The Descent of the Holy Spirit

Fr Frank O’Dea SSS

Homily: Pentecost Sunday, 2011
Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Corinthians 12: 3b-7, 12-13; John 20: 19-23

In John’s gospel Jesus sends the Holy Spirit on the disciples on the evening of the day of the resurrection, not nine days later as in the Acts of the Apostles.

This apparent contradiction need not disturb us. The evangelists felt free to arrange events as it suited the spiritual message they wanted to get across.

The gospels are not biographies in the modern sense of the word.

The first instruction that Jesus gave to the disciples was to go out and continue the mission that he himself had been given by the Father but was interrupted by his cruel death.

The first reading tells us of this powerful event – the rush of a violent wind and tongues of fire coming down on each of the disciples. This is graphic metaphorical language to describe the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The first disciples were faithful to Jesus’ instruction to spread the good news. They did this to a gathering of people from around the world, each person hearing the message in their own language.

This event symbolizes what has happened over the centuries – the gospel has been proclaimed in every language in every country over 2000 years.

Pentecost is thought of as the birthday of the church.

The church is a divine institution powered by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

We can be proud of the extraordinary missionary zeal of those who travelled to distant countries, often giving their lives.

However, the church is also human and subject to the frailties of human nature.

We have to recognize the negative aspects of the history of the church – persecuting the Jews for the death of Jesus, fighting wars with Protestants, crusades against the Muslims, the inquisition, and in modern times the sex abuse crisis.

I would like us to look at the church as it is today in Australia, and to do that from the point of view of priests.

I’ll use the book, Our Fathers, by Chris McGillion and John O’Carroll, John Garratt Publishing, 2011.

It’s a survey of about 500 priests and the subtitle is: What Australian Catholic Priests Really Think about their Lives and their Church.

The priests were given a number of statements and asked whether they agree, disagree or are uncertain.

I know statistics can be boring but I do think these figures are not only important but quite fascinating. After all, priests are at the forefront of the Church’s ministry, where the action is.

One of the most significant results of the survey is that over 90% of priests say their life has been fulfilling. I find that’s very encouraging, giving much needed hope.

A 51-year-old NSW priest said:

Once I went to the seminary, I knew that was it; I knew that was where I belonged. There was something inside of me that said ‘I’m home’ and I’ve never really felt any different about that.

However, there is a lot of discontent among priests. 64% say the Vatican doesn’t understand the challenges facing priests today.

A Victorian priest of 49 says:

I believe the gulf between the laity and priests and their life issues, and the hierarchical church is widening at an alarming rate.

49% say the bishops don’t understand the challenges facing priests.

A Tasmanian priest says:

I don’t know anyone who is totally content with their bishop.

A sizeable number say their work load is excessive and they have too little time for purely personal interests.

A 77-year-old West Australian priest says:

I get the impression that Catholics generally take priestly services and ministry for granted. Apart from isolated occasions, it can be a thankless experience.

45.94% of priests say egalitarianism is the defining strength of Australian priests, and that is a characteristic of the Australian people. We don’t have much in the way of upper class and lower class, what you might call the upstairs/downstairs syndrome.

Most priests don’t want to be always addressed as ‘father’. I guess this follows from the notion of egalitarianism. Priests don’t want to be seen as superior to the laity.

And priests would like to see more lay involvement in the church.

One priest said:

We really need to develop the ‘priesthood of the laity’ promoted by Vatican II and empower the laity to appreciate their priesthood and live it.

When asked to rank in order of importance the internal challenges facing the church, lay involvement was placed first. And 56% say the laity should be consulted on the appointment of priests.

70% of priests say celibacy should be optional.

A 53-year-old NSW priest said:

If we can have married deacons and we can have married priests that come into the Catholic church from other denominations, how can we actually say we can’t have married priests when we’ve actually got them.

A majority don’t agree the church has a clear vision for the church in Australia,

However, a majority are optimistic about the future of the church generally.

A 46-year-old priest said:

The vision I have for the church into the future which is able to withstand all sorts of changes is one which really builds up or revolves around the grassroots connections of the people.

There are many other issues dealt with in the book – these are just a sample of those that I think are the most important.

You won’t remember the figures of course but I just ask you to reflect on the general impression you got from these numbers.

Every Eucharist is another Pentecost. At mass the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts, minds and spirit to renew us in our spirituality.

So on this Pentecost Sunday, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to renew the church and bring about whatever changes are needed at this time.