Q: My parish choir is busily preparing spirited music for the coming great solemnity of Pentecost. Do you have a favorite piece of music for this celebration?
A: Yes! One of my favorites is the Gregorian chant hymn, “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” whose text is attributed to Rabanus Maurus, Benedictine monk, theologian and archbishop of Mainz in the ninth century.
Besides being sung on Pentecost, this hymn is sung at celebrations of confirmation, the ordination of priests, the consecration of bishops and on other occasions.
I remember hearing this hymn on the radio on a warm and windy Pentecost Sunday while I was a graduate student in liturgy at the University of Notre Dame.
I had to put some gas in my car “Egeria” (named after the pilgrim nun who gave us valuable accounts of the Holy Week services in late fourth-century Jerusalem). The car radio was tuned to Michael Barone’s “Pipe Dreams” program produced by Minnesota Public Radio. Suddenly the “Veni, Creator Spiritus” chant came soaring out, and this moment of sublimity turned the gas station into a chapel. Such moments can reach us in the most unlikely places.
Do you remember the great Minnesota blizzard of Jan. 17, 1996? I do. I was serving as pastor of St. James Church in Jacobs Prairie. The deep snow in the driveway almost made it impossible for me to fly to Salt Lake City, Utah, for two presentations to permanent deacons and deacon candidates there. I’m glad I did get there, because I got to participate in a memorable closing session. J. Glenn Murray, an African-American Jesuit priest, punctuated his presentation with lively spirituals and gospel songs. Especially this Zimbabwean one: “If you believe and I believe / And we together pray, / The Holy Spirit must come down / And set God’s people free.”
This refrain has echoed and re-echoed in my ears and in my heart, from that January day to every celebration of Pentecost.
“If you believe and I believe / And we together pray.”
Was there ever a more powerful group of believers and pray-ers than that small community gathered in the upper room, that place where Jesus had given himself to them on the first Holy Thursday and had given his message of peace to them on the first Easter Sunday night?
The Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles who were gathered with her were strong in faith and fervent in prayer. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist together, every time we gather together around the altar in our “upper room,” we help each other to believe, to dedicate ourselves to prayer as the Holy Spirit bids us do and empowers us to do.
“If you believe and I believe, / And we together pray,” the world will come to know the truth that we proclaim: “Jesus is Lord.”
For all who ask
“The Holy Spirit must come down,” yes, must come down. Why must the Holy Spirit come down, come to us, come to each of us individually, come to all of us together?
Not because we can force God to do anything. Rather, because our prayer, joined to the prayer of Jesus Christ, is that powerful. Our prayer, joined to his, becomes as powerful as the promise of Jesus: God the Father will give the Holy Spirit to all who ask. The Holy Spirit is the almighty Father’s gift, and Christ’s too, so that the Spirit can sanctify us, help us, console us, renew us.
“The Holy Spirit must come down / And set God’s people free.” Free from what? Free from fear, free from hatred, from prejudice, from hostility, selfishness, free from all that separates us from God and each other.
Free for what? Free for proclaiming that Jesus is Lord in word and deed, free for praising God with our hearts and voices and lives, free for serving each other in love, free for embracing reconciliation and forgiveness, free for living as the Easter people that God wants us to be.
That is what we hear about and pray about and sing about during the weeks from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. We dare not close our hearts to the Holy Spirit, for “if you believe and I believe / And we together pray, / The Holy Spirit must come down / And set God’s people free” — you and me, now and for all eternity. Amen, alleluia!
Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.