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The Holy Spirit in the mission to the Gentiles

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the Holy Spirit
General Audience, Wednesday 13 December 1989 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. After the Baptism of the first pagans, carried out at Peter's command in the house of the centurion Cornelius at Caesarea, Peter remained for some days with the new Christians in response to their invitation (cf. Acts 10:48). This did not please the brethren at Jerusalem, and they criticized him for this on his return (cf. Acts 11:3). Rather than defend himself from the accusation, Peter preferred "to explain to them what had happened" (Acts 11:4), so that the converts from Judaism could appreciate the full importance of the fact that the "Gentiles also had received the word of God" (Acts 11:1).

He then told them of the vision he had at Joppa, of Cornelius' invitation, of the interior prompting of the Spirit that dispelled his hesitation (cf. Acts 11:12), and finally of the descent of the Holy Spirit on those in the centurion's house (cf. Acts 11:16). He concluded his account as follows: "I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, 'John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?" (Acts 11:16-17).

This, according to Peter, was the real question, not the fact of his having accepted hospitality from a pagan converted from paganism, an unusual case and regarded as unlawful by the Christians of Jewish origin at Jerusalem. It is interesting to note the effect of Peter's words, for we read in Acts that "when they heard this, they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance until life'" (Acts 11:18).

It was the first victory over the temptation to socio-religious particularism which threatened the primitive Church inasmuch as it had its origin in the Jewish community at Jerusalem. The Apostle Paul, with Peter's help, would achieve another victory, in a still more striking manner. We shall speak of this later.

2. Let us pause now to consider how Peter continued on the way begun with Cornelius' baptism. Once again it will be seen that it was the Holy Spirit who guided the apostles in this direction.

The Acts tell us that the converts at Jerusalem, "scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen," continued the work of evangelization wherever they happened to be. But "they spoke the word to none except Jews" (Acts 11:19). Some of them, however, citizens of Cyprus and Cyrene, on coming to Antioch, the capital of Syria, began to speak also to the Greeks (that is, to the non-Jews), preaching the Good News of the Lord Jesus. "And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch" (Acts 11:21-22).

It was a kind of inspection decided upon by the community which, as the original one, claimed the right of vigilance over the other churches (cf. Acts 8:14; 11:1; Gal 2:2).

Barnabas went to Antioch. When he arrived there and "saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the Church and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were called Christians for the first time" (Acts 11:23-26).

It was another decisive moment for the new faith based on the covenant in Christ, crucified and risen. Moreover, the new name "Christians" manifested the strength of the bond that united the members of the community among themselves. The "Pentecost of the pagans" illumined by Peter's preaching and behavior brought progressively to fulfillment Christ's prediction about the Holy Spirit: "He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (Jn 16:14). Christianity's assertion of itself under the influence of the Holy Spirit realizes with increasing evidence the glorification of the "Lord Jesus."

3. In the context of the relations between the Church of Antioch and that of Jerusalem, Saul of Tarsus appeared upon the scene; he was brought to Antioch by Barnabas. The Acts tells us that "for a whole year they remained in that community and taught a large company of people" (Acts 11:26). A little later we are told that one day "while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus" (Acts 13:2-4), the homeland of Barnabas (cf. Acts 4:36). Saul's vocation and mission in the company of Barnabas was indicated as willed by the Holy Spirit who thus initiated a new phase of development in the life of the primitive Church.

4. We all know the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus and its importance for the evangelization of the ancient world, which he undertook with all the drive and enthusiasm of his Herculean soul, when Saul became Paul, the Apostle of the nations (cf. Acts 13:9).

Here we shall recall only the words addressed to him by the disciple Ananias of Damascus, when by the Lord's command he went to find "in the house of Judas, in the street called Straight" (Acts 9:10), the persecutor of the Christians, who was spiritually transformed after his meeting with Christ.

According to Acts, "Ananias departed and entered the house. After laying his hands on him he said, 'Brother, Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 9:17). Saul regained his sight and immediately began to bear witness in the synagogues first at Damascus "by proving that Jesus was the Christ" (Acts 9:22), and then at Jerusalem where, presented by Barnabas, he went in and out, "preaching boldly in the name of the Lord" and "disputing against the Hellenists" (Acts 9:29). These Greek-speaking Jews, violently opposed to all the Christian preachers (cf. Acts 6:9 f.; 7:58; 9:1; 21:27; 24:19), were particularly ferocious against Saul, even to the point of trying to kill him (cf. Acts 9:29). "And when the brethren knew it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus" (Acts 9:30). It was there that Barnabas went to look for him to bring him to Antioch (cf. Acts 11:25-26).

