on the occasion of the visit of His Beatitude Mar Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, and Head of the Maronite Church
at St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham
on Friday 13th January 2023
Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-46
The Gift of the Holy Spirit
As Peter reached the house, Cornelius went out to meet him, knelt at his feet and prostrated himself. But Peter helped him up. ‘Stand up,’ he said ‘I am only a man after all!’ …
Then Peter addressed them: ‘The truth I have now come to realise’ he said ‘is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.’…
While Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit came down on all the listeners. Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter were all astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit should be poured out on [these non-Jews], since they could hear them speaking strange languages and proclaiming the greatness of God.
His Eminence Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, M.Afr., OBE
It is an honour for me to have been invited to propose a reflection on the text of Scripture that we have just heard. I wish first of all to express my gratitude to Archbishop Bernard Longley who has brought us all together, in union with his Beatitude Cardinal Bechara Rai, Patriarch of Antioch, Head of the Maronite Church.
With them we raise our voices in praise to the One Almighty and Merciful God who alone deserves our praises.
I wish to offer two reflections on the passage that we have just heard. The first person mentioned in the text is Peter, a fisherman from Galilee who had become a disciple of Jesus and whom Jesus had appointed as the head of the group of Apostles that he had chosen. Peter has been called to meet Cornelius, a centurion, an important officer in the Roman army of occupation. Despite his high position, Cornelius falls down at the feet of Peter. But Peter will have none of this. He says to Cornelius: “Stand up. I am only a man after all.”
I am sure that we all approve of Peter’s reaction. After all we are all members of the human family and as such we are equal in dignity. If we believe in God as our Creator, our faith leads us “to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved…. Believers are called to express this fraternity by safeguarding creation and the entire universe and supporting all persons, especially the poorest and those most in need” (Document on Human Fraternity, introduction). As Christians we have an added motive: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John, 1:14). Jesus has entered into a relationship with each member of the human race thus enhancing the dignity of each person.
Secondly, we can observe that the companions of Peter, all Jews who had become disciples of Jesus, were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on non-Jews. Fortunately, we poor human beings cannot put limits to the action of the Spirit of God. The Spirit breathes where He/She wills. In St Charbel, whom we are honouring this evening, we see the work of the Spirit in his life, and even after his death, because many marvelous things happen through his intercession.
Charbel was a Christian monk who became holy through the influence of the Holy Spirit. But I think we can see the influence of the Holy Spirit in people who are not Christians. I want to bear witness to two people, a Buddhist and a Hindu.
The first is a Buddhist monk, Etai Yamada. As the abbot of Mt Hiei, the oldest Buddhist monastery in Japan, he was invited to the International Day of Prayer for Peace that Pope John Paul II held in Assisi in October 1986. Despite his great age – he was in his late eighties – he came and he was so impressed by this gathering that he decided to organize a similar day of prayer in Japan. And every year since 1987 such a prayer has taken place at Mt Hiei during the first week of August when the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is commemorated. Like John Paul II, Etai Yamada had, again despite his age, a wonderful rapport with young people. When he spoke, you could feel the Spirit within him.
The second figure I would like to present is Usha Meta, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. I first met her at an interreligious gathering at a Peace Centre in Mumbai of which she was the Directress. A woman of diminutive size – putting one in mind of Mother Teresa – she did not speak during the prayer meeting, but stayed in the background. Nevertheless she radiated peace by her very presence. She was, some years later, invited by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to attend the Assembly it held in the Vatican to welcome the New Millennium. She was asked to speak during the closing ceremony in St Peter’s Square in the presence of Pope John Paul II and a vast crowd of people. So small, she disappeared behind the podium. During her talk she asked pardon, on behalf of all Hindus, for the assassination of Christian missionaries that had taken place in India a little while before – they had been burnt alive in their van. No one asked her to do this; she had the courage to speak out and condemn this crime. Jesus told his disciples, called to be witnesses even when faced with opposition: “Do not worry about how to speak or what to say; what you are to say will be given to you when the time comes; because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you” (Mt 10:19-20).
We are gathered here to praise God. Let us thank God for the gift of the Spirit at work in individuals, and also in peoples, in cultures and religions. Let us praise the Spirit who brings us into unity.