Many will say that the very first prayer that they learned was the Hail Mary, others the Our Father and still others the Guardian Angel Prayer, but I would offer they were all introduced by the Sign of the Cross. It was our mothers or fathers, and sometimes our grandparents, who took our little fingers and brought them to the forehead, the middle of our chest and our two shoulders, acknowledging the cross and calling upon our God, the Trinity of persons, to accept and hear our prayers. We don’t think of the Sign of the Cross as a prayer, but it is. Almost all prayers are introduced by directing our prayers to God in worship. We should always be thankful for the family members that directed and inspired our prayer life.
The Sign of the Cross presents our God as a Trinity of persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and it is at the very heart of our faith. It is in the truest sense the Alpha and the Omega of our existence. We begin our Christian journey through baptism — being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — and we end our earthly journey hopefully being united to the Trinity, an interrelationship of love. Each person is distinct. They are co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial, and therefore they deserve co-equal glory and adoration.
We readily give glory to the Father, and of course the Son. We understand the relationship and incorporate them into our prayers, but there is a mystery about the Holy Spirit. Some have said the Holy Spirit is the forgotten person of the Blessed Trinity. There were theologians who reflected that we will never truly embrace the totality of our faith until we embrace the Holy Spirit into our prayer life.
We sometimes forget how essential the Holy Spirit is to the Church. A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the feast of Pentecost. This is sometimes referred to as the birth of the Church. Jesus prepared his disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the “Advocate” — one who pleads a cause or defends. It is the truth that is given to us, fulfilling the promise of Jesus. From St. John’s gospel: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” I have often said that when we forget that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, then we begin to treat the Church as a secular organization and not as divinely established. This fact was impressed upon me as a boy when I would enter my home parish and view the 64-feet high, 22-feet feet wide depiction of the Pentecost event. There was the Blessed Mother surrounded by the Apostles with the Holy Spirit depicted in the form of a dove, bestowing tongues of the fire on those in the upper room. The association of the Holy Spirit with the Church is forever embedded in my mind. There was something that happened to the Apostles on that day. They were changed, probably better “transformed.” These somewhat cowardly men suddenly received the Holy Spirit and they emerged from that room boldly proclaiming their faith in the Lord Jesus, no longer worrying about their own well-being but only the necessity to preach the “Good News.” When they did so, they were understood by all peoples, even those of different languages. The Church Fathers claim this represents a sign of the unity lost at the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament when the community wanted to reach God by the construction of a tower. God intervened, causing the peoples to have different languages, no longer able to communicate. The Holy Spirit once again unites us through the one language, which is that of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles were now preaching a universal message to the whole world.
Embodied in the Sacrament of Confirmation is the emphasis of the act of the Holy Spirit’s descent at Pentecost. It is in this sacrament that a person is sealed and confirmed in the faith. The usual age, in the Wisconsin Province, of those receiving confirmation is 16-17 years. Through their religious education, they receive presentations on the teachings of the Church, spiritual support through prayer and often a retreat or day of recollection, and the encouragement to perform charitable works of mercy. Part of their formation is the writing of letters reflecting their intention to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. At times, they will also inform him of family, school or important moments in the preparation for the sacrament. Once the sacrament is conferred, it is up to the individual to work with the grace of the sacrament and assume their role as proclaimers of Christ in their lives and the lives of others. Of course, sometimes it takes years before the effects of the sacrament are utilized and developed.
Recently, appropriately, I celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation for Adults. There are many reasons for the delay in the reception of the sacrament. For some, family mobility did not allow the individual to join and continue in a religious education program. For others, they are new members of the Catholic Church and for still others, they decided that they were not ready to receive or accept the sacrament before, but now there is a realization that this sacrament is needed for completing their own sacramental life. Remember, a sacrament is grace giving and leads us to eternal life.
I couldn’t help thinking these adults have come to the Cathedral like the Apostles waiting for the Holy Spirit, each adult having their own unique story of Christ’s action in their life. They are called to conform their life to Christ and witness him to the world. The saints whose lives we honor have all contributed to the Church in different ways, but all forming the Body of Christ with the Holy Spirit that has guided them through life. Now, these individuals will add their own stories to that of Christ, allowing others to see him through them.
As confirmed individuals, we open ourselves to the working of the Holy Spirit and permit the Holy Spirit to see the workings of Christ in the world. I know the Holy Spirit will lead us to a communion with the Father and the Son in a loving relationship forever.