The Word Embodied
The Church of Many Voices
“What the Spirit brings is very different.”(1 Corinthians 12:4)
There are many gifts in the church, many ministries, many works, many members. That’s a problem. Who’s best? Who’s important? Who has the right way? Who corners the truth?
Some of us would love to have the special charism of solitary prayer. But not having it, we might think ourselves inferior. More distressing, we might envy contemplatives or even resort to the tactic of thinking that prayer isn’t so special after all. (Those people who run from the world, hide in their rooms, frequent chapels: wouldn’t it be better if they were like us, finding God in the rough and tumble, helping the poor, being busy?)
Then again, others of us wish we had the charism of community: family, relationships, friends, parties, gatherings. Social stars shine. They seem to engage others effortlessly. How do those people manage to be so outgoing and open? The same hints of our inferiority, however, set us on the way to envy and then resentment. (They’re nothing but enthusiasts, extroverts with slick surface and little depth. They usually are the ones who don’t care about peace and justice, as long as they are having a good time.)
Many of us, in our better moments, admire Christian social activists—people who hunger, thirst, and labor for justice. In our worse moments, however, we wish they wouldn’t bother us or remind us that the gospels challenge our way of life. (These people ought to get their own act together instead of trying to change the world. After all, we can’t hope for heaven on earth. All they do is send us on guilt trips.)
Surely those who have devoted their lives to the corporal works of mercy win the respect of us all. Has there ever been a time when we did not secretly desire to be like them? But this desire, too, sometimes sours; and the example of “do-gooders” feels more like a rebuke than an inspiration. (Bleeding hearts. Why do they care only about the poor—and not the rest of us? At least they could take better care of their own kin. Even that Mother Teresa, she only did band-aid work, anyway. Why didn’t she challenge the unjust political and economic structures?)
These examples, of course, are just caricatures; but they do suggest attitudes that stir hostility and division in the church. One might wonder, for example, whether some of the sharp quarrels between liberal and conservative, right and left, traditionalist and reformist are more a function of particularism and resentment than they are expressions of profound faith.
Are there not gifts of conservatives that liberals miss? Isn’t there a ministry the liberal gives us that the conservative does not? Do not traditionalists as well as innovators have a charism? Don’t contemplatives, social activists, Catholic Workers, and urban families all embody our faith in ways both necessary and complementary?
St. Paul, I propose, would say yes. The variety of talents and works, whether of Jew or Greek, slave or free, serves the common good. The diversity of the members makes them a body. But to be one body, they must have one Spirit and speak with one voice. “Jesus is Lord,” is their fundamental message, announced by those who drink of the same Spirit.
This is the Spirit that on Pentecost filled the disciples. It was so strong a confirmation of faith in Jesus that believers could speak in a way that was not only united but was universally understood. This is the Spirit that Jesus, in John’s Gospel, breathes in a moment of peace, igniting discipleship.
It is the Spirit, as the great hymn “Veni Sancte Spiritus” recalls, which inhabits the heart of the poor as well as the solitary. It quickens joy, eases sorrow. It permeates deep intelligence as well as high feeling. It transforms labor as well as the human heart.
In the Letter to the Galatians (Gal 5:19-23) we read that, as opposed to sexual indulgence, idolatry, wrangling, jealousy, ill-temper, disagreements, factions, envy, and orgy, “what this Spirit brings is different: love, joy, peace, trustfulness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, patience, and self-control.”
What a wonder it would be, what a breeze of life, what a fire of zeal, if differences in the church were marked by these gifts of Pentecost. Rather than all our particular ideologies, our special interests, our private fixations, we would communicate to the world (and to the young) in a language that we all understand. It is the language of the Holy Spirit, the language of love, revealed in patience and kindness, generosity and trust, and a faith both forgiving and enduring.
What a gift to speak the language of such love. What a renewal of the earth as well as our church. Rather than being shamed by the grace of another, we would be graced. Rather than shrink at comparisons, we arise in praise to God.
Is such a gift worth praying for? The alleluia verse of Pentecost leaves no doubt: “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful; and kindle in them the fire of your love.”
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University