We have to listen to the Spirit

by Thomas Gumbleton

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

As we try to listen deeply now to the Scripture lessons and draw from them guidance for our everyday life, I think it's important, especially from the Gospel, to hear Jesus telling us, "I've told you all this while I was still with you." Remember again, he's in conversation with his disciples the night before he dies. But then he says, "From now on, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will continue to teach you all things and remind you of what I have told you."

We've heard that before, and I think probably we don't really give enough attention to this promise of Jesus, that he's going to send his Holy Spirit to be with us, to guide us. But when you think about it, it's really important that he do that because if you notice in the Scriptures, Jesus doesn't give the disciples any blueprint about how to follow up on his teachings. He doesn't tell them how to establish a church, what they are to do.

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 15:1-2, 22-29
Psalms 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23
John 14:23
John 14:23-29
Full text of the readings

All he says is, "You've received the Holy Spirit. Go and proclaim the good news to all the nations." He's telling them, "Go out and preach the good news that I've been teaching you." But there will be times when they will need special guidance. Of course, one of those times came very early in the church. It's what we heard about in the first lesson today. The apostle Paul and Barnabas had made a missionary journey into Asia Minor, where would be Turkey, Syria -- those countries, and they had great success.

In town after town they went into the synagogues, they preached about Jesus, and people wanted to be baptized, wanted to become followers of Jesus. These were Gentiles. Back in Jerusalem where the church first began to function, all the disciples of Jesus who became his followers -- the Christian church, were Jews, and they still followed the Jewish practices. Now Paul and Barnabas were going out and saying, "That's not necessary any longer. You don't have to be circumcised. You don't have to follow the 613 laws of the Jewish covenant. You're free of that. You're followers of Jesus."

Many of the Jewish leaders were very upset about that. They wanted to maintain the original practice -- be a Jew and then be a Christian. Paul and Barnabas said no. It actually ended up in a big fight. We didn't hear that part in the first lesson, but here's how Luke describes it, "There was great trouble and Paul and Barnabas had fierce arguments with the others." For Paul told the people to remain as they were when they became believers.

So then what are they going to do? They had these fierce arguments; the church is maybe going to fall apart. So they decide to go back to Jerusalem and the disciples call together the whole church. They had a meeting of the church. It's sometimes called the Jerusalem Council, like we had the Vatican Council 50 years ago. This was in some ways the first council of the church. The whole church got together, and what they did was to listen to the Holy Sprit speaking through the church, through the people.

They went back and forth, they argued, they listened, they spoke. Gradually through the help of the Holy Spirit, they come to some conclusions. You heard in the lesson today about the letter that Paul and Barnabas were to take back from the church in Jerusalem, back to the cities where they had preached, "Here's what we've decided." Of course they eliminated the need to become Jews before you become Christians. The church was now ready to spread throughout the whole world, but it was through that guidance of the Holy Spirit that that was possible.

They had to try individually and as a community to listen to the Holy Spirit. If you're thinking about it, perhaps it occurs to you that's sort of what Pope Francis did a couple of years ago when he called the synod to meet in Rome, to discuss questions about marriage and family life. You may remember the first session in that synod there was wide-open discussion, lots of disagreements, probably even some people getting a little bit angry with other people.

That's how it happens when we human beings get together and try to settle difficult questions. But gradually, they came to a conclusion. The Holy Spirit filled that council hall, filled the people there, and they gradually came to understanding. It took another session of the synod this past year and now Pope Francis has published his pastoral letter about that synod. It's called Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), especially in married life.

It's a beautiful document, and it does bring about some extraordinary changes. Most important, of which, I think most of us would agree, is what can be done now for people in second marriages. That's been a really hardship in our church -- people who are very sincere, want to receive Communion, and for a variety of reasons, all kinds of reasons, sometimes marriages just don't work. That love that's supposed to be there isn't there. And in the past, if someone broke up a marriage and got remarried, "Stay away from the sacraments. You're not welcome."

For many people that was hard. Now through his new synod and the document that Pope Francis has published, it's possible for people in second marriages, as they go through a discernment process, through their own conscience, come to a conclusion, they can receive the sacrament. It's a marvelous development in the church. In this document, Pope Francis is telling us the most important thing is our individual personal conscience, and we have to be adult enough and courageous enough to try to listen to our conscience and listen to the Holy Spirit speaking to us through our conscience, and then follow it.

In fact, the Catholic teaching from the very beginning has always been that everyone must follow your own conscience. That's a responsibility -- you face God alone. You can't say, "Oh, the church told me to do it." No, you have to say, "What in my own deepest spirit, in my heart do I understand to be God's word for me?" and follow it. So now Francis has opened up this possibility for people in second marriages, third marriages, even, to receive the sacraments if they come to an understanding that their current marriage is really the right one.

That's a great blessing for our church. It can bring a lot of healing about, even within families and within communities. We are very thankful for Pope Francis and his calling of the synod, and now writing this document as a help of what the Spirit is telling the church. But perhaps we can look forward a little bit too. There are other problems in the church; obviously, it's a human institution. We have to listen to the Spirit.

One of the worst problems in the church is the abuse crisis. There, I don't think we've listened well enough yet to the Spirit trying to guide us through that crisis because it's not really over yet. So we have to pray that Pope Francis, the leaders of our church, and all of us find the way to finally, as Pope John Paul II said, "Get rid of this cancer on the body of the church. Cut it out." We haven't done it yet. Or something else where we need the discernment of the Holy Spirit -- think about all the churches that are being closed, probably in this diocese, certainly in the archdiocese of Detroit.

Why? Because we don't have enough priests. That's getting to be a larger and larger problem, I guarantee you. We just don't have it. Do you think God isn't calling people to the priesthood? I think God is, but I think we're looking in the wrong places. We keep going back to the same pattern that we've had for a thousand years instead of perhaps going back to the pattern we had for the first thousand years of the church.

If we listen to the Spirit, and the Spirit has been telling us this through the people of the church, married people should be ordained -- why not? It's the way it was for a thousand years, and it seems like we need this again, or something else. The Spirit is speaking to us, I'm sure, but we have to listen. So, as we hear these lessons today, I hope we understand that it's important for each one of us to try to listen to the Spirit that Jesus has sent to me because he said, "I will send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate."

That's the first thing he did on Easter Sunday night. If you remember back to the second Sunday of Easter, he came among the disciples. They were afraid, living in fear, and he said to them, "Peace be with you." Then he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." He fulfilled his promise that was in today's Gospel, gave the Holy Spirit to the church -- to every individual; he gives that same Spirit to us.

It's important for us to try to listen to the Spirit, and pray that our whole church will listen to the Spirit as that Spirit continues to guide us to become a church fully vibrant in the world, a world that needs the message of Jesus so much. If we listen to the Spirit, we will become that church that Jesus calls us to be, and we will be able to join with Jesus in transforming our world into the reign of God, a place of peace, and joy, and fullness of life for every person. Listen to the Spirit, be filled with the Spirit, and live according to the way of the Spirit of Jesus.

[Homily given at St. Anne's Church, Frankfort, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters