was given on May 23, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; Galatians 5:16-25; John 20:19-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Pentecost 2021]


What a person says is important.  But what a person actually means when he says what he says is even more important.

For example, we’ve all said, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”  We’ve said it at Mass; we’ve said it at baptisms; we’ve probably said it in private prayer as well.  But the simple fact that we’ve said the words does not tell the whole story.  The real question is this: When I say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” what do I mean?  What do I, personally, mean?

I could mean any one of a number of things.  For example, I could mean that I believe in the Holy Spirit in the same way that I believe in George Washington.  Do I believe that George Washington existed?  Yes, certainly.  In that sense I can say that I believe in him.  But did I ever meet him? No.  (I know I’m getting old, but I’m not that old!)  I believe in George Washington because I’ve read about him in history books that were written by reputable historians, and not because I’ve had any personal contact with the man.  Some Christians, I think, believe in the Holy Spirit in the very same way.  They believe in him because they’ve read about him in the Bible or in some other book, but they’ve had no conscious, personal experience of him and his power.  How sad.  How tragic.  It’s especially tragic when you ask Confirmation candidates the question, “Who is the Holy Spirit?”, and they look at you like you have three heads!  You’d fare better asking them, “Who is George Washington?” Hopefully they’d tell you he was the first President of the United States and not tell you that he was an 18th century white privileged male.

But nowadays, you never know!

Which brings us to a second possibility:  When I say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” I might mean that I believe in him in the same way that I believe in our Holy Father, Pope Francis. George Washington is dead and obviously out of office, but Pope Francis is alive and in office at the present time.  And since that is the case, he, unlike Washington, does affect my life each and every day, especially as a Catholic.  Which means that I do have a personal experience of the man.  I see him on television, I’ve heard him on the radio, I’ve read some of his writings.  But my personal experience of him is fairly remote.  And why is that?  Well, it’s simply because I’ve never met him.  I’m not one of his close friends; I don’t have a strong relationship with him on a personal level.  And I get the sense that this is the way it is for many Christians when it comes to the Holy Spirit.  They know he exists.  They know he has something to do with faith, hope and love and some other good things.  They know they’ve received him in Baptism and Confirmation.  But that’s about as far as it goes.  When all is said and done, their relationship with the Spirit is rather remote at best.

And then we have the ideal: saying “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” and meaning that I believe in him like I believe in my best friend.  I believe in my best friend, not because I’ve read about him in a book, not because I’ve heard him on radio and seen him on television.  My belief in my best friend is based on a direct personal experience—a direct experience that I’m conscious of. 

And this is where our belief in the Spirit is supposed to be rooted.  And that is where it can be rooted in the future—in the lives of all of us—regardless of what our past relationship with the Spirit has been like.  If you need some inspiration in this regard, think about the change that took place in the apostles.  Remember that on the night before he died, Jesus gave a long talk to these men in which he said a number of things about the Spirit.  Read John, chapters 14 thru 17.  Our Lord said, “I will send you the Holy Spirit . . . the Paraclete . . . the Consoler . . .the Spirit of truth . . . He will guide you to all truth . . . He will bear witness to me . . . He will help you to bear witness to me.” 

And on and on Jesus spoke.  Now, if you had said to these men a few days later, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” I’m sure they would have said “yes”.  But it would not have been the same kind of “yes” they would have given you on Pentecost Sunday, 50 days after Easter.  Before Pentecost it would have been, “Yes, we believe in the Spirit because Jesus talked about him,” or, “Yes, we believe in the Spirit because Jesus rose from the dead, and we think the Spirit had something to do with that, and with some of the miracles and wonders that Jesus performed during his ministry.” 

But after Pentecost the answer would have been qualitatively different.  It would have been, “Yes, we believe in the Holy Spirit—because we’ve become aware of his presence and have experienced his power personally.”  After the Spirit descended on the apostles in the Upper Room, we’re told that Peter, who in fear had denied Jesus three times on Holy Thursday night, went out into the streets of Jerusalem and boldly proclaimed the Gospel to the crowds gathered there.  And he made 3,000 converts!  I can just imagine what the conversation was like as the apostles went home that day.  Peter probably said, “I can’t believe I did that.”  Thomas probably jumped in, “Well neither can I, Peter!” And John likely added, “This is amazing!  It’s true!  It’s just like Jesus said it would be!”

As Catholic Christians, we should want to be able to say those words, “I believe in the Holy Spirit” with the same fire and conviction that the apostles had in their hearts after Pentecost—the same fire that enabled Peter to proclaim his faith boldly and joyfully!  And chances are we will, if we, like the apostles, have a direct personal experience of the Holy Spirit that we are conscious of. 

That does not mean, incidentally, that we all need to have an experience like the apostles had in the Upper Room.  But it does mean that we need to become conscious of the Spirit’s work in our lives, like the apostles became conscious of the Spirit’s work in their lives at Pentecost and afterward.

For example, if you’ve been deeply offended by another person, and you’ve prayed for the grace to forgive—and you have forgiven the person—that’s the work of the Holy Spirit in you.  If you’re seriously tempted to commit a sin, and you pray for help, and you end up saying “no” to the temptation—that’s the work of the Spirit in you.  If you give in to the temptation, but then feel sorry, and then go and confess the sin in the confessional—that, too, is a work of the Spirit.  If you’re in a conversation with a coworker, and he begins to slander the Church, and you step out in faith and defend the truth—that’s another work of the Spirit in you.  (Remember, one of the gifts of the Spirit is fortitude.)  If someone comes to you for guidance, and you give them good advice after some thought and prayer—that, too, is a work of the Holy Spirit.

My brothers and sisters, the fact of the matter is that most of us (if not all of us) have had direct experiences like this of the Holy Spirit in our lives, although in the past we might not have been conscious of the Spirit’s involvement in those experiences.  Well, hopefully after this homily we will be, so that if someone in the future asks us, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” we’ll be able to answer like Simon Peter would have answered after Pentecost: “You bet I believe in the Holy Spirit!  I believe in him with all my heart, because I have experienced his power personally, and become deeply aware (deeply conscious) of his presence in my life.”