Dear brothers and sisters,
May the Lord give you peace!
Today, it is a special Pentecost that we are celebrating here in Jerusalem. First because we have finally returned to celebrate at the Dormition, as per tradition, after the end of the renovations that have restored it to its former glory. But also because today, along with the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are also blessing the beginning of the abbatial ministry of Fr. Nikodemus Schnabel, newly elected abbot, and until now Patriarchal Vicar for Migrants and Asylum Seekers. It is therefore an important moment for the whole Church in Jerusalem.
Before I address Fr. Nikodemus, however, I would first like to pause and reflect on the Gospel passage proclaimed, which introduces us to an understanding of the solemnity that the Church is celebrating today, Pentecost.
The Gospel (Jn. 20:19-23) takes us back to Easter evening: according to the evangelist John, that very evening Jesus appears to his people, who had shut themselves up in fear, and gives them the Spirit.
John's theology closely links the gift of the Spirit to the Passion and Easter, perceived as one great movement, one mystery of salvation: he wants to emphasize and make us understand that the Spirit flows from the cross, from the Lord’s open, life-giving side. There can be no Spirit without this gift of self that Jesus accomplishes for us on the cross; and Easter is not fulfilled until the Holy Spirit is communicated to men.
The Gospel of John that we read during the Sundays of the Easter season emphasized that the purpose of Easter is not for Jesus to rise and return to the Father, but for His life to dwell within us, for us to be made partakers of His own way of living.
That is why Jesus, on the very day of His resurrection, immediately goes to His people and shares with them the life He has just found, the life the Father has given Him. This life, which is a true life because it has been reborn from the depths, is now for all who will receive it.
To say that Jesus gives the Spirit, the evangelist John uses a very rare verb. In the New Testament, it can only be found here. He writes that Jesus “breathed”, “breathed on them” (Jn 20:22). This verb is also used with the prefix "in", as if to say that Jesus did not simply breathe on them, but in them, within them: the Spirit is a gift that does not remain outside man, but that enters, that becomes the very breath of man.
This verb, which we do not find anywhere else in the New Testament, is present in the Old. It is present precisely in the story of creation, when God, having fashioned man from dust of the ground, "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." (Gen. 2:7). Man, then, is made of two elements, both characterized by great precariousness: on the one hand, the dust of the ground, the most delicate and least substantial part of the earth, a symbol of the fragility of his physical constitution; on the other, the breath of life, which is everything that makes an inanimate body into a living person: everything that enables us to breathe, that gives us the possibility of life.
Just as God breathes into Adam's nostrils natural life, so that he may live, so Jesus breathes into the disciples the breath of new life, so that they may live as resurrected: the Spirit is not a bonus, an accessory, but it is exactly what makes us live, what joins our very fragile human condition and makes it share the life of God.
Man is thus a creature called to hold together these two elements, which in themselves would be as far apart as heaven is from earth.
Pentecost therefore definitively unveils the mystery of man: on Easter evening, through the breath of Jesus, God not only makes us new creatures, but creatures living from the very life of God, called to hold together natural and divine life, flesh and Spirit, earth and heaven. Only then can we be fulfilled.
That is not all: another element comes to illuminate this fulfillment of creation that Pentecost accomplishes. In the Book of Genesis, God's work concerns man, the first man, the individual. In Pentecost there is something different: on Easter evening, Jesus gives the Spirit to the disciples gathered together, and recreates them as a community of brothers.
And so the Church is born. For the work of the Spirit is not to create perfect individuals, however holy they may be. The Spirit's work is an event of communion, which creates fraternity, composes differences and makes unity possible. In other words, it is at the origin of the Church.
The new life of the Spirit is a life no longer lived in the solitary search of its own fulfillment, but in the encounter with the brother with whom life is shared: it cannot be lived unless it is in turn communicated, shared, given, because this very life, in itself, is nothing but gift. If we withhold it and possess it, we extinguish the Spirit and return to death.
Therefore, closely linked to the gift of the Spirit is the gift of forgiving sins (Jn 20:23): the ability not to let evil overwhelm man, destroying his relationships. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the apostles are sent to do that very same thing they saw in Jesus; to bring life where there is death. This is the Spirit they have received.
In these few verses, then, is found our mission as Church and our mission as believers in Christ.
Yours too, dear Fr. Nikodemus. This passage also describes very well your new mission and vocation both as abbot, as the father of a Benedictine community, and as – in a sense – a spiritual reference for our whole Christian community of the Holy Land, which now perhaps you, after the experience of these past years, know better.
No one is asking for perfection. We know that there are no perfect communities, just as there are no perfect abbots. What the world and the Church are expecting from these communities, and for you right now, is to be happy, filled with the life of Christ, to embody a place where flows the true and beautiful life of those who love the Lord.
As we heard in the Gospel, the very life of God, communicated to us by the Risen One, lives within us. Your brothers too, dear Nikodemus, will have to live the life you will donate them, by giving them your time, by being among them, even when you would like to do something else and be elsewhere, and by exercising with them patience, which is one of the synonyms of love. Sometimes you'll have to give up your plans, your visions, as well as your expectations from them. But this will be done so that something that belongs to everyone and is a source of unity may grow. Your Benedictine community will be alive and a source of peace, insofar as it experiences forgiveness, which must first be found within you. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. May those who meet you rejoice to see in you the very presence of God who dwells in your home.
The different monasteries of the Holy Land all have a special vocation within our Church. Each has its own way of operating, but all are oases of prayer and recollection, meeting places for all, totally extraneous to the political and religious divisions that unfortunately afflict our Land. They are not places reserved for Christians, or dedicated to service for Jews, or to dialogue with Muslims, or to this and that. They are therefore precious places, because they are open to all, and where everyone, without labels, can find a space for prayer, can admire the attention to beauty, can encounter someone who knows how to listen and give a word of consolation and encouragement. These are places that are dear to us and much needed by our Church. Your monasteries remind us all, of our mission as Church, which is to proclaim salvation. Only the saved can credibly bear witness to salvation, not through abstract discourses, but by concretely showing a way of being in life.
May the Dormition Abbey, then, now that the restorations are nearing completion, once again become a welcoming place open to all, a beautiful and evocative space for prayer. May your well-conceived and well-crafted liturgy let grow in our ecclesial community an awareness of what it means to celebrate, of how we can make unity between life and celebration.
May the poor, and especially the migrants of our Church, whom you now know very well, find in you and in this place, welcome and refreshment. For a while, as Vicar for Migrants and Asylum Seekers, you represented that place of listening, of guidance, of welcome for our workers. In other words, you were a bit of their home. I hope you will continue to be so, albeit in new ways. May they find in you a welcoming heart, which is what is most needed.
Religious life in our diocese is rich in nuance and color, but also often runs the risk of becoming fragmented and isolated. In this context, this Abbey can play a guiding and accompanying role. I hope that the unity of your monastic community will also help our whole Church, and in particular our religious communities, to become aware of their belonging to a single Church and of the unity of its members. We do not need academic theories, we need to see examples; to experience, in concrete life, that the unity of our Church is possible, that forgiveness and peace, first and foremost in our religious and ecclesial realities, are not just words.
May the Holy Spirit, who burns in the Church today, fill you with strength and wisdom, so that, in communion with the whole Church, you may be an example and guide for your monastic community, as well as for our small but beautiful Mother Church of Jerusalem.
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem