Homily for the Vigil of Pentecost
Jerusalem, St. Stephen’s Basilica
Dear Brothers and sisters,
Once again we gather together at the Vigil of Pentecost to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Church and upon our Holy Land.
And once again, like in the past, we are also here to pray for peace, for justice and the end of violence. It is not the first time that exactly on this occasion of the Vigil of Pentecost, we find ourselves praying and supplicating for the end of the war that is in our Land. Above all, we are united in prayer with the families of those killed during these past days, with those who lost their homes, with those who are left alone and without any hope in their lives. We pray for our small community of Christians in Gaza, bewildered by this umpteenth wave of violence, but also for all its inhabitants who have for many years been humiliated, deprived of freedom, dignity and basic rights. The present cessation of hostilities has brought perhaps a bit of calm to our families, but it has not resolved the problems from which this violence originated.
At the invitation of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, the entire Catholic Church is united in this chorus of prayer with us, the Mother Church of Jerusalem. We thank the Holy Father for this continued concern for our Church, for our Land and the people who live in it. Since the beginning of his pontificate, the Pope has not ceased to desire for peace in the Holy Land, through prayers, initiatives and continuous reminders. His desire for peace is also ours. Together with him and the entire universal Church, we pray here today above all, for our conversion so that we may truly believe that the Holy Spirit would bring about peace. I know well that this may be difficult, given our situation, to truly believe it. We pray so that together we may become builders of peace and justice in our Land. The first words uttered by Jesus in the Last Supper Room after his resurrection, were “Peace be with you” and then he breathed forth the Holy Spirit (Jn 20:19). For this then, we are gathered here, in a way a new Last Supper Room, to ask the Resurrected Lord for peace which is the first fruit of the Holy Spirit.
In tomorrow’s liturgy, we will read the well-known passage from the Acts of the Apostles, in which the inhabitants “from every nation under the sky” (Acts 2:5) receive together, each in his own language, culture and tradition, the proclamation of the “great deeds of God” (Acts 2:11). Though diverse, they were united in mutual understanding, becoming parts of one body. This is the first image of the Church which the Scriptures give us, and in this we already see, from that moment on, the nature of the entire Church, in every time and in every place: diverse in language, traditions, cultures and gifts but united by the Spirit around the Risen Christ; to bear witness to hope, unity and peace in the world. That Scriptural passage speaks especially to us, the Church of Jerusalem – the Mother Church, the first Church. Here today in Jerusalem, each with his own culture, language and gift, we are firstly united by the Spirit of the Resurrected Lord to testify together to the gift of unity and peace. And this is especially so in our present situation, torn apart by political and religious hatreds and divisions. This is perhaps the first mission and proper vocation of the Mother Church: to be a witness to unity and peace.
But that Scriptural passage also speaks of the identity of the Holy City Jerusalem, who from the beginning was called “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:7). She is the heart of divine revelation, the custodian of the God-man encounter. Till today she gathers in herself diverse religions, cultures, languages and traditions, all united in the search to encounter God. Each believer is a spiritual citizen of Jerusalem, for here he finds his heart. Jerusalem gathers in herself all the souls of the world, and because of this she is open to the whole world. The tolling of the bells, the cries of the muezzin, the sound of the shofar … these are her voice. The moments of Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayer mark her time. Her Holy Places are treasures jealously guarded by her diverse believers. And all her inhabitants are part of a colorful and united mosaic of life; where all encounter and collide, where each one – despite of himself – is a part of a greater design, a fabric embroidered by God himself. It is a delicate and fragile fabric which must be preserved with care and attention.
To this end, it is the responsibility of the religious and political authorities to guard with extreme caution this unique patrimony. Any appropriation, any division, any gesture of exclusion and rejection of others, any form of violence … is a deep wound in the life of the City and a cause of pain to all, because all are part of the one body. It is no coincidence therefore that this recent wave of violence in the entire Holy Land originated right here in Jerusalem, only a few metres away from us.
No imposition could ever be effective in Jerusalem. We have often reiterated this and we still do today. The balance between the two sides of the City has already been broken many times, causing pain and frustration. This is not the road to go if we really want peace. Jerusalem is for all: Christians, Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians. All with equal rights and dignity, all equal citizens. Any exclusion or imposition, wounds the identity of the City and this cannot remain silent nor ignored.
