Sermon for Pentecost 2007
May 27, 2007
Rev. Richard G. Cipolla
This feast is for all practical purposes the only chance to preach on the Holy Spirit per se. Perhaps the proper thing to do, after hearing the famous and familiar and dramatic reading from the Acts of the Apostles about the pouring forth of the Spirit onto Mary and the apostles, and therefore onto the Church, one should sit down and maintain a respectful and contemplative silence in the face of such an awesome event. For Pentecost is the last in a series of the mighty acts of God: creation hovered over by the Spirit, the creation of man breathed into life by the breath of God, the incarnation of God by the power of the Spirit in the body and soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the resurrection of Jesus by the Spirit of life, and today, the outpouring of the very life and substance and power of God onto the Church, making the sacramental life of the Church possible, making salvation itself a reality, making the presence of the immortal, unfathomable God real in this world. The coming of the Holy Spirit is an end to pie in the sky religion. God has tented among his people and blows where he will and dwells in power wherever there is the Catholic Church.
One of the highlights of the liturgical movement of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century was the publication of a small book by Romano Guardini called The Spirit of the Liturgy. It is not a book of scholarship nor a history of the liturgy. It deals with the fundamental understanding of the liturgy in terms that have never been surpassed. Its importance was noted by the then Cardinal Ratzinger when he published in 1999 his collection of essays on the liturgy and named the book The Spirit of the Liturgy. In the introduction Cardinal Ratzinger marks the importance of Guardini’s book and honors Guardini with choosing the same title: The Spirit of the Liturgy.
It is interesting that in neither book is there a specific chapter or section dedicated to the role of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy. But this is so because both men understood that Christian worship is nothing other than worship in spirit and truth, that the Christian cannot worship God except in the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth. Now this phrase: worship in spirit, or more specifically, worship in the Holy Spirit, has been associated in recent times, but there are also similar movements in the past, with a specific type of experience that involves such phenomena as speaking in tongues, great emotional experiences, in which the individual is caught up into an ecstatic state. These signs are then offered as proof that whatever is going on is the work of the Holy Spirit and is therefore worship in spirit and truth.
However we judge this phenomenon, one can say that it has nothing to do with worship of God as the Catholic understands it in the liturgy. For the role of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy is not at all to seize individuals with special fervor; it is not to stir up emotions; it is not to instruct or teach at least in the didactic sense. The Spirit provides the unifying presence of God without which worship degenerates into idolatry, either the worship of the community or the worship of the self. It is only that Spirit bestowed in baptism and confirmation that can forge that unity between people that enables them to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that is the essence of worship. This unity can never be achieved by anything we do. It certainly is not the product of speaking the same language. It is certainly is not the product of common tastes, style, upbringing, nationality etc. If this were the basis for this unity we could hardly call ourselves Catholics. The Church at prayer is bound by the Holy Spirit into that body that is the body of Christ, and it is this Spirit that makes possible the overcoming of that individualism that makes worship impossible. That is, the Spirit makes it possible for me as an individual to enter into that place that is the body of Christ, in which I give myself over to this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Catholic worship demands the sacrifice of the individual, demands the giving over of my likes and dislikes, my mood, my wants and needs; worship demands that I renounce whatever excludes the others in the community at the liturgy, that I give myself over to the other, to the others, as we all do the same thing, participate with our mind, body and soul in the sacrifice of the Mass in the power of the Holy Spirit.
How difficult this is for contemporary Western, affluent man, who assumes that all things are for his own personal benefit. How difficult this is for Catholics brought up to believe that the liturgy must be tailored to their wants and needs and taste and sensibilities. How difficult it is for Catholics who have never heard that humility is the prerequisite of active participation in the Mass, humility by renunciation, humility by the abdication of self-rule and self-sufficiency. And humility, in the words of Romano Guardini, by positive action: “by the acceptance of the spiritual principles which the liturgy offers and which far transcend the little world of individual spiritual existence.”
