A Pentecostal Anniversary
By Pamela Smith
Each year we mark the 50th day after Easter as Pentecost Sunday. It isn’t a calendar anniversary but one we might term a festal one. This year it falls on May 23. We celebrate that day because of the story in Acts of the Apostles (chapter 2) of how the followers of Jesus were huddled together in Jerusalem. They were still trying to process a complex whirlwind of events — Jesus’ death by crucifixion, his resurrection from the dead, his appearances to many in their number and then his ascension into heaven. And then suddenly they experienced an onrush of the Holy Spirit that propelled them into action. Intimidated apostles exploded from their safe, closed room and began preaching and converting. Catholics celebrate this day as the birthday of the church.
But this year we also recall more recent anniversaries affecting Catholic life. On Pentecost 1986, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical, a book-length letter, entitled “Dominum et Vivificantem,” literally translated “Lord and Giver of Life,” words we use regarding the Holy Spirit when we recite the creed at Mass. The subtitle of the document was “On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World.” Among the many ways in which the Spirit guides, teaches, convicts us of sin, inspires and heals, John Paul II explained that the Holy Spirit must also be understood as the love between the Father and the Son that pours forth into the world. “Personal love” is the Holy Spirit, he declared.
Then on Pentecost Sunday 2015 Pope Francis issued the much-publicized encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.” The timing may have prompted some head-scratching, as many might have expected it to emerge on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi (since the title is taken from the “Canticle of Creation” by St. Francis) or Earth Day or some such. So we are led to ask what pollution, toxic waste, desertification and climate change have to do with the Holy Spirit’s big day in the church calendar.
On one level, we can readily harken back to the opening of Genesis (1:2), when some translations speak of a mighty wind blowing and others speak of the spirit hovering over the waters in the very act of Creation. Or we might turn to Psalm 104, where God is praised for all of creation and this verse (30) appears: “Send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.” Or we can fast-forward to almost the last verses of the New Testament, where the consummation of the world is happening and new heavens, new earth are being born: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let the hearer say, ‘Come.’ Let the one who thirsts come forward, and one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water” (Revelation 22:17).
So was Pope Francis trying to tell us something about beginnings and the end times, or maybe about renewal? Or was it more complex than that?
Though it is likely an oversimplification, I believe the encyclical was about God’s creation and human responsibility for it. Genesis uses the word “dominion,” and most religious thinkers in the Jewish and Christian tradition understand that to mean stewardship, not domination. Francis registers concern about the despoliation of the world of nature from several perspectives. One is the damage to human life and health — and particularly the lives and health of the poor, who are already known to be severely impacted by chemical accidents, exposure to toxic substances, waterborne diseases, loss of biodiversity and the mixture of fires, storms and floods brought on by human carelessness and global warming. Another concern is the long-range impact on planetary health and future generations.
Although moral philosophers have debated whether one can have obligations to those not yet born, Catholics clearly believe so and consider that knowingly doing things that can harm future generations is a sin against the commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” Concern for the common good is a human obligation, and Francis extends that to concern for how we affect and effect our call to “communion with the rest of nature.” Francis speaks of “integral ecology” as having to do with quality of life and attention to the way in which our lifestyles — our consumption, our economic activities, the work in which we engage and our choices to hoard or to share — impact all of humanity.
Along with noting matters that require attention — our consumption of meat, our throwaway culture, our wastefulness in general — Francis speaks specifically about Christian concerns, concerns for the Spirit-led church and Spirit-led individual believers. He speaks of the way in which the Christian monastic movement of the early Middle Ages exhibited a daily mix of prayer and care for the environment. Soil was tilled and animals raised; people were fed, crafts were plied and hours of the day were blessed. Francis suggests that a more contemplative lifestyle will produce a healthier earth environment — something a number of artists, poets and musicians, both secular and religious, have been touting for decades.
He also notes something that liturgical theologians have been saying. Our sacramental celebrations, particularly those in the Eastertide, rely on water, oil, bread and wine as elements. Instructions on rites written for Catholic celebrants always note that these elements should be of highest quality and that the vestments and vessels used in celebration should be “noble” in appearance and construction. If we understand that God chooses to act and impart grace through the things of this world in the hands of sacred ministers, we must insist that the water is pure and that the soil in which the olive trees and wheat and grapes grow is fertile and free of contamination.
Francis also hails the importance of beauty and rest for the development of peaceful souls and a genuine relationship with God. This is hardly available in an environment of threat, want and visible degradation. God’s will for us is “unending plenitude,” Francis says, but that obliges us to cultivate an earth environment that prepares us for such — and for a rich sharing.
During the past year, there have been a number of dialogues on “Care for Our Common Home” prompted by this entry of Pope Francis into what is sometimes the environmental foray. Some of the anniversary dialogues and celebrations originally planned to begin in May 2020 have extended into this current year, thanks to the pandemic. For those who wish to engage in more exploration of ecological action in ecumenical and interreligious settings, groups like GreenFaith, Interfaith Power and Light, the Catholic Climate Covenant, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs), the Franciscan Action Network and many others provide materials, webinars, Zoom links, information about ecological heroes and saints and suggestions for local activities and shared worship.
As he concludes this encyclical, Pope Francis prays: “Holy Spirit, by your light you guide this world towards the Father’s love and accompany creation as it groans in travail. You also dwell in our hearts and you inspire us to do what is good. Praise be to you!” And then he asks that we remember that all creation is precious in God’s sight.
Pamela Smith, SS.C.M., serves as director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston. She holds a doctorate in systematic theology from Duquesne University and is the author of 14 books, with two additional forthcoming in 2020.