Our newest Paulist priest, having been ordained just yesterday, celebrated his First Mass this morning at St. Paul the Apostle Church. It's always a joy to be back in our community's "Mother Church," to return to the altar where I celebrated and concelebrated so many Masses during my 10 years as associate pastor, but especially to be back for such a joyful occasion as we celebrated there this morning.
Particularly to the point on this 6th Sunday of Easter, it seemed to me, was the first reading at Mass. It recounted the famous story of Philip’s evangelizing mission in Samaria and the response this produced from the Mother Church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17).
The Samaritans were, so to speak, next-door neighbors to the Jews. Neighbors, however, don’t always get along, as we all know, and as the unhappy history of the Holy Land has repeatedly reminded us. The Samaritans were ethnically and religiously related to the Jews; but over the centuries, thanks to their complicated history, they had acquired a separate identity. The result was two distinct groups, which certainly saw themselves as worshiping the same God, but nonetheless regarded each other with hostility. (Nothing either new or ancient about any of that!)
Yet none of that seems to have deterred Philip, who proclaimed the Christ to them. Nor did it prevent those Samaritans from paying attention to what was said by Philip. The result was great joy in that city and yet another leap on the Church’s part, another experience of expansion, growth, and diversity - in keeping with the whole trajectory of the story of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles which, can be summarized as: Good News travels far to build the Church and heal the world.
Even so, there inevitably were some serious questions raised back in Jerusalem about what Philip was doing. So Peter and John went to see for themselves what was happening and to interpret what it meant. Surrounded by Samaritans, whom they would have probably tried to avoid until recently, Peter and John laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. There is only one Holy Spirit. If the Samaritans were going to become believers, they had to be united with the Church led by the apostles.
Luke’s point in telling this story seems to be to stress the importance of the unity and universality of the Church, specifically its apostolic leadership, which links us with the Risen Christ, through his gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom the Church continues Christ’s presence and action in our world. (Hence our particular Latin tradition of emphasizing the role of the Bishop, as a successor of the apostles, in the sacrament of Confirmation.)
The apostles may well have been surprised initially, both by Philip’s initiative and by the Samaritans’ ready response. Surprised or not, they saw in what was happening the direction they were intended to go. Acts constantly presents the Church as learning from her experiences, confident that, thanks to the Risen Christ’s continued presence in the Church through his Holy Spirit, what happens in the world really is significant.
Faith does not eradicate the differences that exist among peoples, but it does create a new relationship for all of us with God and with one another - in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Peter, John, and Philip all learned this from their actual experience of how God was acting among different peoples.
Likewise, faith alone does not resolve all the problems we will experience in our life together as Christ’s Church. It does, however, give us confidence in the Risen Lord’s presence among us in the structures of his Church - in the successor of the apostles in union with the successor of Peter - and in the power of the word of God, which continues to be proclaimed in the Church, to create a unity which transcends our human divisions and limitations.
What a wonderful message any Sunday, but especially on this Sunday when the Holy Father himself is on pilgrimage in the perennially conflicted and divided Holy Land! And what an apt message for us Paulists on this Sunday when we are especially celebrating our priestly ministry and life together with the First Mass of a newly ordained priest!