May 19, 2024 Essay: The Birth of the Church

May 8, 2024

Someone once said that the early Christian community waited in eager anticipation for the return of the Lord in glory but the Church showed up instead. Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. It has often been described as the birthday of the Church—the oldest living body in today’s world, yet one that is still going through its growing pains. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Anything truly alive goes through change and development all its life. This is the way with living things. People shouldn’t be unduly alarmed, therefore, at the changes happening in the Church in our time. This is a sign of its vitality.

Living things that don’t move are dead. If we want to check on whether a person is dead or alive, we first look for some sign of movement—a heartbeat, breathing, any kind of motion. For too long a time, many Catholics have associated the Church with a lack of movement. We have focused on one of its many attributes, its stability—the fact that, through the years, it remains basically the same in its form and core teachings. We may have forgotten that because it is a living reality, the Church must change and renew itself.

The great guiding force behind change in the Church is the Holy Spirit, the parting gift of Jesus to his then-small circle of friends. “I will not leave you orphans,” he had told them during his last supper with them. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you the Holy Spirit to be with you forever.”

In his Acts of the Apostles, Saint Luke describes how that promise was fulfilled as the Holy Spirit came to the group of twelve apostles. The Resurrection and Ascension had come and gone. They were left feeling abandoned, with no sense of mission or purpose. As they huddled together for prayer on the Jewish Feast of Weeks (in Hebrew Shavuot), something quite extraordinary happened to them. Luke writes of a noise like a strong rushing wind, tongues of fire, and the ability to speak in several languages. The apostles suddenly felt energized and empowered. Soon Peter is out into the streets preaching to the crowds of pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the festival. We are told that 3,000 people were baptized that first Pentecost! This is more than the capacity of St. Patrick’s Cathedral! It was the birthing of the Christian Church.

What began on Pentecost spread like a forest fire. In thirty years, it spread so dramatically that Christianity became a powerful force in faraway Rome, and the Emperor Nero made it the target of an all-out persecution. With Pentecost, there was a new coming of God to the world—a sort of second Christmas—because God came in the Person of the Holy Spirit to be always with and in the Church. And twenty centuries later, the Church is still here—in every corner of the world—alive, changing and always growing, despite the schisms, the conflicts and scandals that have plagued the Church from its earliest days.

Wherever the Spirit is at work we can be sure there is a call to live in the community of the Church and to be involved in that community. This is what happened to the apostles on that first Pentecost. Instead of remaining isolated and fearful of the Jewish religious authorities who had plotted the murder of Jesus, they immediately began to proclaim the Good News about the Resurrection of Jesus. Small Christian communities began to spring up near and far.

Christians of every generation are called to be part of that same movement—the movement away from isolation and individualism to community and involvement. The Holy Spirit will always be a challenge to the one who thinks, “I don’t need the Church, I can go to God on my own.” It may be a hard lesson for some to learn but we are saved together. No one is saved on their own.

— Rev. William J. Bergen, S.J., Senior Priest