Mass of the Holy Spirit
September 15th, 1999
Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows
William Watson, S.J.
At the beginning of each academic year, Catholic colleges and universities offer a Mass of the Holy Spirit. At the commencement of this academic year on the threshold of the Third Millennium of Christianity, let us explore together what this event can mean for us personally as Catholics, Christians, or members of other faith communities? What can it mean for us as an academic community open to the inspirations of faith? Let us also look at what this Sacrificial celebration and invocation of the Spirit---in this academic setting---can mean for our part in the renewal of culture.
So let me begin with a story--a true story….
The first chapter of his biography begins like a Tom Clancy spy novel. There is even a Jack Ryan character. He writes: "I knew when I dialed the U. S. State Department that I would reach my party immediately. "Yes?" It was Jack Scanlan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Eastern Europe, and exactly the person I wanted to speak to.
"Jack, it’s Romek"…I hesitated, then let it spill out all at once. "I’m asking for protection, Jack; I want the President to grant me and my family political asylum."
The person writing is Francis Romuld Spasowski. At the time of this phone call in 1981, Spasowski is Poland's ambassador to the U.S. and its most senior post-war diplomat. This simple phone call is also transforming Spasowski into the highest-ranking Communist official ever to defect to the West.
After hanging up the phone, dozens of FBI and D.C. police cars block the streets leading to the Polish ambassador’s house in Washington. Romek and his wife Wanda and their daughter Misha hurriedly collect a few personal items. The Polish crystal candlesticks on the altar today are two family heirlooms they managed to pack in their rush to escape. The Soviet KGB will soon know of their planned escape and try to block them from leaving the extra-territorial property of the ambassador's residence. They have to hurry. They will face certain death in Poland if they are captured and deported. The long arm of the Soviet government will force the Premier, General Jaruzelski, to deal severely with Spasowski and his family to stem the political damage from this humiliating defection, especially in light of the deepening crisis raging in Poland over the Solidarity trade union.
"After hanging up the phone, the past forty years of Spasowski's life rush past him. He feels a great weight falling from him as he suddenly realizes he is free of the clutches of the Polish secret police, their constant shadowings, insinuations, Byzantine parlor games, their obscene lies to implement martial law to crush Solidarity. Forty years of life, so tautly woven into People’s Poland, is spinning off with them. It had taken him forty years to come to this, and only when he put down the receiver, did he see his decision in its naked reality."
Several days after the Spasowskis’ escape and rescue by the U.S. government, they meet privately with President Reagan. It is late December of 1981, just before Christmas. Reagan's Christmas message to the American people a few days later is dedicated almost exclusively to the events in Poland. At Spasowski's request, Reagan asks Americans to put candles in their windows at Christmas as a sign of their solidarity with the suffering people of Poland and Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity trade union who has just been imprisoned. On November 9, 1989, just eight years later, the Berlin Wall will be pulled down.
In the last year of his life, I was Romek’s personal priest as he lay dying of bone cancer in his apartment in Northern Virginia. I was also honored to preach at his funeral at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Prior to becoming a Christian, he had been a convinced atheist most his adult life and a committed communist since the age of 16. Of the many stories he told me about his life leading up to his defection, I asked him if there was one event that gave him the inner strength to make the phone call. He said it was the Pope’s first visit to Poland in the spring of 1980.
Romek was in Warsaw for John Paul's visit. It was an anniversary of sorts for Spasowski. It was forty years ago in Warsaw that Romek last saw his father Wladyslaw. Tears in his eyes, 19-year-old Romek embraces his father as the cyanide capsule went to work. He promised his father that he would carry on his work for the communist cause. Wladyslaw Spasowski was at this time Poland’s leading communist intellectual and author of the famous manifesto, Liberation of Man. He committed suicide in Warsaw’s botanical garden to escape the Nazis after the Russian government denied him and his son political asylum. Romek carried the cause for the next 40 years.
But today would be a new day. Because his travel to Warsaw was last minute, Romek told me he could not get a pass for the Mass in Victory Square. From four blocks away, straining to hear the Pope’s homily, he was riveted by every word. Chills were going down his spine he told me, half from fear and half from excitement. The loudspeakers were echoing: "One cannot understand himself without Christ," the pope said. "One cannot understand the history of the Polish nation or this city of Warsaw which would be abandoned by its allies in an unequal battle that would leave it in rubble. Christ too lay beneath that rubble!"
