Most of us have had some kind of Pentecost experience in our lives, probably more than one, even if we haven’t given it that name. Times when we felt the presence of God working in us in a way that we could actually feel. It may have been during times of prayer, or during Mass, or it could have been in our ordinary life when a sudden illumination, about something or someone, gave us a clear idea what God wanted, or gave us the courage or inspiration to take some decision or action that made a big difference in our lives, or in someone else’s life. Even if we didn’t immediately acknowledge that it was from God, we would say, looking back on it, “At that moment, I suddenly knew that this was the right thing to do.” And if this feeling has worked out for you as “a good purpose”, as St Paul says in our 2nd Reading, (1 Cor 12:3-13) then be assured it was the Holy Spirit working in your life.
Most of you will know that there are some non-Catholic Churches generally called “Charismatic or Pentecostal” that place these experiences at the heart of their worship, and try to encourage a highly-charged emotional atmosphere where Pentecostal experiences are more likely to happen.
And some of you may also say, “Why isn’t the Catholic Church more like this? Why is Mass so quiet and restrained? And why is the Catholic Church so cautious about those who claim personal experiences of God?”
The first thing I would like to say in response to this is that the Catholic Church is more “charismatic” than many people realise. All over the world, there are groups of Catholics who meet to pray and sing in a more charismatic way. They also run Days of Renewal as well as residential Conferences where Catholics can go and spend time deepening their faith and their relationship with God. Ask me if you want more details.
There is also the great tradition of pilgrimages to Holy Places where again worship of a more intense and emotional kind, often with prayers for healing takes place. Finally there is our great tradition of saints, holy men and women who have had a particularly close relationship with God, often accompanied by personal visions, and healing miracles.
But, and it is a big BUT, the Catholic Church has also, in our 2000 year history, seen many many examples where people or groups have been led into all kinds of evil by such activities. Remember what I said earlier, quoting St Paul. Such things must be for a “good purpose”, and as St Paul says in the Chapter that follows, unless these activities are based in love, then they are “nothing at all.” It is a tragedy to watch good Christians being dragged into such things only to boost the ego of some personality who likes the sound of his voice and is good at playing with people’s emotions, or is using this skill to make himself a lot of money.
New churches are often created by such people, especially if they are supported by rich Westerners, as in South America at the moment. Here the prayer of Jesus for unity, is ignored in the desire for liveliness, and more and more different groups spring up, all of whom claim to be the true Christian church. In the Gospel of St John (20:19-23) we need to note that Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit at the same time as he shares his Peace with them. Just so, St Paul speaks of the need for the Church though “made up of many parts” to also be “a single unit”.
We Catholics have seen groups like this, claiming to be the true Church, springing up over the centuries, and we have to warn people who are attracted by them to recognise the downside too. Of course the Church rejoices when anyone says “Jesus is Lord”. Yet we long for all such people to find the full understanding of that expression within the one Church. This is why the Pope John Paul II always encouraged what we call “the new Movements” within the Church and often gathered them together in Rome for great celebrations. Perhaps you have heard of Cursillo or the Neo-Catechumenates, or the Charismatic Renewal that I mentioned earlier?
In ordinary parishes we have to be careful about this. People respond to God in many different ways, and some people find worship that is too emotionally charged actually leaves them feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. They may rightly point out that it can mislead people into thinking that faith is just some surface emotion. They stress the quiet ways of responding to God in silence and dignity. Finding the balance for any Parish is a difficult act… think for example of the conflict between those who like jolly noisy music with lots of hand-clapping, and those for whom that is a complete turn-off . We are all different and God’s Holy Spirit comes to us in many different ways. That is St Paul’s message to us today. Be open to God’s Holy Spirit, yes, but always so that the Church may be one body worshipping one Lord.