SIST Pentecost 2010

Being docile to the Holy Spirit

Rev. Fr. Dr. Bede Ukwuije, C.S.Sp.


The Temptation of Immediacy

In Acts 2: 1-13, Luke tells the story of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles in a spectacular way. The disciples were in one room when suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were sitting; and something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire, these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them. They were filled with the Holy Spirit…..

This has led many people to think that the manifestation or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is always spectacular, sudden, and mechanical. In some prayer groups, people command the Holy Spirit to come down and possess them, operate a spectacular healing, or even destroy enemies. Some pastors and even well meaning Catholics think that the Holy Spirit is a master of improvisation. You did not prepare your speech, all of a sudden, you invoke the Holy Spirit and he puts words in your mouth and before you know it, you have mesmerized your audience. It is the same thing as the neo-paganism that is eating into our society. A student who did not study bought a magic pen for the examination, the pen that remembers every thing. Imagine a pen remembering something that was not programmed in its memory. It is the same with a team of unprepared footballers who put charms in their pockets to enable them win a match. When young people see the players of Chelsea and Manchester United display in the field, they think that they are using charms. They do not know that it is labour.


The Spirit Works Through A Process Of Mediation

The Second Vatican Council Says that the Church was born on the day of Pentecost, but it did not fail to underline that the Holy Spirit works through a process of slow or gradual germination, otherwise known as mediation[1]. You cannot understand the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles if you do not measure the time it took the risen Lord to catechize his disciples, telling them about the characters of the Holy Spirit, how to recognize him; how to dispose themselves to welcome him; encouraging them to trust in the promise of the Lord. The disciples did exactly what Jesus told them (Acts 1:12-26). They gathered themselves in the Upper room, constantly praying, reading the Bible, and holding community meetings, discerning together the will of God, structuring ministries and apostolate in the community (the election of Mathias). They were disposed to welcome the Holy Spirit. What the Holy Spirit did was to liberate and perfect the capacities they had in them. The Spirit opened avenues for their labour to shine out.


The Holy Spirit cannot anoint you or move you if you do not have the grammar to interpret the presence of the Holy Spirit. There was the case of people at Ephesus who were already baptized but they did not receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-8). Paul asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers? They answered, “We were not even told that there was such a thing as the Holy Spirit”. Not that the spirit was not present but they simply did not have the grammar to interpret his presence. Paul had to catechize them and lay hands on them. They were then guided by the Spirit. When the Spirit comes he perfects the human capacity and makes us perform infinitely more than we could have done alone.


The Spirit Banishes Fear

The first thing the Spirit does is to banish fear. The disciples came out from their small Upper room and started preaching boldly, ready to die for the gospel. By freeing us from fear, the Spirit heals our memory and helps us to discover who we are: Children of God. In Rom 8:14-17 Paul writes: “Those who are led by the Spirit are God’s sons; the Spirit you have received is not, as of old a spirit of slavery to govern you by fear, it is the spirit of adoption, which makes us cry out Abba, Father. The Spirit himself thus assures our spirit that we are Children of God; and if we are his children, then we are his heirs too; heirs of God, sharing the inheritance of Christ; only we must share his suffering, if we are to share his glory”. The Spirit sets us free from all that prevents us from being ourselves[2]. He prevents us from hiding ourselves in our comfort zones fearing that we will die if we say the truth. The Spirit prevents us from yielding to the relativism and nihilism of the present.


