These blossoms of Gloriosa superba (the Fire Lily or Tongues of Fire)
are perfect images for today's first scripture reading.
Homily for Pentecost Sunday
(Scriptures for today's Mass)
Audio for homily
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles
takes us back some 2,000 years
to a scene whose special effects of driving winds and tongues of fire
are matched only by this group of Jewish fishermen and peasants,
all followers of Jesus,
now suddenly able to speak in multiple languages
to people from “every nation under heaven.”
Finding such images in the bible doesn’t surprise us
but we don’t expect to meet them in our day-to-day lives.
But if our celebration of Pentecost is to be authentic,
if it’s to have meaning for us today,
then we can’t relegate this story to the past and to piety.
Perhaps you saw a report that came out two weeks ago
tracking religious affiliation in the United States
between the years 2007 and 2014.
According to this study,
about 70% of Americans identify themselves as Christian.
That might sound pretty good - but that number, 70%,
is down 8 percentage points since 2007.
And, today, 23% of Americans identify themselves as “unaffiliated”
in terms of religion - and for the first time ever,
the “unaffiliated” in the US outnumber Catholics -- by 3%.
The study also tells us that average age of adult Catholics is 49.
Seven years ago it was 45.
(Look around the church and take a guess
at what might be the average age of the adults here today…)
So this story is playing out here in our own parish.
Even though our parish census shows an increase
of about 65 households registered this year as compared to last year,
in the same year we had about 60 funerals.
Regardless of the net gain or loss of members on our rolls,
our Sunday attendance continues in a slow but steady decline.
Is that because our parish is lifeless and boring? I don’t think so.
I try hard each week to cut back on the announcements I make
of all the activities and opportunities here at Holy Family.
Are we losing people because the music is bad?
the preaching boring? the liturgy sloppy? I don’t think so.
But if all these good things are present,
how is it that we’re losing people?
And we, Holy Family Parish,
are not unique in all of this by any means.
That’s a question facing parishes across the United States
and it’s our task to discover what we need to do
to share our faith and the gospel more compellingly
and with greater conviction.
I know someone who’s doing just that. His name is Francis.
And he’s doing a great job.
But if what he’s doing doesn’t filter down
to dioceses around the world
and into parishes and into the lives of individual Catholics,
in every nation under heaven -- it might all be for naught.
Two years ago Francis wrote these strong words:
I hope that all communities will devote the effort necessary
to advance along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion
which cannot leave things as they presently are.
‘Mere administration’ can no longer be enough.
Let us be in a permanent state of mission – throughout the world.
There are church structures which can hamper this effort
and even good structures are only helpful when there is a life
constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them.
I dream of a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything,
so that the Church’s customs, our ways of doing things,
our times and schedules, language and structures,
all can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world
-- rather than for our own self-preservation.
The pope’s words here offer counsel for the universal Church,
the Archdiocese of Boston, Holy Family Parish - and for each of us.
And they are words we need to hear and seriously consider
especially on Pentecost.
On this Pentecost,
I don’t hear the
“sounds of strong driving winds coming from the skies”
and I don’t see any tongues of flames descending on your head
- or mine!
But I have no doubt
that the Spirit of God is breathing in the hearts of each one of us.
And I have no doubt that the Spirit gives every one of us
without exception – a flame within to stir us,
to move us to share our faith with others.
And while none of us will leave here today
speaking a language we didn’t know when we came in,
I have no doubt that every one of us – without exception –
has the vocabulary to share our faith with someone
in words and in ways that he or she can understand.
And I have no doubt that every one of us – without exception –
has been given, as St. Paul reminded us today,
every one has been given a gift,
a particular and personal way to share in the work of the Church
-- and the faith to say to others, “Jesus is Lord of my life.”
But if you and I who are here to worship this weekend,
if you and I fail to acknowledge the Spirit within us;
if you and I fail to believe that the Spirit empowers us;
if you and I fail to use the gifts each of us
has for building up the Church;
if you and I fail to share a word of faith,
with those who are not here, with those who have left us,
with the “unaffiliated;”
if you and I fail to be missionaries here in our own community,
in Concord and its environs:
then how can we be surprised if our numbers continue to decline
and the generations to come after us are left bereft
of the faith we cherish?
Questions like these are already on the table
and will be multiplying
as the church around the world and in our parish
works to discern how we can, in the pope’s words,
so that Holy Family’s customs,
Holy Family’s ways of doing things,
Holy Family’s times and schedules,
Holy Family’s language and structures,
all can be suitably channeled for the evangelization
of the community in which we live --
rather than for our own self-preservation.
It’s not too early for us to strap on our seat-belts
because the ride ahead may be a bumpy one.
The changes facing us will be many (and often uncomfortable)
so in a few moments, we will pray, as we do every Sunday,
pray for the coming Holy Spirit,
given first at Pentecost and to each of us in Confirmation.
We’ll pray this same Spirit will come down not in tongues of fire
but like the dewfall on our gifts of bread and wine,
that they might become for us the Body and Blood of Christ
at whose command we celebrate this Eucharist.
May the Spirit who transforms our simple gifts
transform the Church and transform each of us
– without exception – for the work of the mission of Jesus
in the world around us.
(If this homily sounds familiar... A portion of it was in my Ascension Thursday homily which received very good feedback. Since the Ascension crowds were small, I thought it might be worth sharing this message with the rest of the parish. So, part of that message shaped the homily I preached last Sunday at the 9:30 Mass and the one I preached this Pentecost weekend at 5:00, 7:30 and 11:30.)
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