Why are we here tonight? Why are we here, gathered together before this altar, celebrating a Mass in honor of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of this formation year?
I would suggest this evening that there is only one answer sufficient to answer completely that question. It is a response and answer found on every page of the Gospel; in every ounce of blood that Christ shed for us on the cross; in all of His pain, sorrow and suffering; in all of His joy, triumph and exaltation; it is a response which is also found in the depths of our own hearts, in a longing and yearning too deep for words.
We are here tonight for salvation.
We gather together tonight to be saved by God. Christ gives Himself to us in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, a foretaste of the eternal life we are called to share with Him. He comes to us to draw us into eternal union with God. It is why He shares with us His body and blood, it is why He instituted the priesthood: for the salvation of souls.
St. Paul, in our first reading this evening, lifts up for us that great mystery of our salvation. He holds it up in all its splendor and beautifully intertwines that mystery with two powerful dimensions of our Catholic faith:
Hope and prayer.
“For in hope we were saved” (Romans 8:24), St. Paul tells us. Our beloved Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI begins his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, with these very words of St. Paul.
Spe salvi facti sumus. In Hope we were saved.
The Apostle goes on, in his Letter to the Romans, to speak of our human response to this great hope of salvation. He says that we yearn and long for it “with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26) heartfelt prayers in which the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, drawing us ever more deeply into the mystery of our salvation.
These two, then: hope and prayer.
But the sense that our culture has of these two things, hope and prayer, is one that is very different from what the Apostle calls us to in that Letter to the Romans. Often times people see hope as a deep desire or wish for things to simply “work out well in the end.” But this “wishful thinking” is not hope.
Prayer can also become a wish list which is offered up to God for His ratification: this is what I wish for; please grant it to me.
How different, how deep and remarkably beautiful is the hope and prayer that we are called to embrace as men of God being formed for the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Hope as a theological virtue is not a mere wish that the future will "pan out" for us. St. John of the Cross, in fact, in is spiritual writings, does not ground hope in the future at all, but more so in the past. He says that hope is linked to the faculty of the soul commonly understood as the memory (see The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book Three, Ch. 14).
The hope we have for a future with God is rooted in the events of the past and what that means for us today and everyday hereafter. Jesus Christ suffered and died for us on the cross, for love. That happened, and nothing will ever change that. Three days later Christ rose to life again; He made promises to the Church and kept every single one of them. He has promised you and me that if we place our faith in Him, if we put our trust and love in Him, then we will be saved, we will share in eternal life with God. That is the basis for our hope and the rock-solid foundation for everything that we believe. That is what St. Paul means when he writes, “In hope we were saved.” God is faithful. He has always been faithful. We can trust and hold fast to everything He reveals to us through His holy Catholic Church.
But we are not always prepared to respond in faith and trust to so great a hope of salvation; we do not always choose to stand on so solid a foundation. We are in need, every one of us, of holiness and purification. Our hearts need to be prepared to receive so great a gift as God Himself. Pope Benedict XVI speaks of this necessity, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, in terms of hope and prayer. He writes:
Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.
—Spe Salvi, #33
Borrowing an image from the writings of St. Augustine, Pope Benedict describes how God wishes to fill or souls with honey, but that is not possible when our hearts are already filled with vinegar.
Think of all the bitterness that sin can bring to the human heart and how necessary it is that God drain from us every ounce of this vinegar. He can then stretch these vessels of ours and increase our capacity to receive the sweetness of real honey, His own Divine life poured out deep within the soul. God wants to purify our hearts and fill us with this sweetness, not only for ourselves but for all the souls we will encounter in our daily lives.
“Through this effort by which we are freed from vinegar and the taste of vinegar,” writes Pope Benedict XVI, “not only are we made free for God, but we also become open to others.”
This is at the heart of the purifying power of prayer. Pope Benedict goes on to say that in order for this purifying power to develop, it necessarily involves two things.
§ First and foremost it involves intimacy with God. We come into this chapel, time and time again, day and night, and spend intimate time alone in prayer with God. We come before the one who is so worthy of our love, all the while painfully aware of our own unworthiness. We acknowledge, time and time again, that we do not deserve so great a love, so great a gift, that we could never earn this indescribable love that God has for us, but that He is always present to us whenever we come before Him in humility and in faith. The purifying power of intimacy with God in prayer is essential to our salvation.
§ Secondly, this purifying prayer “must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly” (Spe Salvi, #34). It is not the case that we become expert in the art of prayer and then impose our expertise on the Church and Her liturgy. Rather, we come to the Sacred Liturgy in awe and wonder, we bow before this great Sacrament of our salvation and we learn anew how to pray and offer ourselves to Him. The saints teach us this great act of worship. The Church throughout the centuries has guided the souls of countless men and women in these most sacred mysteries.
As we begin this new formation year, it is my prayer for each one of you that you will grow in the theological virtue of hope, a hope which is rooted on the rock-solid promises of the risen Christ; and through the purifying power of prayer, may God gently and loving allow you to be emptied of all vinegar and stretched out to the capacity to which you can receive so sweet a gift as this honey which is His Divine life within you.
As you continue to be prepared for the day of ordination, may hope and prayer continue to make you more and more like Christ so that, when the people of God approach you as their priest, yearning and longing for salvation with groanings perhaps too deep for words, you will have something beautiful and sweet to offer them.