As we come up to the General Election this week we have once more got used to the amus-ing spectacle of politicians being asked searching questions by journalists and very often giving answers to a completely different question, the one they would have preferred to be asked, as it gives them the opportunity to stress the positive points in their policies and avoid the awkward questions.
And today as we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, the climax of the Easter season and the birthday of the Church, it seems something similar is happening. The coming of the Holy Spirit in power upon the apostles, who had been told by Jesus at his Ascension to go back to the city and wait for him, is clearly presented to us as the answer to a question, and the challenge to us is, are we even asking the question? Because if we are not, the answer won’t make much sense at all, and indeed this is what we often find among Catholics today, that the Holy Spirit is something of a puzzle; we don’t quite get where he fits in.
The question is this – and it is essentially the same questions the apostles were asking and which we should be asking in our own way: how can we possibly fulfil the Lord’s com-mand, the very last words he uttered as he left this earth for heaven, to go out everywhere and proclaim the Gospel in a very complex world? The variety of cultures and languages present in the world of the apostles is described in that list of language groups who heard them, as the Holy Spirit gave them the gift of tongues to proclaim God’s great deeds, and of course our own world is even more complex, as mass transport and communications technology has brought all the cultures of the earth much closer together.
So are we actually asking the question? Or have we in effect given up, reducing our faith to a private matter which gives us personal comfort, especially in times of distress, but which we would scarcely think of suggesting to anyone else, or bringing into the public world of work or politics, perhaps for fear of offending others or appearing intolerant? Or do we delude ourselves that the world today doesn’t need the Gospel in the way it did in the past? I remember when the bishops asked me some years ago to set up a national evangelisation agency, several people told me I was wasting my time, because most people today, even if they never go near a Church, are basically good people who in effect live by the values of the Gospel.
Of course, asking this question as to how we might evangelise our world is a scary one if we were to approach it in purely human terms. How on earth could it be done? That is why Jesus did not tell his disciples to go back to Jerusalem and concoct a business plan to change the world. Rather, he told them to go back and wait for the power from on high which he promised. And as we follow their story through the Acts of the Apostles, we find the Holy Spirit continually active, giving them guidance and power for their task: you have the impression of the Holy Spirit and the apostles and Christians working in perfect harmony with each other, with the Holy Spirit providing the power and the apostles just making themselves available for his use. How can we today live in such a state? How can we live in the power of our Confirmation, when the Holy Spirit was given to us?
Just as we often renew the grace of our baptism, because most of us received it as babies, so the age at which the sacrament of Confirmation was given to us makes necessary a rekindling of its grace in later life, perhaps often. Now living in the grace of our baptism means not relying on myself but on the power of the Spirit within me to be holy, that is to love at all times, so living in the grace of our Confirmation is a natural overflow of that, using those gifts of the Spirit in order to express my love for God in daily life and work. The gift of wisdom is an obvious example: what should I be doing and how should I go about it? – that difficult interview, that complicated piece of work, that family problem. Whether it’s something overtly religious – teaching my child to pray – or apparently secular doesn’t matter.
But it does demand a change of attitude. The more I think I can do it all by myself, the less likely I will be to call on the help of the Holy Spirit. If I know I can’t, he may just get a look in.
How do we perceive the Spirit’s guidance? Most of the time it is not something dramatic, but a gentle urging or warning within, a feeling of a sweet attraction to a certain way of do-ing things or a repugnance from another way. It is like waking up to a whole different set of senses. That is why some times of silence are so important in our lives to awaken to this inner voice or light or savour. If our lives are full of noise, haste and agitation, it’s difficult for the Holy Spirit to make himself heard. Turn off the radio, the TV, the computer from time to time and tune in to the Holy Spirit who is within you.
The Holy Spirit is also experienced as a fire, an ardour as JP2 calls it. Man whose 3 year old saw a bonfire on his head, like Pentecost. When we feel our faith growing tepid, make Novena to Holy Spirit (Curé of Ars). When we feel at a low ebb as the apostles were in the Gospel, Jesus finds a way to break through the doors we have closed and renew us with peace and joy, as he breathes the Holy Spirit on us and sends us out into the world to share the good news with all those we meet.