It is the Octave of Pentecost. We can should and review Pentecost during the Octave.
A friend of mine, Fr. Richard Jacobs, OSA, gave this sermon for Pentecost Sunday:
One of the Fathers of the Church, St. Cyril of Alexandria, wrote the following statement describing the presence of the Holy Spirit alive and at work within us:
It’s quite natural for people who have been absorbed by the things of this world to become entirely other-worldly in outlook and for cowards to become people of great courage.
On this Solemnity of Pentecost, what would it mean for those who have been absorbed the things of this world to become entirely other-worldly in outlook and for their cowardice to be transformed into great courage?
I know for sure what our nation’s Catholic bishops are saying it requires: Confronting the threats being posed today to religious liberty.
As you may know, this past week the nation’s Catholic bishops filed 12 lawsuits on behalf of 43 different Catholic institutions and groups to defend religious liberty. The focus of the lawsuits is the Department of Health and Human Services’ healthcare mandate. While many in the media have called the bishops’ lawsuits part of the Vatican’s larger “war against women” and a dispute that’s of concern “only to a tiny minority of Catholics who hold rather peculiar views about human sexuality,” that kind of vitriol is purposely intended to deflect attention away from the merit of the substantive argument, which is the slow but steady erosion of conscience protections for religious institutions and individuals in what’s for the most part a secular society…one having no religious roots.
The substantive issue being contested can be stated in the form of a question: Does the federal government possess the right to mandate Church-sponsored institutions and individuals to promote what its moral teachings forbid?
More practically, should an organization—like Catholic Charities—be compelled by the federal government to provide its employees access to contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortafacients? Or, should Catholic Relief Services—one of the world’s premiere disaster assistance organizations—be compelled by the federal government to provide “the full range of reproductive services,” including abortion, when attempting to aid people who have been afflicted by natural disasters?
The bishops’ lawsuits are not contesting those practicalities, but something that’s much more fundamental, the constitutional principle guaranteeing free expression of religion. The bishops believe this principle has been gradually eroding in such ways that the federal government and its agents now believe they possess the authority to make those practicalities the issue.
HHS Secretary Sebelius has maintained that the goal of her mandate is to protect women’s health. That may be, depending upon what it means “to protect women’s health.” But, Ms. Sebelius’ mandate has the intentional effect of compelling religious institutions and individuals to facilitate and to fund services that violate their beliefs and, worse yet, within their own institutions. The irony is that, in fact, those services are already widely and for the most part cheaply available, and most employers provide coverage for them.
What the mandate is, is bad enough. It’s nothing other than an unprecedented assault by agents of the federal government to compel religious institutions and individuals to violate their deepest moral convictions. But, there’s something even more insidious about Ms. Sebelius’ mandate. If government policy can close down or force religious providers of healthcare, social services, and education to serve as agents of the government’s policy, then the federal government will have consolidated its monopoly over those services, making the government all-powerful in those areas.
The President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said: “Never before have we faced this kind of challenge to our ability to engage in the public square as people of faith.”
But it’s not just the nation’s Catholic bishops who are concerned. Baptist, Orthodox Jew, Orthodox Christian, Mormon, and other religious leaders gathered this past week for a daylong summit in Washington, DC, at the Ethics and Public Policy’s American Religious Freedom Program. There they discussed the eroding state of religious freedom in the United States and formulated a plan to confront this moral malignancy.
Then, too, in what would have been impossible to envision even just six decades ago, the largely evangelical Protestant group sponsoring the summit awarded Archbishop Lori of Baltimore the “American Religious Freedom Award” for his “vigorous but gracious defense of religious liberty in the face of increasing hostility and legal and policy challenges.” Then, too, in response to the bishops’ defense of religious freedom, the one-time Baptist minister, former Arkansas Governor, and Fox News host, Mike Huckabee, flatly declared, “We’re all Catholics now.”
Today’s scripture reminds us that when the Holy Spirit is alive and at work within us, people who don’t comprehend what they are saying to one another as well as what they are debating or arguing with one another about, miraculously understand one another.
Today’s scripture also reminds us that when the Holy Spirit is alive and at work within us, differences in race, nationality, and creed—externals that would otherwise divide people—suddenly disappear.
Today scripture also reminds us that when the Holy Spirit is alive and at work within us, people who possess different talents and capabilities don’t use them exclusively for their personal aggrandizement or benefit, but offer those talents and capabilities for the good of all.
In sum, the presence of the Holy Spirit alive and at work in us makes all of this possible since the source of all these differences is God. And, when people realize the divine source of these differences and root themselves in God, it’s possible for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control to overcome all of the immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like that are rooted in all of those differences, not in the divine source of those differences.
Because, as we heard in the Sequence, the presence of the Holy Spirit “heals wounds,” “bends stubborn hearts and wills,” and “guides the steps that go astray.”
Allow me to suggest that what we may be witnessing on this Solemnity of Pentecost are religious leaders who for all too long have been absorbed in the things of this world suddenly becoming entirely other-worldly in outlook, as their cowardice is being transformed into great courage. As Cardinal Dolan said to Bob Scheifer on “Face the Nation” back on April 8: “We didn’t ask for this fight, but we won’t back away from it.”
Surveying all of these events, I’m wondering whether this series of events may be one of those “signs of the times” the Second Vatican Council said we should be alert to and, in particular, what may be a sign of the Holy Spirit making possible the first concrete step in authentic ecumenism. For once, religious leaders are rooted in upholding God’s law rather than defending who was right and who was wrong in religious battles that took place centuries ago. If that doesn’t demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit alive and at work in those religious leaders, then I don’t know what possibly could. And, if it is, then it’s time for all of us to get to work confronting the threats being posed to religious liberty.
On this Solemnity of Pentecost, let’s those of us who have been absorbed in the things of this world to become entirely other-worldly in outlook, as St. Cyril of Alexandria reminds us, by allowing the Holy Spirit to transform our cowardice into great courage.
There will be conversions to Catholicism because of this fight. But, we shall lose some Catholics as well. As in any war, there are heroes and casualties.
The war being waged is against Christ. His life, death, and resurrection change and inform everything. The banner we take up, more than the banner of liberty, must be the banner of Christ because He is the true Enemy and Victim of those who oppress the Church. The liberty of the Church is the freedom of Christ’s action in the world. Sooner or later, it will have to come down to a stand on the question of Christ. “Who do you say that I am?”