The invisible missions of the Holy Ghost: sermon on the tenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted.”

The readings appointed for this Sunday, sometimes called “the Sunday of humility”, or “the Sunday of the pharisee and the publican”, put us in mind of the invisible missions of the Holy Ghost. What do we mean by these “invisible missions”? The Holy Spirit came upon the Church only once in a visible form, in the fire of the first Christian Pentecost. But He comes invisibly into the souls of Christians innumerable times, during the period which extends from that first Pentecost until the end of the world. He comes into our souls, with the Father and the Son, at our baptism and our confirmation; but He also comes whenever we take a step upwards in the spiritual life, from one degree of sanctifying grace to another. And although the Holy Spirit never comes into our soul without the other two divine Persons, He is said all the same to be “sent” by Them, because He proceeds from Them in eternity. This is why we speak of His “invisible missions” or “sendings” to the soul.

The gifts with which the Holy Ghost enriches the soul to whom He comes may be divided into two main classes: on the one hand, those which are normally called “charisms”, or sometimes “freely given graces”, and on the other hand, what is called sanctifying grace, which includes the theological virtues and the seven gifts mentioned by the prophet Isaias. In the epistle of today’s Mass, St Paul is speaking to the Corinthians about the first class of spiritual gifts; that is, about the “charisms”. To understand this, we need to know that during the first decades of the Church’s existence, to facilitate her rapid spread through the pagan nations, our Lord often united unusual gifts to the sacrament of baptism. The adult catechumen who was baptised often found that, after his baptism, he had received some special gift, not given to all the others who were baptised at the same time: for example, a deep understanding of prophecies in the Scripture, or the ability to speak languages which he had never learned, or to detect if some other person was being influenced by an evil spirit or by the Holy Spirit, or the power to cast out the evil spirit from some possessed person by his prayers. 

St Paul, who is always keenly aware of the pagan background of Gentile believers, and aware too that they, like himself, have their “treasure in earthen vessels”, is apparently solicitous that the Corinthians should not interpret this diversity of spiritual gifts as the pagans would do. Pagans would have supposed that this variety of preternatural gifts meant that different gods were at work, each giving to his favoured human client some different power, just as different gods — in reality, different devils — were indeed at work at the shrines of the pagan and in their idols. No, St Paul tells them, it is the one God who bestows all these gifts on His newly begotten children, through His own holy Spirit. The proof of this is that all the gifts work together for the building up of the Church. 

It is important, though, to note that the presence of these gifts or charisms is not in itself a proof of the holiness of the one who has them. They were given more to prove the holiness of the sacrament of baptism, especially in the days when, or among the peoples for whom, the sacrament of baptism was something new and strange. It is even possible to have such gifts without having what matters most: charity. This is why our Lord says that, on the last day, many people will say to Him in vain, “Did we not prophesy in thy name and cast out demons in thy name?” and He will tell them that He never knew them, since they had exercised these powers and charisms during their life for their own glory, and not as His faithful servants and friends. This is also why St Paul, having spoken of the charisms, goes on in the next chapter of his epistle to praise what he calls “the more excellent way”, in his famous hymn to charity.

This brings us to the gospel, and to the other class of gifts which the Holy Spirit bestows: those which sanctify us. What are these gifts? They are sanctifying grace itself, then faith, hope and charity, then wisdom, understanding, science, counsel, fortitude, piety and the fear of the Lord. None of these things is mentioned by name in Christ’s parable of the pharisee and the publican, but they are all included under the general name of “justice”. 

What is this parable about? Leaving aside its allegorical meaning, by which it refers to the Jews and the Gentiles, we can say that it addresses the question, “Where does our justice come from?” Christ told the parable, St Luke says, “to some who trusted in themselves as just, and despised others”. Let us examine what is wrong with these two attitudes.

Firstly, what is wrong with trusting in oneself as just? It is not wrong to have a good hope that one is in a state of grace: that is what we should do, before we receive Holy Communion. The pharisee in the parable sinned because he trusted in himself as just. He thought that he had achieved justice by means of his good actions. But the kind of justice that makes us pleasing to God is not like that: it is His gift to His children. It is infused into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Good actions are the consequences of this justice, not its cause. Although the pharisee says, “I thank you, that I am not like other men”, he was not really thanking God, but calling Him as a witness to his virtue.

Secondly, it is impossible to despise others without trusting in oneself as just. To despise others here means not just to notice that someone else has committed some sin which I have not committed, but to suppose that it is inevitable that I will always be superior to this other person. But how could it be inevitable, when all justice comes from God, and since, as today’s collect says, He shows His omnipotence most of all in sparing and having mercy? When our Lord tells us, “Do not judge”, this does not mean that we are not permitted to notice that someone has committed a sin, but that we should never judge that a person is beyond hope. These words of Christ mean that when we hear of someone committing some grievous sin, we should keep in mind that this person may end as a saint in heaven, far higher than ourselves.

But notice one small detail that Jesus puts into the parable. The publican “struck his breast” as he prayed for mercy. This is a Christian custom. I don’t think there are any descriptions in the Old Testament of people beating their breast privately as a sign of guilt, although there are some prophecies, in Isaias and Nahum, which speak of people doing it in mourning. The custom of striking the breast during the Confiteor at Mass is apparently very ancient (even though it is not done in the Dominican rite). St Augustine mentions it in a sermon to the people of Hippo: “At the word Confiteor, he says, “you beat your breasts. What is this, but to confess what is lying hidden within them, and by a visible blow to chastise an invisible sin?”

The union of body and soul is so close, that what we do to the one, affects the other. To kneel in prayer or to strike one’s breast is not only a sign of humility or compunction; it actually makes it easier for the person to practise humility or to feel compunction. But likewise, to omit the suitable bodily gestures is not only to fail to pray with half of oneself; it is also to make it harder for the soul itself to pray. If many Catholics in recent decades have, alas, lost all or some or much of their faith in the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, I don’t think that they first lose faith and then cease to manifest their faith outwardly. More commonly, it is the other way round: they cease to show honour to the Lord in the sacrament of His love, by kneeling or genuflection or prostration, and then in consequence they cease to believe, or at least their belief grows dim and uncertain. At the moment, there are many stories from different churches throughout the world of Catholics being told that they may not kneel to receive the Lord, or that they must take the sacred host into their own hands if they want to receive. In this way, an unjust violence is done to the consciences of many people, and a practice is imposed which is not required by any law of the Church. On this “Sunday of humility”, let us pray that this may end, and that God may grant us all to receive in internal and external humility.