At the end of the nineteenth century, an Italian nun Blessed Elena Guerra founded the Oblate Sisters of the Holy Spirit in Lucca, Italy. It was she who wrote a series of twelve letters to Pope Leo XIII between 1895 and 1903 urging him to rediscover the Holy Spirit and lead the Church back to the Upper Room. She sought a permanent Pentecost acclaiming that ‘Pentecost is not over. In fact it is continually going on in every time and every place … we only have to dispose ourselves like them [the apostles] to receive him’.[i] On January 1st 1901 the Pope acceded to this request, encouraging every Catholic Church to prepare for Pentecost by praying a novena.
Pope Leo XIII did so in his apostolic letter Provida Matris Caritate which called for a sacred novena between the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost for the specific intention of reuniting the Christian church. His Holiness issued an encyclical on the Holy Spirit in 1897 entitled Divinum Illud Munus, in which he repeated this call and extended it to one for a perpetual novena, thereby emphasising the need for the Holy Spirit to intervene in the life of the Catholic Church
Pope John XXIII, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council in 1959 prayed:
Renew Your wonders this day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen.[ii]
Whilst the Curia prepared an agenda for a short Council of just two weeks, the Holy Spirit clearly intervened and the work was continued by Pope Paul VI. It was no coincidence that he took the name Paul as he wanted to follow in the great Apostle’s footsteps in proclaiming Jesus Christ to the world. As a great Marian devotee, he also called Mary ‘Mother of the Church’ during the Second Vatican Council.
He was succeeded by John Paul I who reigned for only 33 days but during that short time, he did much to modernize the papacy being the first to use ‘I’ rather than ‘We’ and insisted on an investiture rather than a formal coronation. Whilst few of us had any idea of what was happening, he was clearly setting the tone for the next and future popes.
John Paul II reached out to many during his reign, travelling widely and he was popular among the young. He also significantly improved the Catholic Church’s relations with Judaism, Islam, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion and it was in his time that the faithful were told what they needed to do to evangelise and that we had to start ‘afresh from Christ’.
His successor Pope Benedict XVI explained how to evangelise – there needed to be a return to traditional Christian values and he tried to become closer to the people by, for example, using an open-topped car. He also began downsizing the Roman curia and encouraged Catholics, using the words of John Paul II to “Open wide the doors to Christ.
When Pope Benedict decided to stand down, many wondered what sort of a man would replace him and what would the new Pope do. Leo XIII and John XXIII had called upon the Holy Spirit to act; Pope Paul VI brought proclaimed Mary as ‘Mother of the Church; Pope John Paul I laid the foundations for change; John Paul II told us what we should do, and Benedict XVI how we should do it!
Pope Francis I has taken the next step, in effect through his own acts of humility and his teachings, he is now telling us to get on and do it. Now is the time to leave the comfort of our communities and go out and proclaim the Good News to the poor. Now is the time for the revival of the Catholic Church in the West and beyond. So what are we waiting for?
[i] Kim Kollins, At the turn of the 20th century: A Catholic Perspective, (2001), online at http://www.burningbushinitiative.com/english/history.htm (accessed 27April 2010).
[ii] Patti G. Mansfield, As by a New Pentecost, (Stonyhurst: PROCLAIM! Publications, 1992), p. 4.