The famous French writer, Victor Hugo, once wrote: ”When I look at the Catholic Church, I have to believe it is of divine institution, because otherwise it would be impossible to believe that something so knavish and corrupt could survive for so long”. Uncomplimentary as Victor Hugo is to the Church, he did hit on an important truth. The Catholic Church is of divine institution, founded by Jesus Christ on the rock of Peter, and gifted with the Holy Spirit to, in Jesus’ own words from today’s gospel: ”teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you “.
When Jesus left this earth to return to the Father, he did not leave behind a Church that was well-established, sure of its direction, and knowing all truth. Not a bit of it. He left behind disciples who , though given a far=reaching vision to convert the whole world to faith in Christ, had not the slightest idea of how to go about it, and , in fact, were terrified of moving outside of the room where they used to meet. They had had three years in company with Jesus, who had led them on the wild-water ride of their lives, whom they had seen arrested, crucified, dead and then risen from death, and now ascended to heaven. Their ideas were scattered, chaotic – what did it all mean for them, and for their families and communities and the whole world? Just before Jesus ascended, they were still believing that Jesus was only interested in establishing a kingdom built entirely around Israel. Jesus could have panicked, realized that he needed to stay around for a lot longer to knock his disciples into shape, that they were nowhere ready to take on their mission. But he didn’t. He could go on his way back to his Father, knowing that he was leaving his disciples and their mission in good hands, because he was going to be sending the Holy Spirit on them to clothe them in power, and make them world class evangelizers.
The huge gap that Jesus’ going had left for his apostles was to be filled in by the Holy Spirit, the Advocate or Paraclete, as Jesus calls him in today’s gospel. “Paraclete” literally means “one who is called alongside”. The Holy Spirit is sent by God the Father, in Jesus’ name, to “come alongside” the Church and each one of us, to be a spiritual “companion” , who will guide us into all truth” (John 16:13) . There is so much about God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, that we do not understand, so much of the Scriptures that remain opaque to us, so many situations and challenges confronting the Church and each one of us in our daily lives that we don’t know the answers to. You would think that Jesus would be worried about that, that he would have felt the need to hang around for the rest of human history to give explicit teaching and guidance to his people. But, as I said earlier, no. Jesus trusts the Holy Spirit to get the job done.
We see a very clear example of that from our first reading. The issue that the Church in Jerusalem faced was a very sensitive one. What do they do, as Jewish believers in Jesus, with all these pagans who were coming to faith in Christ, as a result of the monumental outreach in evangelization of such as Paul and Barnabas? They had been brought up to believe that Israel was God’s Chosen People, that the Law they followed came directly from God Himself. Didn’t that mean that they should insist that all these pagan or Gentile believers in Jesus should have to accept the whole Mosaic Law also? There were important and influential speakers on both sides of the debate. It had the potential to tear the whole Church apart before it even properly got going. The final decision reached in that council in Jerusalem found a way through the conflict, one which kept the Church unified. How did that come about? Because, as the church leadership, made up of apostles and elders, declared in their letter to the Gentile believers: “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” not to impose the whole burden of the Jewish Law on you, beyond certain essentials.” Wow, what a relief! We, as descendants of the Gentile believers in Jesus, do not have to submit to circumcision, or to the whole 613 commandments of the Mosaic Law.
“It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”. The Catholic Church has always held that her decisions are not merely human decisions, reached by human debate and reasoning. Those decisions are also inspired and guided by the Spirit of God, whom Jesus pledges will lead the Church into the fullness of truth, will teach her everything she needs to know, and will remind her of all the truth Jesus came to reveal to us. The Church is full of fallible human beings, it is always in need of renewal and reform, as she admitted during the latest Church council, Vatican II. And yet Jesus trusts the Church to reach the right decisions, so long as she allows the Spirit to lead and guide her.
You and I may have cause to doubt that the Church is discerning rightly about the many moral and doctrinal dilemmas facing her. We could point to this or that teaching in the Church’s history which seems suspect to us now, such as the condemnation of Jews as “Christ-killers”, the acceptance of papal states and a papal army, the siding with autocratic and fascist rulers in times gone by. We remember the time of the Borgia popes and we tremble. We look at the whole spectrum of opinion today on matters such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and we get confused. Which is the right way to go? But as Jesus trusts the Church to do the right thing, because she is led by the Holy Spirit, so must we trust that Jesus is right about that, and that, through all the seeming chaos of contradictory moral positions and divisions and disorder in the Church, nonetheless, the Spirit is always at work to bring her through to the right path.
And to the right ending, which is the vision of heaven John has in our second reading, from the book of Revelation. John sees the holy city of Jerusalem coming down from heaven, with the full glory of God shining through it. This is the Church spotless and without a wrinkle, a radiant bride who Jesus, our bridegroom, is coming to claim for his own, according to Paul’s vision in his letter to the Ephesians (5: 27). When we look at the Church as she appears now, we might be tempted to shake our heads and wonder how on earth she is going to become that holy bride, considering her evident weaknesses and corruption that Victor Hugo saw over nearly two hundred years ago, and which only seems to have gotten worse in the intervening years up to our present time. But then we have to remember that the Church is led and guided by the Holy Spirit and his love and power will bring her to her final destiny.
And as it goes for the Church as a whole, so it goes for each of us individual believers. We look at ourselves and our sinful tendencies that we never seem to be able to shake ourselves free from for long. And we wonder how we can ever hope to enter into heaven, given that nothing defiled can enter there. But we have to remember also that we have the Holy Spirit within us, given at our baptism and deepened at our confirmation, and renewed each time we pray for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. It is the Spirit and us, co-operating together, which will win us through to heaven, no matter what. As St Paul says in his first letter to the Thessalonians: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless when our Lord Jesus Christ comes again.” At this point, we might start to despair, but listen to what follows next:” The one who calls you to this –i.e., God – is faithful and HE WILL DO IT!” (1 Thessalonians 5: 23).
“Be at peace” says Jesus to his apostles, and therefore to each one of us, in our gospel today: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid”. Don’t be troubled, or upset, or anxious, or afraid that you may miss out on God’s purposes for your life, or that you may miss out on heaven. So long as you and I keep listening to the voice and promptings of the Holy Spirit and obeying them to the best of our abilities, God will do it, will bring us to the fulfilment of his everlasting destiny for us. In the words of Psalm 42 “Why are you cast down, O my soul, why groan within me? / Trust in God, for I shall again praise him, my Savior and my God” (v11).