Question: What is meant by blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Why do the Gospels regard it as unpardonable?
-- Blain M. Lenoir, Huntington Beach, Calif.
Answer: A great deal of ink has been spilt by biblical scholars arguing about the notion of the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. Fundamentally, what is being referred to here is a radical rejection of the possibility of divine forgiveness in all situations.
The origin of the notion is found in Matthew 12:22-32 and Mark 3:22-30. The fundamental reality being underscored here is the accusation by the Pharisees that Jesus' ministry of healing is accomplished by the power of the devil rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus responds: "Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Mt 12:32). To sin against the Holy Spirit is, of course, to sin against Jesus himself.
What Jesus is denouncing here is the kind of spiritual obtuseness which refuses to accept that God is forgiving. It means a rejection of divine forgiveness because one does not believe in forgiveness or considers one's sins unforgivable.
Obviously, God cannot force forgiveness on someone who has sinned or bring them against their will to accept the merciful power of God. There is a kind of despair involved here, where the person wallows in his or her sins.
Silence in church
Question: As a deacon, I am often annoyed by the amount of talking before, after -- and even during -- Mass. Do the Church's documents have anything to say about this? How can a pastor put silence into practice?
-- John Kranz, Holladay, Utah
Answer: The 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) speaks very specifically about silence before and during the liturgy. We read: "Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times. Its purpose, however, depends on the time it occurs in each part of the celebration. Thus within the Act of Penitence and again after the invitation to pray, all recollect themselves; but at the conclusion of a reading or a homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise and pray to God in their hearts."
There should also be silence before the liturgy: "Even before the celebration itself, it is commendable that silence be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred action in a devout and fitting manner" (No. 45).
Though not mentioned in the GIRM, there is a long practice of maintaining silence within the body of the church after Mass. Some churches erupt in noise once Mass is over. This destroys the atmosphere of prayer that is conducive and appropriate to private prayer after Mass.
How does a pastor encourage an atmosphere of silence? By giving good example himself. If he is walking up and down the aisles and engaging in audible conversations, then he is giving a wrong cue to the people. Even worse is the practice of priests, deacons and ministers chatting in the sanctuary area before Mass.
Some carefully worded admonitions during the announcements period toward the end of Mass would go a long way toward encouraging the correct atmosphere regarding silence. In my experience, people are often unaware of the distracting nature of their chatting, and they are open to correction.
One of the devices I myself use is always to respond in a whisper when people come to talk to me in the church before Mass. Mostly, they take the hint (that they should be speaking quietly) and are not offended.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.