Empty Rites?

(Pentecost Homily)

Sometimes people will accuse us Catholics of being ritualistic. They will even say things like, "all you have is a bunch of ceremonies and empty rites." The answer to those charges is given this Sunday--it is called Pentecost. When someone tells us our rituals are empty, we can simply respond with a question, "Have you not heard of Pentecost?"

Pentecost was when Jesus, fifty days after his resurrection, poured out his Holy Spirit upon the apostles. They were gathered in that upper room, the same one where Jesus celebrated the first Eucharist, the nite before he died. This time they were more than Twelve. Their number had grown ten-fold to 120 disciples. And in the middle was Mary, the Mother of the Risen Lord. Jesus sent upon them the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire. Thus the Church was born. Today is the birthday of the Catholic Church. But in spite of the fact that all this happened almost 2000 years ago, she is not old & decrepit. Because of the Holy Spirit she is constantly renewed, the beautiful forever young bride of Jesus.

Some people assume that because the Church is ancient as an institution, she is therefore plagued by all sorts of weaknesses and will soon die. The odd thing is that people have often predicted her imminent death. This happened with rise of Arianism in the fourth century, then again with Islam, with the Protestant revolt and then with the French Revolution. Not only outside the church, but from within, people were preparing for a funeral. The same thing happened this century in Mexico. The Church seemed all but dead, but by some great miracle young people started flocking back to her. You cannot explain this in human terms. It was the Holy Spirit. Those who say the Church in this country will be lost to the sects or to secularism should be cautious in their predictions. These are real challenges, but the Church has the guarantee of the Holy Spirit in responding to them.

It is the Holy Spirit who renews the Church. To put it simply, the Holy Spirit is the life of the Church. When the Church instructs us thru the Holy Father and bishops, it is the Holy Spirit who teaches. Some people ask why they should listen the pope, especially when he says things they do not want to hear, for example about the impossibility of women priests or the immorality of birth control. The answer is that it is the Holy Spirit who is speaking thru the pope, the sucessor of Peter.

It is something similiar when we pray. Actually it is the Holy Spirit praying within us. This may sound strange but prayer is actually God speaking to God. As St. Paul says in Romans 8, we do not know how to pray, but the Spirit comes to the aid of our weaknness. He prays within us in unutterable groanings. That is why we should never judge our prayer by how it makes us feel as if it were some kind of spiritual Prozac. Our only job is to put ourselves in the presence of God, do our best to open our hearts. The rest depends on the Holy Spirit. He prays within us.

The sacraments likewise depend on the power of the Holy Spirit. If that were not the case, the charge of those who call them "empty rites" would be irrefutable. But in fact we have the guarantee of Jesus that he gives his Holy Spirit to those who correctly celebrate his seven sacraments. Let's take the Mass as an example. In fact it is the great sacrament. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, "the source and summit of the Christian life." But to some people the Mass is simply an enactment of the Last Supper. Those folks do not realize the power of the Holy Spirit. It is he who transforms the bread and wine into the very Body and Blood of Jesus. But not just to look at and adore (altho to do that is to do something truly great) but much more to enter into the sacrifice--the self offering--of Jesus to his Father which he accomplished on the cross.

The other sacraments are likewise actions of the Holy Spirit. In baptism we see the water, but by faith know it is the Holy Spirit. In the anointing of the sick, we feel the oil on the forehead and hands, but it is the Holy Spirit who heals. The very words say that. "By this holy anointing may God help you with the grace of his Holy Spirit." In confession we hear the words of absolution, but it is the Holy Spirit who forgives.

Mentioning confession brings us to today's Gospel. When Jesus appeared to his apostles that first Easter Sunday, he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them." This of course refers to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but it also establishes a standard for following Jesus.

I often hear people tell me, "Father, there is someone I have a very hard time forgiving." They mention it in the sacrament of penance as they ask God for his pardon. Now, I can say a lot of nice things to that person to try to convince him to take the necessary steps. I can beautifully describe the peace he will feel when he finally lets go of the bitterness which is poisoning him. I can say all those things, but I know how very difficult it is to actually do them.

And I also know how easy it is to fool oneself in this area. Certain people will confidently tell me that they have nothing against anyone, that they love everybody. But it does not take long to see they are self-deceived because they seethe with resentments. Forgiveness is hard. In fact, it is impossible for us as humans. Only the Holy Spirit can truly forgive.

How hard it can be to let go of past hurts can be seen a local news item. In one of the evangelical churches, some former members have accused their pastor of damaging them. The charges go back more than twenty years but the accusers are still carrying terrible anger. They want their hurt acknowledged; they want the pastor to ask them forgiveness.

I do not want to make light of the charges of those men. There is much to say about them, but before commenting I would like to say something about accusations. They are easy to make and the media can magnify their plausibility. A priest of our archdiocese gave a humorous presentation on what modern technology can do to create a false impression. In fact he utilized my website to illustrate the danger. He used a picture of me holding up a baby I had baptized, then morphed it with a foto of a couple I had married. What he created was a picture of me holding the bride in my arms! Everyone was amused altho I reflected that my life expectancy could have drastically reduced if someone sent it to the groom. Or that the bishop may have scratched his head and given me a call if someone slipped it under his door.

The sad part in all this is that our society misleads even people who make true accusations. They are told they that making them public will contribute to their "healing process." Maybe yes, maybe no. Still we have come to believe hurts can be healed thru legal processes--and media exposure. This is a great deception. Not that there is no place for lawsuits, but we will be so disappointed if we think this world's justice can ever heal our souls. There is only One who can do that. The One who created the human soul.

That is what I wish to leave you with this Sunday. The words of Jesus that thru the Holy Spirit we receive not only forgiveness, but the power to forgive those who have harmed us. There is a beautiful prayer to the Him: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love. That is our greatest need--the fire of the Holy Spirit. We know that the world began with fire--the incredible energy of the Big Bang. We want some share of that fire in our hearts. The prayer continues: Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And you will renew the face of the earth. The Holy Spirit is the one who creates and recreates. We turn to him this Pentecost Sunday and ask that the fire of his love will fill our hearts.

From the Archives:

Pentecost 2011: It Was the Holy Ghost
2010: The Power of the Holy Spirit
2009: The Soul's Most Welcome Guest
2008: Double Gift
2007: With You Always
2006: He Testifies to the Truth
2005: The Greatest Unused Power
2004: A Man Open to the Holy Spirit
2003: To Drink of One Spirit
2002: Healing of Memories
2001: Hateful Comparisons & Precious Gifts
2000: The Spirit & The Flesh
1999: Each in His Native Language
1998: Empty Rites?

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Footnote to comments on World Civilization Course: There is a lot one could say about this high school textbook. It purports to be comprehensive, but it leaves a lot out. For example, its ample index does not have an entry for Mother Theresa or Pope John Paul II. Even from a secular point of view they are two people who had a deep and ongoing impact on our world. By way of contrast, the textbook did have a section on Betty Friedan! Subsequently I came across this quote from University of Wisconsin Professor Stanley Payne about the current state of history studies:

Major themes are replaced by comparatively minor considerations, which emphasize small groups, deviants and cultural oddities. Most studies are required to fit somewhere within the new sacred trinity of race, class and gender - the new "cultural Marxism." Research that does not conform to these criteria is increasingly eliminated from the universities, where hiring practices in the humanities and social science have become blatantly discriminatory. (from "Controversies over History in Contemporary Spain")

Reasons Young People Leave Their Faith - Presentation for Monroe Christian Pastors. (For pdf format click here)