The Holy Spirit, soul of the Church

Here is the text of the sermon that I gave on Monday evening at the Votive Mass of the Holy Ghost as part of the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the parish of St Mary Magdalen, Brighton.

DSC_0911We speak of the Holy Spirit as the soul of the Church. The first to use this analogy was St Augustine. In one of his sermons, he said:
What the soul is for the body of man, that the Holy Spirit is for the body of Christ, that is, the Church, The Holy Spirit operates in the whole Church that which the soul operates in the members of the one body. (1)
Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, said that the Holy Spirit is “the principle of every supernatural act in all parts of the Body.” (2)

Of course we also speak of the Church as the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ, we affirm with St Augustine that:
Peter may baptise, but this is He that baptises; Paul may baptise, yet this is He that baptises; Judas may baptise, still this is He that baptises. (3)
The role of the Holy Spirit in the Church is to “activate” Our Lord’s living presence, so to speak. At the Last Supper, Our Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist and the sacrament of Holy Orders, so there was a Church in embryo. When we say that Pentecost was the birthday of the Church it was, like a human birth, the occasion on which the Church went out to the world to proclaim the gospel and, on that first day, to baptise 3,000 people in Jerusalem.

We adore and glorify the Holy Spirit as the Lord and giver of life. The last part of the creed unfolds for us the work of the Holy Spirit. There is a mistake in the new ICEL translation: "I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church."

There is no “in” in the Latin text. We do not believe in the Church in the way that we believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe in the persons of the Blessed Trinity as truly God. We believe the Church both in the sense of trusting the Lord in Her, and of believing what she teaches us.

Henri de Lubac in his exposition of the apostles creed draws attention to this distinction. The Church is the first gift of the Holy Spirit through which all the other gifts are received. So we say:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
De Lubac points out that this is not the jumbled list that it might appear to be at first sight. Through the Church we receive the communion of spiritual things (the original meaning of communio sanctorum) the principal holy thing that we share the Holy Spirit presence bringing life to all the things that the Church makes available to us. The forgiveness of sins is received first and foremost through Baptism by which we enter the Church, the resurrection of the body fulfils the preaching of the apostles which was focussed on the resurrection of Christ, so as to bring us to share in the resurrection of Christ. And the life everlasting is the ultimate purpose of the work of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and the aim of the Church herself. We should not forget that everlasting life is the ultimate point of everything that we do in the Church.

We are aware that in terms of its human members, not all is well in the Church. It never has been, yet the presence of the Holy Spirit makes the affirmation of the holiness of the Church to be true, not only in theory but also in practice through the lives of the saints. Nevertheless we are aware of sin and failure in the Church. I am indebted to Archbishop Chaput for this story which he used in one of his sermons:
Heinrich Himmler, the chief of Adolph Hitler’s security services during the Nazi era in Germany, once threatened the Archbishop of Berlin, Cardinal Konrad Graf, with plans to crush the Catholic Church. Cardinal Graf listened politely and then responded: "Well, good luck. We’ve been trying to do that for 2,000 years, and [the Church is] still here." (4)
Evelyn Waugh put it more bluntly when he said that the Church must be divine because no purely human institution run with such knavish imbecility would last a fortnight.

That is why the Holy Spirit works in the Church to give that divine assistance to the magisterium so that we may know the truths necessary for salvation with certainty through her infallible teaching. It is also why the sacraments work ex opere operato, such that despite the unworthiness of the minister, the grace of the sacrament is given infallibly if he uses the correct matter and form, and at least intends to do what the Church does.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has seen the need for reform in the Church and has promoted that reform at three levels, moral, doctrinal and liturgical. We pray that the Year of Faith will be a success in reviving catechesis based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the renewed evangelisation of people in countries such as our own that were once known as bastions of the Christian faith.

Tonight with the beautiful music sung at the service of the Sacred Liturgy, in the context for which it was composed, and the prayers and rituals of the traditional Roman High Mass (“the most beautiful thing this side of heaven” as Fr Faber called it) we thank God for Pope Benedict’s perception of the importance of the reform and renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, given a strong shove by the removal of previous restrictions on the celebration of the traditional liturgy.

These reforms of Pope Benedict are not meant to be purely external reforms, like a Government Policy (or “raft of measures”) but are intended to transform us personally. As Blessed Pope John Paul said in one of his General Audience addresses:
The Spirit who dwells in the Church also abides in the heart of every member of the faithful: he is the dulcis hospes animae. (5)
The Holy Spirit is the “sweet guest of the soul” and we must welcome Him in the devotion that we bring to our public and private prayers, the submission of our minds to the mind of Christ, and the sincere effort to correspond with the grace of God in overcoming sin in our lives.

The celebration of such a significant anniversary for such a significant Church is indeed an opportunity for reform in our lives, the renewal of our life of prayer and our moral life, and the celebration of our Sacred Worship in the best way that we can. It is a joy to be able to participate in the programme of events that has been organised to make the best of this opportunity. May God bless your parish, all the parishioners, and your parish priest, and may St Mary Magdalen intercede from heaven for the sanctification of all who take part in the celebrations.

  1. St Augustine. Sermones. 267.4
  2. Pope Pius XII. Mystici Corporis Christi. (1943) n.57
  3. St Augustine. In Evangelium Ioannis Tractatus. 6.7
  4. Archbishop Chaput (sermon)
  5. Blessed John Paul II. General Audience. 8 July 1998

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