Pentecost Sunday – May 15, 2016
Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104: 1,24,29-30,31,34; 1 Cor 12:3b-7,12-13; Jn 20:19-23
Pentecost seems to be the only time many of us are completely at ease with those who are “on fire” with God. On any other day, when meeting evangelizers who are so bold, we might well agree with those in the crowd from Acts that the preachers are intoxicated with alcohol rather than the Holy Spirit. In my own experience as a Catholic, I must admit instances of being ill at ease with many who have preached with such public vigor. And in those few moments when I have been on the other side of things, feeling called to speak boldly for the Gospel, I have always had to ask whether it was inspired by the Spirit or whether I have been otherwise intoxicated – perhaps by pride, fear, or both.
Preaching the good news and calling others to repentance is surely not for the faint of heart. But it is also not just as simple as fulfilling one’s moral obligation to speak the truth. In the First Reading from Acts for this Pentecost Sunday, the crowds were astounded first by the fact they could understand the apostles and only later by the content of what they proclaimed. Pentecost thus serves as a helpful reminder that it is not enough to speak truth (or post it, tweet it, or blog about it). The moral responsibility goes beyond that; it is to speak truth so that it can be heard and understood.
Since the passing of Daniel Berrigan, SJ less than two weeks ago, I have been thinking about his witness. Berrigan was unafraid to be on fire with the Holy Spirit during each and every moment of the liturgical year. Some found his proclamations to be misguided and his actions offensive, but for others he was a faithful man of conscience, a poet, priest, and prophet as many of his obituaries have headlined.
On retreat with Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1964, Berrigan (along with his Josephite priest brother, Philip) became committed in a particular way to peacemaking and the denunciation of war and nuclear weapons. In May 1968, the Berrigan brothers and seven others burned three hundred draft files in Catonsville, Maryland, releasing a statement which including the following:
Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children. And for thinking of that other Child, of whom the poet Luke speaks…
We say: killing is disorder, life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize. For the sake of that order, we risk our liberty, our good name…
We have chosen to say, with the gift of our liberty, if necessary our lives: the violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of the truth stops here, this war stops here.
The action, drawing great attention in the United States and around the world, inspired hundreds of similar such demonstrations. This was just one moment, one glimpse into a life radically anchored by faith, beauty, justice, and peace. Berrigan may not have been heard by everyone and much remains untransformed in the wake of his departure. But, on the day of his funeral, there was his story on the front page of the New York Times and accounts of his Mass of Christian burial make it abundantly clear how well Berrigan has been heard over the 94 years of his discipleship.
Berrigan did not simply proclaim truth, but did so in the various languages of those he addressed. If this Jesuit priest had kept inside a church sanctuary to preach, the message would have remained untranslated. But in burning draft cards and hammering the nosecone apparatus for nuclear weapons, he attempted to speak a language that others could comprehend. In good Pentecost fashion, it seemed the world was astounded first by the fact they could understand this Jesuit priest – that he spoke in their native tongue – and only later by the content of what he proclaimed.
Pope Francis is another Jesuit who seems to recognize the moral responsibility to proclaim truth and good news such that it can be heard. And so when he came to address the United States Congress, he spoke to us in the language of our own history, identifying four great Americans (Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton).
This Pentecost, we are invited to speak boldly and to be attentive to the language of those whom we address. Our hope is that some might say one day, “. . . yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.” (Acts 2:11) In closing, we can remind ourselves of the task of Pentecos from Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium:
Spirit-filled evangelizers means evangelizers fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, the Spirit made the apostles go forth from themselves and turned them into heralds of God’s wondrous deeds, capable of speaking to each person in his or her own language. The Holy Spirit also grants the courage to proclaim the newness of the Gospel with boldness (parrhesía) in every time and place, even when it meets with opposition. Let us call upon him today, firmly rooted in prayer, for without prayer all our activity risks being fruitless and our message empty. Jesus wants evangelizers who proclaim the good news not only with words, but above all by a life transfigured by God’s presence. (Para. 259)