The Most Reverend Glen John Provost, D.D.
Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily at Pentecost
May 27, 2007
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
"They were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language." Acts 2:6
On the first Pentecost, the crowds were amazed. They had gathered from all different parts of the Roman Empire. Jews from throughout the Mediterranean world were in Jerusalem for the great Jewish festival of Pentecost. The Jews had three feasts at which they had to present themselves as a body to the Lord. The first two were Passover and Tabernacles. The third was Pentecost.
Pentecost was first of all a feast of thanksgiving for the harvest. Second, and probably more importantly, it was an anniversary celebration of the covenant. The Hebrew people made their covenant with God fifty days after their departure from Egypt. As Exodus reads, "In the third month after their departure from the land of Egypt, on its first day, the Israelites came to the desert of Sinai" (Exodus 19:1). Thus, on the day of Pentecost, a word that meant literally fifty days, Jerusalem was filled with people of different languages. Here, assembled for an ancient feast, a new covenanted people were to begin their life in a new covenant. That people was the Church.
Acts tells us that apostles, disciples, and even Mary joined together in prayer in the upper room (Acts 1:13ff.). In that upper room, "there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving windŠ. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim" (Acts 2:2-4). The Church was born.
The Church left the upper room and began to speak in the tongue of every people that had come to Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Pentecost became something new. Now it was to be a new People of God whose universal mission was to communicate to everyone the Kingdom of God. In short, the languages the apostles and disciples spoke signified that the Church had a universal vocation. "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations," Jesus had said (Matthew 28:19). That is precisely what the Church would do under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.
Years ago I visited South Africa. I found myself in the Drakenberg Mountains, so called because "Draken" is the local word for "dragon", and the jagged mountains reminded people of what they imagined the backs of dragons to look like. Anyway, the Zulu tribe of Africa also lives in this part of the world. It was Sunday, and I made my way to the local mission church to concelebrate Mass. A kind and hospitable local priest invited me to join him. The grounds of the church were immaculately kept, with flowers in bloom and lawn trimmed. The church was filled with Zulus, and the Mass was sung and prayed in Zulu. Just as our ritual books are printed in English, they are also printed in every imaginable language of the world. Zulu, however, bore absolutely no resemblance to any language I knew. The kind priest gave me an English book to follow along. He spoke Zulu, I spoke English, but the liturgy was one of the most prayerful and dignified Masses I have ever attended in a parish.
What amazed me about this experience was not the difference in language. What truly touched me and with a Pentecost amazement struck me was that the Zulus and I shared the same faith. In spite of our different languages, the faith was one and the same. And that faith was the same because they, like me, belonged to the Church. I thought of that reading from St. Paul. "There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone" (I Corinthians 12:4-6).
We began Mass with the same confession of repentance. In Zulu or in English, we were living the dispensation of forgiveness given to the Church by Christ. "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them," Jesus had said in the Gospel (John 20:23). And in a little mission church in Africa it was no different than in Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Lake Charles. We would stand after the homily and recite the same creed written in Greek in 325 in the city of Nicaea to express the same faith whether spoken in Greek, English or Zulu. And a few moments later, the priest of this Zulu mission would bow before the altar, along with me, and pronounce the ancient words of a new and everlasting covenant to be fed with the same Body of Christ.
This was Pentecost, the living mission of the Church to be in every time and place. This Pentecost spirit has been given to us. We are not a Church of elite, confined to one time and place. We are a remarkable Body of Christ that comprises rich and poor, young and old, from every language and nation. This is no small gift, this Pentecost experience of the Church. Faith is a universal language, and that language comes alive in us who share it. "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body," St. Paul writes, "whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit" (I Corinthians 12:13). That one Spirit in that one Body, the Church, I experienced on a Sunday morning with a Zulu congregation and experience now with you, the Body of Christ.