Somebody who has won the admiration of a multitude of Nigerians and who recently helped to save Nigeria from an irredeemable chaos is Prof. Dora Akunyili, the Minister of Information and Communication. We all know what happened. Nigeria was at the bank of river chaos; the President was sick, nobody knew where he was; nothing was moving; there were rumors of coup attempts; many government officials were plotting to save their jobs and their contracts. Everyday Dora was forced go to the television and rebrand Nigeria. Part of that rebranding was to announce that the president was doing well, that he was responding to treatment and that he would soon come back; moreover, that he extended his greetings to Nigerians. It was clear to her that she was being forced to lie to the nation and that this type of propaganda does not correspond to her principles and her Christian life. After sometime, she broke down, tired; she lost appetite, she could no longer sleep. First of all, she thought she was sick. She confided in her husband, a renowned professor of medicine. He took her through series of medical tests. She had no malaria, no typhoid, no hepatitis, nothing. Then she went into prayer. It became clear to her that she was being governed by fear; fear of losing her job, fear of death. This fear was dragging her to a more deadly death that is, consciously acting against her conscience. She remembered how God helped her to win the fight against fake drugs when she was the Director of NAFDAC. Then she resolved to speak out. She confided in some of her close associates; they told her the implications of saying the truth and she responded: if I die I die. Then on that blessed day, after praying, she typed her memorandum and went straight to the meeting of the Federal Executive Council. When she raised her hand to speak, her colleagues thought that she wanted to make an announcement, but to their greatest surprise, she read a memo: We have to arise to our responsibility and ask the Senate to swear in the Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan as Acting President, so as to save the nation from Chaos. “A goat does not get strangulated by the rope used in tying it when an adult is present”. We are all in a better position to know that the polity is overheated to a frightening level. Posterity will judge us harshly if we do not positively intervene to resolve this logjam….If we fail to act now, history will not forgive us”.


There was confusion in the Federal Executive Council. However, the following day, all the media in Nigeria echoed: Thank you Dora. Thank you for doing what men were afraid to do. Two days later, Goodluck Jonathan was proclaimed Acting President, and the whole nation heaved a sigh of relief. Dora will live long in the name of Jesus. It is fear that prevents you from speaking out against bribery and corruption in your office. It is fear that prevents road users and bus drivers from protesting against the useless police checkpoints on the road and the extortion of money from innocent citizens. 


The Spirit of God sets us free from that fear that prevents us from being ourselves. The process of this liberation is not easy. It is like fire, melting the frozen and warming the chilled. It is painful; Paul compares it to the labor a woman experiences at child birth. He says also that it is the case of the whole creation. In Rom 8, 22-27, Paul writes: “From the beginning till now, the entire creation as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free….The spirit too comes to help us in our weakness. The Spirit intercedes for us as the whole creation is groaning in travail.


The Spirit Creates A Community Of Differences

The next thing the spirit does is that he banishes discriminations and creates a community. At Pentecost, the Spirit realized a communion of cultures and languages. In Acts 2, 2-11, each person could speak in his/her own language and at the same time could be understood by the other. Differences are recognized, but all are moved by the same Spirit of love and communion. This is the opposite of the experience of Babel (Gn 11, 1-9) when men wanted to subsume all differences under one language. God decided to create confusion among them by scattering them.


At Pentecost, the universal brotherhood of peoples is recognized, unity in diversity is confirmed. Discrimination is banished. This conviction will be defended by Peter in Acts 10:34-35 at the House of the Gentile, Cornelius. “The truth I have come to realize…is that God does not have favorites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him”.


Unfortunately, this equality of all before God realized by the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ is most often forgotten among us. Most of us are what Archbishop Obinna of Owerri calls Geogamists that is married to their land, attached to their land. A geo-gamous marriage produces geofiliation, sons of the soil. That is why some people in some Igbo traditions claim that they are diala(sons of the soil, or literally husband of the land) while others are osu or umeh(slaves or outcasts). You could be Christians, Catholics in the same church, sharing the kiss of peace, receiving communion together, but when you want to marry each other, they tell you that it is not possible because one is osu and the other one is diala. Go for a job in the Niger Delta, they will tell you that you are not son of the soil.  A pregnant woman can board a flight now, arrive any part of the USA, deliver tomorrow morning and her child becomes automatically an American; through the child the woman will become American. Go to Jos and try to settle, they will tell you that you are not a citizen.


The Spirit creates the harmony of cultures and origins. Men and women led by the Spirit should work for the reconciliation of peoples and nations; they should work for the banishment of all discriminations among children of God. They should move from Geofiliation to theofiliation. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, what attracted Nwoye, the son of Okonkwo to the new Christian community was not the long discuss of the missionary on the Trinity which he could not understand, but the fact that this community was proposing an alternative society. It was marvelous and unheard off that a young boy like him, condemned by his father, would seat in the same church with some Ichies and Nzes of the community, together with women and children. Anybody could raise his or her hand and answer questions on the catechism; all of them were learning English together. Above all, they sang very melodious hymns, that all have one father in heaven who loves them equally and that all are brothers and sisters.