Romek cried when his father died. Forty years later, he was again in Warsaw crying, not tears of grief, but of hope. Standing alone by a street light, unable to see the pope, barely able to hear, the last of John Paul's homily, he said, seemed to echo from a great depth and engrave itself on his memory: "May Your Spirit descend on us! May Your Spirit descend on us! And renew the face of the earth. This earth! Amen!
Romek Spasowski fought for the liberation of humankind by means of the socialist principles learned at his father’s knee. The biography I have quoted from is called the Liberation of One--a direct counterpoint to his father’s famous communist manifesto, The Liberation of Man. Romek personally discovered that full human liberation comes from another source--The Spirit working in individual human hearts, not ideologies enforced by the state. The Polish people gathered in Victory Square in June of 1981 were challenged not to be afraid but to believe that their greatest cultural achievements of the last 1000 years were directly connected to their faith. They would finally stand united, firm in faith, against the threats of Jaruzelski’s puppet government controlled by Moscow.
For the past 20 years, John Paul II has been travelling the world bringing the message that Christianity is not a threat to culture but its catalyst, its way to fullness. In his 1990 Apostolic Constitution he pleas for the culture of the Catholic university to be fully open to the Spirit. A Mass of the Holy Spirit, then, is a momentous event. Far from being an empty ritual, it is a call to each of us--student, faculty or staff, administrator and board member—to stand open to the power of the Spirit, to live in the freedom of the Spirit as the ground of our identity, individual and corporate.
As individuals and as a university community, we want to accomplish great things. This is a noble aspiration firmly grounded in what Ignatius taught his followers. It is called the "greater good." We remember that our Ignatian heritage calls us not just to the good Gonzaga is capable of accomplishing, but the greater good; one common good. And for a Catholic-Jesuit institution that greater common good is a living faith that gives birth to justice.
A living, energetic, dynamic faith is the spark that is needed to make our educational structures serve justice. The 1974 Congregation of the Society of Jesus put it most succinctly with the words of Ignatius when they wrote that in carrying out the mission of justice, we should be convinced, today, more than ever, that "the means which unite the human instrument with God and so dispose it to be wielded dexterously by His divine hand, are more effective than those which equip it in relation to other people." In other words, to add a new phrase to the bumper sticker; "If you want Peace, work for Justice:" "If you want Peace and Justice, help people open themselves to the power of God's Spirit working in their lives." Nothing new here. Jesus said it better in the Gospel: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength. And your neighbor as yourself." Jesus wants us to be captured by Love in a relationship that transforms affect, intellect and will, so that gospel justice can flourish on this earth.
And even with the collapse of eastern totalitarianism, we still have a long way to go. For anyone with eyes to see knows injustice is not limited to the former eastern block countries. In many respects, the challenges we face to transform our American culture are just as formidable as those faced by Spasowski and the Polish people who stood in Victory Square in June of 1981. Our Catholic university culture is as tautly woven into the American culture as Spasowski's life was into the People's Poland. In fact, it might even be more difficult for us Westerners to see the challenges we face because of our freedoms.
A Jesuit friend's mother who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp told her children as they were growing up that she felt sorry for them. Even with all the suffering she endured, she had it easier than her children. In her world, she could tell the difference between good and evil. For them, living in America at the end of this century, it was impossible to discern clearly right from wrong. Truth no longer seems to exist.
The loss of a sense of truth is a manifestation of a culture untethered from faith. For many of our contemporaries, as the Jesuits in their 1974 General Congregation wrote, "dazzled and even dominated by the achievements of the human mind, forgetting or rejecting the mystery of man’s ultimate meaning, have thus lost the sense of God." And as our century has shown us so well, a loss of a sense of God and ultimate goodness---the common good---inevitably leads to injustice.
Bernard Lonergan in his Method in Theology, calls injustice social corruption and decline and is aware that such decline inflicts cultures with conflicting ideologies that cripple authentic human progress. Decline or injustice begins in the disordered desire for pure material gain and power but soon leaches into the mass media, the "stylish journals, literary movements, the educational process, and the reigning philosophies." Like John Paul II and the Jesuits in 1974, Lonergan knows that fundamental liberation results from neither coercion, propaganda nor intellectual argument, but from religious faith. It is religious faith that liberates human reasonableness from ideological prisons says Lonergan. For only the Spirit can bring unity in the face of conflicting ideologies and the kinds of injustice and decline that pervert human cultures.
