This weekend we celebrate Pentecost, which is sometimes called the birthday of the Church. You might remember that Jesus told his disciples that he had to go—he had to ascend into heaven—so that he could send the Holy Spirit to them. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit arrives. Before that, the disciples could see Jesus because he was a man—both God and man. So they could see him just as you can see me and I can see you. The Holy Spirit is God, too, but he’s Spirit, and spirits, by definition, are not physical things. You can’t see spirits.
So at Pentecost, the disciples don’t see the Holy Spirit. Instead, they see his signs. Those signs are a driving wind and flames shaped like tongues over the heads of the people there. One sign in particular tells us a lot about the Church. The people at Pentecost come from different countries, and they speak different languages, so normally they wouldn’t be able to understand each other. But when the Holy Spirit comes, they do understand each other. The Holy Spirit changes something inside of them.
I have a new piece this week at the excellent Plough Quarterly magazine on one of my favorite themes, travel. It was fun to write, letting me look back at visits to Jesuit brothers in Burkina Faso, my Peace Corps days in Kazakhstan, and my one time riding a helicopter in the Alps. Plus thinking about Chinua Achebe’s great novel Things Fall Apart. Here is a link to the essay “Between Continents“.
Not long ago, at dinner in my community in Rome, which houses Jesuits from maybe 30 different countries, one of my brothers from Columbia was talking with one of my brothers from Poland about the different things people eat around the world, and he mentioned hearing that in parts of Asia people eat dog meat. And another of my brothers from the Philippines, who is normally very quiet, looked up from his plate and said, “Oh, yes, very good,” and then he went on with his meal.
There is no more diverse an organization in the world than the Catholic Church. Not only do Catholics come from different countries and races and language groups, but the Church includes saints of different historical periods, the great cloud of witnesses mentioned by the letter to the Hebrews last week. The martyrs of first century Rome, of seventeenth century Japan, of 20th century Spain and Mexico, and, in our still-young century, of Turkey, Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, France and elsewhere could not have been more different culturally or socially, yet they all shared a belief in Catholicism so strong they were willing to die for it. People have indeed come, as the Lord says, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south to the table in the kingdom of God, around which we gather this morning.