When Claude Poullart des Places dedicated his New Congregation to the Holy Spirit, on Pentecost day 1705, he wanted a community that would bear witness to our universal fraternity in Christ[3]. That was why he decided that the Spiritans should live in community. The rule of that community will be simplicity, hospitality beyond frontiers. Among them, there will be no discrimination of origin or degree. The students were to go for very rigorous studies of philosophy and theology, but they will not take the degrees. This was supposed to help them to remain humble and close to the poor. Almost one hundred years later, Francis Mary Paul Libermann who restored the Holy Ghost Congregation insisted, that the Spiritans will be distinguished by their simplicity and kenosis, self-donation according to the style of our Lord Jesus Christ who though he was God emptied himself and assumed the human condition even unto death (Ph 2:6-11). That was why he wrote to the Community of Dakar in 1848: “Make yourselves all things to all men”[4].


Being Docile To The Holy Spirit

Finally, what shall we do? We have to dispose ourselves to be possessed by the Holy Spirit, so that he may use us. We have to allow the Spirit of the living God to melt us, mould us, move us, and use us. This is what we call technically docility to the Holy Spirit. A counter example of docility to the Holy Spirit is Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart. He was very rigid; he thought that life was a one way traffic. The word “love” does not exist in his vocabulary; the only thing he knows of is “as it was in the beginning so shall it be”. He is not a man of many words, so no dialogue. He aimed the gun at his wife because she spoke when she was supposed to be silent. He closed his eyes and slaughtered the slave boy Ikemefuna who took him as his father despite the warning of his friend Obierika. When he came back from 7 years exile, he did not notice that the society has changed, he continued from where he stopped. It was when he slaughtered a kotima, and his people did not support him, that it dawned on him that he was already outdated. The only end for him was suicide, but he was already dead long time before then.


Being docile to the Holy Spirit is making oneself available, creating space in one’s life for more life. Our Co-founder, Francis Mary Paul Libermann uses several images to describe this spiritual reality. When an Architect is building a house, he leaves space in between the woods or irons of the roof for the possibility of expansion, so that the house remains standing while obeying the natural law of expansion. The same thing obtains with leaving a space in between irons on a bridge. I noticed the same principle on the mighty towers in the big cities in Europe and America; when you are on the last floor, you notice that the tower moves very slightly according to the direction of the wind. This helps it to resist wind and earthquake. I enquired about the Tour Monparnasse in Paris with its 59 floors. I was told that the tower is resting on a hydraulic cushion 70 meters underground. This helps it to articulate solidity and flexibility.


These images help us to understand docility to the Holy Spirit. It is not a given. It has to be acquired through prayer, reading the scriptures and humility. It has to be acquired through practice and labor such that it becomes a reflex, habitus as Thomas Aquinas would call it. That is what Paul means when he talks of becoming spiritual beings. However, it cannot be possessed once and for all; it requires constant vigilance and renewal. As Gregory of Nyssa would say, it is a journey “de commencement on commencement vers des commencements qui non jamais de fin” from beginning to beginning, towards beginnings which have no end” until we rest in the Lord.


Come O Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of the faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love”.   


[1]Lumen Gentium, p. 4. See also John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Dominum et Vivificantem, 1986, no 25-28.

[2]Bede Ukwuije, Memory of Self-Donation, Meeting the Challenges of Mission, Lagos, Change Publications, 2009, pp.95-98.

[3]Cf. Emile Jacquot and Raymond Jung, A Short History and Spirituality of Claude-Francois Poullart des Places, Founder, Congregation of the Holy Spirit, Translated from French by Fr. Augustine Onyeneke, Holy Ghost Provincialate, Abujam 2009.

[4]Alphonse Gilbert, A Message of Francis Libermann for Our Time. You Have Laid Your Hand on Me, Spiritan Press, Bethel Park, USA, p. 97.


                 “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus”: The Joy of Advent

                               © Rev. Fr. Dr. Bede Ukwuije, C.S.Sp.

