Come, Holy Spirit!

Vigil of Pentecost celebrated at the Cathedral

On May 18, the bishop celebrated the Pentecost Vigil at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham. During the Mass, 98 individuals were confirmed. The complete text of the bishop’s homily follows herein.

My sisters and brothers, welcome again to the Cathedral of St. Paul for the Vigil of the great Solemnity of Pentecost - the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles gathered in the Upper Room. We have so many people who came to receive Confirmation tonight, especially those looking forward to completing their sacraments of initiation. My gratitude to the priests, the parish faith formation staff, and volunteers across our diocese. I also single out parents who have carefully and diligently prepared candidates for the reception of this sacrament. For our many guests who have come from near and far to the cathedral, a very warm welcome to you all!

Following the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, the center of their lives for the Apostles and disciples of Jesus, the visible and tangible presence of Jesus in their midst, was gone. When He was on earth, they could see Him; they could touch Him; they could hear Him speak to them. Having ascended to the right hand of the Father, Jesus was no longer visible. Everything they knew was gone. It was one of those in-between moments when they were not sure what to do next.

The Upper Room became a significant place. In fact, it must have been a very powerful place for the Apostles and the disciples of Jesus. Some of the most foundational events in our Lord’s life occurred there, which were noted in the Gospels and recalled in the life of the Apostolic Church.  Notably, the Upper Room is where Jesus’ final Passover supper was prepared and celebrated. It is where the washing of His disciples’ feet took place as well as the place of the Last Supper. Certain appearances of Jesus after the resurrection also took place in the Upper Room, especially His appearance to Thomas. (cf. Mk 16:14, Lk 24:33; Jn 20:19) It is the place where the disciples of Jesus gathered after the Ascension and the place where the election of St. Matthias took place after Judas abandoned them. (cf. AA 1:15) It is the location of the descent of the Holy Spirt on the Apostles on the day of Pentecost (cf. AA 2:1-4), and it is from there, after this unforgettable experience, that Peter and the other Apostles went out, converted, and baptized 3,000 people in one day. (AA 2:5-41)

In other words, since there were no churches as we know them today, it was THE place where they could remember and re-live some of the most significant experiences of Jesus – when, during the Last Supper, He identified the bread and wine, part of the Jewish Seder meal, as His own Body and Blood and commanded them, “Do this in memory of Me.”

The vivid memories implanted in their minds must have caused them to return to the Upper Room to remind them of the presence of Christ and His missionary charge to them. Perhaps its familiarity provided them with a sense of closeness to each other and the key foundational events of our Lord – His Passover, Resurrection, and mission. They found themselves there as Jesus missioned them: “Go into the whole world.” Curiously, He didn’t give them any directions, or step by step program of evangelization, or a detailed manual of reference with “Frequently Asked Questions” as to how to go about it. Their beginning was filled with great zeal but little practical experience. What would set it into motion for them? Jesus promised them that if He didn’t go, He could not send the Holy Spirit to them. The Holy Spirit would be the key to the new dynamism.

Then, in one of those great moments when they were huddled in the Upper Room, quite suddenly, the Spirit, like a violent wind, came to stir things up a bit. Tongues as of fire were seen over their heads. I can only imagine their great surprise at what God was doing. They immediately became more confident and self-assured, filled with a new Spirit. They marshalled the courage to take the first steps of many on a global mission to announce the Good News of Jesus as Lord. Their experience of Jesus – with the high and low points - would provide them with the images and understanding they needed to embark on one of the world’s most ambitious missions ever. Interestingly, it would be based on memory and an ongoing relationship with Jesus.

In order for it to be successful, their regular meetings prompted them to share what worked and what didn’t. They also shared their successes and presented questions and problems to the higher authorities in a kind of primitive synodal process. Little by little, as the body of believers grew, they gathered people around them in small groups, organizing themselves into faith communities. 

The faith communities could only work if Jesus was at the center and they maintained a unity with the Apostles. At all times, they maintained their link with the past lineage which connected them ultimately to Peter and to Our Lord, Himself.

That Pentecost event itself, like a microburst event must have shaken them up pretty well. It would me! Our experience of hurricanes and tornadoes here in the South can do that pretty well. Perhaps that is what the Spirit is supposed to remind us of: a windstorm to change things up. So, we begin to focus on what really matters and what matters most. When things are all shaken up, do I think about the things that I have and may lose, or those I love? Do I think of myself only as how others may view me, or do I go out on mission as His disciples, taking a risk into the unknown and with the unloved? Do I go to those who need their sins forgiven or those who need interior peace? Do I go to those who need the Gospel proclaimed to them that “Jesus is Lord”? Do I begin to put the pieces of my fragmented life together, focusing first and foremost on the things that matter most - faith, family, friends? The Spirit helps us by helping our hearts focus on what must come next.

Through the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit truly becomes “the Lord and giver of Life.” We are enlivened, given a new life and fired-up to be sent on mission. It was the moment in which their hearts and minds were becoming more and more conformed to the heart, mind, and will of Christ Himself. Go where you are sent. Go where you are needed. Go to places that need love and hope and joy. He wanted His message to be spread far and wide - to offer the gifts of His friendship, redemption, and salvation to all. He didn’t want the Apostles and disciples to be miserly about it or to share it only among themselves. He wanted everyone to share the message of salvation far and wide. It is a missionary Spirit that emerges from this great feast.

And they did! Tonight, we are recipients of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are people who have come to this Upper Room called the Cathedral of St. Paul in downtown Birmingham. Here we have had many sacramental encounters with Christ. Through the encounter with Jesus, we become “missionary disciples” sent in the name of Jesus Christ. Pentecost and the sacrament of confirmation send us out on mission. Some describe it as being in the boat of the Church, but without wind in the sails. Without wind, we do not and cannot go forward. The wind is an essential component to make a sailboat work. In a similar way, the wind of the Spirit sets us out on mission.

Pentecost reminds us that the Christian faith is not meant to be confined to the walls of our churches. Rather, it is a faith that impels and propels us onward and outward – to the peripheries, to the alone, the forgotten, the struggling. Through this work of charity, we embrace the Church’s missionary impetus wholeheartedly. Our mission is to bring hope to the hopeless, to offer healing to the brokenhearted, and to share the good news of salvation with those who have yet to experience its transforming power.

Tonight, those who receive the sacrament of confirmation here at the Cathedral will be sent back to your own cities and towns and neighborhoods to your work and to school - to the places where a sign of deep and abiding love is needed. All of us in our faith are given this charge from Birmingham to Athens, Demopolis to Fort Payne, Florence to Lanet. Like the disciples, may we be eager to share the love and joy of our faith with the world so that all may come to know the transformative power of Christ’s redeeming grace. I pray that the Holy Spirit guide us, empower us, and bless our efforts as we bring God’s Kingdom to all corners of our diocese and beyond. May God Bless you all!