June 8, 2019
Tomorrow we celebrate Pentecost Sunday. Below is a homily I delivered at St. Pius X Parish, Indianapolis, on Pentecost Sunday in 2013:
Everyone knows the story of Pentecost. The apostles had locked themselves in a room, afraid to go out and face the world without Jesus. The Holy Spirit entered the room in the form of tongues of fire flickering over their heads. They were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and suddenly found themselves with the courage to unlock their doors, step out, and begin preaching the Gospel message. The Holy Spirit gave them a voice.
The most amazing part of the gift they received was that all who heard them were able to understand. People from foreign lands, speaking many different languages and dialects, could understand what the apostles had to say. Each heard the apostles in his own language.
This concept of “speaking in tongues” – how is that even possible? Maybe it is not as mysterious as it sounds.
My wife, Carol, has been to El Salvador seven times. We have pictures of her in a small village, looking like the Pied Piper, surrounded by smiling Salvadoran children. Carol sketched out a mural on the side of the simple structure serving as the community center, and all of the children were helping her paint it. Big smiles on their faces, paint everywhere.
Each time she goes there, she comes home with stories of what beautiful people the Salvadorans are. She comes back enriched by her relationship with them.
One year, I had the opportunity to go with her to El Salvador. When we arrived at the village, young people called out, “Caroleena!” and ran to her, and gave her big hugs. It was not until then that it dawned on me, Carol doesn’t speak Spanish!
I watched her all week, stumbling over even the most basic Spanish words and phrases. But she smiled, and she laughed, and she touched them and hugged them, she cried with them, she worked side by side with them. She let them know she cared about them. She was speaking the universal language of love. They understood her. She must have been speaking in tongues.
I learned from Carol. When I had the chance to go to Haiti, I tried to follow her lead. The Haitians speak Creole. My French background could have helped me, but any French I learned in high school left my head the minute I walked out of the last class.
I was assisting on a medical mission. I held sick babies. I held elderly Haitians’ hands as I took their temperature or their blood pressure. I smiled at them and lightly rubbed their backs. I had the opportunity to sit side-by-side with them in an earthquake ravaged chapel and pray with them. I spoke the universal language of Jesus, of love. They understood me. I guess I spoke in tongues.
My son and daughter-in-law went on a trip to India with their church. India, where over 450 languages are spoken. Gendercide is rampant in India. Many female babies are aborted, killed in infancy, or abandoned.
Rick and Whitney went to visit several all-female orphanages run by the Catholic Church. They played with the girls, and hugged them, laughed with them and loved them. And they sent the girls the powerful message that they have value.
They never spoke to the girls in their native language, but they spoke the universal language of the love of Jesus Christ. The girls understood Rick and Whitney. Maybe they were speaking in tongues.
About three years ago I was at a retreat being run by Fr. Jim Farrell. Late one evening, he got a call from a family at the hospital. Their sister was dying, could he come to the hospital and be with her?
It was snowing pretty heavily, so Father asked if I would drive him. When he arrived at the hospital and entered the visitors lounge, the family almost immediately became more calm. He talked with them for a few minutes, and they directed us to their sister’s room.
It was just the sister, Fr. Jim, and me in the hospital room. Machines and tubes were everywhere…a respirator pushed out air. In silence, Fr. Jim took the hand of the dying woman in his and began stroking it with the fingers of his other hand. Then he began to hum. A nurse walked in and stood still so as not to disturb anyone. Then he began to sing.
Before that night, I would never have described Fr. Jim’s singing voice as beautiful. Loud maybe, and powerful, but probably not beautiful. But when he began to sing Amazing Grace, it was some of the most beautiful singing I had ever heard.
The nurse was visibly moved. She heard the song as she needed to hear it. The woman who lay dying heard the song as she needed to hear it. I heard it as I needed to hear it. We each heard it in our own language.
He was using the universal language of love, even when he was saying nothing at all; and when he sang, he must have been singing in tongues.
I could give another dozen examples of people I’ve seen communicating through the common language of love. Never once did I see a flame flickering over anyone’s head; but the power of the Holy Spirit was very much alive in each instance.
You speak in tongues each time a friend comes to you in pain. You may not be able to relate to her specific problem, but you offer support, encouragement, and consolation. You do it each time you smile and greet a stranger. You do it each time you step out of your comfort zone and serve others.
We hear the story of Pentecost not to remind us that the apostles were given an exclusive gift of the Holy Spirit, but to let it be known that the gift of the Holy Spirit is available to all of us – on demand and ready to be used.
The Holy Spirit gave the apostles a voice, a voice to be used to spread the Gospel message. I’m not sure exactly what happened on that Pentecost day. Did the apostles suddenly have the miraculous ability to speak in any language? Did those listening suddenly have the ability to understand what was being said, regardless of the language spoken?
Or did the apostles step out from behind their locked door, joyfully singing the praises of Jesus Christ? Did they have smiles on their faces? Maybe they hugged those who were suffering and in need of encouragement or comfort. Perhaps they extended a helping hand to the poor.
Maybe there was no mystery or miracle to it at all. Maybe the apostles simply spoke the language of the Gospel message – the universal language of love.
Maybe the real gift the Holy Spirit gave the apostles that day was the courage to unlock their door.