Tag Archives: Holy Spirit


During the 20 years of my pastorship in the Paterson Diocese, I made regular visits to our homebound parishioners, taking Communion to them and serving them in whatever ways I could. One of the widows on the long list was an elderly woman who lived alone and at whose front door I’d have to wait for several minutes as she methodically and slowly opened three locks and a deadbolt. She was a very sensible, level-headed person, not at all paranoiac. The four security measures were simply necessary to keep her sufficiently safe. That upset me then and still does as I think about it today.

It also bothers me to have to lock my car doors for the night and to endorse checks properly before putting them in my wallet — because we do these things assuming that people are not to be trusted — that we are natural enemies who will take advantage of each other whenever we can. The key, the lock, the deadbolt and the burglar alarm are all signs of what we have become — or, conversely, what we have never become. They are a shame, a disgrace, an embarrassment, a judgment.

Jesus entrusted to Peter and the infant church what he called the “keys to heaven” and with them the power to bind and to absolve. (I believe that “bind” in this context means to command or to impose an obligation with authority.) No notion here of keeping anyone out or of defending the infant church from enemies.

No, what Jesus seems to be doing is placing his spirit in the community, helping the community to judge all things wisely and then to act as Jesus himself would act in the same situation. That is what those keys unlock — the guidance of the Holy Spirit, always available to to those who want to think and and say and do what is right and true and life-giving.

The keys that the church has been given are meant to free its members from ignorance and fear, from crippling conservatism, from suspicion and distrust.

Life-giving is the work of the church. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and have to to the full.” To be a member of the church is to share in the power of the keys in one way or another. We are being church when we, in any way, open up to others God’s presence in our midst.

Pope Francis has been given the “master key”, so to speak, to enable him to serve the church throughout the world; but to each of us are also given keys, no two exactly alike, enabling us to be givers of life in the countless circumstances of our daily lives.

As I look out at this very moment, I am awestruck by the power for good that you represent! And I ask you to remain mindful of who and what you are: bearers of the keys to life that Jesus has placed in your hands and in your hearts.



As we all know, not very many young men and women are entering seminaries and novitiates these days to prepare for priesthood and vowed religious life. But, at the same time, other forms of service to the needy and the poor have emerged. Not very long ago I was visiting the grandfather of a beautiful young woman who had entered the Peace Corp and would spend two years as the only Westerner in a little village in Benin, East Africa. She would sleep in a mud-floored hut, eat what the natives ate, and assist especially the children and their mothers with the skills she took with her.

When I attended her departure party, I asked her about her long-term dreams, which she quickly identified as including a husband and children and a house with a white-picket fence and an SUV in the driveway! But for now, she said, this Peace Corp mission was what she had to do. Somehow she knew beyond all doubt that this was her present vocation, her call from the condition of the world at that time and her ability to respond to it in a helpful, life giving way.

When Jesus says, “Come, follow me”, he means now. It’s an invitation to a journey that may not relate directly to my vision of the future.

What does anyone get in return for following those Gospel invitations, those subtle directives from the Holy Spirit that the receiver can hardly explain to him- or herself, much less to others. At first, oftentimes, a lot of trouble: confusion, disturbance of mind, sleepless nights while trying to arrive at a yes or a no. An interruption — possibly an abandonment — of one’s most cherished plans and dreams. The discomfort of putting up with what people are thinking. Upsetting changes in one’s lifestyle.

The new life we take on in Baptism is for the most part lived out in quite ordinary circumstances, but it requires us to apply ourselves wholeheartedly to the process of growing out of the natural selfishness in which we were born, and lived as infants, and into loving and caring relationships with our fellow human beings. “Love one another,” he said, “as I have loved you.”

In the stark, almost harsh words in today’s gospel excerpt, Jesus is not asking us to despise or reject or betray our parents and relatives, but to make our most fundamental pledge of loyalty to him. In other words, our total, uncompromising attachment to him, to his teachings and his values and his ways, is to make possible in us a higher form of behavior and response. It is not enough that we be loyal to our race or our sex or our nationality or our church; we must discern what is the will of God for us now, at this moment, and pursue that as best we can.

We are to forgive everyone, to give to those in need, to welcome the foreigner, to shift constantly between two economies — the one by which we acquire and save and enjoy the good things of life; the other by which we risk and sometimes lose what is dear to us as we do what Jesus would do at any given moment.

