The great feast of Pentecost is rightly considered a celebration of the church’s birth. It was on this day that the first followers of Jesus Christ were empowered by the Holy Spirit to go out into the world and proclaim the Good News in both words and deeds.
What, if anything, does this birth story say to the church, today? In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis speaks to the contemporary challenge presented by the Pentecost experience:
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. (no. 259)
This image of a church “going forth” into the world, in many ways, is at the heart of Pope Francis’ ecclesial and ethical vision. Often in his pastoral teachings, pope returns to this call for a spirit-driven church engaged in the world. In his Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated People (11/21/14), he put it this way:
I also expect from you what I have asked all the members of the Church: to come out of yourselves and go forth to the existential peripheries. “Go into all the world”…(cf. Mk 16:15) A whole world awaits us: men and women who have lost all hope, families in difficulty, abandoned children, young people without a future, the elderly, sick and abandoned, those who are rich in the world’s goods but impoverished within, men and women looking for a purpose in life, thirsting for the divine.
Becoming a bold missionary church, however, is clearly not an easy task. As many of us know, there is always a temptation to resist change and take refuge in comfortable communities of likeminded people who look like us, vote like us and share the same tax bracket (see Evangelii Gaudium, nos. 33, 80, and 88). Clearly, witnessing to the Gospel of justice in a context marked by individualism, injustice, and indifference seems daunting. One need only consider the witness of Dorothy Day and Archbishop Oscar Romero to see how bold missionary efforts can foster opposition—even opposition from within the church!
Thankfully, we are not alone in this missionary task. God, through the Holy Spirit, empowers all of us to proclaim and serve the needs of the community with specific gifts. In this weekend’s reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul praises the diversity of these gifts, which, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, are given to us for the common good—for mission (Lumen Gentium, no. 12). Our challenge, then, as church today is to find ways to seek the Spirit in our midst and to work with others as we witness to God’s Kingdom in the world. But, we cannot do it alone.
Pentecost offers an opportunity for us to renew ourselves in the Spirit and the missionary call to go forth into the world together. As we celebrate this feast, let us join with Pope Francis to invite the Holy Spirit to “come and renew the Church, to stir and impel her to go forth boldly to evangelize all peoples” (Evangelii Gaudium, 261).