This afternoon in Rome Pope Francis will host a prayer meeting for peace with the Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. This follows his impromptu invitation to the three when he was in the Middle East a fortnight ago. In recent times Pope Francis has focused his energies on promoting unity and peace in troubled parts of the world, such as Palestine, Syria, Ukraine and the Central African Republic, where 18 people sheltering with their priest in a Catholic church were killed by a rebel militia just this week.
True to script, Pope Francis does this in unscripted ways! On his way to Mass in Bethlehem, for example, he stopped his car at the graffiti-strewn barrier wall between Israel and the West Bank. Getting out and leaning his head against it, like someone praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, he prayed for “harmony, union and peace in this land”. He even-handedly attended a memorial to victims of Jewish terrorism, as well as as well as Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum, where he very movingly cried out “never again” and assumed the voice of God calling out to Adam after the original sin.
He prayed with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople at the Holy Sepulchre and in an extraordinary photographic moment embraced a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam at the Western Wall.
Photo: ServizioFotograficoOR/ PA
These were treasured moments of unity and peace in perhaps the world’s most neuralgic place, where almost anything a man like the Pope does is interpreted as hurtful by someone. One of these tense moments was when the Holy Father celebrated Mass in the Cenacle, the very room where Christ is said to have celebrated the Last Supper, appeared to the frightened disciples on Easter night, and sent them the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Because some Jews believe this is also the site of King David’s tomb they oppose Christians worshipping there and fear their government might cede the site to the Vatican or, worse, the Palestinian Christians. And so for weeks there were demonstrations. Yet when the Pope came in such evident reverence and peace the demonstrations dissipated. It was from this very Cenacle, the Pope observed, where the Church was born, that “she set out, with the broken bread in her hands, the wounds of Christ before her eyes, and the Spirit of love in her heart.”
Today we join the Pope at that sacred site. Today we join his predecessor Peter, gathered with Mary and the Apostles at the first Pentecost awaiting the tongues of fire (Acts 2:1-11). Today we celebrate God as “the Lord, the Giver of Life”, who breathes His life into the Church. Who is this Person we call ‘Spirit’ and ‘Breath’ and ‘Fire’ and ‘Life’ and where does He come from?
The second question first. When we recite the Creed we declare that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”. So you might say we know where He comes from. But beware: the Filioque – the ‘and the Son’ bit – was added late to the Creed and has divided Christians ever since. Secondly, our God language mostly works by analogy or metaphor: to say the Holy Spirit “proceeds” has similarities but is not the same as what we mean when we say Bishop Anthony proceeds from the sacristy into the cathedral or that Fr Andrew’s directive behaviour proceeds from his desire to ensure that the Liturgy is seamless, reverent and beautiful!
So if the words are controversial and their meaning complicated, why on earth do we keep saying them every week? Because they do, in fact, convey essential truths about God the Holy Spirit and His relationship with the other two Divine Persons. He comes from both God the Father and God the Son in some ways like Bishop Anthony originating from and coming to, or Fr Andrew acting upon some principle. The Holy Spirit, equal in divinity to the Father and Son, receives something from them both: His Divine Nature and mission. When he was at Randwick Racecourse for World Youth Day, Pope Benedict XVI taught us beautifully about the Holy Spirit. Drawing especially on the thought of St Augustine, he called the Holy Spirit “the bond of unity within the Blessed Trinity … unity as communion, unity as abiding love, and unity as giving and gift.” The Holy Spirit is “what is shared by the Father and the Son”. The Holy Spirit is what, is Who, gives unity to the Father and Son, indeed He is the love or unity of those two Persons eternally “giving themselves to each other”.
Now, before you tell yourself that that sort of theological carry on has got nothing to do with the struggles of my family and working life, let alone the struggles going on in our world at the moment, think again. If the Holy Spirit is the force Who unites the divine Persons eternally in love; if He is the One who proceeds from them to our world and back to them from our world; if He is the giver of life to the Church ever since Pentecost, as our faith proclaims; then: He it is Who unites human persons when they might be inclined to fall apart; He it is Who brings the inspiration of the Father and the Son to us and draws us back with Him to them in eternity; and He is the One who breathes eternal life into our mortal natures and divine grace into our little hopes and dreams and projects. As St Augustine taught, it is the Holy Spirit who allows us to be and to remain in God and God to be and remain in us. If Christ is God as flesh, God in the flesh, the Holy Spirit is “God as Love” or God in love (De Trinitate 15.17.31). As Peter knew, as Pope Francis knows, as we all know deep down: we cannot do it on our own; only by the Spirit’s power can we hope to overcome that which divides our hearts, our relationships, our nations, our civilisations.
When the Risen Jesus wanted peace for His disciples He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, as we heard in our Gospel this morning (Jn 20:19-23). Only by the Holy Spirit’s power would sins be forgiven and forgotten and people be reconciled. Only by the Holy Spirit’s life or breath or soul would the many of us, each with his or her own gifts and backgrounds and interests, be made parts of one body that is Christ’s (2 Cor 12:3-13).
Come Holy Spirit, Lord of light, come bless dark hearts and make them bright;
Come, on the soul thy peace bestow, come us console amidst our woe.
Come, heal our wounds, our strength refill, and bend our stubborn heart and will;
Come from the Father and the Son, come heal our hate and make us one.