Does this sound like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? Is it possible to be both a Pentecostal and a Catholic, when there is so much animosity between the two? I have another question, as we prepare for celebrating the feast of Pentecost. Where was the Holy Spirit before Pentecost?
Let me answer the first question. A Pentecostal is usually described as a person who gives more importance to the Holy Spirit and its actions, and has a predilection for saying “Halleluiah” at the drop of a hat. A Catholic, on the other hand, is perceived as a person steeped in liturgical traditions and pious devotions, living a straight jacket spiritual existence. Catholics are also wary of Pentecostals when they poach on their members. Both sides believe that the “other” is in serious error.
Let me clarify what I understand by the words Pentecostal and Catholic. Pentecostal usually refers to those believers who emerged about 120 years ago giving special importance to the Holy Spirit and its gifts like praying in tongues, prophecy and healing. These are all rooted in scripture, and are not, per se, contrary to Catholic beliefs. In the Catholic community this spiritual movement is usually referred to as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, duly recognized by the Catholic hierarchy. It began in the USA in the late 1960’s.
The word Catholic means “universal”, belonging to the whole world, and by its very nature embracing all. In its organized form it has papal leadership, a hierarchy, set norms and practices, with strong clerical control. Some of these aspects, like “clericalism” are acquired traditions that are at variance with its own Dogmatic Constitution as laid down by Vatican II. When I say that I am Catholic, I mean that I subscribe to the teachings of Vatican II and not the many aberrations and excesses that the hierarchy and clergy conveniently revert to. For me, being a Pentecostal Catholic is a Christian whose life and values are rooted in sacred scripture on the one hand, and the teachings of Vatican II on the other. I have often said that the wished for renewal of the church as envisioned by Pope John Paul XXIII, who prayed for a new Pentecost, is still a long way from achieving its goals. Recent moves of Pope Francis on synodality, accountability and fraternity are according to the mind of Vatican II.
Now let me address the second question. Where was the Holy Spirit before Pentecost? It is actually a stupid question, but it merits a cogent response, because there may be some who are inclined to believe that the Holy Spirit got activated only at Pentecost. A scriptural journey of Jesus’ own life shows the all pervasive presence of the Holy Spirit. Let’s start at the very beginning, my favourite event, the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel tells Mary “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most High will cover you with its shadow” (Lk 1:35). So the Holy Spirit is present and active from the moment Jesus is conceived/ incarnated. It also covers Mary with its shadow. Translations do not always covey the exact meaning. I would prefer to say that Mary was enveloped by the Holy Spirit.
The next major epiphany/ manifestation of the Holy Spirit is at the baptism of Jesus. “The Holy Spirit descended on him in a physical form, like a dove. And a voice came from heaven “You are my son; today I have fathered you” (Lk 3:21). Notice that all three persons of the Holy Trinity are mentioned in the same event, and the message to Jesus is personal, not generalised – YOU are my Son. This is how the Holy Spirit works, forming a direct personal relationship between God and man.
In his final discourse Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to his disciples. Jesus defined the role of the Holy Spirit as the ability to discern between right and wrong, and to arrive at the truth. It is not just a Paraclete (helper) but one who leads from the front and shows the way forward in various situations. “When he comes he will show the world how wrong it was about sin, and about what is right, and about judgement” (Jn 16:8). And again, “When the Spirit of the truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth” (Jn16:13). There are three important take aways from Jesus’ promise. The Holy Spirit gives us the gift of spiritual discernment, something strongly emphasised by the Jesuits in their Ignatian Exercises. It also teaches us morality, what is right or wrong in God’s eyes. And finally it leads us in the path of truth.
I see this as the true role of the Holy Spirit, as promised by Jesus himself. This is a sin qua non for all Christians, especially those in leadership roles. This requires both humility and openness. Unfortunately, most religious leaders are so full of their own power and pelf that they block the working of the Holy Spirit; thereby often mistaking traditions for faith; or rules and regulations for the path of truth.
The Resurrection adds another dimension to the role of the Holy Spirit; that of power and authority. “Receive the Holy Spirit, If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained” (Jn 20:23). This authority cannot be seen in absolute terms or in isolation from other texts. It presupposes the correct disposition, as stated herein above.
How do we recognize the working of the Holy Spirit? St Paul had earlier cautioned against external manifestations like prophecies, tongues and knowledge (cf 1 Cor 13:8). They are subjugated to the three cardinal virtues. “As it is, these remain; faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love” (1 Cor 13:13). St Paul goes on to say that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22). I find that all the fruits are gentle and not aggressive, in contrast to the approach adopted by many who claim to be led by the Spirit.
I see some interesting events that are indicative of how the Holy Spirit spurs us to action. In his first discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had exhorted his disciples to walk that extra mile (cf Mat 5:42). He was stirring the pot, asking us to emerge from our comfort zones. This is manifested in the rich young man who had kept all the commandments. He was good, but not good enough for radical Christian discipleship. “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mat 19:21). A big task. Basically, Jesus is telling us not to rest on our oars, but to make a personal sacrifice, to walk the extra mile.
The second instance of not being good enough is the oft repeated episode of Martha and Mary. Here again Martha was a good person, doing good things, but at that point of time Jesus expected something else of her – to listen to what he had to say. Like Martha we too are often so busy, that we have no time to listen to Jesus in prayer (cf Lk 10:38-42).
The most poignant example of Jesus inviting us to take the extra step is his encounter with Nicodemus. He too was a good man, but needed to take another step forward. “You must be born from above. The wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from, or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). Jesus was speaking before the advent of weather satellites that can quite accurately predict the eye of the storm and the course of a cyclone.
This does not dilute Jesus’ message. Are we solid, liquid or gas (wind). Something in a solid state, like a piece of metal, remains in a state of fixity. It does not change, unless some external force is applied. A liquid either runs off or assumes the shape of the receptacle into which it is poured. Gas (wind) as in Jesus’ time, did not have airtight containers. So the reference to the wind is something that is not restricted, chained or bogged down. It is constantly open/ receptive to what God wants of it.
This is never easy. A more poetic translation of the Bible, like the Kind James version, ends the Sermon on the Mount with the words “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mat 5:48). In contrast, The New Jerusalem Bible that I use ends the discourse much more prosaically, “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his”. I would like to believe both translations, that limitless love is the perfection to which we are called. This Pentecost may the Holy Spirit lead us in the path of perfect love, and show us what extra mile we now need to tread. This is because the “good” is invariably the greatest enemy of the perfection to which we are all called in Christian discipleship. Happy feast of Pentecost.
- The writer has written several books and articles on spirituality.