Advent is a time of joyful expectation of the coming of the Lord. It helps us to renew our hope in God who comes to save us. This reality is expressed in this joyful song “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus”.
It is from the 6th-7th centuries A D that advent became a liturgical institution. It is a Romano-Christian inculturation of a practice of the Gauls of Spain that dates back to the 4th century centred on a sort of ascetic preparation for the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany. Since this christianization, attention is centred on the intensive liturgical preparation for the solemnity of Christmas, the celebration of the coming of the Lord. Gradually, Advent became a time of joyful expectation of the nativity of the Lord and also the anticipation of the glorious return of the Lord at the end of time, otherwise known as parousia.


With this development, the church retrieved the meaning of the word adventus, which was already used in the ancient writings, especially the Vulgate to express the coming of Christ among us both in flesh, which inaugurates the messianic time and in glory which will accomplish the redemption of time. In his Catecheses, St Cyril of Jerusalem uses interesting images to describe the twofold coming of Jesus Christ: “In his first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger. In his second coming he is clothed with light as with a garment. In his first coming he bore the cross, despising its shame; he will come a second time in glory accompanied by the hosts of angels”.


The organisation of the liturgy of Advent demonstrates the joyful expectation of the coming of the Lord. The prophetic texts that are read are inspired by the hope in the coming of the Messiah who will wipe out the tears of the people of God and set them free from oppression. Prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist are like the town criers echoing this joyful hope. Other prophets, like Jeremiah, Baruch and Zephaniah add their own voices also. In the communion antiphon of Second Sunday of Advent, the prophet Baruch calls on Jerusalem: “Rise up, Jerusalem, stand on the heights, and see the joy that is coming to you from God”(Baruch 5,5; 4,36)


The four weeks of Advent are divided into two stages. The first stage from 1-16 December recalls the twofold coming of Christ. The second from 17-24 December celebrates Christ himself. These two stages underline the fact that God’s promises to his people, announced by the prophets, are accomplished in Christ. The readings insist on the coming of Christ which will be a day of salvation for all peoples, a day of joy for all those who have waited in hope. If the Gloria is suppressed during this period, it is not for us to fall into sadness but it is in order that we may rediscover it at Christmas in the mouths of the angels of God.


How can we celebrate this joyful waiting of the coming of the Lord in a confused world? I cannot take the leisure to enumerate all the problems men and women experience in Nigeria today. Many people are discouraged by the culture of violence and the increasing number of deaths in our various families and cities. Many are not sure of their next meal not to talk of having access to medical care. Unemployment and juvenile delinquencies have become part of daily life. Robbers have graduated to kidnappers. Take time and count the number of mad people in the streets and along the highways. These situations are generated by the hardships in the society. Politicians claim that the cause of our woes is economic melt down, but is will be irresponsible to explain away a reality that has diminished the possibilities of good living for years in this part of the globe.


We are called to be heralds of hope. The greatest service that Christians can render to our society is to repeat in season and out of season that life is possible even when everything seems to go wrong. Christians cannot take part in the ongoing collective depression. In the footsteps of Isaiah and John the Baptist we must rebuild hope in the minds and hearts of people. We must invite our contemporaries to contemplate the actions of God in the salvation history; how God makes life spring up in the desert of hopelessness. This of course goes together with a radical transformation of our ways of life, which the Gospel calls repentance.


Christian hope grounded in the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ attests that our future depends on God. Our history is woven by the gift of God welcomed and celebrated in faith. Christian hope is solidly anchored on the certainty that God never ceases to make all things new (Apocalypse 21, 1-7). He did it in the life of his Son, Jesus Christ; he does it today and will do it tomorrow. What is required from us is to allow ourselves to be mobilised by God.

As we shout the joyful song, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus”, we need to ask ourselves these questions: are we open to welcome the new things God does in our lives? Are we ready to allow God to renew the world in Jesus Christ, our future? Are we ready to make ourselves available so that God may use us to transmit his surprises to our society? Our response to these questions will determine the possibility of our being heralds of hope in the deserts of the human family held hostage by violence and despair. Our response to these questions will determine our capacity to welcome the God of life who comes in the daily events of our life.


