Why is the world not on fire?

"La Pentecôte" (The Pentecost) by Jean II Restout

“La Pentecôte” (The Pentecost) by Jean II Restout


A few years ago, I was faced with the task of teaching about the sacrament of Confirmation and the Holy Spirit to a large group of catechists.  It was daunting task.  My own Confirmation had been fifteen years earlier, and I honestly didn’t remember much of the preparation, although I know it was probably better than most.  I don’t remember at the time having a good idea of just what the sacrament was, although I’m sure I attributed it (incorrectly) with the idea of becoming an adult in the Church.

Now I was expected to teach about the sacrament to catechists who knew as well as I did that Church attendance and involvement plummeted after Confirmation.  I wanted to give them answers as to why this happened.  I wanted to give them ideas about keeping their students engaged in the life of the Church.  I wanted to solve one of the biggest issues facing catechists today.

But I couldn’t ignore the fact that not only did I not have those answers, I also didn’t have a very good understanding of the person of the Holy Spirit.  I turned to Dr. Alan Schreck for help.  In his book Your Life in the Holy Spirit: What Every Catholic Needs to Know and Experience, he points out that the Holy Spirit seems mysterious and unimportant to many Catholics.  We believe he exists, we believe he’s the third Person of the Trinity, but we don’t really think about him very often.

Our ideas of the Holy Spirit are muddled with images of doves and fire – both biblical and good, but harder for us to wrap our minds around than the human nature of Jesus Christ.  If we don’t have an understanding of and a relationship with the Holy Spirit, how are we even going to begin to pass anything on to our children or students?  Schreck’s book helped me understand better who the Holy Spirit is and his role in my salvation and the evangelization of the world.

In preparing to teach the catechists, I realized my own understanding of the sacrament of Confirmation had been entirely flipped and incorrect.  The sacrament had very little to do with me becoming an adult in the Church and much more about the Holy Spirit anointing me as a witness, regardless of my biological age.  It was not about how many service hours I completed or how well I proved my knowledge of the catechism.  And it was certainly not about me confirming anything. 

It was all about the Holy Spirit confirming me.  The sacrament was nothing I had done, but something I had received.  It wasn’t about work I had accomplished, but about the work He wanted to do through me.  He was sending me out to be his witness, just as he sent the Apostles out of that upper room to convert the world.  In Schreck’s book he quotes Dr. Peter Kreeft, who questions, “Why did twelve fishermen convert the world, and why are half a billion Christians unable to repeat the feat?”

He proceeds to answer the question: we are not allowing the Spirit to work through us.  “The Spirit makes the difference,” Kreeft declares.  We receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and in Confirmation, but are we truly open to allowing him to work in us?  Are we praying to receive him and his gifts?  Are we living his gifts so that we can receive his fruits?  Are we putting ourselves out there to be used as vulnerable instruments?

Sure, we can wring our hands as we watch the young people leave the Church in droves after Confirmation. We can wonder what we did wrong, how we could prepare them better, how we could convince them more.  We can ask the Holy Spirit to give them the fervor they need to be his witnesses in the world. But are we asking for that same fervor for ourselves?  

Are we burning with the fire of the Holy Spirit?  It’s dangerous, but there’s a world waiting for it.

Paul VI reminded us that the world will only find answers if we are open to giving them.  “May the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News … from ministers of the gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.”  (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 80)

Are we willing to risk our lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed?!  We are called to be his witnesses in the midst of the world.  Not just inside the walls of the church sanctuary. Not just within the confines of a classroom.  We are called to be his witness to the ends of the earth – and that means in our workplaces, in our homes, and in the public square.  We must “glow with fervor” in those places. That means having the courage to speak the truth even when it’s uncomfortable, to reject societal norms when they’re immoral or unChristian, or to be willing to be labeled “Catholic” because we’re clearly living differently.

It’s easier to go with the flow, to not make waves, to not stick out in a crowd.  But that doesn’t win souls. And it certainly doesn’t change the world.

The fire of the Holy Spirit has descended on upon us.  But if it stops there, it burns out.  We must be his instruments, his witnesses, spreading the flame of the Spirit in our homes and communities.  You may say to yourself, “I don’t have a wide sphere of influence.  I can’t have a great impact.”  But lots of small fires, set throughout a town or a community, will eventually join together and spread.  Set even a small fire today.  Allow the Holy Spirit to use you where you are. And we will change the world.

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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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