5. We already know that the development of the Church of Antioch was due in large part to the influx of the Greeks who were converted to the Gospel (cf. Acts 11:20). This had aroused the interest of the Church at Jerusalem. However, even after Barnabas' inspection, there remained some perplexity about the procedure followed in admitting pagans into the Church without following the Mosaic observance. Indeed, on a certain occasion "some men came down from Judea [to Antioch] and were teaching the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.' And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question" (Acts 15:1-2).

It was a fundamental problem which touched the very essence of Christianity as a doctrine and as a life based on faith in Christ, and its originality and independence from Judaism.

The problem was resolved in the "council of Jerusalem" (as it is usually called), by the apostles and elders, but under the action of the Holy Spirit. The Acts tells us that "after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, 'Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the Gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith'" (Acts 15:7-9).

6. It was the outstanding moment of the awareness of the "Pentecost of the pagans" on the part of the mother community in Jerusalem, where the highest representatives of the Church were gathered together. The whole community felt that it was living and acting "filled with the comfort of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 9:31). It knew that not only the apostles but also other brethren had taken this decision and acted under the movement of the Spirit, as for example, Stephen (Acts 6:5; 7:55), Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:2, 4, 9).

It would soon have learned of a fact that happened at Ephesus, where Saul, who had now become Paul, had arrived. It is narrated by Acts as follows: "While Apollos [another preacher of the Gospel] was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?' And they said, 'No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit....' On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied" (Acts 19:1-2, 5-6). The Jerusalem community knew therefore that that kind of epic of the Holy Spirit was unfolding by means of many endowed with charisms and apostolic ministries. That first council, however, presented an ecclesiastical-institutional fact recognized as decisive for the evangelization of the whole world, in intimate connection between the assembly presided over by Peter and the Holy Spirit.

7. The apostles communicated in a significant formula the conclusions arrived at and the decisions taken: "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28). This expressed their complete awareness of acting under the guidance of this Spirit of truth which Christ had promised them (cf. Jn 14:16-17). They knew that they derived from him the authority to make that decision, and the certainty of the decision taken. It was the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, who at that moment ensured that the Pentecost of Jerusalem should become to an ever greater extent the "Pentecost of the pagans." Thus God's new covenant with humanity "in the blood of Christ" (cf. Lk 22:20) was opened to all peoples and nations, to the very ends of the earth."


After the Catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai gruppi di lingua francese 

Chers Frères et Sœurs,

JE SALUE cordialement les pèlerins belges venus à l’occasion de la canonisation du Frère Mutien-Marie. Je leur souhaite, ainsi qu’à tous les visiteurs de langue française qui participent à cette audience, un heureux acheminement vers les fêtes de la Nativité du Seigneur. J’invoque sur tous la Bénédiction de Dieu. 

Ai pellegrini di lingua inglese 

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I EXTEND A CORDIAL welcome to the Focolarine and members of GEN from many different countries who are following a course of spiritual renewal. May your visit strengthen your love of the Church and your commitment to the evangelizing task in which you are engaged. I also welcome the participants in the Europa-Asia Tournament of Table-tennis, and I encourage you always to show how your sport can be a wonderful means of understanding and friendship between people of different backgrounds.

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A SPECIAL GREETING goes to the members of the Choir of the Anglican Cathedral at Wells in England. Upon you, and upon all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims present here today, I invoke abundant divine blessings.

Ai fedeli di lingua tedesca 

Liebe Schwestern und Brüder!

MIT DIESER BETRACHTUNG grüße ich herzlich alle anwesenden Pilger und Besucher aus den deutschsprachigen Ländern und erteile euch und euren lieben Angehörigen in der Heimat sowie den mit uns über Radio Vatikan verbundenen Hörerinnen und Hörern meinen Apostolischen Segen. 

Ai visitatori di lingua castigliana 

Amadísimos hermanos y hermanas,

DESEO AHORA presentar mi cordial saludo a todos los peregrinos y visitantes de lengua española.

En particular, al grupo de Religiosos Capuchinos que están haciendo en Roma un curso de formación permanente. Os aliento a ser siempre sembradores de paz en vuestras actividades apostólicas y asistenciales, dando testimonio de un gran amor a la Iglesia.

A todas las personas, familias y grupos procedentes de los diversos países de América Latina y de España imparto con afecto la Bendición Apostólica. 

Ai fedeli di lingua portoghese 

Caríssimos irmãos e irmãs de língua portuguesa,

SAUDANDO CORDIALMENTE quantos me escutam, desejo-lhes todo o bem, com as graças e luzes do Espírito Santo, em fruttuosa preparação espiritual de um santo Natal. 

