20 May Catholic Women’s League Convention Mass-May 15, 2016:Archbishop O’Brien
Homily by Archbishop Brendan O’Brien
Catholic Women’s League Convention Closing Mass
St. Mary’s Cathedral
May 15, 2016
Today, on the feast of Pentecost, we bring to a close the Easter season as we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. This feast reminds us that, as Christians, we are not just a people who follow a certain code of ethics – although we do. We are not just a people who hold Jesus in high esteem as a teacher – although this is no doubt the case. Nor are we simply a people with a particular way of worshipping God – although that is also true. The feast of Pentecost reminds us that we are people who have received the gift of God’s Spirit. This is what makes us distinctive. But what does this mean?
In the second reading today, Paul gives us some hints. He speaks of life according to the flesh and contrasts it with life according to the spirit. He uses these terms in a particular way. The difference between living in the flesh and living in the spirit is not the distinction between soul and body or between the spiritual and the material. Christianity has a deep respect both for the spiritual and for the body and the material world as we read in Genesis: “God looked at everything he had made and he found it very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
The distinction between flesh and spirit in St. Paul’s writings refers to something else. For Paul, to be ‘in the flesh’ means to live our lives subservient to one’s own appetites and instincts. He is speaking about human nature with all its limitations that has a tendency to incline us away from God. In this passage from Romans, he outlines the rather disastrous results of this way of life. I think we know that he is right. We have just to look through the newspapers and see how one tragic situation after another is brought about by jealousy, anger, greed, or lust. Living according to these and other desires and passions results in people being ‘out of control’ as they wreck their own lives as well as the lives of others.
In contrast to this, Paul speaks of life in the spirit. It is a life attuned to God – a form of union with God where we seek what God seeks; where there is a thirst for truth and love, for freedom and justice, for community and sharing. We, of course, continue to have feelings and instincts, but they are integrated into a new vision of life which does not leave us imprisoned in our desires and instincts.
At Pentecost, we celebrate the gift that the apostles received – the gift of the Holy Spirit, which makes life in the spirit possible. The day of Pentecost is described very dramatically in the first reading. The rest of the Acts of the Apostles recount the effects of this gift of the Holy Spirit – how the apostles were changed from being those whom the gospels portray as being kind of slow to understand what Jesus was all about; how they were changed from being that fearful cowardly bunch who fled and hid at the time of Jesus’s death; how, after Pentecost, they became the great evangelizers and missionaries who brought the message of Christ to the nations.
The gift of the Spirit, however, is meant for every Christian and for every age of the Church. It is perhaps delivered in a less dramatic way, but that is what happens in Baptism and Confirmation – the sacramental bestowal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is given so that each one of us can move from life according to the flesh to life according to the spirit, as Paul describes it.
The gift of the Spirit, like any gift, has to be received – has to be opened up. We have to be aware that it is there, and, in some cases, we need to cultivate that gift. If, for example, someone has a beautiful singing voice but they very seldom use it or have not learnt how to develop that musical talent, it is not going to be all that it could be. And, unfortunately, that is what sometimes happens with the gift of the Spirit. It is given to us in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, but it is perhaps not fully received.
It is like the seed of God’s Word, in the Parable of the Sower – the seed that falls upon the foot path where the soil is sparse, or on ground where there are rocks or thorns, which prevent it from taking root. So it is with life in the spirit – the Spirit has to fall upon good soil that is receptive in order for the Spirit to transform a person from living life in the flesh to life in the spirit. But when the Spirit is received, when it finds a receptive heart, the Spirit is able to accomplish what the Spirit is meant to bring about. And what is that?
Firstly, as you heard in the gospel, Jesus says that, “if you will keep my commandments, I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.” The next line, which is omitted in today’s reading, goes on to say, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him because he abides with you and in you.”
Certainly, the first result of life in the spirit is the awareness that God is with us – is in us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And, when we are aware of the Spirit’s presence in our lives, then we recognize that the Church is not just another organization, floundering around on its own, but, along with its human imperfections, it has the guidance of the Spirit so that it can accomplish the mission entrusted to it by Christ, to make his name known throughout the world.
The expectations put on us as individual Christians and as a community of believers may seem excessive and nearly impossible, but that is only if we forget Pentecost – if we forget the force and the power that is with us, that is in us. However, as I said at the beginning of this homily, if we recognize this great gift of the Spirit which we have been given, and if we open our hearts to the Spirit’s promptings, we will not be discouraged. We will have the strength.
As an organization of Catholic women, the CWL can and does do much to strengthen this true sense of Christian identity, which is life according to the Spirit, with its awareness of God’s presence in our lives and of the mission which is ours of making Christ known and furthering his work.
Let us then pray often the invocation:
“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth.”