The Spirit Blows Where It Wills
A good friend of mine retired a few years back as Director of Religious Education (DRE) at her local parish. Having spent her career in the ministry of faith formation, retirement hit her over the head like a ton of bricks. She knew she had to stay involved somehow. And that’s when something extraordinary happened. A nearby Episcopal church contacted her and asked if she would head up their religious education program. My friend is as Catholic as any pope or pastor, and yet, out of her deep sense of catholicity, she accepted the offer. “They are children of God, too,” she said. There may be other Catholics forming Protestant Christians in their faith, but I don’t know of them. I do know that walls of suspicion centuries old had to crumble to make this moment possible. In that, I recognize the work of the Spirit.
This year we commemorate 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation. I promised that from time to time we would come back to this topic throughout the year. Pentecost Sunday affords us a perfect opportunity for further reflection.
In the second reading today, we hear from St. Paul addressing the Corinthians: “Brothers and sisters:
No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” This must be the starting point for all our work towards Christian unity. As my DRE friend understood, we are not talking about strangers; we are talking about brothers and sisters. We begin to recognize that unity and uniformity are not the same thing.
“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.
As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”
What would you have done if you were in my friend’s shoes? What would I have done? On the one hand, I feel comfortable in the Catholic Church. I know its rituals and rhythms. I understand its teachings. It would be difficult to enter another Christian faith community where I am not as familiar with all of this. On the other hand, don’t we always say that we should get out of our comfort zones? When we are comfortable, we usually are not learning and growing. We stagnate. Moreover, in this case, we might fall into the danger of theoretically thinking of our Protestant brothers and sisters as family, but when Sunday rolls around, all we can see are divisions. Then, the family is in trouble.
In their document on ecumenism, the bishops at Vatican II echoed Paul’s understanding of diversity and unity. They wrote, “While preserving unity in essentials, let all in the church, according to the office entrusted to them, preserve a proper freedom in the various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in the variety of liturgical rites, and even in the theological elaborating of revealed truth. In all things let charity prevail” (Unitatis Redintegratio, #4). Then, more specifically addressing the presence of the Spirit at work in Protestant communities of faith, the bishops wrote, “Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among those separated from us. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood… Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brothers and sisters can contribute to our own edification” (UR #4, emphasis added).
Pentecost, it has often been noted, represents the reversal of Babel. Where once pride caused division and lack of understanding, now the Spirit brings unity in diversity. I would like to think that my friend represents the best of us. I would like to think that barriers of prejudice, pride, misunderstanding, and judgment are mostly giving way to respect for fellow members of the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, I have seen examples of the opposite as well. Recently I was told by a devout Evangelical that Catholicism is the beast that the Book of Revelation describes. And I heard a Catholic priest joke that “we” have the Real Presence but “they” have the Real Absence. None of this is helpful. The Spirit is not a Spirit of division and rivalry, but of unity and love. There is no “we” and “they.”
Christ Himself had to deal with this problem among his first disciples: “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not forbid him… For he that is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:38-40).
As we celebrate Pentecost, we would be wise to remember that the Spirit is not limited to our own Church. God is at work in the world beyond our borders. “The wind (the Spirit) blows where It wills” (John 3:8).
Photo credit: The Episcopal Church sign is from http://www.saintalbansepiscopal.org/2012/10/the-episcopal-church-welcomes-you.html