Where the Spirit Moves

Ever wonder if the Spirit gets tired of addressing the same basic questions over and over again? Pentecost was celebrated nearly two months ago, and the Church is well entrenched in Ordinary Time. The Spirit, like the whole Godhead, knows no time. There are so many Spirit stories in the early Church, as the Spirit is guiding those first apostles to tackle the big questions. He is still tackling some of those same questions.

The early and main question in the early Church: Who is in? Who is out? Those founding fathers (and mothers) grappled hard with that one. At one point Jesus is embracing everyone (Gentile and Jew, woman and man) the next moment he is telling the Canaanite woman that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

The great story of Cornelius and Peter and all their dreams and visions has the Spirit working overtime. First there is the Roman centurion, pagan Cornelius, who had a soft spot in his heart for the Jews. He has a vision of having Peter come to his home. Cornelius summons a few soldiers to bring Peter to him. Then there is Peter who is not too sympathetic to loosen the membership requirements to join the club. He was content with the status quo, taking care of the “lost sheep of Israel.” While taking an afternoon nap, the Spirit beckons him to eat “unclean food.” Peter, the faithful Jew, refuses sternly — so sternly he wakes himself. Once again — and even for the third time — the same Spirit gives Peter the same dream to eat unclean foods. Peter is pretty certain that this is not going to happen.

Cornelius
Cornelius, the Roman centurion, was the first Gentile Christian. The Crosiers photo

Then the soldiers arrive, asking Peter to accompany them to Cornelius’ home. Peter loves to talk, as is evident in the Acts of the Apostles. Upon arriving at Cornelius’ house, Cornelius, his family and friends are all there awaiting Peter. Sure of himself and now having an audience, Peter begins to speak eloquently and assuredly, probably about the rules and regulations of how to be in “the club” (what foods they can eat, what they can’t eat, circumcision, etc.). While he is doing his thing, the Spirit decides to do its thing and descends upon the entire household while Peter is talking away. As they are now all speaking in tongues while Peter is still speaking — probably to himself. Peter is rendered silent while they are all talking away in jubilation. At least Peter had enough sense to know when he has been overruled. Basically, if they have been confirmed by the Spirit, they should at least be baptized now, Peter says. Peter realizes those he thought “out” are now “in.” You begin to wonder who really was converted that day.

Throughout our history the Church asks that same question as to who is “in” and who is “out.” There were centuries when we the Roman Catholics thought we were the only ones saved and no one else was in, that we have the market on salvation. Now just 50 years ago, during the Second Vatican Council, the Church began to wrestle again with who is in? and who is out? I would imagine there were many Peter-like bishops who refused to consider letting the “outsiders” in, just as Peter refused to eat the unclean food. The Spirit must have been working overtime again to go from the Church being a “perfect society” to a “pilgrim church” still on a journey of discovery. Some bishops, like Peter, had their thoughts interrupted by the Spirit’s agenda. All of a sudden the Spirit has everybody in — the Catholics who are fully incorporated, the catechumens who want to be incorporated, the Christians who are linked by baptism, those related to us with the biblical testaments, those who share our belief in the same God, those who are seeking to know an unknown God and those who “strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, Nos. 14-16).

Now that is big change. The Spirit really pushed the Church — took it kicking and screaming into the next era of time. The Spirit taking the Church to places it had not considered going, having a fuller answer to the same question, as to who’s in and who’s out.

Fifty years later, the same question is still being asked. Who’s in regarding communion, Who’s out regarding reception of communion? All those thoughts around those divorced and remarried but not in a sacramental marriage, those who have been away too long and come back, how many re-membership requirements do they need to fulfill?

All these examples are moments on the macro level — more universal — Church question. We know too that the Spirit not only speaks to all of us but speaks to each of us, on the micro level. It appears to be easier to see the Spirit working with groups and with its signs and wonders (Cornelius and family speaking in tongues, a college of bishops deciding to open the membership, a conclave of cardinals choosing one among them). It is not so easy to discern when the Spirit is speaking to me or if the Spirit is speaking to me through another. Most priests have had those experiences when the diocese asks you to transfer to another assignment. You are caught off guard and quite surprised as there had been no hint or inkling that anything was in the works. The initial reaction can be skepticism, especially if it is not something you want to do at this time. Then the sleepless night happens, maybe not too dissimilar to Peter who could not sleep. The big discernment is: “Is the prompting to move actually from the Spirit” or “not of the Spirit.” Obviously those asking would invoke that this is from the Spirit as the Spirit spoke to them somehow. If the sleepless nights are a sign that you are resisting and being pushed, pulled, kicking and screaming like Peter was, then the request may be a Spirit-filled request. The knock on your door to move is like the knock on Peter’s door to go to Cornelius’s home and see the Spirit in action. Peter finally saw it was truly from the Spirit.

It is not easy when the sleepless nights are more from the feeling that this request is not Spirit-filled and is not from God but from man. If everybody around you except the person asking is telling you that this does not feel right, that there is something wrong here, it is hard not to heed that wisdom. Now the big question, through whom is the Spirit speaking: the lone or few voices speaking to you to transfer ministry or the many voices telling you NO? It all becomes complicated when we “promise obedience to me and to my successors.” Jesus did say, “Let him who has ears to hear, hear.” Obedience comes from the same root word as “to hear” the Latin word obedire — “to hear what is spoken, take it in and make it yours.” Other places in Scripture remind us the Word is fulfilled in our hearing. We all have some authority over ourselves, and most of us are in authority over someone else or something. The official who asks Jesus to heal his daughter stating, “I too have men under me. I say, ‘Come and they come…only say the Word and it will be fulfilled.’”

It still is not easy. Looks great on paper until the words ring in our ears, saying that this must be a mistake. True obedience is not blind obedience. It is interesting that the word “obedience” has to do with the “hearing,” but we often bring in the other senses for fuller explanation. Discerning the Spirit’s voice demands that we see the signs around us and seek their meaning and listen intently to the voice of the Spirit in our conscience as a decision is made. Even Mary and Joseph had questions and sleepless nights.

“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 16).

FATHER CARRION is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese. pcarrion@archbalt.org