St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.
In 1999, in preparation for the second millennium, Pope John Paul II invited representatives from 54 different groups around the world to come to Rome. These groups were started over the last several decades and were all started by lay people, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To give you an example, some of the groups were, the Focolare movement, Marriage Encounter, Cenacolo, Charismatic Renewal, Cursillo. All of these different movements within the Church have been started by lay people and are really about different ways of living out the Gospel in daily life. These movements have been so fruitful, that most of them have spread all over the world. For that meeting in Rome, there were 400,000 people present representing these 54 different movements. This event was a celebration of what God is doing all over the world.
It is good to hear about these things every so often, because it would be easy to get the impression that the Church is dying, or that religion is on its way out. We won’t hear about this sort of thing on the TV, or in the papers, but it is happening all around us.
Just to give you an example closer to home of the power of God’s Spirit working among us. For many years I was part of a prayer group of young people in Galway, started by a young lay woman. From that group there are currently four people in religious life (two contemplative sisters and two priests), and there are about twenty married couples, but more importantly it has helped many people come back to their faith and grow in their faith. Most of the group are now in their 50s but they are people who are really trying to live out the Gospel in their daily lives. It was thanks to that group that I came back to my own faith, because I had also drifted away, and then later I became a priest. That is the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work, and praise God for it.
God doesn’t wait until we are ready. God acts when the time is right. He doesn’t wait for the hierarchy of his Church to decide what to do. I don’t mean that they are not important, but think of the times that Peter and Paul came to pray with people and before they had even started, the Holy Spirit came down on them. The Lord sends his Spirit to inspire and move people to step out in faith and live the Gospel, and they in turn move others, until soon the people are alive with faith again. In the Gospels Jesus says to the Pharisees, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit’ (Matthew 21:43). God doesn’t wait until we are ready. God inspires people to act when the time is right and that’s why new movements and religious orders keep springing up.
One time when I was working in a hospital in Ireland, I came into one area where I was going to visit patients who were newly admitted. One of the nurses told me that a man had been admitted who had taken an overdose of poison and was going to die. She said that he probably wouldn’t be too receptive to me. I decided to visit him anyway and prayed to God for guidance. When I got to the door of his room, which was open, I could see a young man by his bedside, who turned out to be his son. I stood at the door and I just said, ‘I heard what happened and I’m sorry. Do you regret it?’ The man said that he did regret it. As soon as he said that, I felt this strong prompting inside me saying, ‘That is a confession, so don’t ask for one.’ I really felt that was the Spirit speaking to me. I asked the man if he would like to talk, but he emphatically said that he did not want to make a confession. I told him that he didn’t have to. I spoke to him for a few minutes and he told me that on the spur of the moment he had taken a drink of a weed killer called Paraquot. The doctors told me that they could do nothing and that this would just burn through his insides and kill him. He now had to face his family. I asked him if he would like me to anoint him. Again he said that he didn’t want to make a confession. I told him that it wasn’t necessary and that the anointing included the forgiveness of his sins. And so I anointed him and left. He died a few days later.
Some weeks later a friend of mine was talking about a man in hospital who had taken an overdose of poison. He had refused to see two priests, but eventually he did see a priest, was anointed and died peacefully. It was the same man, but my friend didn’t realise I was the third priest. If I had known that he had refused to see two other priests, I probably would not have gone to him. But the Lord sent me to that man, he made his peace with God and died reconciled. That was the power of the Holy Spirit guiding me to him, just as we read of the Apostles being guided to different people.
Another time I was in one of the hospitals here in Fort Myers. While I was in the elevator a young woman asked me if I was a priest. Then she asked me how I could get a priest to come and visit her husband. I offered to go right way and we went to his room. He had fallen and broken his back and was still unconscious. I asked her if she would like me to give him the sacrament of the sick (anointing). She awkwardly told me that they were not married in the Church. I told her that this wasn’t the time to worry about that and I anointed him. She was in tears and then asked me to bless her and her children which I did. That showed her that God was with her and looking out for her. What a privilege it is for me to be that instrument that God uses and this happens to me all the time.
