Homily for May 27, 2012: Pentecost Sunday

[Click here for the readings]

If you had to name one of the most quoted speeches of the 20th century, one near the top of any list would be the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy in 1961, with his call:

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Earlier in that same speech, he alerted the world that change was in the air, a generational shift, saying that the “torch had been passed to a new generation.”  And he began with a grand declaration:

“Let the word go forth.”

On this particular Sunday, those five words could also sum up the meaning of this feast we celebrate, Pentecost.

Let The Word go forth.

For in the dramatic events of that first Pentecost, when the bewildered and excited disciples poured into the streets, they had one purpose in mind: to let The Word go forth.

And it did.

The Word went forth from Jerusalem to Judea, and on to Corinth and Ephesus and Rome and Africa and Spain and even, eventually, to America.

What began with a few frightened people in a darkened room in Jerusalem has spilled out and touched every corner of the globe. You’ll find The Word preached in every language – just as on that very first Pentecost – and understood in billions of hearts.

And it all began on this day we celebrate, Pentecost: the birthday of the Church.

We need, especially now, to keep The Word going— to remind ourselves of the rugged beginnings of this rugged faith and to carry it on, just as the first believers did.

We need, quite simply, to throw open the windows of our fear and uncertainty — to let in the light — and to let The Word go forth.

It is a daunting prospect. But we do not undertake it alone.

We have the Holy Spirit.

We have the Spirit to keep the embers burning with His seven-fold gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

We have the Spirit to uplift us when we are struggling…to strengthen us when we are weak…to console us when we are grieving…to comfort us when we are frightened.

Yes, it is a daunting prospect.

But we do not do this alone.

As we heard in John’s gospel:  “The Spirit of truth…will guide you to all truth.”  The Holy Spirit is our guide – and more than that, our model.  Paul’s letter to the Galatians calls us to “live in the Spirit.”  And he then reminds us what beautiful fruits that kind of living offers: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

When you consider all that, you realize what living in the Spirit really means: it is, in fact, living in Christ – and by extension living not only in Christ, but in his Father.

The early Christians had a name for that – “The Way.”

This is our way.

You find it today in some surprising places.  You find it lived out in a hospital in Baghdad, where a Catholic nun cares for a Muslim mother and her child in the aftermath of war.

You find it in New Mexico, where members of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi – inspired by the Sermon on the Mount – stage a sackcloth and ashes prayer vigil for peace at Los Alamos.

You find it in churches from Brooklyn to Budapest, where faithful men, women and children offer their prayers to God—asking for healing, or reconciliation, or peace.

You find it anywhere a Christian strives to hold the hand of someone who is hurting, bring comfort to someone who is lonely, or restore faith to someone who has lost it.

We keep the flame of Pentecost burning and follow “The Way” when our greatest ambition is simply to be like Christ.

Or, to rewrite that most famous phrase from President Kennedy: we do it when we ask not what God can do for us, but what we can do for God.

Two thousand years ago, men and women who had followed Jesus asked themselves that question on the first Pentecost. And we are the beneficiaries of their answer. All of us who gather to pray and remember and rejoice on this Pentecost are heirs of that first Pentecost. Those first Christians cleared the path, and often died trying, so that we could walk in their footsteps —walk The Way—today.

So today, dare to ask the question: Where will those footsteps take us?

Who will be the beneficiaries of our choices?

Who will carry the flame, the torch of faith, as it is passed?

It is up to each of us.

This Pentecost, let us ask the Spirit to touch all of our hearts, as He touched the hearts of the disciples on the first Pentecost. Let the fire burn over you, so the flame can spread.

There’s a famous saying from St. Catherine of Siena: “If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze.”

This Pentecost, go shead.  Strike a match.  Set the world ablaze.

And let The Word go forth.


  1. It is so disappointing that the first Catholic president was such a failure morally and with abysmal leadership track record. Most of the mythology (Camelot, heroism) surrounding him was simply manufactured.

  2. Dear Deacon Greg: You write outstanding homilies that draw on your background and your talent for “writing for the ear.” However, I think you would be advised to re-write the opening of your homily before you deliver it this weekend. The reference to JFK’s January 1961 Inaugural Address deals with a puny, politicized understanding of “the word” whereas the “Word” (the Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, etc.) as we Christians understand it is beyond all ordinary description.

