Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, the birthday of the church. Over the past week, I have had several people ask me what is so unique about the Catholic church - what makes our experience distinctively Catholic?
Why is it important to belong to a specific church? Isn't it enough simply to say "I am Christian" or "I am spiritual?" What are the signs that the Holy spirit is present and at work in our church?
In light of mounting tensions amoung religious groups in the world - and even close to home - that struggle with image and identity, let's take a few moments just to look at the Catholic experience of church.
To be a Catholic Christian is to be universal and open to the world. Not only to Canada or North America or a certain familiar part of the world or segment of society - it must be open to all, to every single person.
The mind and heart of Jesus Christ are not intended to be a selective mentality for a few, but the perspective from which the whole world will be renewed and redeemed. An insight like this - the universal scope of salvation - did not, however, come easily and without much straining.
In fact, the whole of the New Testament can be understood precisely as the emergence of the "catholic," the universal, in Christian life. Christianity, had it not moved from where it was particular and small, would have just been a small modification of the Jewish experience, a subset of Jewish piety that was still focused in and around Jerusalem and the restoration of a literal kingdom of Israel.
The first two generations of Christians discovered that Christianity couldn't be just that. At that first Pentecost, Christians received the Holy Spirit - the universal principle - and their eyes were opened to the universal import of the Christian truth as they encountered non-Jews who received the Holy Spirit just as they had done.
The gift of the Holy Spirit helps us to transcend all of the tribal and narcissistic impulses of our times for the sake of enfolding every human person into the reality of Christ. The Holy Spirit is universal; always thinking beyond our boundaries, the horizons of our imaginations. The Spirit gives us creativity and imagination. The catechism of the Catholic church refers accurately to the Holy Spirit as "the living memory of the Church."
What is the deepest and surest assurance and intimation that the spirit is present in this in-between time of the first fruits, inspiring hope of a harvest yet to come? It is joy. If there is deep and authentic joy present, you can bet that the Holy Spirit has something to do with it. St. Augustine, who was the most musically passionate of the fathers of the church, memorably evokes the experience of joy in the presence of the Spirit with these words:
"Whenever people must labour hard they begin with songs whose words express their joy. But when joy brims over and words are not enough they abandon even this coherence and give themselves to the sheer sound of singing. What is this jubilation? What is this exultant song? It is the melody that means our hearts are bursting with feelings that cannot express themselves. And to whom does this jubilation most surely belong? Truly to God who is unutterable, if words will not come and may not remain silent what else can you do but let the melody soar? This is the song of the Holy Spirit."