Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto.
At the beginning of this Easter Season, you and I celebrated Easter by renewing our baptismal promises. In the Ritual for Infant Baptism, there are about a hundred different readings that can be used at a baptism for a child. Despite this great variety, I find that I have used only one reading at almost all of the baptisms that I have celebrated in my years as a priest. The reading that I always use at baptism is the text from Matthew in which Jesus commissions His disciples to go out into the world and baptize all nations. The exact words that Jesus used are as follows: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the ages” (Matthew 28: 19-20). What strikes me most about this passage is the amazing promise that Christ has made to all of us through our Baptisms: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the ages.” Christ promises all of us that He is with us always, forever, until the end of time. Today, as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, Jesus tells us that He will fulfill this promise to be with us always by sending the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts.
As Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel from John, after He has gone to be with the Father, He will remain with us and dwell in us because He and the Father will send the Holy Spirit to dwell in us. It is the fulfillment of the promise to remain with us forever that we celebrate today as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday. In our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear that as the disciples were gathered in fear in the upper room, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and they were transformed. Immediately, they began to speak in tongues about the Good News of Christ’s saving resurrection and began to proclaim to the world the salvation to be found in Jesus Christ. This event marks the foundation of the Church. Those who were once afraid to be seen in public after Christ’s arrest, for fear that they too be arrested, are so transformed that they are no longer afraid and are confident that Christ is with them. All the things that Jesus did in His lifetime, they now begin to do in His name. The Holy Spirit allows them to dwell in Christ’s presence and be confident that He is still alive and with them. Because of His presence with them, they know the peace that nothing can defeat them as long as they trust in the power of Christ to raise them up. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ remains with us today and can be invited into our hearts in order that we may know His loving presence in our midst. This presence gives us the certainty that when Christ is with us, there is no power on earth that can overcome us and that we will all share in His resurrection.
In a particular way, the Solemnity of Pentecost marks the birth of the Church. In a very beautiful way, Paul tells us in today’s second reading from His letter to the Romans of the dignity that belongs to us because the Spirit binds us to Christ. Because the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts, we live in Christ and He lives in us. We are to call God our Father, just as Jesus did. To be a member of the Church means to be a member of the Body of Christ. When we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism, we are grafted into the Body of Christ. What this means is made clear in the Acts of the Apostles. Throughout all of the Gospels it is Jesus who reveals the love of the Father, touches and heals people and forgives their sins. Once the Holy Spirit comes down on the Apostles, it is they and the Church who continue this work. Throughout the Gospels, the followers of Jesus are referred to as His friends, His disciples, His apostles. After the Pentecost event, they are known as the Church — or ecclesia — as they are called in Latin. From that point on, Christ’s work will continue in the world and His presence will be encountered through the saving work of the Church.
While He was alive, Jesus promised His disciples that wherever two or three of them were gathered in His name, He would be present with them. So often today, many people think that they can have an experience of God which can occur without the Church or community. And yet, every time Christ appears to any of His disciples, or we hear of Him being present to people, it is always in a group. Jesus appears to a group of women after His resurrection, He appears to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and there is always a large crowd of disciples in the upper room when He appears to them. The documents of the Second Vatican Council have pointed out very clearly that Jesus came to save us through a community. This is why He always sent the Apostles out two by two and that He is always asking them to meet in groups. We hear that the early Church continued to encounter Christ in the living body of His Church as they gathered from Sunday to Sunday to listen to the teachings of the Apostles, engage in the breaking of the bread and prayer. This is exactly what we do from Sunday to Sunday to Sunday as we come together to listen to the Scriptures, celebrate the Eucharist and offer our prayers to the Father. As we ask that God’s Holy Spirit transform the gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, so too we pray that as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we may be filled with His Holy Spirit and take him out to the world. In his excellent book called, The Holy Longing, Fr. Rolheiser speaks about the importance of belonging to a Church to avoid the fate of falling into a fantasy religion. He says people who think they can know Jesus outside of the Church that He established do not know Jesus at all, but have rather created for themselves a fantasy notion of Christ. The purpose of the Church is to keep us real in our relationship with Jesus. It does so by calling us to accept our humanity and the humanity of others and by transmitting to us the Holy Spirit through that humanity. For those who have been keeping away from church throughout the pandemic, this Pentecost is a time to heed the invitation to return to in-person Mass celebrated live in the community of the Church.
