The LORD brings to nought the plans of nations;
he foils the designs of peoples.
But the plan of the LORD stands forever;
the design of his heart, through all generations.
- Psalm 33:10-11, Pentecost Vigil Mass
Many Catholics are familiar with the Easter Vigil, the Mass on Holy Saturday evening that completes the Paschal Triduum and stands as the central celebration of the church year. Fewer know that Pentecost, a feast (along with Christmas and Epiphany) on the same level as Easter, also has an extended, though less frequently elaborated, Vigil Mass featuring four readings from the Hebrew Bible in addition to the Epistle and Gospel. Pentecost more frequently arrives for us as the end of something, the culmination of the Easter season and the transition to “ordinary time” in the church year and summer on the secular calendar. Yet this year it is worth our while to keep vigil with Mary and the Apostles.
This year in the life of American Catholics brings a somber Pentecost. Most notably, our country has once again experienced one of its inexplicable episodes of gun violence directed against children, alongside numerous others directed against Black Americans and other marginalized groups. With the author of Ephesians, we experience groaning and uncertainty what to do and how to pray under such circumstances. With Ezekiel, we might experience our country as a land of dry bones, doomed to repeat its most horrific failures again and again. We feel all too often like the exiles of Babel, unable to communicate with one another across cultural and political lines within one country.
The state of the church in this country, meanwhile, seems scarcely better, in no small part thanks to the failures of its leaders. As Michael Sean Winters detailed on these pages just this past week, Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco has sought to use Eucharistic discipline for political ends in a way that goes far beyond his moral authority. Meanwhile, elsewhere in California, Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire ministry has demonstrated that its recent embrace of people and subcultures —particularly pseudo-philosopher Jordan Peterson and bodybuilding—redolent of toxic masculinity have themselves reflected a toxic workplace culture. Barron’s subsequent (announced yesterday) move to a diocese in Minnesota, while perhaps helpful for diverting his attention from Word on Fire, sends the message that the church as an institution still views promotion (and subjecting a local flock to the pastoral rule of someone who has demonstrated poor judgment on important matters in the very recent past) as a way of solving problems.
St. John XXIII famously spoke of Vatican II as being a kind of “new Pentecost,” and he was right about this, especially in the way that Council opened up the church to being a more global rather than European institution—in retrospect its signature achievement. Yet it was not the only one—every Pentecost can be this for us if we remain open to the Spirit in our lives. Rather than a transition to the “ordinary” (a truly banal name for a season if there ever was one) Pentecost for us ought to be a transition to living our Easter faith (for the Christian Easter is an ever-present feast) more dynamically in our lives in the world.
Pope Francis has demonstrated this openness to the Holy Spirit just as his sainted predecessor John did. This is where what Austen Ivereigh calls his “freedom” comes from—letting the Spirit rather than convention guide. We might view the raising of people like friend of Sacred Heart University Bishop Robert McElroy to the cardinalate, whatever its broader political ramifications, through this lens. Rather than viewing the church and its leadership as a kind of civil service with protocols, Francis views it through the lens of service to the Gospel. This offers a model (however imperfectly implemented, as the Barron case above indicates) for us—how can we view our jobs and everyday lives as service to God and those around us rather than as busywork? We need this spirit of service (while also needing to draw boundaries to prevent service from turning to burnout), and the leaders of our nation also need this dynamism particularly in their approach to passing laws that serve the common good rather than settling into partisan gridlock and jockeying.
This Pentecost, let us keep vigil and pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into a society that sorely needs it. This does not mean passively accepting what comes. Pentecost, indeed, was a call to action for the Apostles, who went from the Upper Room to the ends of the world they knew. But without attentiveness to the Spirit, our actions, necessary as they are, will be in vain. Our society and our church need this attentiveness—need Pentecost—now more than ever.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.