What is the greatest need of the Church? - Pentecost 2015

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > What is the greatest need of the Church? - Pentecost 2015

Pope Paul VI has recently been beatified by Pope Francis. In a General Audience on November 29, 1972 he wondered out loud about the Church of his time and what was its greatest need. He was pondering this in the years following the Second Vatican Council. The Council was inspired by a spirit of optimism and a desire to engage with the modern world. The latter Council documents in particular were hopeful of a new era of close co-operation between the Church and the world. There was a sense that this co-operation would usher in a new spirit for humanity.

Yet the aftermath of the Council was one of turbulence for the Church. There was innovation and experimentation not envisioned by the Council Fathers, no more evident than in the Sacred Liturgy. Many priests and religious lost their sense of vocation and left the priesthood and religious life. Following the teaching of Humanae Vitae in 1968, there was wholescale dissent in the Church and serious challenge to the teaching authority of the Pope.

These and so many other concerning movements within the Church caused Pope Paul VI much anguish of heart.
Against this background one can appreciate the musings of the Pope. So what did he see as the greatest need of the Church at that time?

He said this: “What do we feel is the first and last need of this blessed and beloved Church of ours? We must say it, almost trembling and praying, because as you know well, this is the Church’s mystery and life: the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He it is who animates and sanctifies the Church… The Church needs her perennial Pentecost; she needs fire in her heart, words on her lips, prophecy in her outlook”.

Pope Paul VI was witnessing turbulence within the members of the Church. He felt his own powerlessness to guide the Church as he wished to. He felt his own impotence. He was aware of the fragility of the unity of the Church. He could see that it was beyond him and beyond the human resources of the Church.
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There was only one means for the Church to remain faithful to its mission. There was only one source of its unity. There was only one way in which the Church could hold fast to the truth. And that was the Holy Spirit.  

Today as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost it is worth noting that the Lord told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem before commencing the mission he had given them to go out to all the world and preach the Gospel. He told them to wait until they were “clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:49). He knew that it would be impossible for his Apostles to carry out this work without the Holy Spirit. They had become disoriented and filled with fear at the arrest and subsequent execution of their Master. They were confused and uncertain about their future. They, as human beings, were incapable of carrying out the work entrusted to them.

Within the limits of their humanity the task of proclaiming the Gospel and building the church was completely beyond them. That is why they were instructed to wait in Jerusalem. His command to preach the Gospel and establish the Church could only occur in the power of the Spirit. 

And this is precisely what happened. These frightened men of limited faith and human capacity became bold announcers of the Gospel. Immediately after the Holy Spirit came upon them St Peter went forth and gave the first proclamation of the Christian Gospel: “this man Jesus whom you crucified has risen from the dead. He is both Lord and Christ”.

St Luke tells us that his listeners were “cut to the heart”. There was a convicting power in his message. This power was not Peter’s eloquence but the Spirit who inspired his words. St Paul often spoke of the power of God released in his preaching. He knew that the Spirit of God was at work in him. This was no human enterprise. This was not just enthusiasm or conviction, but, as he said, “the power of God to save”.

Pope Paul VI made a very interesting comment in his great document on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, (n.75) that the Holy Spirit is “the soul of the Church”. The Holy Spirit is indeed the principle of life for the Church. The Church is not a human structure relying upon human skill, expertise and capacity. The Church is a work of God. It is the product of the action of the Spirit. At the heart of the Church abides the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that breathes life and fruitfulness into the Church.

He said, “The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. It is He who explains to the faithful the deep meaning of the teaching of Jesus and of His mystery. It is the Holy Spirit who, today just as at the beginning of the Church, acts in every evangelizer who allows himself to be possessed and led by Him. The Holy Spirit places on his lips the words which he could not find by himself, and at the same time the Holy Spirit predisposes the soul of the hearer to be open and receptive to the Good News and to the kingdom being proclaimed”. (EN n.75)

That is why Pope Paul VI could say with deep conviction back in 1972: “The Church needs her perennial Pentecost; she needs fire in her heart, words on her lips, prophecy in her outlook”.

The Pope could also see that his plea was not in vain. Three years later he wrote: “We live in the Church at a privileged moment of the Spirit. Everywhere people are trying to know Him better as the Scripture reveals Him. They are happy to place themselves under His inspiration. They are gathering about Him; they want to let themselves be led by Him.” (EN n.75) He could see signs of the presence and activity of the Spirit. This was a source of great consolation to him. 

At this moment the Church here in Australia faces a dark time as the sins of members of the Church are daily headlines. This is a time of deep shame for the Church. This is a time in which we are humbled. It can also be a time in which we are purified. It is a time when we see clearly that the sinful humanity of the Church has seriously failed. This is the time when we turn to God with contrite hearts and pray that God will see our failure and powerlessness and come to our aid. We need the Holy Spirit so much.

What is the greatest need for the Church right now? The need is for the Holy Spirit to once again make us holy and fill us with renewed faith and hope, and be the power behind our mission.

Come Holy Spirit.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, 23 May 2015