Once we have been gathered together within the Church and have received the Holy Spirit through our encounter with Christ in the Church, we are formed into Christ’s Body on earth so that we may be sent out from Mass to make Him present in the world. As we hear Christ’s Word, receive the Holy Spirit through the sacraments and are sent out into the world, we are called to take Jesus into the world in which we live and work and have our existence. For some people this is why they do not like to come to Mass— it means hearing what Christ expects of them. In their own private fantasy religion, those who do not come to Church regularly can think only of what they think Christ ought to do for them. To be a member of the Church means to have a mission. I have often repeated the beautiful words of St. Theresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on the world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. …Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are His body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” This is really what the Solemnity of Pentecost is all about. Christ fulfills His promise to be with us until the end of the ages by sending us the gift of His Holy Spirit so that He might dwell within us and we might continue His saving work on earth through acts of charity and compassion. A word that Cardinal Collins has been using throughout his episcopal mission in the Archdiocese of Toronto for the responsibility that we all have for the life of the Church is “stewardship.” Stewardship calls all of us as members of the Church to use our time, treasure and talent for the good of the entire Christian community. Stewardship calls us to give back to Christ from what we have received in His gifts and graces.
This weekend, a number of young people from our community will be confirmed. In the Sacrament of Confirmation they were sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they might witness to Christ’s presence in the world. I often like to think of what happened to the Apostles at Pentecost as a way of thinking what is to become of us as a result of the gift of the Holy Spirit that we receive in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Before they received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples were terrified and were afraid to witness to Christ’s presence in their lives. While he was alive and with them, the disciples had received a gift of the Spirit that allowed them to be Christ’s friends. Much as we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, they had a relationship with Him. However, they had not been prepared to witness to Him. Even after the Last Supper, when Jesus had explained to them that He would die for them, so that they might have eternal life, they still failed to understand the extent of His love for them. It is only after Christ had appeared to them for the forty days after His resurrection and spoke to them of the gift of the Spirit that He would send to them that they began to understand that He really would always love them and be with them. Only then could they comprehend the gift of the Sprit that they were to receive and realize they had nothing to fear as Christ was at their side.
Throughout the Easter Season, Christ continually speaks of the peace that He wishes His followers to know because He is always with them. Each time He appears to them, He states simply: “Peace be with you.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples that the reason they can be at peace in the face of the tribulations that they will face after His departure is because He will be dwelling with them through the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, they are to be at peace, knowing that Christ is with them and that He has overcome death. This same peace is to be given to those who are given their mission at Confirmation. After they have received the gift of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, those who are confirmed hear the words of Christ spoken to them— “Peace be with you.” When each of us were confirmed, we were called by name and told: “N. Receive the gift of the Holy Sprint.” Immediately afterwards we heard Christ’s greeting, “Peace be with you.” Each time we come to Mass and Christ is with us in His body and blood on the altar, we share that same greeting of peace, reminding us that Christ has been faithful to His promise to be with us until the end of the ages. All we need do to allow Christ to be present to us is be present to Him as He wishes to come to us from Sunday to Sunday at the Eucharist and in the Church’s sacramental life. Like the young people who came to Church this Sunday to be Confirmed, at every Eucharistic celebration we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit that allows Christ to be present to us. Through His presence, we receive our mission to make Him present in the world. When we are sent from Mass, we are sent like the disciples who received the Holy Spirit to share the Good News with the World. However, in order that we might receive Christ and be sent, it is necessary that we be present at in-person Mass.
Today we celebrate that Christ has fulfilled His promise to be with us to the end of the ages. However, we are also reminded that while He is present, it is also up to us to open the doors of our hearts to allow Him to be present to us and our lives. Pentecost reminds us of the peace we are to know because of our relationship with Christ through His Church. It also reminds us that Christ who is present in His Church cannot be present to us if we are not present to the Church, which is His body. May this Pentecost be a time for all of us to invite Christ into our hearts and lives by taking up our place and mission within His body, the Church, by once again attending in-person Sunday Mass.
Blessings on the Solemnity of Pentecost.
This homily is based on the readings for Pentecost Sunday, Year C: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; Romans 8:8-17; and John 14:15-16, 23b-26.