The role of the Holy Spirit in helping the Church to come to the truth
Sunday Homily for April 27, 2008
Sixth Sunday of Easter (A)
By Father Alex McAllister SDS
As we approach the Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost we are given another extract from the rather long Farewell Discourse given by Jesus at the Last Supper as recorded in the Gospel of John. In fact today we follow directly on from the text we were given last week.
Today’s extract, appropriately enough, is about the Holy Spirit. Here Jesus is explaining to the Apostles that while he will soon be departing he will not leave them orphans but will ask the Father to send them the Holy Spirit.
He tells them that the Spirit will bring them understanding and that when he comes they will realise the significance of the events that are about to take place and the nature of the relationship between Jesus and the Father.
This role of the Holy Spirit in helping the Church to come to the truth is very important to Catholics; indeed it is one of the cornerstones on which the Church is built.
We take the words of Jesus at face value and have a clear understanding that the Holy Spirit guides the Church down through the centuries keeping it fundamentally free from error and true to the faith of the Apostles.
Now by this we certainly do not mean that the Church is free from error in every detail of its teaching and actions. It has made mistakes and does from time to time change its position in the light of experience and the application of reason.
It is still slowly searching for the truth especially regarding contemporary moral dilemmas which were unknown to the Apostles.
We certainly would want to distance ourselves from some Nineteenth Century enthusiasts for Papal Infallibility like William George Ward who stated that he would like nothing more than an infallible papal pronouncement for breakfast every morning along with his tea and copy of The Times!
No, over the centuries the Church has erred in certain matters. It has also occasionally changed its position on very important topics. For example at one time the Church officially condoned slavery, even though many of its members felt that it was wrong and two quite prominent religious orders were set up whose principal aims were to free slaves and captives.
In fact it was these movements occurring in the 13th and 14th centuries that gradually caused the Church to shift its position.
More recently the Church has changed its views on capital punishment. The traditional position was that the state had the right to employ capital punishment.
However in recent years as the Church has struggled with increasing attacks on life such as abortion, it has come to a much clearer understanding that the right to life is like a seamless robe. It concludes that all attacks on life are equally to be deplored and that this must inevitably include capital punishment.
When we say that the Holy Spirit guides the Church and keeps it free from error in matters of faith and morals we mean that the essentials of the faith are handed down from generation to generation in fidelity to the beliefs of the first Apostles.
The ordinary Catholic knows the core beliefs of Church. The Pope and the Bishops constantly uphold these fundamental beliefs and there is an extraordinary consistency in what Catholics believe no matTer when or where they live in the world.
This is not true of the other Christian Churches which have rejected the role of the what we call tradition in preference to private interpretation and therefore have quite a wide divergence on what constitutes the essence of the faith.
To go back to the Farewell Discourse, there is something in it that people often find puzzling; it is the apparent contradictions in the language used by Jesus.
One minute he promises to send the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and immediately afterwards tells them that the Holy Spirit is already in them.
He clearly tells them that he is going back to the Father but straight away says that he will always be with them. While these things seem very contradictory to us we must remember that for Jesus they are not contradictory at all.
We are bound by the limits of time and space but he is not. We speak of yesterday, today and tomorrow; we talk about here and there.
But since God not only created the world but also time and space, for Jesus there is no yesterday, today or tomorrow. For him it is always now. For him there is no here and there because he is everywhere.
If we closely examine all the apparently contradictory statements made by Jesus, especially these ones in the Farewell Discourse, we would soon get thoroughly confused.
But what we need to realise is that while it is certainly true that the Father is already with us it is equally true that Jesus is leading us to the Father.
This is what theologians call Realised Eschatology. By this we understand that in one sense the Kingdom of God is already realised, already present. But we also understand that it is still to come about in all its fullness.
One of my professors summed it up in the phrase “now but not yet”. It is a phrase that explains a lot of these apparent contradictions.
We all know that Christ is with us now but we also know that he is coming at the End of the World. What we mean by this is that in some sense the Kingdom of God is already here and established in this world and yet we also know that it is still something that we have to work for in order to bring about.
There is a deep ambiguity in the Christian Life and yet it is strangely reassuring; what we hope for is already here. The Kingdom of God is breaking in on this world. There are signs of it all around us if we but only open our eyes to see.
This is why we Catholics are very conscious of such things as miracles. This is why we pray to the Saints. This is why we depend on the Eucharist and understand that in it Christ is present to us in quite unique ways.
We wait for Christ’s coming, but we know he is with us. Christ is correct when he says he has not left us orphans for the Holy Spirit is with us acting in us and leading and guiding us into the fullness of truth, into the full realisation of the Kingdom of God.