To help inspire our readers for Pentecost, we are publishing a homily given by Joseph Ratzinger in 1978. Ratzinger, then archbishop of Munich and Freising, urgently warns against the dangers of a “spiritual environmental pollution” that destroys hearts, and speaks about the preconditions for the descent of the Holy Spirit. His homily has lost none of its timely relevance in the intervening years, and its intellectual depth and keen insight are still inspiring today.
My dear brothers and sisters,
The Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as they were gathered together in one place, as we just heard in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. This passage is trying to tell us something about the preconditions for His coming and the signs that He is near.
This becomes much more apparent when we read the account in its full context. We are told that before His departure, Jesus instructed them not to go off on their own, but to stay together and await the gift of the Holy Spirit. And so the small company of believers gathered together along with Mary and the Apostles, their number having been restored to twelve after the election of Matthias.
Preconditions for the coming of the Holy Spirit
They knew that their being together, their being united, was a precondition for Pentecost. And they understood that the precondition for unity, in turn, was prayer. For it is prayer alone, and not even the most sophisticated psychological methods, that is capable of liberating that interior principle within us that enables us to be in contact with one another, to bear one another, in which freedom and unity lie. Unity is the precondition for the gift of the Spirit, and prayer is the precondition for unity. But so too is this other one we heard about, this waiting for and remaining open to the Lord. And it is precisely on this point that the Church of our age, it seems to me, has much to re-learn.
IMAGO / Jochen Eckel
The custom of showering rose petals in the Pantheon has a long tradition. On Pentecost in 609, while Pope Boniface IV was celebrating Mass in the Pantheon, a shower of rose petals “like tongues of fire” is said to have fallen on the faithful. This developed into the custom of showering rose petals at Pentecost. Above, a shower of red petals from the “Queen of Flowers” rains down on the faithful.
Very often, a single hour spent quietly listening to God’s Word in silence would do us more good than whole conferences filled with meetings and discussions. And one moment of prayer would bear more fruit than whole stacks of documents.
There really is a lot of activity in the Church today. There is a kind of busyness that stretches people to the limits of their strength, and often beyond. But what is mostly missing now is that silent abiding before the Word of God, loosening the grasp of our will and our actions and thus enabling them to be free and fruitful. To be sure, the Lord does require our hard work and our dedication. But we require His presence. We need to rediscover the courage to leave things undone, and thus the humility of waiting before the Word. Very often, a single hour spent listening to God’s Word in silence would do us more good than whole conferences filled with meetings and discussions, and one moment of prayer would bear more fruit than whole stacks of documents.
Do we not trust the power of God?
At times it can seem that what lies behind the mad rush of our activities is a lack of confidence in the power of God. And that behind the proliferation of our works lies a crippling of our faith, in that we place our confidence only in those things which we ourselves are able to accomplish. But when it comes to affecting the world around us, what we do is by no means more important than what we are when we become mature and free and true by placing the roots of our being in the fruitful silence of God.
In today’s reading, two main images are used to represent the Holy Spirit: the image of the wind and the image of fire. The wind is first and foremost an expression of power – in the ancient world it was believed to be a sign of divine power, spinning the world about and moving the stars as if they were grains of sand. But concealed within the image of the mighty wind is a second meaning; that is, it also represents one of the four elements of life – the element of air, which distinguishes this earth of ours from all the other heavenly bodies, making it the “star of life”. Only where there is air do lungs serve any purpose. Only where air is can there be breathing, can there be life. What this mysterious element of air means for biological life is what the sacred, the Holy Spirit, is for every spirit. Only where the holy Spirit breathes can man be man, can humanity subsist, can the spirit truly live.
The poisoning of the heart and the spirit that arises from such spiritual environmental pollution is more alarming than the maladies caused by air pollution in its physical form.
Today’s newspapers have a lot to say about the air pollution that is caused by our civilization. And in urban areas, even without reading such stories, we can experience for ourselves how, along with the vital element air, we are also breathing in the poisons that destroy life. But what we do not talk about is the spiritual pollution that is destroying the atmosphere in which the spirit can live. Yet, the poisoning of the heart and the spirit that arises from such spiritual environmental pollution is more alarming than the maladies caused by air pollution in its physical form.
I was once on a retreat where I was told that one third of local children were socially maladjusted because they were unable to breathe in love, which is the primordial element which human beings need to grow and to be themselves. The fact that in the Western world, films filled with violence and contempt for man that portray it as completely normal is a sign of how accustomed we have become to flinging dirt on man, mocking his dignity, and trampling him underfoot.
IMAGO / UPI Photo
Benedict XVI at St. Peter’s on Pentecost Sunday, 27 May 2012. It was the final Pentecost Mass of his pontificate. He would resign the following year.
picture-alliance / dpa | Portraitdienst
Joseph Ratzinger was appointed archbishop of Munich and Freising by Paul VI in 1977. The above photo was taken in 1979 during a meeting of the German Bishops’ Conference in Fulda.
