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Matthew E. CarnesSeptember 07, 2023

At the beginning of each school year, many Catholic schools celebrate a Mass of the Holy Spirit. In this we continue a tradition stretching back centuries. We pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit—on ourselves, our work in the university and our world. With all the hope and joy that come from new beginnings, we turn to God each year, and we dare to anticipate the good things that lie ahead—the good things the Holy Spirit will do in our midst.

But this year’s Masses are cast into sharp relief in light of recent events in Managua, Nicaragua. In August, the authoritarian government of Nicaragua seized the Universidad Centroamericana de Managua, a Jesuit university. The Ortega regime shut it down and seized all its assets and dismissed its administration and many on its faculty and staff. Within hours, crosses were removed from chapels, and the government literally wiped the name of the university off its buildings. By Saturday afternoon, the police threw out of their house the Jesuits who lived near the university.

The UCA was not the first university to be shut down in Nicaragua under the autocratic government of Daniel Ortega, but it was arguably the most significant. Its community of students and staff had been courageously outspoken about the regime over the last several years. During that time, many of its students had already been persecuted or jailed for their political activity calling for democracy and respect for the economic and social needs of the population, and many of its administrators and professors had already been forced into exile.

The action of the Holy Spirit is in our world is utterly unsettling and transformative.

Ultimately, the regime claimed it was shutting down the university for “fostering terrorism.” But as is so common for autocratic regimes, the deeper reason they sought to silence the UCA was because it was doing what universities do: seeking truth through critical study and dialogue and social analysis, and because it was unafraid to speak that truth publicly. And the government shut the UCA down because it was doing what Jesuit universities do—drawing on faith in a God, in the Holy Spirit, who works unceasingly in our world for justice and reconciliation. The UCA was seeking truth promoting justice—familiar goals for those of us at America Jesuit institutions.

As many of us in Jesuit universities in the United States celebrate our Masses of the Holy Spirit in relative safety and comfort, we are confronted with the fact that the UCA-Managua, in its next academic year, will not have a Mass of the Holy Spirit. And that forces us to think about why wedo this thing, and use these words, and realize that we should never take this for granted. And it reminds us just how radical our mission is, how utterly unsettling and transformative the action of the Holy Spirit is in our world, and how audacious we are to beg God to send that Holy Spirit among us.

Our Scriptures at our Mass present one of the most radical turning points in Christian salvation history. (First Reading: Acts 2: 1-1; Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 104: Lord Send Out Your Spirit; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12: 3-7, 12-13; Gospel Reading: John 20: 19-23)

How audacious we are to beg God to send that Holy Spirit among us.

In the Gospel passage we heard from John, we see the disciples who have locked themselves into a room. They are fearful because they have seen what happened to Jesus when he challenged the norms and status and divisions of his time, and when he proclaimed a reign of God in which the prisoners would be set free, the oppressed would be released from their bonds, and the mighty would be toppled from their thrones and the poor lifted up. They know that he was killed by the authorities, who preferred violence and oppression over a disruptive reordering of their society.

The disciples had believed in Jesus, and they had believed his message, but now the temptation is to just stay quiet, to give up on the long work of justice because it seems too risky, too hard and even too countercultural or impolitic. Yet it is precisely in that locked room, and in their doubts, that the risen Jesus appears to them. He comes into their midst and the first word he speaks is one of peace. He calms them and reminds them of the centeredness and groundedness they have found in him.

And then he does this most intimate of things. He breathes on them. In breathing on them, he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. And he sends them out, to be agents of truth and of reconciliation. He sends them to see clearly the sin that exists in the world, in unjust structures and social relations, in oppressive regimes and in the grinding inequities that keep individuals and groups down, and to seek to free humanity from its own worst actions.

It is such a quiet scene, but it literally sets those disciples on fire. For in the Acts of the Apostles we see what happens next: a mighty wind, tongues of flame and the disciples going out into the streets. They are filled with the Holy Spirit, and they immediately start engaging people of every type and every walk of life. We are told that they have the gift of tongues, which allows them to dialogue with everyone, precisely in their own language.

The words they speak—in a time and a city at least as divided as our own—offer a new vision.

Somehow, the words they speak—in a time and a city at least as divided as our own—offer a new vision, a vision in which oppression and violence have no place and in which difference, rather than something to be eliminated or overcome, is to be embraced and cherished.

The First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians uses the image of the body to describe this. And it emphasizes that every member of that body matters and that every person has something necessary to contribute.

Make no mistake about it: This is a radical message, both in Jesus’ time and now because it presupposes that some members of the body, some people, are not by design superior to any of the others. And it affirms that those who are so easy to dismiss—especially due to their lack of structural power or because they do not reflect the dominant paradigms of success or because they are inconvenient to those in charge—are absolutely essential, even central, to the achievement of God’s promise for the human race. No one is excluded. Truth and justice make sense only when all are included.

This is why I say that the Mass of the Holy Spirit is such a radical act. And it is all the sharper not just because we know what has happened in Nicaragua, but also because we know about the many battles over education and inquiry, over truth and justice, that are happening elsewhere around the globe and here in the United States. The stakes are high, higher than we usually want to admit in polite company, so the temptation is to keep quiet and not rock the boat. We can be like those disciples in their locked room, aware of our faith and convictions but unwilling to put ourselves on the line. I imagine the Jesuits and community of the UCA-Managua had to ask themselves if it wouldn’t be easier to just keep quiet.

The Mass of the Holy Spirit and the witness of our colleagues in Nicaragua ask something more from us: to double down on our work of seeking truth, and to do this through dialogue across cultures and disciplines and social status. It asks us to have the hard conversations that our society seems increasingly poorly equipped to carry out. And to embrace the essential way that the fate of each of us is tied up in the well-being of all of us.

It is telling that in the Mass we do not merely celebrate or worship the Holy Spirit. We don’t simply gaze in wonder at the Holy Spirit. And we certainly do not take the Holy Spirit for granted. Rather, we invoke the Holy Spirit. We beg God to send the Holy Spirit on us and our university and our world. Left to ourselves, we might cower or keep quiet or keep to our own ways. But empowered by the Holy Spirit, unsettled and transformed by the Holy Spirit, we can make good on those words we use here in our community—truth, justice—and they can sing forth, to the greater glory of God and the salvation of humankind.

This essay has been adapted from a homily given at Georgetown University's Mass of the Holy Spirit on Aug. 22, 2023.

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