The Jesuit university must, as the 1995 General Congregation insisted, have Jesuits and others committed to the search "for the fullness of truth." The Congregation’s fathers assure us that "despite occasional appearances to the contrary, the truth we seek will ultimately be one. That truth, rooted as it is in God, will make us free." (GC 34 # 415)
Openness to the spirit will bring each of us to a new level of faith, truth, freedom, and peace. But a willing embrace of the freedom the Spirit of God offers is something we cannot take for granted. As Dostoyevsky reminds us, when given the choice between freedom and bread--i.e., between authentic human living and the comfort of what we know, people all too often choose the bread of comfort. And to further complicate the situation, Christ reminds us in today's Gospel that when we do follow him---He who is Way, Truth, and Life---we may also encounter the resistance of the world as well.
But we are challenged anew today not to fear living under the Spirit of God. We are promised that it is the way to freedom and eternal life. In their openness to that calling down of the Spirit, the people of Poland were transformed individually and as a people. Solidarity ultimately triumphed and culture was transformed.
Thomas Cahill, in the final pages of his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, surveys our modern culture and sees in it many of the characteristic traits that led the Roman Empire to collapse so swiftly some fifteen hundred yeas ago. The percentage of underclass in the world increases daily. The gap between rich and poor has never been wider. And the cultures of the developed world become more socially fragmented and filled with ennui even as wealth piles up.
But in times of great cultural stress, the most desperate of times, the gifts of the Spirit will be more abundant than ever the reading from Joel reminds us.
Cahill, too, is hopeful. He says that the world always seems to be divided into Romans and Catholics. The Romans are the ones who believe in technology, wealth and/or power, as the way to salvation. And the catholics, with a small "c", the universalists, are the ones who, seeking first the Kingdom, put faith in God not things. It is these alone who can see the face of God in all people. If our civilization is to be saved, he says, it will happen not by Romans, but by saints.
This means that saving hope for the future may not be germinating in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley, Wall Street or London, but in a house for the dying in a back street of Calcutta begun by an Albanian peasant nun. It can also mean that the brightest future of a higher education, Catholic or other, i.e. education that positively advances human culture and gospel values, may not be at Stanford, MIT, or Cambridge England, but in small colleges like Gonzaga who are open to faith for a new direction and mission. We mustn't forget we are named after a young Italian, Aloysius Gonzaga, who himself, for love of Christ, gave up vast wealth and power to serve the dying poor in the streets of Rome.
Romuld Spasowski ends his biography this way: "The greatest day of my life came on April 9, 1985, when I was received into the Church at the age of sixty-four. As I was baptized…I asked myself whether I deserved the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation with Him who liberated man's greatest hope. In joining myself to Christ, I felt at last one with Poland's martyred people."
Let each of us today join ourselves to the Spirit of God so that our individual lives and our corporate efforts give birth to a faith that can bring hope, peace and justice to the suffering of our world. The promise is indeed great. There is a role for each of us to play, no matter our Christian background or faith tradition, for there are many gifts animated by the One Spirit of God to serve this one common good. It is a choice we each need to make. Faith is a relationship of love. Love cannot be mandated. At the crucifixion, the Father forever turns away from coercion as a strategy to bring peace. Love can only be freely accepted and offered. And through a miracle of grace Christ today again freely gives us himself. His Sacrifice of Redemptive Love is made truly present to us in this Eucharist so we are strengthened for the journey.
Let us therefore, choose to live our lives, individually and corporately under the power of the Spirit of God. Let us say yes to the invitation of Love and bind ourselves today to the Spirit of God as servants of Christ's mission. As a sign of our solidarity on this mission, let us together pray to the Holy Spirit with the prayer printed in our program:
Come Holy Spirit, Renew the Hearts of your Faithful
Enkindle within us the Fire of Divine Love
Send Forth your Spirit and we shall be recreated
And you will renew the face of the earth.
"May Your Spirit descend on us! May Your Spirit descend on us! And renew the face of the earth. This earth! Amen!