If you ever visit the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, you will see huge statues of the Apostles lining the nave of that church. Each statue appears larger-than-life and any viewer is left in awe and wonder at the respect these statues command. It is almost fitting that these statues do this, because these men are the foundation on which our Church was built. We know little of the personal histories of most of the Apostles, yet their efforts at proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have led to the Church reaching the ends of the earth over the centuries.
However, the magnificence of these statues is somewhat misleading. It’s true that the Apostles did great and wonderful things in the name of Jesus. Yet, while these statues appear extraordinary, we have to remember that the Apostles were ultimately ordinary men who did extraordinary things, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Did you know that if you are a practicing Catholic, you too are also empowered by the Holy Spirit?
We are not too different from any of the Apostles. If we look at the portrayal of any of the Apostles, we see several examples of their human weaknesses (something I’m sure we can relate to). Even the great leader of the Apostles, St.Peter, denied knowing Christ three times at the onset of Jesus’ Passion, at a time when Jesus arguably needed His friends the most. Throughout the Gospels, we see the foibles and shortcomings of the Apostles, to say nothing of their lack of theological or leadership training. The dramatic transformation in the Apostles is seen after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on them (Acts 2). It is from that point that we see the Apostles going from weak, even confused men, to bold leaders and witnesses of the Gospel. The Apostles tapped into the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit that had been bestowed upon them, and lo and behold, they fruitfully and successfully launched the beginnings of the Church and her mission to the rest of the world.
It is essential that we recognize the striking change that occurred in the Apostles after being empowered by the Holy Spirit. Only if we are able to see this, will we be able to realize that it was not so much the Apostles who accomplished anything, rather it was the Holy Spirit at work in and through them.
The awesome thing is that the Holy Spirit can do the same in and through us, if we let Him.
While the Holy Spirit is not bound by the sacraments and can act outside them to galvanize anyone He chooses to, the sacrament of Confirmation in particular plays a key role in empowering us. Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit on each of us, in the same way that the Spirit was once granted to the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. Those of us who have received the sacrament of Confirmation are objectively empowered by the Holy Spirit whether we feel like that’s the case or not. Importantly, Confirmation gives us a special strength from the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and to never to be ashamed of the Cross (CCC 1303).
Thus, it doesn’t matter whether we feel we are empowered or not—we are empowered! We are ready to be apostles… So, what’s stopping us? Is it a sense of unworthiness? Is it that we think we don’t know enough about the faith to be able to teach it? Are we afraid of rejection or looking silly?
Again, we have to circle back and see that the Apostles were in the same boat too. They knew they were unworthy. They hadn’t been to any fancy religion or theology classes. They were regularly rejected and persecuted for trying to teach and witness to the Gospel. Yet, they did it anyway, because Jesus had commanded them to do so (a command that applies to us too, by the way). As St.Peter said in the book of Acts, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
I offer three qualities of the Apostles for your consideration that could help you overcome any feelings of fear or unworthiness to be a missionary disciple yourself. If you think you lack them, ask the Holy Spirit for these gifts to come alive in you in a new and powerful way:
Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather it is acting in the face of fear. Following Pentecost, there isn’t any real reference to the Apostles being fearful, but their boldness is unmistakable. The Apostles went forth and preached the Gospel, despite facing imprisonment, torture, threats against their lives, and even losing their friends to martyrdom. The Holy Spirit gave them the holy boldness they needed to persevere in their Christ-given mandate to proclaim the good news.
The Apostles trusted the power of God acting through them and knew that the Holy Spirit was their protection against all spiritual and personal attacks. Moreover, the Holy Spirit filled them with the faith, knowledge and wisdom that they needed to do the works of God, both great and small.
All that the Apostles did was rooted in the fact that, having been empowered by the Holy Spirit, they let the Holy Spirit take charge and guide all they said and did. They did not try to do things their way, but allowed the Holy Spirit to have His way, so that God’s plans could unfold through them.
We too have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. There isn’t a holiness or intelligence criteria to be a witness for Christ. We just need to stir up the Spirit in us and tap into His power and gifts. If the Apostles did what they did despite not being ‘holy enough’ or ‘smart enough’ for the job entrusted to them, why are we allowing ourselves to be held back?
So many of us feel the pain of our currently struggling Church and increasingly emptier pews. Well, those pews are not going to be filled by themselves. We have to step out and set the world on fire through the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit. And we can trust that the Holy Spirit will be our helper to do this. St.Basil the Great wrote that the Holy Spirit raises our hearts to heaven, guides the steps of those who are weak, and makes the souls in which He dwells into a source of grace for others.
Perhaps the best reminder that we are just as equipped as the Apostles were, came through the words of Pope Paul VI. He said that it is the Holy Spirit who today, just as at the beginning of the Church, acts in every evangelizer who allows himself to be possessed and led by Him. Bringing about a positive change in the world and our Church will never be possible without the action of the Holy Spirit. Techniques of evangelization are good, but even the seemingly most advanced and sophisticated ones cannot replace the gentle action of the Holy Spirit.
Any renewal in our Church calls for each of us to take that first step in faith, courage and docility. If twelve ordinary men, with no unique gifts or skills, but rather having their fair share of weaknesses, could lay the first building blocks of the Church, we can certainly take their work forward. The Apostles had fears, questions, doubts and insecurities, just as we do today. Yet, the same Holy Spirit who inspired and emboldened those twelve men, calls us and equips us to do what they did – how can we refuse this awesome invitation to transform the world for the glory of God’s name?