Trampling on the dignity of the human person has nothing to do with freedom.
As we do this, we like to tell ourselves that this is just what freedom is. But while we have made it a habit of trampling on the dignity of man and calling what is cruel normal, while coming up with nice-sounding ideological pretexts for doing so, that does not change the fact that this is poisoning the spiritual air that we need to breathe.
Of course, where the dignity of man is not protected from within against such abuses, there is no point in prohibiting such things either. All the more reason why we Christians should consider it our mission to strive for the pure air of the Holy Spirit, to oppose the pollution of our spiritual environment, and to create oases within the community of believers where the heart and soul can breathe and find relief.
The second image used for the Holy Spirit in our reading is fire. Whereas people in the ancient world considered air to be the fundamental element of life, fire was the element on which culture was based; thus, it was the precondition for us to be able to cultivate, shape, and transform the earth.
The program of the modern era is wanting not to be in God’s image, but only in our own image.
Fire is light, warmth, energy, the power to transform. But at the same time, when it gets out of control it is the element of destruction and ruin. In the ancient world, it was considered a piece of the sun, the element of the divine. It was because of man’s ability to control fire that man was viewed as like the gods.
The Greek world created the myth of Prometheus, who does battle against the gods, takes fire from the heavens, and brings it down to earth, thus ushering in a new world. Goethe captured this pathos in his poem “Prometheus” with these stirring words: “Here sit I, forming mortals after my image; A race resembling me, to suffer, to weep, to enjoy, to be glad, And thee to scorn, as I!” [Goethe, ‘Prometheus”, translated by Edgar Alfred Browning in The Poems of Goethe (1881), p. 193]
This has essentially become the program of the modern era: wanting not to be in God’s image, but in our own image only; to give to ourselves power over the world while ignoring His power and expecting nothing from Him. But now that we have succeeded in wresting fire from the heavens and from the depths of the earth, from the matter of the atom itself, the question now becomes how we might keep the world from becoming consumed by fire as a result, how we might keep the element of culture and creativity from being transformed in our hands into the element of destruction and annihilation.
Pentecost tells us that the Holy Spirit is fire and that Christ is the true Prometheus who has taken fire from heaven.
Pentecost tells us that the Holy Spirit is fire and that Christ is the true Prometheus who has taken fire from heaven. Yes, man is to have fire; he is not to be left to a dull, vegetative existence; he was created to be like God. But the One who brings this fire, the power of salvation, is not a Titan trying to sweep God aside, but the Son who exposes Himself to the fire of love, thus breaking down the walls of enmity and enabling fire to become the power of transformation, of love, and a new world.
Christianity is fire. It is not a humdrum affair, a pious torrent of words, a car we can hitch to any train we want to be a part of. What Christianity demands from us is the passion of faith, which participates in the Passion of Jesus Christ and thus renews the world.
Finally, let us take just one more thing from the images and concepts in today’s readings: The Holy Spirit overcomes fear. The disciples, whom the Gospel tells us were still hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews who had crucified their Lord and who could indeed have arrested them and had them executed – these disciples now boldly come out of hiding and preach the message of Jesus Christ crucified without fear, for they know they are in the Hands of Him who is stronger.
Depiction of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in a Book of the Gospel published by Verlag Herder.
The Holy Spirit overcomes fear
A priest who had the opportunity to spend some time in a part of Africa that was still hardly touched by Christianity and European civilization once told me that what he had found most distressing and moving about his experience was the crippling sense of dread that dominated these people’s entire lives, the true hallmark of a paganism in which the One God had yet to appear. They were afraid of the spirits of the dead, they were afraid of unfamiliar spirits, and they were afraid of the unpredictable nature of the spirits they did know. In such a world, life is but a calculus based on fear, an ongoing attempt to cope with the sinister forces which man faces virtually unarmed.
The Holy Spirit overcomes fear. The world of the Holy Spirit is not a world characterized by unknown spirits and forces, but by the Spirit that is love, and as love, all-powerful. This is why the absence of fear is the mark of the Holy Spirit, who places us in the hands of omnipotent love. And this is why faith too, inasmuch as it is sound, is able to stand fearlessly against the powers of the world, because it knows that it is guided and protected by Him who, being the stronger one, has bound up the strong man (cf. Mk 3:27).
Where faith disappears, fear grows
And it is not as it is often presented to us, as if a world where faith is swept away once and for all would see the emergence of pure reason and the final conquest of fear. Where faith disappears, man must again begin to fear the unknown forces of fate, of the future, of nature, which he cannot control or wish away; this power belongs only to him who created the universe and holds it in his hands.
So this Pentecost, let us pray that the Holy Spirit may descend upon us and renew the face of the earth.
Joseph Ratzinger, Predigten. Homilien – Ansprachen –Meditationen (= Joseph Ratzinger Gesammelte Schriften 14), Freiburg 2019, 575-580.
Headings, subheadings, and quotations are editorial insertions.