St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Firstly, the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples when they are gathered together. Our synodal conversations in parishes and groups have been very imperfect. But, for many, it was the first time when parishioners were invited to be together in a spirit of prayer to listen to one another speak. People have many stories of joys and pain, hopes and hurt in the context of church. Decision-making can come further down the line. But this first stage of engagement involved being prepared to listen and to be honest. When the atmosphere was right, many people discovered a freedom to speak the truth, even if it was uncomfortable. I know that many voices were not heard as they did not feel included or decided to not participate. But as the early disciples discovered, we begin where we are.
Community is important. But the early community learned that community was not about hiding away with a bunch of like-minded friends but about being equipped to go out together. We live in a fragmented society where individualism is prized. We live in a world where identity politics breaks us up into little sub-groups who listen only to one another. The Pentecost church has to build community where there is space for diverse voices. But it is a space where the Holy Spirit unites us through a focus on the listening to Jesus. The Holy Spirit brings different people together. Where we want only to have people listen to me and my ideas, then we leave little room for the breath of the Spirit that disturbs old certainties and childish illusions that we are little messiahs. Pentecost talks about speaking in tongues. For some people the synodal conversations were as if we were able to hear each other and speak in each other's language. Pentecost means discovering that God is in charge and can give us the gift of tongues to hear others speaking of their strange experiences of God's grace at work in their lives.
Secondly, it is not always easy to hear the truth. The truth disturbs my certainties. In the Gospel passage, it is interesting that Jesus does not start by reprimanding the disciples for having let him down on Calvary. He wishes them peace. But his words focus on the mission of forgiveness. There is much forgiveness needed within our parish communities. There are hurts that have never been spoken about because there was no space for such honesty. Many people and their families have felt hurt by the institutional church or by individual clergy. Clergy have felt hurt in their parishes or by church authorities. We have all been let down by ways of being church that focused on service-provision rather than on community-building. Jesus begins this engagement with the disciples by acknowledging the need for forgiveness. But he does not dwell on the past and allow its failings to paralyse us. Our synodal process has to leave space for honesty that is open to forgiveness. That is not easy to put into practice. That is why we need grace to walk together in a synodal way.
Thirdly, St Paul wrote to the Romans that all those who are open to the Spirit are children of God. Walking together involves discovering a radical equality in the church that is based on our common baptism. The other sacraments build on that shared identity. Marriage and ordination, single and consecrated life are all given for roles that we are called to play within the People of God, the Body of Christ. But we all start off as brothers and sisters of Christ and in Christ. That is why we pray together the 'Our Father' before we share in the one Body of Christ in Holy Communion. St Paul talks about the Spirit that does not bring fear into our hearts. The synodal process is based on the belief that we are all children of God. That means that there has to be space in our parishes and dioceses for little voices to be heard. If we make space only for loud voices, if we can hear only the strong and cannot hear the silence of the little ones, then we might well replace hurtful clericalism with a sinful belief that divine power rests with those who can shout loudest and longest. That is how politics work. It is not how a church of the baptised functions.
I know that many people in parishes have worked very hard to see what these synodal conversations might bring out. I am so grateful to them and proud of what we have done in many parts of this diocese. We had parish gatherings. Then we gathered the parishes in each of our four deaneries – Derry City, Derry County, Tyrone and Donegal - to hear what was being said by neighbouring parishes. Then we tried to bring together what had been heard locally. That diocesan report is now on our diocesan website. In many ways, the report is predictable. Those who were involved were mainly people who have a passion for church. We have much work to do to convince others that this process has any value or space for them. But our contribution will be incorporated into the Irish national report that goes to Rome to highlight for Pope Francis what common themes are arising all around the world. But we have to also look at our church in this country and in our parishes. There are many things that we cannot change locally – but there is much work to be done in each parish. The Holy Spirit involved all the members of the early Christian community to play their role. This is a time for all of us to take responsibility. It is not merely a chance to blame others for what they are or are not doing. On Pentecost, the apostles did not know where the Spirit would lead them. We do not need to be clear about the path we are meant to tread. We start out in hope. We step into the unknown. But we walk because God is in charge and because the world needs to see and hear credible witnesses to Christ's resurrection.
Pentecost happened 2,000 years ago. Are we open to it happening again today?
+ Donal McKeown