Be Not Afraid!

John 20:19-23 (Pentecost, year A)
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One of my heroes is St. John Paul II. This man, who was Pope during most of the time that I was alive, helped inspire me to follow Jesus more closely and to become a priest. The most important message that I received from Pope John Paul II can be summarized in the short speech that he gave immediately after he was was elected Pope. If you haven’t seen the footage, I suggest you check it out on YouTube. Walking to the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica right after his election, Pope John Paul II addressed the many thousands gathered below in the square with a simple, powerful message: “Do not be afraid!”

The reality is that fear often prevents us from fully engaging in society in order to carry out the mission Jesus has given us. Like the disciples in the Gospel of today, we lock ourselves away from the world out of fear. For the disciples, their fear was of the Jewish authorities. Today, we can often be afraid to even let people know that we are Catholic. We are timid to discuss our faith with others. We are hesitant to offer our opinions on some matters because we do not want to be judged or drawn into arguments. Recently the Catholic Church has taken a beating in the court of public opinion. Many of these wounds are self-inflicted. Because of the terrible actions of some of its members - the sexual abuse scandal is a notable example - the reputation of the Church is greatly tarnished. Many people no longer care to listen to what the Church has to say, arguing that is a backward and outdated institution. Some, like Richard Dawkins, appear on television arguing that the Catholic Church is among the greatest forces of evil in the world. Certainly, there are many who admire and support the Church. That said, we have all probably felt a certain shyness of fear to even admit to others that we are Catholics. Like the disciples in the Gospel of today, we are unable to do the mission Jesus has entrusted to us because we lock ourselves away from society out of fear.

It is through the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus transforms us completely. Without Jesus, we would forever be locked away. The Gospel of today is the Evangelist John’s depiction of Pentecost. In this, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. This act of breathing is very significant. It reminds us of of the account of the creation on the first man in which God brought the man to life by breathing into his nostrils. Similarly, by giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives His followers new life. Here are two manifestations of this new life:
  1. Jesus forms us into a community, the Church. Pentecost is usually considered the Birthday of the Church. Because of the Holy Spirit, we are united into one family from every nation and language. As we saw in the first reading, the disciples went and spoke every language. This is still a reality today.
  2. Jesus sends us out on a mission. After giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus tells His disciples, “as the Father sent me, now I send you”. The Church is meant to continue Jesus’ mission of reconciling the world to God. To do this the disciples must unlock the doors and go boldly into society.
By giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives us a new life.
The Holy Spirit gives each of us gifts that are meant to be used in the service of Jesus’ mission and of others. In the second reading, we heard St. Paul describe the Church as a body. A body is made of many parts which are all connected to each other and important to the proper functioning of the body. Likewise, as members of the Church we are part of one body. We are all connected to each other and serve a common mission: as Jesus was sent by the Father, so He sends us. Each of us have been given different gifts. We are not meant to keep these gifts to ourselves. They are meant to be used to carry out this common mission. In addition to Pentecost, today is also Stewardship Sunday. We are reminded today that we are meant to use all our gifts - our time, talents and treasure - in the service of others and the mission Jesus has given us. As the saying goes, “use it or lose it”! We cannot bring these gifts with us after we die! Or, as Pope Francis is found of saying, “there are no pockets in a burial shroud”. God has all given us time, talents and treasure that are meant for the service of others.

The Holy Spirit gives us the courage to fearlessly use our gifts to help further the mission that Jesus has given us. From the first reading, we see that after the apostles received the Holy Spirit, the went out and courageously witnessed to Jesus. Sometimes we think that we are not good, talented or knowledgeable enough to do the mission Jesus gives us. The truth is that we aren't and neither were the disciples. We are weak, but the Holy Spirit will work through us. When Pope Benedict was elected, he explained that he felt afraid and that he was not up to the task. He said, however, that he took comfort from the “fact that the Lord knows how to work and to act even with insufficient instruments”. For me, an inspiring example of someone using fearlessly using their gifts to further Jesus’ mission is a young Italian religious sister named Sister Cristina. Recently she won the Italian version of “The Voice”, a singing competition. Competing in her religious habit and openly speaking about her faith, she has been a vibrant, compelling witness to Jesus Christ. As one of the heavily tatoo-ed judges named J-Ax remarked when he first heard her sing, "If I had met you during the Mass when I was a child, now I would be Pope. I would surely have attended all of the functions." To this, Sister Christina responded, “well, you have met me now”. The Holy Spirit gives us the courage to overcome our fears and use our gifts to serve others and bring them closer to Jesus.

Pentecost is a day of hope. It is a day to be proud to be called by Jesus to be part of the Church and given a mission. We all have a vital role to play. No one is insignificant or unimportant. Let us not lock ourselves away due to fear. Today let us consciously pray that the Holy Spirit will fill us with the courage to to participate in Jesus’ mission. On Pentecost more than any other day those words of Pope John Paul II should echo deep within our hearts: “be not afraid”!