That cup of cold water Jesus spoke about isn’t asking much of us at all — it’s almost nothing. But it can take many other forms of increasing value. We are to remain always alert to whose desperate thirst Jesus wants us to slake in his name and how we shall go about doing that.


I haven’t done a survey, but I would think that fewer & fewer Catholics today would hold that in those words about forgiving sins Jesus was talking to priests and establishing the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession, as some still call it. I believe he was not. He was speaking to the community of his faithful followers and he seems rather to be saying that forgiveness is more than a juridical act, a removal of the charges against an accused or guilty person. Even after being acquitted by the court, the defendant may not feel the healing effect of personal forgiveness.

What I hear Jesus saying in today’s Gospel passage is that we are given an awesome power over each other, the power to make each other feel whole and good and worthwhile and accepted and valued and loved – even after we’ve done something terribly wrong and shameful and are repenting in misery. Jesus seems to be implying that God heals us through each other. That’s the meaning of his words, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

In a way, we might say that God is limited by what we are willing to do. So, if someone you’ve offended refuses to grant you total, unconditional forgiveness, you don’t get it! You remain unhealed, unhappy, and sick in spirit. God in each of us can reach others only in so far as we make that possible.

Therefore, if we are willing to be generous life-givers to each other, we find that we have far more to offer than merely our own human resources: we recognize that we are also instruments of God’s own power of love and wisdom – love that soothes and heals, wisdom that guides and directs. We are channels of God’s power, which far exceeds our human limitations.

A spiritual person is one who lives his or her life always conscious of that divine presence, constantly trying to collaborate with its power and direction.

I am convinced that we have interpreted much too narrowly the relationship between the Spirit of God and us Christians. Just consider these three major aspects of our Christian faith and practice: 1) this Feast of Pentecost, which we are celebrating today and which is recounted in the bible with so much rich symbolism; 2) our traditional devotion to the Holy Spirit; and 3) our one-time reception of the sacrament of Confirmation –these certainly can lead us to believe that we Christians have been given by God an exclusive privilege denied to 9/10ths of the people of the world. That can’t be true. We are all creatures of the same loving God, whose Spirit acts in all who allow her to. From religion to religion we name that God differently, but, as the Scripture readings for today emphasize, it is the same Spirit in each and all of us.

I believe it is true that more wars have been fought over religion than over all other causes. We continue to see religious wars in our own lifetime – bloody ones in the Middle East, acrimonious ones here in our own country. When will they stop once and for all? Only when mercy triumphs over vengeance, when love conquers hatred, when we look at the stranger with eager anticipation instead of resentment and fear, when our first response to offense is forgiveness. We Christians can help by recognizing that Pentecost is our name for a phenomenon that is as old as creation itself: God acting everywhere in God’s beloved universe and in everyone who is willing.

Let’s start again, right where we live, no matter how small the step.

Happy Pentecost to all!



I think it’s true to say that the fasting we do during Lent, the next one only a few days away, is really more like dieting than it is the death-defying penance taken on by those stalwart souls in times past and even today. Cutting down on food and drink at any time is certainly commendable for people like us overfed Americans.

Denying ourselves various pleasures as penance for our sins is a good thing; however, originally, fasting, in our Christian tradition and in other religions as well, had a much deeper purpose, and that was, by cutting off all nutrition, to enter into direct dependence on the power of God to sustain life. It was a way of experiencing more immediately the vital connection between God and oneself. (This explains, by the way, the apparent absurdity of the Gospel line that informs us that Jesus was hungry after his 40-day fast in the desert. We tend to think or say, Well, who wouldn’t be famished after more than a month without food? But if we think of him as the mystic that he was, who enjoyed an uncommonly profound intimacy with God, we can accept the possibility that he was so intensely absorbed in communion with the Creative Spirit that his bodily needs were in a way suspended and adequately satisfied by the direct, unmediated union with God.)

Such encounters with God are still experienced by some few persons of different religions, but they have to be undertaken only as prompted and sustained by the Holy Spirit, who alone can lead one into such a desert place. Wise spiritual direction is absolutely essential in such cases.

