“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been three weeks since my last confession, and since then I ate meat on a Friday night – but I’m not sure whether that was a few minutes after or a few minutes before midnight…”
It wasn’t very long ago that we Catholics were overly concerned with the particulars of Church law, as if we were on trial before a stern judge. But our ancestors in the faith, the earliest Christians, seemed not to have any such obsession. Instead, their primary focus, their enthusiasm, was for one thing above all: for the Spirit of God to be shared with them as it was with Jesus. That’s what they thought was the reason they’d been called into the faith community – so that the Spirit of God would be poured into them.
For both of my parents’ funeral liturgies, 28 years apart, I took the second reading from the Hebrew Book of Wisdom. After reminding us that, rich or poor, famous or unknown, we all enter the world in the same way and leave it by unpreventable death, it says, “And so I prayed, and understanding was given me; I asked, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. I valued her more than royal authority and thrones. Compared with her, I regarded material wealth as nothing. May God grant me to speak as God would wish, and express thoughts worthy of God’s gifts, since God is the guide of wisdom and directs the wise. We are indeed in God’s hand, we ourselves and our words, with all our understanding, too, as well as our technical knowledge.”
On this third Sunday in Advent, we heard a man say that it happened to him. “The Spirit of God is upon me,” he announced, to empower him for a mission of justice and peace and hope and love among the neediest and most oppressed of people. He would do that, he said, by passing on the Spirit to others, enabling them to enter into life-giving relationships with God and with others – something that all the rules and laws in the world could never accomplish.
And then, in the Gospel, we heard John belittle his own ministry and exalt that of Jesus because, he explained, that what he was offering was merely a gesture involving the symbolism of water, while Jesus would give the Spirit.
Our church is wrestling with a similar issue today. Among its highest leaders are many who are trying to increase the institution of the Church by tight control over theological teaching and writing, by condemnation of those who dare to speculate on new horizons, by the promulgation of restrictive laws in the way we worship, by narrow interpretation of morality, and so forth. In a stifling climate like that, there can be no room for a Spirit that moves how and where she will. The action of the Spirit among the people is unpredictable. It must be respectfully observed, then processed and refined, and finally shared for the benefit of the entire Christian community.
The Second Vatican Council declared emphatically that the Church is not primarily an institution; rather it is the People of God, a faith community, in which all of us are the Church.
That means that its leaders must listen to the people, to each other, to the scholars and theologians, to the scientists, to other churches, and to the world of which it is a part. Listen, constantly learn, and change as appears necessary.
Back in the 60s and 70s, most of us were thrilled with what appeared to be a new recognition on the part of our church that what we thought was right and true had value and would be considered seriously by our leaders. But soon after came the clampdown on creative thinking and loyal opposition as the official church reasserted itself as a top-down, authoritative institution. No more dialog on issues like the celibate priesthood, responsible birth control, the ordination of women, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and so many others. Rules and laws and curtailing regulations once again were easing out the Spirit of Truth and Love.
I recall a summit meeting in my diocese several years ago for the sole purpose of discussing the topic of abortion; the vast majority of the invited participants were priests, me among them — and there was not one woman invited or included. Would you think that possible?
But we are not required to repeat and preserve everything that has been said and done in ages past. Rather, we must imitate those who went before us by being open to the Spirit of God, as they were in their day, and, with the new sciences available to us today take our turn at being instruments of that Spirit in and for the world.