Alla Sezione Ucraina della Radio Vaticana 

Domani la sezione ucraina della radio vaticana segna il suo cinquantenario. Già da mezzo secolo essa unisce il Papa e la Sede Apostolica con gli Ucraini cattolici in Patria. Per molti anni queste trasmissioni sono state le uniche briciole di pane spirituale per coloro che hanno sofferto per la loro fedeltà a Cristo e al suo Vicario, il Papa. La testimonianza della importanza di queste trasmissioni sono le decine di migliaia di lettere dall’Ucraina. In questo momento così importante e storico, pieno di nuove speranze per la Chiesa in Ucraina, imparto di cuore la mia benedizione alla sezione ucraina della radio vaticana, a tutti i collaboratori ed aiutanti e soprattutto a tutti i radioascoltatori che ascoltano la voce della radio del Papa. 

Ai pellegrini provenienti dalla Polonia 

POZDRAWIAM KSIĘŻY biskupów z Siedlec i Warszawy; pielgrzymkę z diecezji siedleckiej, respół dziecięcy “Tuchliki” oraz uczestników grupy turystycznej “Turysta” . . . Pragnę wszystkim obecnym tutaj prekazać dla rodaków w Polsce i na całym świecie życzenia Bożego Narodzenia.

Ai gruppi e ai pellegrini di lingua italiana 

Ed ora il mio affettuoso benvenuto vuole andare ai pellegrini italiani: al gruppo proveniente dalla parrocchia romana di San Tommaso Apostolo a Castel Fusano, parrocchia che ho visitato di recente e a cui rinnovo il mio ringraziamento per l’accoglienza tanto fervida. Vi sono poi le Suore infermiere del Centro Italiano Opere Femminili Salesiane, che stanno partecipando ad un convegno di aggiornamento. Esse, oltre agli ammalati, si dedicano anche all’educazione sanitaria dei giovani. Saluto cordialmente il gruppo di non vedenti, insieme con i loro familiari, appartenenti alla sezione di Ercolano dell’Unione Italiana Ciechi. Oggi è la festa di Santa Lucia, patrona dei non vedenti; la sua intercessione vi dia luce spirituale e vi conduca a vedere nel Regno di Dio. 

* * * 

Da Anagni, è giunto un gruppo di anziani soci o amici della locale Cassa Rurale ed Artigiana. Salute a voi, cari fratelli, e auguri di pace e prosperità nel Signore! Un caro pensiero anche ai membri dell’Arciconfraternita dei Santi Bartolomeo e Alessandro della Nazione dei Bergamaschi in Roma, che festeggia quest’anno il 450° anniversario della sua fondazione. L’antichità della vostra Associazione è testimonianza di fede e di comunione con la Sede di Pietro! Saluto, infine, il gruppo parrocchiale di Cermes-Tscherms, in diocesi di Bolzano, che ci farà ascoltare quel canto tanto caratteristico chiamato in tedesco “jodler”, e noto in tutto il mondo. 

* * * 

Rivolgo un cordiale saluto anche ai Sindaci delle città costiere del Mare Adriatico, convenuti a Roma per trattare problemi che interessano le loro popolazioni. Vi ringrazio, Signori, per la vostra presenza, ed auspico caldamente che questo vostro incontro romano possa validamente servire alla soluzione della questione che vi sta a cuore per il bene di tutti.

Il Natale si avvicina, cari fratelli e sorelle; preparatevi ad accogliere degnamente Colui che viene nel mistero della Culla di Betlemme. 

Ai giovani, agli ammalati e agli sposi novelli 

Mi è gradito poi salutare i gruppi di Ragazzi e Giovani, i cari Ammalati e le coppie di Sposi Novelli che, con la loro presenza, animano questa Udienza.

Carissimi, la Chiesa fa oggi memoria del “dies natalis” di Santa Lucia, il cui culto, dalla nativa Siracusa e dalla Laguna veneziana, che ne custodisce le spoglie mortali, si è diffuso in tutto il mondo. Il coraggio col quale Lucia, fortificata dal Pane eucaristico, affrontò il martirio, sia di aiuto e di esempio ai Giovani nell’affrontare con gioia l’impegno della testimonianza cristiana. Agli ammalati Ella insegni a non dubitare mai dell’amore di Dio, nel cui progetto sapiente c’è la felicità finale per ogni singola creatura umana. Auguro, infine, che tutti gli Sposi novelli sappiano attingere nella preghiera la forza per realizzare gli ideali di fedeltà e di reciproca donazione, anche quando tali valori esigono il coraggio dell’eroismo.

A tutti imparto la mia Benedizione.

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