The Prophet Isaiah, in the passage just proclaimed, presents us with a wonderful image of the action of the Spirit of the Lord upon the shoot of Jesse, sent by God.
With righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth… Righteousness will be his belt … the calf and the lion and the yearling together; They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Is. 11:2-9)
We are not sure who exactly Isaiah was referring to in this passage, who this “shoot of Jesse” is. The Church has understood in this figure the Messiah, as the evangelist Luke suggested (Lk 4:17ff). But this is also the calling of everyone who has received the Spirit of the Lord. It is the description of the mission of every believer and of the Church as a whole. This passage constitutes one element of the believer’s identity: working continuously for justice, for respect of the poor and the weak, to be forthright in making decisions, not to live by appearances but to serve the Lord.
In these past days we have seen tremendous tensions even within our cities where Israeli Jews and Palestinians live together. This is a worrying sign which goes against Isiah’s prophecy, and which indicates a profound unease that everyone must pay great attention to. Apparently, there is still a long way to go for wolves, sheep, lions and calves to live together. We need the Spirit to descend upon everyone so that everyone will realize they are part of one body, with every form of discrimination disappearing and “that fair decisions are made for the meek of the earth.” May the Spirit open our eyes so that we can truly recognize in our laws, in our attitudes and our collective and personal choices, the multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-identity reality of our society. We must condemn the violence which is all too often found in language which has existed for some time now, and perhaps which has been too often ignored. An aggressive language leads inevitably to physical violence. We must work with people of every faith who still believe in a future together and who strive for it. It was good to see in these past days, amidst the tensions and sectarian violence, demonstrations of friendship and brotherhood among Jewish and Palestinian Israelis. They are a comforting sign of the presence of the Spirit of the Lord among us … despite everything.
I hereby repeat what I have already said in many occasions: although it is unpopular to speak of it these days, we must not cultivate nor allow for the development of feelings of hatred. We must not make anyone, be he Jewish or Palestinian, to feel rejected. We must be clearer in denouncing whatever divides. We cannot remain satisfied with inter-religious meetings on peace, thinking that they are enough to resolve the problems of co-existence. Instead, we must commit ourselves to this task so that in our schools, our institutes, our media, in politics and places of worship, they all resonate the name of God, of brotherhood and of partnership.
“If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:14), Jesus said to his disciples in the Gospel of John, adding “… the prince of the world is coming; He has no hold on me” (Jn 14:30).
We are not alone. In the Spirit, the Resurrected Lord is among us, consoling us and sustaining us. Death, sin, our divisions … these are not enough to stop God from working in us. “He can do nothing against me.” Evil cannot prevail, even if it seems to be so when it destroys our relationships. The disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, were sent to continue what they had seen Jesus do, namely, to bring life where there is death, forgiveness where there is sin.
Today we are called to leave our fears, our “closed cenacles” just like the disciples in the Gospel, so that we may be able to proclaim and bear witness to the life of God in us and in everyone, the peace and unity of humanity in God.
On seeing the wounds of the Resurrected Lord, the disciples were filled with joy (Jn 20:20). May the Spirit enable us to read in the light of the Redemption, our present reality, and make our wounds, like those of Christ’s, not be sources of frustration and discouragement, but a catalyst to go beyond and create occasions of joy, of encounter and of consolation.
Let us not then be discouraged. Let us not sadden the Holy Spirit of God, by whom we were sealed. May every bitterness, anger, hostility and every other negative feeling disappear (cf Eph 4:30-31). Only love, which is synonymous with the Spirit, can change the heart of men. Let us ask this for ourselves, for our Church and for the Church in the world; and let us ask this for our Holy Land, for our governments, our pastors, for those who hold responsibility over peoples and institutions, that they may be led by the love of God more than human reckoning, which cannot produce life as we have seen in these recent days. May the gift of the Spirit make us understand and enlighten our personal and ecclesial vocations in this social context of ours which is both wounded and wearied. May it make us able to accept our realities without lies or delusions, putting words of consolation in our lips, giving us courage to defend justice without compromising the truth. May it enable us to forgive.
Finally let us look to Mary our Mother, and mother of the Church, who like every mother, embraces and welcomes all her children. Our Lady of Palestine, patroness of our diocese, and Queen of Peace, intercede for us to the Most High God so that our community continues to possess open arms and a welcoming heart. “May you watch over your earthly homeland, cover it with special protection and dispel the darkness of error, where the Eternal Sun of Justice had shone.”