A Century of the Holy Spirit
The twentieth century has been a remarkable time in the history of the church. Today, I want to tell you a true story of a Pope’s call to respond to the Holy Spirit. Just over one hundred years ago, Pope Leo XIII was urged by a nun, Sr. Elena, to renew preaching and dedication to the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, which she felt had been sadly neglected. He responded in 1892 by asking the whole Church to celebrate a solemn novena (9 days of prayer) in preparation for the feast of Pentecost. It would seem that this was generally ignored by the bishops. Later, following more letters from Elena in similar vein, in 1897 the Pope published an Encyclical (teaching) on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Divinum Illud Munus), and again urged that the whole Church practise devotion to the Holy Spirit. Many bishops wrote and thanked him, but Sr. Elena later commented that it would have been better if they had just obeyed him!
A Pope prays for the new Century
In 1900 she again urged the pope to begin the first year of the new century by praying "Come Holy Spirit". Once again, he wrote to the bishops to dedicate the twentieth century to the Holy Spirit, and he spent the night of December 31, 1900 alone in the Vatican praying for this intention.
We now know that, within a few hours, God's first response fell on a group of Methodists in Topeka, Kansas. They, too, were praying that night to understand the events described in the Acts of the Apostles, and the Holy Spirit touched Agnes Oznam - and then the remainder of that group - with a new fire and an ability to pray in tongues. This event is generally seen as the beginning of the Pentecostal church, which has been the fastest growing arm of Christian belief in the last century.
So a Roman Catholic pope in Rome prays for the Holy Spirit to come, who falls on "Bible-bashing Methodists" in Kansas! Don't tell me that God has no sense of humour! Once we appreciate that "God has no favourites", we will learn to accept each other as He does! Even more important is that we must understand that our lack of obedience doesn't stop God from acting; He just uses another channel to fulfil His purposes. This is another reason why none of us must ever regard our own denomination as "superior".
Fifty Years On
To see a further response to Pope Leo's prayer for this century, we move forward over fifty years to the election of Pope John XXIII, in 1959. Pope John, (then seen as an elderly and compromise candidate for the papacy, who was expected to do nothing startling) dramatically called the second Vatican Council and dedicated it to the Holy Spirit. His prayer "Renew thy wonders in this our day as by a new Pentecost" on opening the council, has been answered by God through the second major reformation in the Catholic church (the first being known as the counter-reformation back in the seventeenth century.)
This last forty years has seen the renewal of the whole church, with a greater appreciation of the gifts of the Spirit and, at last, a real emphasis on the Unity in Christ of all believers. It has been accompanied by a coming together of denominations, rather than continuing schisms seen for the last thousand years.
So today all Christians celebrate a New Millennium, with God-given Hope - through which, in an uncertain age, we look forward to the certainty of the future. This year then, we can Hope, that is, expect, God to call all Christians together in the love and power of the Holy Spirit to complete Jesus’ work of evangelising and reconciling the world.
And whatever next?
Sister Elena must be rejoicing in heaven at what the Holy Spirit has already wrought through her prayer! Incidentally, she was beatified (the second stage of being recognised as a "saint") in 1959 just before that Vatican Council.
1st January 2001
This Web Page is A Millennium Story