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The Church in the Age of the Holy Spirit.

The Church authorities do not know what God wants of us.

A prophetic Cistercian Abbot in Italy named Joachim of Flores foresaw in the early thirteenth century the total transformation of the Catholic Church and a new form of spiritual life in which the Holy Spirit would speak directly to the human heart without ecclesiastical mediation. He believed that there is a sequence of historic stages in the Trinitarian God's self-revelation over time. The first stage of that self-revelation was the stage of the Father, the law of Moses, and the people of Israel. The second was the stage of the Son, the New Testament, and the Church. He said the third will be the age of the Holy Spirit, when the Church "becoming superfluous would in time dissolve."

I think that this third stage is what is going on in the Church today. I don't see the Church dissolving, but I do see its being transformed into a Church of the Holy Spirit, a purely democratic Church. The task of anyone who has a leadership position in the Church of the Holy Spirit is to listen, just listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of God.

The most important message of the Holy Spirit for today's Church has to do with the development of mature spirituality based on freedom of conscience and discernment of Spirits. How can we develop a mature spiritual life? I want to put the emphasis on mature because as I see it the Church is twenty going on twenty one, which is the age of maturity. The issue is not just our individual growth to maturity; but the development of humanity and the Church into a mature stage. The possibility is opening up of a real spiritual maturity for every human being on the face of the earth.

It is important for us to understand what that maturity is and in what direction things have to move. A healthy maturing process is one by which we separate from all dependence on external authority and achieve genuine authenticity as autonomous human beings. We must make our own choices and take responsibility for those choices. None of us should any longer be what I call "Eichmann Christians." You remember that in his trial Eichmann argued that he was brought up to be a good Lutheran whose primary responsibility was to obey authority. Legitimate authority ordered him to put all those Jews in the gas ovens. As a good Christian he obeyed. That was his defense.

The authentic Christian message is that God speaks to you directly and immediately in your own experience. You must discern what God is saying to you and take total responsibility for your own actions You can't put them off on any external authority. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux observed that the "spiritual life is like living water that springs up from the very depths of our own personal spiritual experience. In spiritual life everyone has to drink from his or her own well." The first mark then, of a healthy adult spiritual life is that it will be based primarily on personal experience. People used to live their spiritual lives in a community where everything was decided for them; all they had to do was obey and conform. Viktor Frankl argues in his book, Flight from Freedom, that many people fear the responsibility of freedom and would gladly give up their freedom for the security of a provident leader. Paul in Galatians 5:1 urges us: "For freedom Christ has set us free, Stand firm, therefore, and do not subm it again to a yoke of slavery." More than thirty years ago, Karl Rahner wrote that all the normal supports of Christian faith are fast going away and unless Christians based their faith on personal experience, on a "mystical" experience of the presence of God, there would be no Christians at all.

As children we had to obey mother and father. We were under authority and it was legitimate to obey it. But when we mature, that stance is no longer legitimate. We can no longer base our lives on extrinsic authority. We have to base them on our own personal experience. We become aware that if our parents had been infallible we could never have matured to be autonomous and responsible adults. We would never have been able to develop our capacity for independent judgment and, consequently, would never feel personal responsibility for our actions. We had to distance ourselves from their authority and make our own choices. This was part of our growing up. God blessed us with fallible parents so that we could mature.

Now God has blessed us Roman Catholics with fallible Church authority. There is the blessing of fallibility. In recent years, when the Church tried to give orders to the whole Church, it frequently fell flat on its face. It refuses to listen and, as the saying goes, just doesn't get it. The Holy Spirit, I believe, is very much involved in this situation, and the result is that fewer and fewer people listen to the Church. It has diminished its moral authority. For example, the Church authorities say that artificial birth control is a serious sin. A committee was set up and after listening to the laity the committee advised the pope and the Vatican that they should change this teaching. Rome refused to listen to what the Holy Spirit was saying through the people of God, and now 90 to 95 percent of the faithful practice artificial birth control in good conscience. When the American bishops decided to write a letter on the role of women in the Church, they set up listening sessions for women all over the U.S.A. They produced an excellent letter based on the results of those sessions. The Vatican returned the letter to the American hierarchy with the statement: You misunderstood your task! Your task is to teach, not to listen!

The same thing has happened in the gay and lesbian community, which for the most part has already been liberated from extrinsic Church authority. The Church's message to the gay community has been psychologically so bad that we knew that if we obeyed the Church's teaching we would destroy ourselves psychologically and spiritually; God doesn't want us to destroy ourselves. What is bad psychology has to be bad theology. So we don't owe obedience to Church authority when we see it clearly in contradiction to God's will. Our primary authority is the will of God and the will of God manifests itself to us through our experience. If we prayerfully open up and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us, then we will understand what God wants from us through our own experience.