David Brooks, the author of the now classic Bobos in Paradise which described so well a whole generation of affluent Americans unmoored from tradition and yet longing for something else, had an editorial in the New York Times on Friday about the rise of quasi-Catholics in this country and their contribution to the economic boom: the title is “Bad for Church, good for country. What is a quasi-Catholic? He is someone who remains a Catholic in the sense that he attends Mass often, not always, but often, appreciates family values, is not afraid of hard work, but in the end lives his life as he sees fit, that is, with a healthy American skepticism towards dogma and the official teaching of the Church. He is someone who has followed the quasi-Protestant into a world of lite religion, a world in which religious faith exists in some sort of twilight zone where American enterprise and pride and financial success becomes undistinguishable from religion, a world in which worship as sacrifice is unintelligible. That this has happened comes as no surprise to many of us who understand the ancient dictum: lex orandi, lex credendi, how people worship determines what people believe. The collapse of liturgy in Protestantism almost at its very inception, the denial of liturgical worship and sacraments, the reduction of worship to didactism or pietism, the emphasis on emotion and feeling: all guaranteed the triumph of quasi-Protestantism as the steamroller of secularism flattened most Christian traces of Luther, Calvin and Wesley into a vague ethical program with no foundation in Scripture and Tradition and with no weapons to fight against relativism and individualism.
So too is the situation of quasi-Catholics, and their existence is known to all of us here, their existence is known to priests and bishops even if they wish to deny it. We see them in countless photographs, smiling, as they attend posh dinners for worthy causes, as they smile as they hand over large checks to church leaders for Catholic charities, smiling as their children receive confirmation, smiling not only with pride for their children, but also smiling as they ponder what all of this really means in the end and what it has to do with their lives. The appearance of quasi-Catholics was inevitable in this country as Catholics assimilated to the Protestant way of looking at life and faith as something merely personal. But the past forty years have indeed seen the real rise of this phenomenon, and this has come about because of the fertilizing action of a quasi-liturgy that has set us adrift from the Tradition in which liturgical worship alone can exist: the Tradition whose roots are in the blood of the Cross, whose roots are in the sacrifice of the Cross, whose roots are fed by the Truth himself, our Lord Jesus Christ, and whose power and presence in the world is made manifest by the working of the Holy Spirit.
Alexander Schmemann, the Russian Orthodox theologian, said that at the very time that the world was growing tired of modernism the Catholic Church in the 1960’s decided to embrace it. Indeed, when one looks back, it is remarkable that at that very time in American Catholic history in which Catholics began to really enjoy the fruit of American capitalism, when they began to become educated, when they were let in to the best clubs, that they were given a liturgy that was fabricated, and that is the Pope’s word, not mine, fabricated especially for them, in which creativity and novelty were encouraged, personal liturgies for different groups, in which the priest faced the people as if he were talking to them instead of God, in which active participation became synonymous with getting as many laypeople in the sanctuary to do something that everyone could see like at a high school assembly, a liturgy fabricated for the people of a specific time, whose purpose was to make things clear and people happy. Quasi-liturgy for quasi-Catholics. That is the situation.
Now there are those Catholics, and you may know some of them, who are not satisfied with the present situation and believe that what is at stake here is the Catholic faith itself. There are those who believe that if we continue down this path we will all be sucked up by the quasi-religion of most Americans, which has little to do with what happened at Pentecost. If this is true, what is to be done? Is it possible to go back to the real thing once you have become addicted to aspartame? Is it possible to return to worship that has at its very heart sacrifice, both in the objective sense as the sacrifice of Christ re-presented, and in the subjective sense as the self-sacrifice of the worshipper to enter into the holy of holies with the community formed by the Holy Spirit? That is the question to ask on this Pentecost. And that is what to pray about on this Pentecost in our prayer to the Holy Spirit. O Holy Spirit, who brooded over creation, who gave breath and life to man, whose power shot through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, whose presence in the Church is real and constant, give us the courage and the humility and the willingness to sacrifice ourselves to bring about the renewal of the liturgy of your Church. Deliver us from cynicism and from despondency. Fill us with hope and let us see that with God all things are possible. Amen.