Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for Pentecost Sunday

02 Jun 2020

There is a famous line in one of Brian Friel’s plays about young Gar O’Donnell leaving home and emigrating to Philadelphia. The quote goes something like this “It’s all over and it’s all just about to begin.” You might say that about the place of Pentecost in the Christian calendar. Jesus has completed his ministry. He then sends the Spirit of truth, so that the Church can continue that ministry. That is why the Pentecost story comes at the beginning of the book called the Acts of the Apostles. Earlier stories were about the work of Jesus in Israel. After Pentecost, the stories are about the work of Jesus in and through the Church from Jerusalem to Rome. So, it is not surprising that, in the Creed, the phrase “I believe in the Holy Spirit” is followed by “I believe in the Church”. The coming of the Holy Spirit marks the birthday of the Church, made up of very ordinary individuals, that was sent out with the outrageous job – to make disciples of all nations.

Firstly, we can look at how this narrative about Pentecost arose. Like ourselves going through our education, or the Troubles or Covid, at the time we are too close to what is happening. It is only afterwards that we join up the dots and make a story out of strange occurrences. At Pentecost, the disciples had no idea what was happening to them. Only later could they explain the inexplicable, namely that the Spirit of Jesus was pushing them out into deep waters, but nor abandoning them. Our faith is not merely about a God who dwells in the heavens, whom we try to reach with our prayers. That sort of belief keeps us childish. The early Church discovered the power of God walking with them. That is a much more challenging image of God. We do not just ask a distant God to intervene from afar in our trouble. The early Church discovered – in Jesus and later in the Spirit – a God who accompanied them even in their toughest times, a divine Spirit that dwelled within them, individually and when they tried to discern the way forward. Pentecost does not just mark the birth of the Church as institution. It marks the birth of a very distinctive way of being a faith community, sharing Emmanuel, God-with-us. Yes, we celebrate Christ with us in the sacraments. But we also believe that God is inextricably woven into who we are and all that we do as Church. We do not build the Church to God’s glory and for our satisfaction. That was the Pharisees’ approach. God is in charge, choosing and using us as living stones. Our job is just to be available and not to be afraid of being used. It is God who is writing the story of the Church. We seek only to discern where the Spirit is working through the Church and what the Spirit is saying to the Churches.

Secondly, the symbol of the invisible Spirit, something ‘like tongues of fire’ or ‘like a mighty wind’ is significant. Yes, all those images meant something to a Jewish audience. But the symbolism is not merely culturally limited. The Christian way of seeing the world has always drawn people into a richly imaginative world, far beyond drab legalism and strict moralism. Right from the beginning we are given a picture of a Church which bursts the boundaries of the expected. These Jewish believers will be thrown into engaging with Greeks, Romans and Africans. They have to develop new ways of speaking about God, of building communities of men and women, of developing new rituals, sacraments of initiation and communion. Our current culture is so risk averse, so keen to protect people from being challenged. It encourages, not adult imaginative behaviour, but irresponsibility – and then insists that we should not have to take responsibility for the consequences because “I have the right to choose”. That makes for moral pygmies. It stifles the imagination, or limits it to deceptive make-believe worlds, allegedly offering role models for everybody that are unattainable and that are often little more than marketing ploys to get children’s money. A Pentecost Church is not spiritual science fiction. It dares to imagine a world that could be different here and now and not just hereafter. That is why so much of the world’s artistic patrimony has been – and continues to be – inspired by a religious imagination. And it leaves me asking why so much of our modern secular artistic production seems dissonant and banal, in the name of realism. We will perhaps look back on these years, remembering not just Covid19 but also a pandemic of banality that expects little for and from human beings. Our young want to be inspired by heroism and great dreams, not merely to be nailed to the banal by so-called ‘normal people’. Such an oppressive ‘new normal’ will continue to kill our young people by coldly trashing their embryonic hopes even before these ‘heretical’ uncomfortable dreams can be born in their idealistic hearts.

But, as the early Christians – and Irish missionaries in every generation – discovered, that is a risk-packed way of living. But Fr Herbert McCabe is quoted as saying “If you love, you will get hurt and possibly killed. If you do not love, you are dead already.”[1] The early Church was prepared to die on the Cross as Jesus did. Fr Dan Berrigan is quoted as saying, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood!”[2] That is not an excuse for cantankerous people who seem to have hurting hearts that do little but criticise others in Church and in wider society. St Paul writes about speaking the truth in love. (Cf Eph 4:15) But Pope Francis refers to a sort of Christianity which “stifles boldness and zeal (and) is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, sourpusses”[3] The Holy Spirit works, not to defend our sectional interests but to promote Christ’s mission. It is with that Pentecost heart that we approach all renewal in the Church.

Thirdly, the disciples were thrown out of their upper room into a strange environment. We, too, are being tossed out into the strange world of lockdown and pandemic. There is the temptation to hide, to wait till this is all over or to say that we are just preparing for the inevitable awful days ahead for a dying Church. That is the part of the deadly narrative that kept the disciples as prisoners of their fears. All they could see was their limitations rather than Christ’s mission. As a Diocese, we will have to come out of this challenge. But a Spirit-filled Church does not merely see the potential problems and sociological trends – and become self-absorbed. Pope Francis writes about those who “are more concerned with the road map than with the journey itself.” [4] Ministry in a Spirit-led Church is open to be shocked by the widespread hunger for the truth, for mercy and for healing. Physical cocooning may be necessary for some. Spiritual cocooning is never an option. Such a fear of giving oneself over to the Spirit’s mission ends up in a state of missionary paralysis, locked and dying behind closed doors and frightened of the Spirit.

Today, we pray to be renewed in our vision of who we are as a Spirit-filled Church, to become driven by God’s outrageous dreams and not by our self-centred fears. A Pentecost Church wants a joyful birthday party. Anything less misses the whole point of today’s feast. It’s all over and it’s all just about to begin.


· Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. This homily was delivered on Pentecost Sunday in Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry.

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