Homily: Opening Mass of the First Archdiocesan Synod

Cardinal Wuerl celebrates the Opening Mass of the Archdiocesan Synod.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, sometimes referred to as the birthday of the Church.

If you were to envision in your minds’ eye an image of the Holy Spirit what would it be?  One very common symbol of the Holy Spirit is the dove described in the Gospels.  We are told that at the baptism of Jesus the heavens were opened and “the Spirit, like a dove, descended upon him” (Mk 1:10).

Another equally dramatic image might very well be the “tongues of fire which parted and came to rest on each of them” (Acts 2:3-4).  The traditionally red vestments of Pentecost are symbolic of that flame.

In the coming year, I ask all of us to think of another image as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit among us – in the Church of Washington.  My hope is that all of us will see in the work of our Archdiocesan Synod the action of God’s Holy Spirit.

As we prepare to experience God’s grace, the Holy Spirit, in this action of our archdiocesan Church we should perhaps begin with an explanation of what is a synod.  An archdiocesan synod is defined as, “a group of priests, religious and lay faithful who offer assistance to the bishop for the good of the whole diocesan community.”

On August 15, 2012 I announced my intention to convoke a Synod for the Archdiocese of Washington.  In anticipation, a number of steps were taken including the appointment of those who would work closely with me in the direction of this effort and a number of other steps including listening sessions conducted either in parishes or deaneries and online.

Today, with this Mass we open in a formal manner the preparatory work of our Archdiocesan Synod.  The synod delegates will make an extended profession of faith and following this Mass they will receive their commission and letter of appointment.

Yet as we can see when we look at the definition of an Archdiocesan Synod it involves everyone.  Such an event provides an opportunity to look at the life of the local Church, to evaluate areas where the ministry of the Church is successful and areas where there may be need for more attention so that we can better prepare ourselves to carry forward the work of the Church into the future.

Our Archdiocesan Synod gives the Christian faithful – all of us – an opportunity to participate in the work of our local Church as we examine its mission in manifesting the kingdom of God here in our community.  All of us are invited to reflect on how the Archdiocese of Washington can be the best local Church that the Church calls us to be.

The Church’s celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is a fitting time for us to initiate this stage in our work.  It is the faith of the Church that our very identity as followers of Christ, as Christians, comes only through the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we look at the readings for this celebration, we see in the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians – a letter written very early in the life of the Church – the recognition that “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).

This statement refers to our profession, declaration, confirmation in faith that Jesus is the Risen Lord – God and man.  No one can profess this in faith except through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Faith is a different kind of knowledge.  It is Spirit-revealed, Spirit-empowered and Spirit-nourished.

Where do we hear this proclamation of the faith that Jesus is the Son of God, and how do we embrace this truth and try to reflect it in our lives?  Embedded in the earliest consciousness of the Church is the Profession of Faith – the Creed.  Saint Paul in writing to the Corinthians spells out for them the primordial elements of the Creed.  We are taught that the death, burial and Resurrection of Jesus are foundational doctrines of the tradition that Paul faithfully transmitted to the local churches that he founded.

You and I are familiar with the Apostles’ Creed and most regularly with the Nicene Creed that we profess at Sunday Mass.  In this Year of Faith we are asked to take the time not only to recite the Creed, prayerfully and thoughtfully, but to reflect on the articles of our Profession of Faith that defines for us who we are.  In the Creed we profess that we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life and that we also believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

In answer to the question, where and how do we receive the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Blessed Trinity – we look to the readings for this liturgy.  Today’s Gospel tells us that Jesus, on the evening of that first day of the week after his Resurrection came to his Apostles and said to them, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you…he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (Jn 20:21-22).

The first outpouring of the Holy Spirit was on the Apostles in a way that empowered them to begin their mission.  As the first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles makes clear, it was only through the gift of the Holy Spirit that the Apostles were “enabled” to carry out their mission.  The Holy Spirit “appeared to them as tongues of fire which parted and came to rest on each of them” (Acts 2:3).

The Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles but that same Spirit continues to enliven the Church and be present today – as we await the coming of the Lord Jesus in glory.  The ongoing continuous visible presence of Jesus in the world today continues in his Church – in the sacraments and word.

This brings us to reflect today on our local/diocesan Church.  This archdiocese, as is every diocese, is described as the faithful gathered with their pastors around the chief pastor of the diocese.  This takes place in smaller faith communities, primarily our parishes where the faithful gather for worship/the Eucharist, instruction in the Word/education and acts of love, charity and service.

Thus it is so appropriate that today as we embark on this process of self-examination and renewal that is the synod, we gather in a formal manner to ask the prayers of everyone in the Church for the success of this endeavor and assign specific tasks to those who we are asking to work closely with me as we reflect on how well are we being the Church that the Church asks us to be, particularly in the areas of worship, education, service, community and stewardship/administration.

Last January, I wrote to all of the members of the Church inviting the faithful throughout the archdiocese to participate in listening sessions in each of the parishes and across the archdiocese in order to reflect on and indicate areas where it appears that all of us are more or less successfully accomplishing the goals of the Church’s mission and those areas that need greater attention.  The Pastoral Preparatory Commission and the Canonical Preparatory Commission and their various sub-committees have been working to review and synthesize the fruit of the listening sessions.

Beginning today, synodal sessions will be held through Pentecost 2014 to reflect on all of the observations that have been received in order to prepare the conclusions of this process.  The synod will be convened on Pentecost 2014 when the priorities of this archdiocesan Church, and any formalized statements of them will be promulgated.

Thus we will use this year culminating in Pentecost 2014 to review, renew, confirm and challenge so that the elements of the New Evangelization that is at the very heart of the focus of the life of the Church going into the future, might permeate every aspect of our ecclesial life.  This time will be an occasion for: the renewal of our faith, the strengthening of our confidence in its truth and our commitment to share the Good News.

Our Pentecost celebration today is also a time for us to prepare for 2014 which will also mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Archdiocese of Washington.  We are a young Church in many ways, but we are also a Church of achievement, accomplishment and experience.

What we begin today should allow us a year from now in the context of the solemn convocation of our Archdiocesan Synod and our 75th jubilee to affirm and to continue the work that began on that first Pentecost when the Spirit breathed life into the Church in a way that continues to be the breath of spiritual life for each one of us.

Our prayer today is not just that we remember well the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, but that we embrace as fully as we can the Holy Spirit poured out on each of us and manifested in the gifts and talents of everyone in this Church.

We ask God at this Pentecost to help us “receive the Holy Spirit.”  We pray that the Holy Spirit empower us in this coming year to be part of a renewal that would ensure for generations yet to come the ability to proclaim “Jesus is Lord.”