A Letter to the People of God in Broken Bay
Fr David Ranson
There is a perspective in theology that regards the event of Pentecost as the birth of the Church. On this day, the Spirit is poured out on the disciples. They are released from their disillusionments and their fears; they are enSpirited and emboldened to go out and to preach the Good News that the life of Christ is more powerful than death, that the self-sacrifice of his love has overpowered the forces of selfishness and suspicion, that the future stretches out beyond us as a constant invitation full of possibility. Our dead-ends have become new beginnings; our sunsets have been changed into dawns.
This is a remarkable acclamation. It is made even more so given that many around us are proclaiming not the birth of the Church but its death. Many are the occasions we hear about the decline of the Church. How can the Church ever recover from the challenges that threaten to engulf it, people ask?
But the Church is not dead. It lives! And, what is more, it will keep on living. It will keep on being birthed in new ways, in new places and at new times. This is our bold and proud affirmation on this day of Pentecost. It will be present, alive and active, because we are not dealing here with a mere human institution that is dependent on the idiosyncrasies and failure of its members. We are dealing here with a community of people enlivened by the very Spirit of God, brought into being by their shared experience of the life of Jesus Christ which keeps irrupting in the hearts of people and calling them into lives of discipleship.
Whenever I have fears about the future of the Church, I look around our own local communities of faith. There I see extraordinary sanctity. There I see people who in undramatic ways give of themselves with such love and generosity. There I see people who in the quietness of their hearts keep entrusting themselves into the power of God’s life. There I see every day people whose faith, hope and love cast light across the shadows that creep across the horizons of their lives. And in that light, I say to myself, ‘Here is the Church, and it is not dying. It breathes and lives with such strength and vigour.” And yes, the message of Jesus Christ will keep calling forth people to see their lives and their struggles through the meaning and the hope that it offers.
Our journey as a Church in Australia towards the Plenary Council of 2020 is a clear demonstration of this. Between May 2018 and March 2019, almost 17,500 submissions from individuals and groups of all sizes around Australia addressed the central question, “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?”
Today, the six themes that weave those reflections together are put before us. They are six in number. These six National Themes for Discernment invite us to reflect, to pray and to consider how we are being called as the People of God to be a Christ-centred Church in Australia, a people that is:
• Missionary and Evangelising;
• Inclusive, Participatory and Synodal;
• Prayerful and Eucharistic;
• Humble, Healing and Merciful;
• a Joyful, Hope-Filled and Servant Community;
• and one that is Open to Conversion, Renewal and Reform
Our discernment on these themes in the months ahead will be the way by which the Spirit might once again speak to us of possibility, of both fidelity and creativity in our responsibility to speak out the Gospel anew.
No, the Church is not dying. In fact, we cannot believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, which we have proclaimed throughout the season of Easter, without believing in the Church, the living Body of the Risen Christ. This is why we conclude the season with this celebration of the birth of the Church. The life of the Risen Christ is made present precisely in the community of those who find their future in his memory.
Often, we can think, if only the Spirit came as a powerful wind which stirred our faith in the way that those first disciples experienced; if only the Spirit came as fire to enflame our cold hearts and enabled us with courage and confidence in life! But we must remember that the Spirit of God comes to us in other ways, as well.
The Spirit comes to us, too, in the form of the breath of Jesus. Jesus breathes on his friends and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit is given, therefore, not only as a powerful wind but also in the gentleness of a breath. This is a wonderful paradox: the Spirit as both a mighty wind and a gentle breath! The Spirit as both strong courage and at the same time quiet reassurance which is peace. The Spirit comes to us then when we are feeling fragile through those moments of deep quiet when though we do not have the answer, we know everything will be alright; the Spirit is given to us when we experience a sense of trust when all the circumstances would normally be making us anxious; the Spirit is given to us at those moments when we have a quiet solid sense of purpose even though everything around us seems to be crumbling; the Spirit is given to us in the gentle smile of a friend, in the recognition of the beauty of our children even when they are the cause of a great deal of trouble, when a little ordinary scene outside the kitchen window captures our attention for its simplicity and wonder.
Today we open our hearts to the Spirit of God poured out on us. It is the Spirit that renews and re- creates. It is the Spirit that keeps giving birth to the Church. In that Spirit we celebrate what God is doing in us, and what God will always do in us, through us, and for us. In the Spirit, it is never the time for despair. It is always the time to celebrate possibility. Yes, on this day the Spirit overwhelms our timidity, our doubt, our anxiety and sends us forth to become a living sign of the power of God manifest in lives of faith, hope and love.