Yet, we all need to become more aware of our essential dependence on God. It’s one thing to know that intellectually: to be aware that we have not created ourselves. But it is something entirely different to feel that relationship and to allow it to influence the actions and major decisions of our life. That is what Jesus is talking about in today’s familiar gospel account. He says that we must be so convinced of this lifeline between God and ourselves that we will not worry, beyond reasonable concern, about our jobs, our food, our clothing, our tomorrows. Our life, he says, is to be marked by careful attention to our responsibilities and duties on the one hand, and on the other hand a child’s carefree assumption that its parents will provide all that is necessary — and much, much more.

Our first priority, Jesus teaches us, must be the advancement of God’s kingdom here on earth; that is to say, contributing toward building a condition of love and peace and justice and mercy for all. That is where our energies must be primarily placed, and then all else will follow as needed. The Father loves and cares and gives without fail, ever!

As a neat contrast, and to add to our image of God, today’s brief passage from Isaiah describes God’s love as womanly, maternal, exceeding that of even the tenderest mother. It reassures us that our confidence is well placed and will never be shamed by denial. God does not merely tolerate us, he implies: we do not have to be clever and aggressive to get an open hearing and a favorable judgment. God has loved us into existence and God’s love continues to be our life!

Lent is soon upon us. It can be a time of foolish, wasted effort if our intent is to buy God’s favor with the coin of our prayers and penances. But it can be instead a time in which we become more alive, more free and creative, by saying yes to this God who enfolds us in unconditional, everlasting love!



The feeling that you are at odds with a beloved member of your family over religious or moral points of view is a special kind of sadness.  We all want to be of one mind & heart with those who are closest to us concerning the most important issues of life.  When we discover that we are not, it’s as if a chasm has opened up between us.  We find it disturbing that this other person does not see things the way we do.

It’s apparent that Jesus foresaw that possibility and accepted responsibility for it.  He said, Don’t think that I’m here to establish peace among you.  Quite to the contrary, I will be the cause of serious divisions, side-taking, bitter arguments, and long-lasting separations right within your families.

But why?  It’s much easier to understand when it is a case of two opposing camps, one of which accepts Jesus and the other rejects him.  But when, instead, it involves good and sincere people on both sides of the issue at hand who acknowledge Jesus as their savior, who listen eagerly to his gospel and try to live by it, it’s difficult to identify the cause of division and dissension.

But isn’t that what is happening today?  The conspicuous crucifix on the young, leather-clad motorcyclist, for example, may mean something entirely different from the gold cross around the neck of his grandmother.  Those two persons very likely represent two different approaches to Jesus, two different interpretations of his gospel.  And yet there is only one Jesus, one cross, one gospel.

To muddy the waters further, Jesus says, I have come to divide you, even mother against daughter.

What is he saying?  I think he is saying that loyalty to him and his gospel will sometimes require of us that we stand up firmly, whatever the personal cost may be, and respectfully confront persons who we think are not really following him either deliberately or mistakenly, but in either case are badly misunderstanding his teachings.

We simply have to be willing to antagonize others unintentionally in our common pursuit of truth.

And, of course, it all comes down to conscience once again, personal conscience.  We Catholics have not been taught or encouraged to follow our consciences in making important decisions affecting ourselves and others.  We were taught instead that the highest virtue is that of unwavering obedience to the authority of the church.  And so I remind you once again, and over & over, that the official church itself now teaches, at its highest levels, that each of us must work diligently at forming as good a conscience as we can and then must follow its direction even when that conflicts with the official teachings of the church.

Most people, I find, welcome that major change in our individual responsibility; a much smaller number of faithful Catholics do not accept it.  It seems to them to be a much too radical departure from the past.  I hope that you are peaceful about it and grateful for it and that you recognize it as the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in our time.

We are constantly growing in age and wisdom and grace before God and others.



If there is a key word or sentence in today’s gospel passage, I think it would be the line that tells us that the people in Jesus’ own home town took offense at what he was saying to them.  It doesn’t explain why; in fact, it’s preceded by exuberant praise for him: “Where did he get all this knowledge he’s sharing with us?  What kind of wisdom has been given to him?  And how do we explain the miraculous things he’s doing with those hands of his – placing them on the sick, the near dead, only to make them well?”

The people were astonished.  Keep in mind that the older folks among them saw Jesus grow up; they knew him well as a bright, active, fun-loving little boy.  Some were wondering what wonderful thing had happened to him.  Others were asking sarcastically who he thinks he is.

