I was struck recently by these words in a soon to be published article by Canadian Church historian Rosa Bruno-Jofré, on an aspect of life in my own congregation, the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions – founded in Lyons, France in 1861. Rosa writes that in recent decades “the Trinitarian charism of the Congregation has become dissociated from the Tridentine interpretation which has institutionalized the projection of the Spirit”.
For many Catholic sisters whose training predated Vatican II, popes, bishops and religious superiors had something of a hotline to the Holy Spirit, allowing them to convey to less mortals what was the will of God for them.
I would like to unpack the significance of Bruno-Jofré’s comment, not for my own congregation, but for the wider Catholic community as we grapple with issues never before contemplated in a pre-Vatican II church.
Looking back, we can see that the Tridentine ecclesiology that dominated Catholic thought from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-twentieth century was one in which Mariology seemed to take precedence over pneumatology (the study of the Spirit Saint), a situation that began to change slowly but surely after Vatican II.
Today we are the grateful recipients of important developments in our Trinitarian theologies, especially in our understanding of the Holy Spirit. The importance of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowered the followers of Jesus to continue his mission, can never be underestimated for contemporary followers of Jesus, but the manner in which this feast may be celebrated may suggest that the Holy Spirit was absent before that. Wonderful day. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Virtually all translations of the opening verses of Genesis 1:2 refer to “a divine wind” (NJB), “a wind from God” (NRSV), “a mighty wind” (NAB), “the Spirit of God” (NIV), and “the Spirit of God” (GNB) that swept the waters.
What is even more significant is that “wind/spirit” in Hebrew translates to “rouah“, which is feminine. Some 300 years before our New Testament, rouah bECOMES pneumatic, a neuter word, when the Hebrew text was translated into Greek. When Saint Jerome (around 347-420) translated the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate, the spirit became spirita masculine word, so for a long time the three persons of the Trinity were all masculine.
Fortunately, more recent studies demonstrate that feminine pronouns can be used for the Holy Spirit. Translation always involves interpretation, and unfortunately translations have masculinized the three persons of the Trinity for generations of female believers.
But what I find particularly significant in recent developments in Holy Spirit theologies is the emphasis that the Holy Spirit was/is alive and active in creation and history long before the Pentecost. As Pope John Paul II taught, the Holy Spirit “appears [sic] in a special way in the Church and in its members. Nevertheless, his [sic] presence and activity are universal, limited neither by space nor by time” (my italics).
John Paul II further writes in Redemptoris Missio“The Second Vatican Council recalls that the Spirit is at work in the heart of each person, through the “seeds of the Word”, which are found in human initiatives – including religious ones – and in the efforts of man to reach the truth, the good and the God himself.”
Such a belief has always been part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but had been obscured by the emphasis on the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which somehow suggested an absence of the Spirit before that.
I remember being struck by the words of one of our sisters who belonged to the Khadia tribe in Odisha, India. She said: “My ancestors have lived in Orissa for thousands of years. I learned a lot from my grandparents and elders about respecting the Earth. I have seen and remember my grand- mother walking barefoot because of her respect for the Earth and nature. She never used shoes or slippers until shortly before her death. She used to walk long distances to meet our loved ones and for her gardening work. She told us that we are one with the earth and that we depend on each other. The earth is sacred.
Or as one of our Khasi sisters told me: “When I was little, I followed my mother into the forest to collect firewood. Along the way, she would talk to the trees to check if they were ready to be cut and trimmed. she used to feel the trunks with her hands. Then she used to say, “Oh, you’re still young, fucking lung‘ – which literally means you’re still a baby.”
Here in my own country, Aotearoa New Zealand, the Maori, the indigenous people of our land, acknowledge and recognize a spiritual presence in creation. They understood that their well-being depended on good relations with Papatūānuku, Mother Earth; with Ranginui, the Heavenly Father; with Tāne-mahuta, the god of forests and birds; with Haumia-tiketike, the god of uncultivated food; with Rongomātane, the god of cultivated plants; and with Tangaroa, the god of the sea. I remember that when I lived with Ngati Porou, and we went out to sea, we did not harvest more than what was necessary for our meal. The sea was not there to be exploited, but to support people.
It worries me to see how the oceans, forests and land are being exploited today, too often at great cost to indigenous peoples, regardless of the continent on which they live. It also worries me that 19th century missionaries so often rejected the belief of indigenous peoples in the presence of the spiritual all around them in creation.
We in the capitalist and exploitative world must listen to indigenous peoples. It is customary in Western churches to think of interreligious dialogue as something that should be read primarily with the major religions of the world, with their ancient literary traditions. Thus, interfaith dialogue evolved into scholarly conversations between scholars of different traditions as they pondered each other’s sacred texts. Oral traditions were dismissed as something less worthy of consideration.
Today, we are belatedly realizing that humanity can no longer exploit planet Earth indefinitely. Indigenous peoples are acutely aware of this, and today they are often found at the forefront of resistance to overfishing, mining, the chopping up of native trees, or the turning of forests into huge cattle ranches – for to cite just a few examples of uncontrolled exploitation.
We can learn a lot from the oral traditions of tribal peoples around the world, and fortunately scholars now recognize the importance of dialogue with tribal peoples.
A good entry point for such discussions, and hopefully solidarity with indigenous peoples in struggles against corporations, would be our recognition of the immanent presence of the Holy Spirit in creation. The 19th century English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins reminded us that “the world is charged with the greatness of God” and that “the Holy Spirit broods over the bowed world with warm breast and shining wings”.
Pentecost is a time not only to reflect on the birth of the Church, but above all to ask ourselves what the ancient prayer “Come, O Holy Spirit, and renew the face of the earth” means for us today. .