Some years ago, I got a call from a reporter from the Orange County Register. She asked me my reaction to a statement that Pope Francis had recently made. Now, I generally pride myself on being up with the latest happenings in Rome but I had to admit I missed that latest statement from the ‘pope of surprises!’ Speaking to a group of women religious at the time, she shared with me the Holy Father’s desire to set up a commission to study the question of the admission of women into the order of deacons. Composing myself and trying not to act too surprised, I offered a few positive comments, welcoming his decision being careful not saying too much until I actually read what the Holy Father said. Afterward, I chuckled to myself realizing that as an avid follower of all things Vatican, even I couldn’t keep up with Pope Francis and the lasting mark he is having in reshaping so much of the identity of the Church today.
Reflecting on this incident in light of the great Feast of Pentecost that gathers us in celebration this morning, I could not help but think of the continuing dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of our Church.
In the Nicene Creed that we pray each and every Sunday we proclaim our belief in the Holy Spirit, the ‘Lord and giver of life.’ As we all know, only living realities dynamically, grow, change and develop. Dead things do not – they remain lifeless. For nearly 2000 years, the reality of the Church that came to birth on that first Pentecost Sunday has experienced ongoing moments of growth, development and change. In the power of the Holy Spirit, the church in many respects remains the mystery of the great ‘both/and.’ In other words, she remains both the constant presence in time of the Body of Christ experienced in the faith and ministry of her believers – AND, a reality that is continually open to reshaping and renewing how the good news is proclaimed in every time and age the church finds herself.
That living witness to both the church’s stability in its core beliefs as well as openness to change and ongoing reformation and renewal can be witnessed historically in the 21 great councils of our Church. These great moments of reform and renewal are a living witness to the ancient Latin maxim: Ecclesia semper reformanda est – The church is always in a state of reform or renewal. By virtue of the Holy Spirit’s presence enlivening the good news of Christ that is the essence of our very existence, we have all witnessed the great prophets of renewal and reform in the life of our Church down through the centuries. While prophets are often rarely recognized for their gifts in the present moment, it is only with the gift of time that we have come to recognize their genius for being instruments of God’s renewing presence in the life of our Church. Whether it is one like St. Thomas Aquinas who in his own time was condemned for daring to introduce new methods of theological inquiry and reflection or Pope St. John XXIII who called for the opening of the windows of the Church to let in the new fresh air leading to the call of the Second Vatican Council, these and countless other women and men of the Church down through the centuries have been instruments of the Spirit who is indeed the ‘Lord and giver of life.’
On this Pentecost Sunday let us be grateful for being a church that is ‘ever ancient, and ever new!” Our wrestling as a church with the questions that modernity inevitably brings, rather than being a threat are opportunities to let the life of the Spirit take hold of us anew to create and fashion a church whose Christ is anxious to enfold all into His loving and merciful embrace.