And then a sobering, down-to-earth reality kicks in when the very same “astonished” persons attempt to put Jesus in his place, reminding him and the crowd that “he’s just one of us, so don’t be too taken by what he says.  Remember, we know his brothers and sisters; they’re our friends and neighbors.  We’ve grown up together…”

Hearing that, it’s Jesus who then takes offense, which must have gone deep into his soul.  He reminds them all that while the world may praise and glorify someone who speaks the very truth of God, when that person gets back to his home and family and friends, he’s very likely to be dishonored, ignored, scoffed at.  “Jesus,” we are told, “was amazed at their lack of faith.”

Because of this painful dissonance that had occurred between them, Jesus was unable to exercise his ministry of healing among these people with whom he had close ties and whom he respected and dearly loved.  Love is meant to be shared, to be mutual.  A one-sided love can be a tragedy that causes deep sorrow.  Surely Jesus knew what that experience was like, not only when he was dying on the cross, but throughout his ministry among the people that he loved so much.

This idea of reciprocity, of mutuality, applies also to what we believe as Catholic Christians.  By that I mean that a teaching of the church in order to be authentic requires not only competence and authority on the part of the teacher, the official church, but also understanding and acceptance on the part of those who are taught, the ordinary members of the church.  This is so because the Spirit of God is present and active in both the teacher and the taught.  I have heard it called the “Doctrine of Reception.”

As I composed this homily over the past week, I had in mind (as you might be surmising) on the one hand the recent astounding decision of the United States Supreme Court to honor same-sex marriage and on the other hand the condemnation of that decision that expectedly and immediately came from church leaders, including our own bishops.  At the same time, from my own rather wide circle of respected friends and family members, I’ve been hearing nothing but approval of the decision.  The point I make is that with regard to this present critical matter it already appears that the church’s official teaching is not being generally received by the people.  At the same time, there are not yet signs that the official church recognizes and honors that non-reception.  Surely this suggests that the matter needs to be widely discussed with open hearts and minds in the expectation that it will ultimately be resolved.

“Come, Holy Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”



We grow accustomed to rash promises and empty assurances.  We pacify one another by stating as fact what we know deep down is really only a hope or a wish.  We announce what we’d like to have happen rather than what we intend to do.  Most of the time we don’t mean any harm; the deception rolls off the tongue carelessly, with little or no serious consideration.  And then we get used to decoding each other’s messages and making adjustments that will reveal the actual truth.  Often we wish that speech would be more direct and dependable; we praise those who are known for the unfailing truth and reliability of what they say.  We remark that they speak bluntly or that they don’t mince words.

In times past, not all that long ago, this peculiar human characteristic would have been noted under the heading “original sin.”  We would have regarded it as one of the curses for which we need a savior.  Big Daddy, from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” would have scornfully called it mendacity.  Exposed as we are today to the endless conversation of the entire world, disgusted as we are with its duplicity and dishonesty, we get weary of the whole mess, tired of living in suspicion of so much of what we read and hear, sick of having to examine and select, judge and reject.  We think of heaven as that state of being in which, at last, yes always means yes, and no always means no – period!

It’s possible to talk to God deceptively, too.  Jesus saw that and said that it isn’t those who cry out “Lord, Lord!” who enter the Kingdom, but those who do the will of his father.  “Say yes,” he insisted, “when you mean yes; say no when you mean no. Everything else is from the devil.”  And in the crisp parable he used in today’s gospel excerpt, he tells of one son who gave a perfect response to his father’s order but had no intention of carrying it out, while the other son flat out refused to obey but then repented and did what his father had commanded.  Good answer/bad action in one case; bad answer/good action in the other.

Repentance is a process; it’s what can happen between the bad answer and the good action.  That bad answer can begin very spontaneously, almost thoughtlessly, and can last a long time while the process of thinking things over goes on.  Reason and grace shed brighter light, emotions cool and change, vision sharpens, the will begins to bend.  Finally repentance has been achieved and a new decision is firmly in place.

I have the impression that many people do not understand this phenomenon, or at least don’t recognize it as applying to them.  They remember only that their lives were once a no to God, and they can’t put that aside.  They torture themselves with an endless accusation.  But the Spirit of God was in them all along, gradually turning wrong into right, no into yes.  And that is all that matters.  Like the chaos that preceded the formation of the universe, the Spirit hovers over their lives – our lives – and draws new life in closer union with God.