SOLEMNITY OF PENTECOST – YEAR C – 2019
Great events call for great oratory. This past week we observed the 75th Anniversary of one of the most momentous military efforts – perhaps even THE most important battle in human history – the Allied invasion of Normandy on what has come to be known as D-Day, June 5, 1944. Had that daring gambit failed, the course of history would not have unfolded as it has; and we can only imagine what the world might be like today.
True to my opening observation, D-Day produced – both prior to and after the landing – some classic speeches. I have always thought that Dwight Eisenhower’s Orders of the Day to the troops under his command and his Radio Address to the People of Western Europe are among the most underrated classics of American oratory. They should be memorized by every school child who has ever committed the Gettysburg Address or John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address to memory. “Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you,” Eisenhower told the valiant troops, so many of whom would lose their lives within the next few hours. And when the invasion was well underway, Eisenhower went on the radio to broadcast his immortal words, “People of Western Europe: A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force….I have this message for all of you … the hour of your liberation is approaching.”
Forty years later, President Ronald Reagan stood on the Normandy cliffs facing surviving veterans of the invasion and delivered another famous piece of oratory. It had been written for him by a young Irish American woman born in Brooklyn, Peggy Noonan. Toward the end, Reagan made the trenchant observation about the unfolding of events after the war, especially the coming of the Iron Curtain, and he said, “In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned.”
Today, on the Feast of Pentecost, we celebrate one of the all-time earthshaking events of human history. It commemorates the culmination of Jesus’ redemptive work, and stands alongside Jesus’ Resurrection in its power for altering the course of human history. Like all such events, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit called for a piece of immortal oratory; and it came in the form of St. Peter’s inspired address to the crowds outside the Spirit-shaken house. “You who are Jews, indeed all of you staying in Jerusalem. Let this be known to you, and listen to my words…This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.” So powerful were Peter’s words that people of differing languages heard and understood him.
Yet, as in the case of the victories won in WW II with the magnificent liberation and peace that followed, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with its harvest of martyrs, saints, mystics, humble, holy people without number, has tragically not been followed up by all that was happy or planned. Specifically, the holiness – not to mention the basic integrity – that Catholics took for granted in their priests had proven to be compromised, if not outright contradicted, by revelations of widespread sexual abuse. And, more recently, the sinful, even criminal, conduct of some of the successors of the apostles have shaken the faith of many Catholics in their Church in a mockery of the wind-driven, house-shaking events of Pentecost.
In the face of such failure, today’s feast provides us with some guidance. First of all, as General Eisenhower told his troops, so many of them facing death or horrible injury and disfigurement, a mission blessed by God cannot ultimately fail despite the staggering losses. Yes, many shepherds have fallen by the wayside. But the mission of the Church goes forward, producing saints, serving human needs, providing hope for countless thousands of people ministered to by humble, holy clerics and lay people. We must not lose sight of the ultimate victory any more than Eisenhower could lose sight of V-E Day even as he agonized over the reports of casualties coming in from Normandy. As Deacon Greg Kandra so eloquently puts it in his homily today, “Despite our problems, our weaknesses, our broken parts and sinful history, the Spirit continues to abide with us, support us, uplift us, encourage us. He raises up popes and saints, missionaries and martyrs — countless witnesses to God’s goodness in the world, a great cloud of witnesses that includes, incredibly, each of us.”
Secondly, while we are impatient for justice to be done for victims, survivors and perpetrators, as we clamor for systemic change in our Church, Pentecost requests us to be patient as the Spirit goes about healing, inspiring, strengthening, reforming. It was a long, long time between D-Day and V-E Day and beyond that to V-J Day, but Americans refused to despair. Overseas and at home, they patiently labored and sacrificed knowing that their cause would ultimately prevail. We must be patient.
That being said, we must never cease from demanding complete transparency and accountability from every level of leadership of our Church from the smallest parish to the Holy See and the Roman Curia. That transparency and accountability is not going to come easily or immediately, but we cannot and must not cease from demanding it. That is our sacred responsibility as the people who have received the incomparable gift of the Holy Spirit.
Finally all of us, clergy, lay women and men, men and women in consecrated life must take hold the Spirit who has been lavished on us, develop the gifts he has given us, strive for the holiness he fosters if we permit him, and redouble our efforts to spread the Good News of Jesus to people who are desperate for meaning and community in their lives.
Far from us drive our deadly foe; True peace unto us bring; And from all perils lead us safe Beneath thy sacred wing. Come, Holy Spirit, come!