    Perhaps a better image — and, granted, it reminds us of a different event in our annual liturgical calendar — is how, at the Easter Vigil Mass, we often begin by lighting the church with a SINGLE flame that is then passed on, person to person. Eventually, darkness is vanquished thanks to the collective efforts of every member of the Body of Christ.

    You have a distinctive voice, Deacon Greg, and I wish you continued success in preaching the Word. God bless you!

  3. Deacon Norb says:

    For what it is worth . . .

    I am not preaching at the week-end masses for Pentecost.

    I am, however, presiding at the 9:00am Saturday Morning Communion Service tomorrow (Sat May 26). The focus of my short homily will likely be about the Sacrament of Confirmation at our diocesan cathedral I was a part of last Saturday. I was NOT “on-ceremony” with our bishop but was the sponsor of my grand-son — the lad whose father is now on his third rotation into Western Asia.

    What I want to fold into my message tomorrow is the interviews I traditionally do of the Confirmandi as part of their preparation — and NO, I refused to interview my own grand-son. I believed it would have been a “conflict of interest.” .

    Every once in the while, if I suspect the confirmandi that I am interviewing is a bit too “up-tight,” I will remind him/her of the descent of the Holy Spirit as “tongues of fire” on the day of Pentecost and then ask them if they believe that this same phenomena will occur at their Confirmation. They are usually startled by the question but I do get some fascinating answers.

  4. Midwestlady says:

    Unless…you’re going to give the homily in Massachusetts, where it doesn’t matter what he did because he was a Kennedy. Even Ted Kennedy got elected there.

  5. Unbelievable. A terrific (as usual) homily about being open and unafraid and on fire, and whaddaya get? The usual Kennedy-bashing blather. Get over it, people. We’re all sinners, called not to sit on the sidelines pointing out other people’s weaknesses but to overcome our own with the help of the Holy Spirit and get out there and make a difference. The day you inspire one one-hundredth of the optimism, generosity of spirit, commitment to the public good, and care for all God’s people that John F Kennedy, sinner, did with that one speech, maybe you’ll have ground to stand on. But the Lord who cautioned about removing logs from our own eyes before picking at the splinters in others’ will have the last word.

  6. The problem is that good Catholics are celebrated, but ignored. Whereas Catholics in the Kennedy clan are treated like Saints. The hypocrisy undermines any message in the Homily.

    There are plenty of Catholics to reward with praise but don’t get the attention.

    I remember when Mother Teresa died, she was over shadowed in Catholic attention by Princess Di. That was just criminal.

    Do can feel sanctimonious with your log/splinter analogy if you want, but you are rewarding the sinner. Just my 2 cents.

  7. Bill Russell says:

    As with virtually everything attributed to JFK, that speech was written by others. “Ask not what your country can do for you…” was taken from the headmaster of JKF’s school Choate, whose motto was “Ask not what your school can do for you, ask what you can do for your school.” Worse of course were the pompous classical quotations of Robert Kennedy who took page after page from the Oxford Dictionary of Classical Quotations – one doubts that Kennedy would have recognized Aristotle if he had been run over by him in the street. Most embarrassing was his quotation of Bernard Shaw about “I dream things that never were and ask why not?” If Bobby Kennedy had actually known his sources, instead of having his staff cherry-pick them, he would have known that those words were spoken by the Devil in “Back to Methuselah.” Faux intellectuals fall for this nonsense, and we are paying the price for it today in the faux Catholics like Biden and Sibellius. The collapse of Catholicism in American began with the the election of JFK who proved that you don’t have to be Catholic to be Catholic.

  8. Joanne: Deacon’s homily is terrific as usual. My comment was not Kennedy-bashing, although, as many of the other comments indicate, quoting a Kennedy is going to lead to controvery, in the same way that leading off a homily with a reference to House Speaker John Boehner, who is also Catholic, would provoke perhaps your annoyance.

  9. Midwestlady says:

    Agree. We all know more about the Kennedys than we every wanted to. Enough.

  10. Great post Bill. I doubt it will sink in as the Cult of Kennedy runs deep.

    I think a better choice of Catholics to talk about would be Fr. Mathew Thomas, pastor of Holy Family in Kashmir. He is literally facing burning to death for his faith in the face of muslim extremists bent on destroying his church. Fr. Thomas is actually fighting for his faith.

  11. Midwestlady says:

    Or as some people say, “you don’t have to be a Christian to be a Catholic.”

  12. That’s your best Homily ever Deacon Greg :) Thank You


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