The Spirit Gives Us Power to Overcome Fear
by Father Peter Iorio
We have always done it this way. Have you ever heard that phrase? Have you ever said that phrase to someone expecting that the “tried and true” way of the organization is the way it will always be done, and God forbid you try to change it? I will always remember what Sister Madeline told me about 27 years ago. These are the 7 deadliest words in the convent: We have always done it this way.
By acknowledging that change is inevitable, we can at the same time appreciate the value of ritual which roots us to sacred truth and also to be open to transformation.
Today we celebrate God the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. Pentecost means fifty and today is the fiftieth day after the celebration of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Pentecost is recognized as the Birthday of the Church because the disciples went forth to all parts of the world to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ Risen from the Dead, thus establishing His Church.
In the second reading for this evening, Paul acknowledges that the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness. [In the Gospel the disciples are locked in a room because they are afraid.] What is our weakness? When it comes to weakness in faith, I submit that a weakness of most humans, most Christians is fear.
Fear is a weakness that keeps us isolated, closed in on ourselves. Fear stifles growth.
A priest friend of mine said that he did not know whether he could do prison ministry. He was afraid he would not be good at it; that the inmates would not accept him. I shared with him what I learned about the courage to try something new as I responded to God’s call at different times of my own life.
As I reflect on my own faith journey, I realize that I was a very fearful person. I still am to a degree. The Holy Spirit gives me the courage to respond to God’s will. I felt called to the priesthood when I was in high school. I am basically a shy person by nature and I feared getting up and speaking in front of people. I was afraid that I could not minister as a priest to so many different kinds of people since I was inexperienced. And God said: Do not be afraid. I am with you.
So just after my first two years in a parish and getting used to priestly ministry, the bishop asked me to go to teach and minister in a Catholic high school. I did not feel that I could relate to teens and also how would the faculty who taught me at that school relate to me as a colleague? Once again, I prayed through my fears and did that ministry for four years. Then I got a call to work in the seminary to teach young men how to be priests. I was only six years ordained. What did I know? Through a powerful retreat experience, God told me through the Scriptures and a simple homily at the retreat house, that I needed to be fearless and faithful like Abram and go to a new land and ministry that God was showing me.
There are other examples that I shared with my priest friend, and he appreciated the insight. And I hope you get the picture. When God calls you to something new and unknown, do not be afraid. Trust that your life is not about you. Trust that God, the Holy Spirit is inside you and on your side. The Holy Spirit transforms our lives …helping us, always to live in a fuller way, a deeper way, a richer way. Each one of those experiences helped me to grow and to do Christ’s work. I am humbly grateful to God for those experiences. They were not always easy, but through the challenges, the Body of Christ was being built up. Through these experiences, my confidence (literally “with faith”) grew stronger.
When Paul speaks of the Spirit, he uses the Greek word “dynamis” which is power. We have the word dynamite, which is pretty powerful stuff. If someone is dynamic, they don’t put you to sleep but motivate others to do something for the good.
I believe by experience that there is power in sharing our personal stories. No matter who you are, God the Spirit is present in you. If the dynamic power of God is in you, then your life is a witness just as the first apostles witnessed to Jesus. I just spent the last two days at the Holy Friendship Summit, Healing the Heart of Southern Appalachia. We heard great speakers talking about the opioid crisis and how to work together as Christians to address it.
One of the themes that came out repeatedly is that there is a stigma (a type of fear) in our churches. People, good Christian people are afraid and sometimes judgmental of our brothers and sisters in crisis. We do not reach out to them in love as Christ commands us to…Remember “we have always done it this way.” What touched my heart the most was to hear the personal stories of three people who had the courage to tell the story of their lives and the power of transformation through Christ.
Each in some way had hit bottom, even serving time in jail. One young man had a sports injury and got addicted to the narcotics prescribed for pain after surgery. He was vulnerable enough to tell his story and encourage us to reach out to people like him. I know that there have been funerals in this very church of parishioners who have died from opioids. In the first letter of John 4:18 it says: “there is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear.” God the Holy Spirit is Love that casts out fear and empowers us to bring healing and companionship and hope to others who have little or no hope.
One speaker gave a great talk on a life that flourishes. He said that two elements are needed in a person for a life that flourishes. One comes from strength and the other weakness. He said the first element is authority: a capacity for meaningful action. And the second may be shocking because we consider it weakness, but it is vulnerability: exposure to meaningful risk. If you have high vulnerability and high capacity for meaningful action, your life is flourishing. This is based on the life of Christ. It is a paradox of opposites. We like the authority part, but we are not so sure of being vulnerable. Authority without vulnerability leads to control and exploitation. The worst case scenario is withdrawal which is low authority and low vulnerability.
[What strikes me in the Gospel (Sunday) is that there was no spirit yet because He was not yet glorified. That glorification would only come after his suffering and death on the cross. Christ’s glorification indicated by his “glorious wounds” happened in his resurrection. So too for us… if we review our life stories, and they are all different, if we pay attention this pattern of glorification: suffering and then rising to new life is present.]
This Mass for the Feast of Pentecost refers to different languages and the power of the Spirit that breaks down barriers of incomprehension. One of the God given gifts that I have is the ability to speak 4 languages and bits and phrases of a few others. Once again, God is calling me to be courageous and work towards the unity of the Body of Christ right here in this parish.
We call the Church the Body of Christ. Paul says that we are all members of the Body. We have different gifts/functions and all are needed. The body is not whole until all of the members are present and active. When one member suffers, we all suffer. When one member rejoices, we all rejoice. Those of you in Christ renews his parish experience Church in this way, a living dynamic Body of Christ with many members who are very different. You are not afraid to be vulnerable and share your stories. There is no stigma in past sins. The Holy Spirit is at work creating you anew, helping you to flourish and to have holy friendships in Christ.
The Holy Spirit is alive and bringing forth changes. Let us not be afraid to say YES to God wherever Christ is inviting us to do something new to build up His Kingdom of Love, Joy, Peace, Kindness, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Self-control, Chastity, Generosity, Modesty, Patience and Goodness.