Do you know what God’s Spirit is doing in the Church all over the world over the last few years? He is stripping it down so that it can become beautiful once again. Because of the scandals, He is removing all the prestige, power and respectability which we had come to depend on. We had become too powerful, too prestigious and it was causing us to wander away from what the Gospel is really about. The scandals have brought us to our knees and that is not a bad thing. God is, ironically, forcing us to turn back to depend on his Word and his Spirit and to get away from what we don’t need. God is rebuilding his Church because He loves us. When someone is sick with cancer, you remove the cancer so that the person becomes well again. When the Spirit’s work is finished the Church will be beautiful again. The Spirit is removing the cancer of sin and corruption, so that God’s Church can bear fruit again and God does this because He loves his Church.
Before he ascended into heaven Jesus told us that the Father would send us the ‘Helper’, who would be with us forever, and who would teach us everything. He knew that we would need help and so He sent us the best help that we could have, his own Spirit, to guide us and teach us. And He does teach us constantly, through the example of people He inspires, through the Word of God, through prayer when we are open to him, in fact, through many ways we will never even be aware of. But the Spirit is very gentle and that is why we don’t notice him sometimes.
Think of this: in each mass, nothing would happen when the priest prays over the bread and wine, if the Spirit didn’t come down and transform them into the Body and Blood of Christ. Sins would not be forgiven through the priests if the Spirit didn’t act, because it is the Spirit to takes way the sin, through the instrument of the priest. Baptism and Confirmation would be meaningless if the Spirit didn’t anoint the person receiving the sacrament; marriage and ordination would mean nothing, if the Holy Spirit didn’t act. Because of the presence of the Spirit, when a couple get married in the Church, God becomes involved in that marriage. It is no longer just the couple, but the couple with God helping them and blessing what they do. We wouldn’t know how to pray, or even feel the desire to pray except that the Spirit is prompting us continually. Our preaching would have no effect if the Spirit did not anoint the words we speak.
Here is something that happens to me quite often. I preach a homily that I feel disappointed with, or that I thought I did not do well. Afterwards people come up and thank me for such a powerful message. That is the Holy Spirit and it is also God reminding me that it is his work, not mine. I do my part and prepare as best I can, but ultimately it is the power of God at work through me. That is also why it is so important for me to pray for the anointing of the Holy Spirit on the words I speak. God will speak to your heart if you are open. I think it is always good to ask God to help us to hear what He wants us to hear, every time you read the Scriptures, or listen to them at mass. God has plenty to say to us if we are willing to listen.
The gift of God’s own Spirit is really the greatest thing God can give to us after life itself, because when we have the Holy Spirit we have everything. It is also good to remember that the anointing of the Spirit does not depend on how brilliant, or learned we are. It simply depends on us being open to the Spirit. If you look at so many of the characters God used in the Bible, most of them were very insignificant people. God seems to delight in using ordinary and indeed ‘useless’ people, according to the world’s thinking; the kind of people the world casts aside as being irrelevant.
In the first book of Samuel, it says that Samuel was sent to Jesse’s house to anoint God’s chosen instrument who would be the next king of Israel. God tells Samuel He will show him whom to anoint. Samuel comes to Jesse’s house where there are seven sons. He looks at everyone in the household, starting with the eldest, but God did not choose any of them. Having seen all of the sons in the house, Samuel asks if there is anyone else. They tell him there is just the youngest who is out minding the sheep. He is the least important, who was not even considered, but he is the one God anoints and he turns out to be one of the greatest kings of Israel, king David. That tells us something. We don’t have to be great for God to use us, just open. The more we root ourselves in God’s life, through his Word and through the Eucharist, the more the Lord will use us.
Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful people,
send forth your Spirit and we will be created,
and you will renew the face of the earth.