Hilaire Belloc, the famous satirist and historian, once said, “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
Our readings today show how God has made provision for the Church to continue and flourish over 2,000 years, despite the ‘knavish imbecility’ of some of its members. If your first reaction is to feel insulted by this quote, stay with me for a minute while I explain. The relationship between Christ and the Church is one of bridegroom and bride (Rev. 19:7-9). Jesus wants us, above all, to be faithful to him, and he gives us the help of the Holy Spirit to do just that. Jesus tells the Apostles in today’s gospel,
I have said these things to you while still with you, but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you. (John 14:26)
How do we stay close to the Holy Spirit? A few verses earlier, Jesus says, “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him.”
In my own experience of parish life, there have been many occasions when staying close to the Holy Spirit has been a challenge. At times, I have thought it would just be easier to move to a different parish, or even a different church or even no church. To give you an example, I once had a priest come to bless my house. After the blessing, he stayed for another hour and a half berating the ‘knavish imbecility’ of his fellow priests. But is this what the Holy Spirit wants? Of course not: it’s always Satan that wants division and disharmony. The Holy Spirit wants faithfulness. The Holy Spirit wants us to build community. The Holy Spirit wants us to keep persevering in spite of the individual characters of the members of the Church. The Holy Spirit wants us to find the good points in others and build those up, rather than trying to destroy the other. The Holy Spirit wants us to work diligently for the benefit of all. Good parishioners and priests build up rather than break down. That is how a parish receives blessing from the Lord.
The first reading today show an example of the Holy Spirit in action. Here the Apostles meeting at the Council of Jerusalem (our first ecumenical council) come up with a solution to the problem of deciding exactly how much of the Jewish Law needs to be adhered to by the Gentile converts (Acts 15:6 ff). The difficulty is how to welcome Gentiles without alienating the Jewish followers of the Messiah. After a long discussion, Peter speaks and the entire assembly falls silent. The apostles and elders or priests (toi apostolois kai presbyterois / τοῖς ἀποστόλοις καὶ τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις) then write a letter to confirm the decision of the council, saying, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond these essentials …” They are very aware of the Holy Spirit guiding the Council which has assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So Hilaire Belloc was right: as individuals we may be a bit stupid, but as a Catholic Church, listening to the Holy Spirit, we have been guided and kept faithful for 2,000 years, despite pressure from the outside world to ‘change our teaching’! The Church and Christ are like a married couple, of whom everyone says, “This marriage cannot possibly last!” yet, there they are, celebrating their anniversary year after year! I say hurrah for faithfulness! Thank you to the Holy Spirit for holding us together.
 Hilaire Belloc, remark to William Temple, quoted in Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc (1957). London: Hollis and Carter, p. 383
Word format: Year C Easter 6th Sunday 2016
Pdf format: Year C Easter 6th Sunday 2016