Benedict XVI's Pentecost Homily
"In the Act Itself of Her Birth the Church Is Already 'Catholic'"
| 4508 hits
* * *
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The account of the event of Pentecost that we heard in the first reading is placed by St. Luke at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. The second chapter is introduced with these words: "When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together" (Acts 2:1). These words refer to the previous chapter in which Luke described the little group of disciples that assiduously gathered in Jerusalem after Jesus' ascension into heaven (cf. Acts 1:12-14). It is a description that is rich in details: The place "where they lived" -- the cenacle -- is an environment "in the upper room"; the 11 apostles are listed by name, and the first three are Peter, John and James, the "pillars" of the community, already integrated into this new family, no longer based on family bonds but on faith in Christ.
The total number of persons, which was "about 120," a multiple of the 12 of the apostolic college, clearly alludes to this "new Israel." The group constitutes an authentic "qāhāl," an assembly on the model of the first covenant, the community convoked to hear the voice of the Lord and to walk in his ways. The Book of Acts emphasizes that "all of them devoted themselves with one accord to prayer" (1:14). Prayer, therefore, is the principal activity of the nascent Church. It is through prayer that she receives her unity from the Lord and allows herself to be guided by his will, as the decision to cast lots for the one to take Judas' place shows (cf. Acts 2:25).
This community found itself gathered together again in the same place, the cenacle, on the morning of the Jewish feast of Pentecost, a feast of the covenant, in which there was commemorated the event on Sinai where, through Moses, God proposed that Israel be his property among all the nations, to be a sign of his holiness (cf. Exodus 19). According to the Book of Exodus, that ancient covenant was accompanied by a terrifying sign of power on the part of the Lord: "Mount Sinai," one reads there, "was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently" (Exodus 19:18).
We find the elements of wind and fire again at the Pentecost of the New Testament but without the resonances of fear. In particular the fire takes the form of tongues that come to rest upon all the disciples, "who were all full of the Holy Spirit" and on account of that outpouring, "began to speak in other languages" (Acts 2:4). We have here the community's true "baptism" with fire, a kind of new creation. At Pentecost the Church is not constituted by a human will, but by the power of the Spirit of God. And it immediately appears how this Spirit gives life to a community that is at the same time one and universal, thus overcoming the curse of Babel (cf. John 11:7-9). Only the Spirit, in fact, which creates unity in love and in the reciprocal acceptance of diversity, can liberate humanity from the constant tension of an earthly will-to-power that wants to dominate and make everything uniform.
"Societas Spiritus," society of the Spirit: This is what St. Augustine calls the Church in one of his sermons (71, 19, 32: PL 38, 462). But already before him, St. Irenaeus formulated a truth that I would like to recall here: "Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God, and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every grace, and the Spirit is truth; to distance yourself from the Church is to reject the Spirit" and thus "to exclude yourself from life" (Adv. Haer. III, 24, 1). Beginning with the event of Pentecost, this connubium or "marriage" is manifested between the Spirit of Christ and his mystical body, that is, the Church.
I would like to reflect on a particular aspect of the Holy Spirit, on the intertwining of multiplicity and unity. The second reading speaks about this, treating of the harmony of the different charisms in the communion of the same Spirit. But already in the passage from Acts that we have listened to, this intertwining reveals itself with extraordinary evidence. In the event of Pentecost it is made clear that multiple languages and different cultures belong to the Church; they can understand and make each other fruitful. St. Luke clearly wants to convey a fundamental idea, namely, in the act itself of her birth the Church is already "catholic," universal. She speaks all languages from the very beginning, because the Gospel that is entrusted to her is destined for all peoples, according to the will and the mandate of the risen Christ (cf. Matthew 28:19). The Church that is born at Pentecost is not above all a particular community -- the Church of Jerusalem -- but the universal Church, that speaks the language of all peoples. From her, other communities in every corner of the world will be born, particular Churches that are all and always actualizations of the one and only Church of Christ. The Catholic Church is therefore not a federation of churches, but a single reality: The universal Church has ontological priority. A community that is not catholic in this sense would not even be a Church.
In this regard it is necessary to add another aspect: that of the theological vision of the Acts of the Apostles in respect of the journey of the Church from Jerusalem to Rome. Luke notes that among the peoples represented in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost there are also "foreigners from Rome" (Acts 2:10). At that time Rome was still distant, "foreign" for the nascent Church: It was a symbol of the pagan world in general. But the power of the Holy Spirit will guide the steps of the witnesses "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), to Rome. The Acts of the Apostles ends precisely when Paul, by providential design, arrives at the empire's capital and proclaims the Gospel there (cf. Acts 28:30-31). Thus the journey of God's Word, begun in Jerusalem, arrives at its goal, because Rome represents the whole world and thus incarnates the Lucan idea of catholicity. The universal Church is realized, the catholic Church, which is the continuation of the chosen people and makes its history and mission her own.
At this point, and to conclude, John's Gospel offers us a word, which accords very well with the mystery of the Church created by the Spirit. The word spoken twice by the risen Jesus when he appears in the midst of the disciples in the Cenacle on Easter evening: "Shalom -- Peace to you!" (John 20:19, 21). The expression "shalom" is not a simple greeting; it is much more: It is the gift of the promised peace (cf. John 14:27) and is won by Jesus with the price of his blood, it is the fruit of this victory and his struggle against the spirit of evil. It is thus a peace "not as given by the world" but as God alone can give it.
On this feast of the Spirit of the Church we would like to thank God for having given to his people, chosen and formed from all nations, the inestimable gift of peace, of his peace! At the same time we renew the awareness of the responsibility connected with this gift: the Church's responsibility to constitutionally be a sign and an instrument of the peace of God for all peoples. I tried to be a conveyor of this message when I recently went to the headquarters of the U.N. to speak to the representatives of the nations. But one must not only think of these "summits." The Church realizes her service to the peace of Christ above all in her ordinary presence and action among men, with the preaching of the Gospel and with the signs of love and mercy that accompany it (cf. Matthew 16:20).
Among these signs, the sacrament of reconciliation must naturally be emphasized, the sacrament that the risen Christ instituted at the same time that he gave his disciples the gift of his peace and his Spirit. As we heard in the passage from the Gospel, Jesus breathed upon his disciples and said: "Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you forgive are forgiven them and whose sins you retain are retained" (John 20:21-23). How important and, unfortunately, how insufficiently understood is the gift of reconciliation that brings peace to hearts! Christ's peace spreads only through the renewed hearts of men and women who have been reconciled and made themselves servants of justice, ready to spread peace in the world only with the force of truth, without compromising with the mentality of the world, because the world cannot give Christ's peace: This is how the Church can be a ferment of that reconciliation that comes from God. She can do this only if she remains docile to the Spirit and bears witness to the Gospel, only if she carries the cross like Jesus and with Jesus. This is precisely what the saints of every age testify to!
In light of this word of life, dear brothers and sisters, may the prayer that today we address to God in spiritual union with the Virgin Mary become ever more fervent and intense. May the Virgin who listens, the Mother of the Church, obtain for our community and for all Christians a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit the Paraclete. "Emitte Spiritum tuum et creabuntur, et renovabis faciem terrae -- Send forth your Spirit and everything will be recreated and you will renew the face of the earth." Amen!
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]