This theme of maturity and liberation was one of Jesus' primary themes at the last supper. At one point he said, "It is necessary that I should go away in order for the Spirit to come." That statement always intrigued me. One can pass over it quickly and just see succession--Jesus dies and then comes Pentecost. But Jesus is saying much more than that; there is a necessity here for the maturing of his disciples, that he had to die and go away. Jesus was pointing out that his followers must detach themselves from their dependence on his physical presence and prepare themselves to receive the Spirit of Christ who will dwell in their hearts. Again he said to them, "But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth," (John 16:6-13)

A central Christian teaching, attributed to Jesus himself and important for all of us, especially those who are gay and lesbian, is the freedom of conscience. It was expressed in a powerful way in the documents of Vatican II:

Every human being has in his or her heart a law written by God. To obey that law is the dignity of the human. According to that law we will be judged. There we are alone with God, whose voice echoes in our depths. (The Postoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World)

Where do you turn to find out what God wants of you? You turn in prayer and you listen and you ask God, if you are about to make a choice, to give you that peace and joy if what you are about to do is in harmony with the Spirit of God. And you will know with a certitude because that feeling comes from your direct communication with God. God speaks to us primarily through our emotions. I earned seven different degrees before I found that out. I learned the hard way. Many people, especially women, seem to clue into that immediately and are aware that God speaks to them profoundly in their feelings and emotions; they can hear God at any time. One has to ask God to speak. God wants to be invited in. As soon as we turn in prayer to God and ask, "Lord grant me the grace to know your will and the courage be able to do it," God will give us that grace and courage. Every one of us is his or her own authority and legitimately so. This is how Christ intended it to be,

The Church of the Holy Spirit is a Church of equals. Paul sees the gift of the Holy Spirit as a fulfillment of this prophesy of Jeremiah: "This is the new covenant I will make after those days. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, Know the Lord. For they shall all know me from the least to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquities and remember their sins no more" (Jer. 31:33-34).

Notice that Jeremiah foresees the new covenant where every human being from the least to the greatest will have direct access to a God who dwells in the heart. This access to God will not be the privilege of a few who are gifted with extraordinary intelligence, or ritual rank, or even special holiness. The Holy Spirit is a thoroughgoing egalitarian. In the Acts of the Apostles on Pentecost, Peter recalls these words of the prophet Joel: "In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophecy" (Acts 2:17-18).

With the death of Jesus, then, and the coming of the Spirit, the apostles received a challenge as well as an opportunity to mature. They had to give up the security of a provident leader; they had to find out what God wanted from them, from within themselves and their own experience. It was only after the coming of the Holy Spirit that the apostles found the courage to leave the security of their closet (the upper room) and go out into the world as responsible adult agents of the Holy Spirit.

Liberation from injustice and oppression is a true value of the Gospel; Christian freedom, however, comes from within through identity with the Spirit of God. That freedom is something to be claimed, not something that is granted by external authority. We must listen to the Spirit within us, listen to the voice of the oppressed around us, and then act for human rights and equality.

Anyone who claims authority in our spiritual community must be tuned in and listening. The Church has to become a listening Church. And it has to become a totally democratic Church with no caste system, no higher and lower: everyone totally equal, everyone possessing the divine within themselves, everyone an authority. For example, who knows what God wants from gays and lesbians? Obviously only gays and lesbians. So no one can tell us from outside; we are alone in knowing that our love for each other contains the divine Spirit and brings that kind of peace and joy that indicates the presence of the Spirit. We know when that's there and when it is not there. It is therefore up to Church authorities to come to us and ask, "What is God saying to you?" Listen carefully and learn what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of God. We must never go to Church authorities to ask them what God wants of us. We must listen to the Spirit dwelling in our hearts to learn what God wants of us! Go to Church authoritie s, then, to bear witness to what God is saying to you through your experience. This attitude represents a total reversal: authority is with the individual and with groups that gather together and through prayer carefully discern what God is saying to them; they then bring that message back to the Church and ask the Church to help in that discerning process. The primary responsibility of members of the democratic Church of the Spirit is to become people of deep prayer, seeking constantly to hear what the Spirit says to them through their experience. The primary responsibility of authority in the Church of the Spirit is to listen to what the Spirit is saying to them through the experience of the people of God. (This Church would call for a complete restructuring of all channels of authority). This is the new Church that is rapidly coming into being.

It is this understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit that gives me consolation during these times when the institutional Church frequently reacts to its gay members in ignorance and downright hostility. I believe that the Holy Spirit is using the fallibility of our religious authorities to guide the entire Christian community into the new level of maturity and responsibility necessary for the spiritual growth of the human community in today's world.

We must learn then to drink from our own wells. We must learn to place our trust in our own direct experience of life and what those experiences reveal to us. We must trust that God speaks to us immediately and directly through our own experiences and that these experiences are the only "unpolluted water" from which we can drink. This is the ancient Christian doctrine of "discernment of spirits" The way to know God and to become intimate with God is to listen prayerfully to what your own feelings are telling you. God speaks to us primarily not through our intellect but through our hearts -- that is, through our emotions -- and it is by listening with our hearts that we can hear what God is saying to us. The theologians of the middle ages had a saying: "You can grasp God with your mind, never! You can grasp God with your heart, ever!"

I offer this prayer to the Holy Spirit for a new Pentecost for the Church we love: that all of us, authorities and faithful alike, may with God's grace be fully open to the message the Spirit is speaking in our hearts and be open to what the Spirit is saying through all the people of God and, especially, through the outcasts. Veni Creator Spiritus! Mentes tuorum visita! Imple superna gratia, quae tu creasti, pectora! Come Holy Spirit and fill our hearts with the Spirit of divine love!

JOHN MCNEILL is the author of Homosexuality and the Church and the auto-biography, With Two Feet in Midair.
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Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Previous Article:The Future of Faith.
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