In my ministry over the last ten years as a bishop I have come to experience the gift of the Holy Spirit in a new way and immediate way.
A large part of a bishop's work is to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation with the young people of the diocese, and to ordain men to the diaconate and priesthood. Both sacraments are explicitly about the conferring the gift of Holy Spirit on the recipient. As I look at the young people who are about to receive Confirmation I see on their faces real joy and expectation. The hope of a life lived in the Spirit lies ahead of them but they know they will be confronted with the inevitable challenges of modern life. However they also show a confidence about the present and the future that is deeply encouraging.
This experience reveals to me the real meaning of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm shows itself in the youngsters who are bubbling with joy on their confirmation day, but it is also there in the hard work of the catechists who many years, even decades, after their own confirmation want to pass on the faith they have received. I see enthusiasm in the way that these young people take part in local community work or support the efforts of CaFOD. The flame of the Holy Spirit continues to burn in them when they have children and wish to pass on to them their love of God.
It is all too easy to see what is wrong with our Church rather than look for the gift of the Spirit that is alive in its members. Maybe because I see the church from a different vantage point my view is different. But as I look over the local church, the Diocese of Nottingham, for which I have been given a particular responsibility, I see individuals and communities that are enthused with God's spirit. In one parish I confirmed twenty teenagers who represented several ethnic backgrounds. Their families were from Goa, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nigeria, Poland, Lithuania, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Ireland and England. Each of the candidates heard the call of the Holy Spirit and became united in the Spirit of Christ through the laying on of hands and the anointing with chrism. It was like that first experience of the infant Church when many people from around the Mediterranean heard the preaching of the apostles in their own language and the Word united them.
It struck me that diversity is almost a prerequisite of unity. To appreciate what it means to be one in Christ it is necessary to have the experience of being separated from him and different from each other. On that occasion I was also reminded by the presence of the ladies from the Hindu community who provided the refreshments that the Holy Spirit is a gift to the world as well as to the Church.
The spirit we receive is not just a gift for the moment. It is a spirit that endures within our communities. When Bishop Leyburn conferred the Sacrament of Confirmation in a small town in Lincolnshire in 1689 he was not to know that the faith that he confirmed would still be alive in the descendants of those people 320 years later. You can imagine what a joy it was to me see the same family names in the parish register for that period so long ago as those of the young people I was confirming. A true sign that despite the hardships that were endured over the centuries the flame of the spirit was not extinguished but still burns in the hearts and souls of the community.
Today's readings remind us of what happened amongst the first followers of Jesus as they dealt with the pain of separation from him, the fear of those who were against them, and apprehension about their future. The gift of the Spirit, which is nothing less than the life of God itself, enabled them to break out from their fear and face the world around them. They were transformed from a group turned in on itself to a community with a mission. They were people who were sent by Christ himself to bring a message of liberation and freedom to the world. It must have seemed an impossible task to those first disciples, just as it can often appear that way to us today.
But the remarkable thing is that even in our much more complex and secular world I see the Spirit enthusing our communities with the vision of a life that enables us to be freed from those things that oppress us today and to give us a clear view of who we are as God's liberated children.
This Pentecost in my Cathedral I will be confirming people of all ages and all backgrounds. It will be, for them and for us, like a new Pentecost. Today's feast will be a reminder of great events in the past; but more importantly it will also be sharing in that timeless moment when Holy Spirit is given to the Church. Through this gift we believe that the Church continues and grows not for its own sake but for the world that it serves.
Today we pray that the flame of the Spirit within each of us
flares into a great fire so that we may have the courage to bring to the world
Christ's words, 'Peace be with you'. Then we may be sure that the Spirit is
alive in our Church and that the face of the earth will be renewed.