A Word about Vocations to the Priesthood in Nigeria (or Africa)

The Church in different parts of the world is going through a difficult time today particularly as it concerns vocation to the priesthood. In many places, people are beginning to wonder if there is going to be Eucharistic celebrations in the next generation. This is because, even now, some Christian communities can no longer find priests for regular Masses.

Since people began to see signs of this shortage of priestly vocation, fervent prayers have continuously been offered to the Lord of the harvest asking him to send more labourers to the plentiful harvest.

What is happening in Africa today particularly in Nigeria tells me that the Lord is answering our prayers perhaps in a way that we did not expect. There are so many men with promising future who are responding to the call to become priests and even missionary priests for that matter.

In the Spiritan Province of Nigeria, to which I belong, there are over eight hundred (800) applications every year of people who want to become priests. We are just one out of many other religious orders in the country. These do not include the vocations in the fifty dioceses in Nigeria that send their candidates to the various major seminaries spread across the country. Some of these young men who apply to become priests hold professional degrees from renowned universities in the nation. How could one explain this except that it is the Lord?s doing?

Sometimes we find voices which attribute this teeming vocation in parts of Africa to the economic hardship prevalent in the continent. It is said that priesthood offers people the security of their daily bread and even affords them the opportunity of becoming like chiefs in their clans.

If this is the case, we still have reasons to thank God who can turn the situation of bad economy into blessings of abundant labourers for the harvest. However, I know places where economic misery has not been able to generate vocations as it is claimed to be the case in Africa.

Besides, I am one of those who believe that the authenticity of a vocation does not depend on how it was started, the initial intention or motivation. If this were the case, then I would say that none of the apostles of Jesus had an authentic vocation. Each of them followed Jesus because of an anticipated material gain.
Jesus was not bordered by their initial intentions. Through the process of formation given to them by Jesus which culminated in the eventual descent of the Holy Spirit on them, those self-seeking men of Galilee abandoned their initial aspirations and took up the mission of Jesus. Thus, I believe that the onus is on the Church and its systems of training future priests today to produce the best out of the many people that the Lord is sending to her through Africa.

It would be nice if every Christian begins to see the vocations coming from Africa (and of course from other places like Asia) as a blessing meant for the universal Church. Sometimes in the past such blessings came from Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and France. Today, the Lord is doing it from Africa.

Thus, in order to match quality with quantity, so much has to be done in terms of training or formation of future priests. Everybody needs to get involved in different ways to make this blessing a blessing indeed.

As we rejoice and thank the Lord for answering our prayers for more labourers, let us join hands together to make out the best from this for the good of the Church and humanity.  

In the meantime, the challenges facing the Church with regard to the overwhelming growth of vocations in Africa are enormous. For us Spiritans in Nigeria, for example, we do not have adequate accommodations, classrooms, water, electricity supply and formators to accompany the seminarians in training. The assistance we get from our General headquarters in Rome cannot go so far. We get some support locally from benefactors and benefactresses. Yet, sometimes, we have found ourselves having to close down the seminary or go on vacation earlier than planned because we did not have enough resources to keep the seminary running.
How Can We Help the Seminary?
There are many ways you can get involved or help to boost vocations:
  • First is through prayer. Daily prayers and Masses for the seminarians and for the priests training them would be highly appreciated.
  • Second, you can adopt a seminarian or make contributions for their training. It will be a good idea if you can singly or together with others offer the world the gift of a priest in your life time. How else would the will of God for more labourers be fulfilled except in this way? It takes about N300,000.00 or US$3000.00 to train a seminarian in a year.
  • Third, one can help to train somebody who would become a trainer of priests. More priests are needed in the seminary and they need specialized training in order to fulfill this role effectively. Would you like to contribute to the training of such priest-trainers?
  • Fourth, you can us to put some basic infrastructure in place in the seminary such as a school bus, a kitchen, a hostels, computers or photocopiers.   
  • Fifth, your diocese, parish or association can adopt a seminary like ours in Africa. In that way you should share more closely in the life and formation of future priests and missionaries.  
  • In all, the formation of priests remains a very serious challenge for the Church today. A lot of praying has to be combined with hard work to see that we give the world good and holy priests. This is what we do at SIST. Why not join us in doing this?
© Rev Fr Bona Ikenna Ugwu, CSSp.


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