22May 22nd May. Thursday in Week 5 of Easter

Saint Rita of Cascia, religious.

Rita (Margherita Lotti, 1381-1457) was a devout widow and later Augustinian nun in Cascia, central Italy. She is venerated for her exemplary married life and also as a patroness for abused wives and mourning women.

First Reading: Acts 15:7-21

(Peter and James speak in defence of Paul’s missionary practice.)

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.

After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, “After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord — even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.” Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”

Gospel: John 15:9-11

(As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.)

Jesus said to them: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Making space for religious enthusiasm

A spirit of love and enthusiasm was found to exist among non-baptized gentiles by both Peter and Paul. What Jesus had prayed for among his disciples was found among foreigners even before their baptism. Peter recognised a second Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the household of the Roman, Cornelius, just as when the Spirit came to the disciples in the upper room. So he let these people be baptized at once in the name of Jesus Christ. These pagans were not required to be circumcised first, or to obey the Jewish dietary laws. To baptize them immediately seemed the right thing to do, even though Jesus himself had submitted to circumcision and other Mosaic prescriptions.

We all experience such insights, when we are faced with a fait accompli, the fact of a person with undeniable gifts of the Spirit who still thinks and acts in ways different from our Catholic tradition. These people are sincere, gifted with common sense, yet unable to agree on some points of magisterial doctrine. These “gentiles” receive the spirit in a way that clashes with our traditions and customs. To put it bluntly, they seem to break God’s law! Perhaps, therefore, they cannot be directed by the spirit of Jesus. Or, they are partially right and we partially wrong, partially blinded and biased?

The Bible offers two lines of advice on this point: First, never to deny the presence of the Holy Spirit wherever concern, patience, and self-sacrifice for the sake of others are manifestly present. These are gifts of the Spirit, no matter what misconceptions may also lodge in the same person. The household of Cornelius may have still clung to many pagan, superstitious ideas. Yet, Peter allowed their baptism immediately.

The second advice is in the decision reached at the Council of Jerusalem. The gentiles were required to respect some deeply embedded sensitivities of the Jewish Christians, procedures all related to blood: not to marry with close relatives; not to consume blood directly, or indirectly in the case of animals improperly butchered; and not to buy meat that had been offered to pagan gods. Both sides were asked to make concessions for the sake of others. Conversion does not consist only in doctrine; it is a reconciliation with a family where Jesus is the head.