In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that when the Spirit came upon the disciples in wind and fire, they proclaimed the Word in languages they didn’t even know, so that everyone who heard them would understand.
Understanding and connectedness: those are two of the gifts of Pentecost, and two that we need sorely today. Division has been a theme in politics for a long time, but these last few months of the coronavirus pandemic have brought our polarization of thought into sharp focus, forcing everyone to ask the question: Is there any way to communicate with those who believe differently from us?
Perhaps during these days, when so many have stepped back from the normal rhythm of life, we’ve had more time to pause and examine the big picture. How do we communicate the word of Christ to the world? How do we identify ourselves as Catholics and yet remain open to those who are not?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’ve realized there are people I’ve stopped talking to, individuals who used to be a part of my life and who have drifted out of it because we’ve stopped listening to each other. And in trying to find an answer, I’ve turned to one of my favorite people, St. John Paul II.
His legacy is especially relevant because it provides an antidote to a tension reflected in the polarization that mars so much of Catholic and civil life, between identity and outreach.
Speaking of the pope’s document Gaudium et Spes, Dominican Father Michal Paluch has written that “it contains within itself, on the one hand, the invitation to be witnesses of Christ in the contemporary culture, and, on the other, it’s an invitation to be in dialogue with the contemporary world, to be able to learn something from all those who don’t share our values or who are not Christians. You could see that both being a witness and being in dialogue were at the center of his agenda.”
That dialogue is more important now than ever. It takes a spirit of fortitude and of courage to reach beyond our own feelings, prejudices, opinions, and filters to truly listen to other people, to take the risk of responding to their needs. But I keep coming back to Pentecost, to the Holy Spirit making sure that everyone could hear the message in their own language, could be reached precisely where they were at that moment. The Holy Spirit was, in essence, in dialogue with the world, and to me in these days of a pandemic that has brought us all, willy-nilly, closer than ever, it’s an apt reminder that we’re in this world together.
It’s truly been a gift of the pandemic, this understanding. No matter how much we may disagree with each other on how to deal with it, when to re-open, whether to wear masks, who is to blame for this or that…. what I’ve noticed, above all, is a new closeness. Even as Zoom meetings have literally brought us all into each other’s living-rooms, so too has it felt that everyone—everyone—is suddenly living in my heart. The world is suddenly closer and dearer to me. When the New York Times published the names and a brief sentence about one thousand of the hundred thousand Americans who have died, I read every one of those names and descriptions with a new sense of connectedness to them. When the typhoon hit India and Bangladesh, I lit candles and prayed as though everyone there were members of my own family.
Because they are.
We are all connected. If the gift of the pandemic was in opening our hearts to the world, then our next step—especially in light of Pentecost—has to be to enter into dialogue with this world we’ve just welcomed into ourselves, our circle of concern.
In Ecclesiam Suam, Pope Paul VI writes about this dialogue that we are challenged to extend: “Our dialogue must be accompanied by that meekness which Christ bade us learn from Himself: ‘Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart.’ (56) It would indeed be a disgrace if our dialogue were marked by arrogance, the use of barbed words or offensive bitterness. What gives it its authority is the fact that it affirms the truth, shares with others the gifts of charity, is itself an example of virtue, avoids peremptory language, makes no demands. It is peaceful, has no use for extreme methods, is patient under contradiction and inclines towards generosity.”
There’s been too much arrogance already. There’s been too much “offensive bitterness.” The price we’ve paid for continuing down that road is too high. The gift of Pentecost and the gift of the pandemic coincide: care for others, offering a witness of Christ to others in ways they will understand, with humility and charity.
The flames of fire and the high wind are dramatic. But what they ask of us is no less so.
by Jeannette de Beavoir