Sunday — Pentecost Sunday — is our birthday!
Happy Birthday! I learned in second grade — so I know it has to be true — that Pentecost is the “birthday of the Church.” This is the day Jesus sent the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and His mother, giving them the courage, wisdom, and zeal to carry out the last command He had given them nine days earlier when He had ascended into heaven, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 28: 19) The work of the Church began.
You and I are the grateful heirs. We prize belonging to the Church. Our Catholic faith is that “pearl of great price,” to which we cling, passed on to us, often at the cost of great sacrifice, by our parents and grandparents. This great Catholic landscape of New York is spiced with churches, parishes, and communities founded by our great-grandparents who came to this country poor in the eyes of the world, but rich in the eyes of faith. They brought with them the treasure of their Catholic faith. Along with family, their Church was of supreme importance.
On her deathbed in 1821, our first native-born American saint, a native New Yorker, Elizabeth Ann Seton, whispered last words to her sisters: “Be daughters of the Church!” On this Pentecost Sunday, I shout out to all of you, “Be sons and daughters of the Church!”
My file of “favorite quotes from Blessed John Paul II” is a thick-one, but at the top is this one: “Love for Jesus and His Church must be the passion of our lives.”
We Catholics passionately love our Church. Like our family, we are “born into it” at baptism; like a mother, our Church strengthens us in Confirmation, forgives us in Reconciliation, feeds us in the Eucharist, consoles us with the Anointing of the Sick, and gives us away in Matrimony or Holy Orders. Like our family, our Church is there at birth, maturity, sickness, and death. Like a family, we might quarrel at times and complain about one another, but, like a family, we rarely leave, can always return, and carry our family name, traits, and pride forever. The Church is our spiritual family.
Many people spend a lot of time asking, “What is the Church?” Before long, they discover that the answer can only be found if they re-word the question: “Who is the Church?” Because, simply put, as St. Paul teaches, the Church is Christ, a lesson he learned on the road to Damascus, when the Lord told him that, in persecuting the Church, Paul was in fact persecuting Jesus Himself. (Acts 9: 4-5)
When I was a new priest, my first pastor, Monsignor Cornelius Flavin, had a great reputation for winning converts. He started every set of instructions with three simple definitions: a theist is one who believes in God; a Christian is a theist who believes Jesus Christ is God; a Catholic is a Christian who believes that the Church is Jesus Christ.
That is a crucial lesson for today. Ronald Rolheiser observes that people today want “Christ without the Church, a King without His Kingdom.” We as Catholics say, sorry, but you cannot split them. Jesus remains alive, powerful, accessible, and active in His Church! The Church is Christ. As the French theologian de Lubac asked, “For what could I know of Him [Jesus] without her [the Church]?”
Now, let’s face it, at times it can be very difficult to love the Church. Again, the Church is like our family. At times it is hard to love our family, as we recall hurts, dysfunction, and sad episodes. The Church is Christ, and since Christ was true God and true man, the Church is divine and human, too. In her divine order, she is beautiful, holy, spotless; on the human side, she can be sinful, ugly, and clumsy. That’s because her members are; that’s because I am; that’s because you are.
A few years back, a couple wrote me a letter tearing the Church apart. They concluded, “We’re going to leave the Catholic Church and find a perfect one.” “Good luck,” I replied. “But, if you find one, don’t join it, because then it won’t be perfect anymore.”
Listen to what Pope John Paul II spoke to a million young people at a World Youth Day:
I should like to ask you, dear young people, a favor: be patient with the Church! The Church is always a community of weak and imperfect individuals. God has placed His work of salvation, His plans and His desires, in human hands. This is a great risk, but there is no other Church than the one founded by Christ. He wants us to be His collaborators in the world and in the Church, with all our deficiencies and shortcomings.
Flannery O’Connor, the renowned southern writer, who loved and cherished her Catholic faith, knew the imperfection of the Church. “It’s not so much suffering for the Church that I mind,” she commented, “but suffering from it!” She was right: there is a lot in our Church that tempts us to give up, to get cynical, to leave. Jesus asks us, as He asked His apostles when people abandoned Him, “Are you going to leave me, too.” With St. Peter all speak up, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone” — and, we add, Your Church — “have the words of everlasting life.”
We love the Church, warts and all. We stick with her. We pass on the faith to our children. We fight the “choice” fallacy that holds up the pagan gods of privacy, convenience, and freedom, with its chant of “leave me alone.” The Church is at odds with this contemporary pantheon. Listen again to Father Rolheiser:
What we must challenge is the pathological individualism and excessive sense of privacy within culture. Especially must we challenge the fallacy, as omni-present as the air we breath, that our lives are all our own, that we owe nothing to anyone besides ourselves, and that we can buy into family, neighborhood, and Church how and when we like it.
We are Catholics; we belong to the Church, at the core of our being. We did not choose Jesus and His Church; they chose us. And we are eternally grateful they did.
Our faith, our Church, goes back to Jesus, His Mother, His Apostles, His Spirit unleashed at Pentecost. It is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
“Love for Jesus and His Church must be the passion of our lives!”
A blessed Pentecost! Happy Birthday!