Signs of the times: forgetting the Spirit

The Holy Spirit: made flesh in Selma, Alabama

Why has the JP2/Ratzinger crowd failed to  grasp the signs of the times? That is the question.

One of the institutional reasons is the Roman Church’s  downplaying pneumatology (The doctrine of the Spirit).

One of the great benefits of the early Church’s pluralism, its evolving out of five key centres,  was the Orthodox Church’s highly evolved pneumatology.

They really believed that as the Johannine gospel suggested

I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. Jn 14:12

As I previously had written, the consistent teaching of the Church has been God’s ongoing activity in creation.The scriptures are replete with Spirit activity -in the life of Jesus and in the early Church. She animates, quickens, enlivens but she is somewhat wild and untamable and scurries off mainly into the world. Maybe even Roman Emperors were touched. Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE) presided over a golden age of peace in the empire.Not perfect but friendly to Christians and Jews.

Wherever life is fostered,”more worthy of man in history” as the great Schilebeeckx says,  God’s Spirit is operative.

Orthodox theologians developed a much nuanced pneumatology, accusing the west justifiably of Christomonism, a theology which is truncated as it seems to obsess over and stop at Jesus—with little room for the Spirit or the cosmic Christ. We see this in the gorefest of Mel Gibson’s Passion,  a theologically bankrupt portrait of Jesus where his reign, teaching, life and resurrection are bypassed. Everything falls on the salvific death as in “Jesus died for your sins”, almost a meaningless phrase today.

The past five centuries popular theology has been stuck at the level of “salvation” Protestants insisted on faith alone, Catholics added good works but where was the Spirit, that elusive and forgotten activity of the God “in whom we live and move and have our being?” (Acts 17:28).This spirit was virtually narrowed into the Magisterium for Catholics and his? activity in the personal salvation of Protestants.

The mystical tradition of course kept this teaching alive. Creation as Matthew Fox keeps insisting and the indigenous peoples of the world before him, creation is the original blessing! Poet William Everson says that the mystic(and all of us are potential mystics) “grapples God on the earth, God in the sea, God in the sky.”

Medieval man was traumatized by stunning events such as the Great Plague of the mid 1300s. He yearned for “salvation”, from the Latin word for safety “salus”. And there stood Jesus on the Cross at Good Friday,Gone was the cosmic presence of the Spirit! Well not, entirely gone, but gone underground and domesticated and controlled by the Magisterium.



In the West where we grew up, we ended up with this wholly transcendent and remote monarchical God who apparently broke through the natural law with miracles.The immanent indwelling God, present to all of creation had almost vanished. Now the Third Person is being rediscovered.This is the key: rediscovered. A very ancient teaching.The planetary, cosmic Spirit is back but she is dangerous!

When one embraces a developed pneumatology, the institution can not control it. That damn Spirit keeps showing up in the most awkward places! And not only in nature or in our evangelical private hearts. This Spirit, this Spirit of Jesus is more like Karl Marx’s “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.” In other words pushing against alienation at the heart of life.

The Latin American bishops in 1979 stated that “the Spirit is making longings for liberation in our peoples..” This is the Spirit of the anawim of the beatitudes, the same Spirit who anointed Jesus in his inaugural sermon in Luke (4:18) when he preached  good news to the poor and freedom to the captives.” This eruption of the Spirit was seen  in dire areas of poverty in Latin America where  men and women, lay and ordained, challenged conditions which oppressed God’s holy people, prevented them from  living fulfilling lives. Here was God in action, the God of a new Exodus demanding liberation. Prophets like those of old germinated, names mow legendary in the south: Romero, Ruiz, Arceo, Casaldaliga, Camara, Lorscheider, Silva. Martyrdom became commonplace.We remember Jean Donovan, nuns Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, Dorothy Stang. Alice Dumont and Leonie Duquet who disappeared in Argentina’s Dirty War and countless others, all vehicles of the Holy Spirit.

The very lives of these people, particularly among the well-ensconced  in Rome and elsewhere explains why the Church is so often cool to legitimate movements outside the walls of the church. Their witness of necessary contestation unnerve us.They remind us of “the dangerous memory” of Jesus so often domesticated in our overdeveloped consumer world.

The old joke applies here: The Roman Church always arrives late on the scene and a little bit out of breath. The past two decades for example the institutional Canadian Catholic Church has almost totally divorced itself from justice struggles. It too often limits itself to the comfortable ecclesial world of charity and private piety. The well-tested adage about the Catholic Church goes: If she doesn’t lead the parade, she’s not in the parade.

It’s about control and as history shows you simply an not control the Spirit. And  bishops have to be in control.

James Roberts

I close this essay with a salute to a great priest who stepped forth in a time of a vicious attack on the common good  by the BC  Social Credit government

In July 1983, when the government introduced 26 bills in its restraint program including the termination of public-sector employees  without cause, and  the proposed lay off  of 25 percent of the civil service. Fr. Jim Roberts was a Brooklyn-born community college teacher. He stepped up as one of the three leaders of the Coalition to fight the draconian legislation.At this time the Church was totally disengaged from the social struggle. Jim gave voice not only to the ancient biblical demand for justice but he gave ears to those on the margins of the church. The price he paid was huge. Absolute marginalization from the chancery whom he he had to sue for his pension.

Until his death at 78 in 2006  Roberts continued to speak  out against the gender injustice in the  Catholic Church. He was never afraid to join other justice-seekers in the fight against social injustice, Jim did not have to be at the head of the parade.He was happy to be in it,

Acknowledged to be the brightest priest in the Vancouver diocese, Roberts eschewed the “scarlet fever” so may clerics were infected with. In the chancery and on his way to the mitre and the crozier, Roberts stepped out and joined the community of disciples who were simply attempting to follow Jesus. Ordained before the great Council, Jim Roberts discovered the BC Social Coalition to be “an authentic sign of the times”.


1 Comment »

  1. 1

    I find part of the Spirit in the all-enfolding music of the wonderful Thomas Tallis. Composer, mystic, cosmic mathematican, true to his faith, quietly rebellious, all this is evident in his soaring polyphonies. He didn’t write for monarchy, but for the God he loved.

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