Benedict XVI's Pentecost Homily
"Only With the Gift of God's Spirit can There be Unity"
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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 12, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the homily Benedict XVI gave today when he celebrated a Mass for the feast of Pentecost in St. Peter's Basilica.
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Dear brothers and sisters!
On this Solemnity of Pentecost I am happy to celebrate with you this Holy Mass, animated today by the Choir and Youth Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, whom I thank. This mystery constitutes the baptism of the Church; it is an event that gave her, so to say, her initial form and the zeal for her mission. And this “form” and this “zeal” are always valid, always relevant, and they are renewed in a special way through liturgical actions. This morning I would like to reflect upon an essential aspect of the mystery of Pentecost, which maintains its importance in our days. Pentecost is the feast of unity, of understanding and of human communion. We can all recognize how in our world, even if we are ever nearer to each other with the development means of communication, and geographical distances seem to disappear, understanding and communion among persons is often superficial and difficult. Inequalities continue that do not infrequently lead to conflicts; dialogue between generations is hard sometimes opposition prevails; we see daily events which appear to suggest that people are becoming more aggressive and more unsociable; it seems to be too demanding to try to understand each other and we prefer to be closed up in our own “I,” in our own interests. In this situation can we truly find that unity that we need and live it?
The account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, which we heard in the first reading (cf. Acts 2:1-11), has in its background one of the last great frescos that we find at the beginning of the Old Testament: the ancient story of the construction of the Tower of Babel (cf. Genesis 11:1-9). But what is Babel? It is the description of a kingdom in which men have concentrated so much power that they think that they no longer need a distant God and they believe that they are strong enough to build a way to heaven by themselves and open its gates to put themselves in God’s place. But precisely in this situation something strange and unique occurs. While the men were working to build the tower, suddenly they realized that they were working against each other. While they tried to be like God, they ran the risk of no longer even being men, because they lost a fundamental element of being human persons: the capacity to agree, to understand and to work together.
This biblical account contains a perennial truth; we can see it throughout history, but in our world too. With the progress of science and technology we have developed the power to dominate forces of nature, to manipulate the elements, to manufacture living beings, almost attaining the ability to make human beings. In this context, praying to God seems like something obsolete, useless, because we can build and realize anything we want. But we do not grasp that we are reliving the very experience of Babel. Indeed, we have multiplied the possibilities of communicating, of having information, of transmitting news, but can we say that the capacity to understand each other has grown or is it perhaps the case that, paradoxically, we understand each other less and less? Have not a sense of diffidence, of suspicion, of mutual fear worked themselves into our lives to the point that we have become dangerous to each other? Let us return, then, to the initial question. Can unity, concord really exist? How can they exist?
We find the answer in Sacred Scripture: only with the gift of God’s Spirit can there be unity. This Spirit will give us a new heart and a new tongue, a new capacity to communicate. And this is what happened on Pentecost. On that morning, 50 days after Easter, a tempestuous wind blew upon Jerusalem and the flame of the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, who were gathered together, settling on each and lighting divine fire in them, a fire of love with the power to transform. The fear dissipated, the heart felt a new force, tongues were loosened and began to speak with boldness, in such a way that all could understand the proclamation of Jesus Christ dead and risen. At Pentecost, where there was division and estrangement, unity and understanding were born.
But let us look at today’s Gospel in which Jesus says: “When he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16:13). Here Jesus, speaking of the Holy Spirit, explains to us what the Church is and how she must live to be herself, to be the place of unity and of communion in the Truth; he tells us that acting like Christians means not being shut up in our own “I,” but relating ourselves to the whole; it means welcoming the whole Church into us or, better, letting ourselves be interiorly taken up into her. So, when I speak, think, act as a Christian, I do not do this closing myself in my “I,” I always do it within the whole and from the whole: thus the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of unity and truth, can continue to resound in our hearts and in the minds of men and move them to engage with and welcome each other. The Spirit, precisely because he acts in this way, leads us to the whole truth, which is Jesus himself, brings us to fathom and understand it: we do not grow in knowledge closing ourselves up in our “I,” but only in becoming capable of listening and sharing in the “we” of the Church, with an attitude of profound interior humility. And thus it becomes clear why Babel is Babel and Pentecost is Pentecost. Where men want to make themselves God, they can only oppose each other. Where they place themselves in the Lord’s truth instead, they open up to the action of the Spirit, who sustains and unites them.
The opposition between Babel and Pentecost echoes in the second reading too, where the Apostle says: “Walk according to the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). St. Paul explains to us that our personal life is marked by an interior conflict, by division, between impulses that come from the flesh and those that come from the Spirit; and we cannot follow all of them. We cannot, in fact, be simultaneously egoistic and generous, giving in to the temptation to dominate others and experience the joy of disinterested service. We must choose which impulse to follow and we can do it authentically only with the help of the Spirit of Christ. St. Paul lists – as we have heard – the works of the flesh, they are the sins of egoism and violence, such as strife, discord, jealousy, dissension; there are thoughts and deeds that to not allow us to live in a truly human and Christian way, in love. The latter is a direction that leads to the losing of one’s own life. The Holy Spirit leads us toward the heights of God, that we might already live on this earth from the seed of divine life that is in us. St. Paul, in fact, states: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace” (Galatians 5:22). And let us note that the Apostle uses the plural to describe the works of the flesh, which divide and scatter us, while he uses the singular to define the Spirit’s action – he speaks of “fruit” – just as the scattering of Babel is opposed to the unity of Pentecost.
Dear friends, we must live according to the Spirit of unity and of truth, and for this we must pray that the Spirit enlighten us and lead us to overcome the fascination with following our own truths and instead the truth of Christ transmitted in the Church. The Lucan account of Pentecost tells us that Jesus, before ascending into heaven, asks the Apostles to remain together to prepare themselves to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And they gather in prayer with Mary in the cenacle in expectation of the promised event (cf. Acts 1:14). Today the Church – recollected as she was at her birth with Mary – prays: “Veni Sancte Spiritus!” –“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love!” Amen.
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]