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Pentecost: Prophecies Then and Now by Fr. George W. Rutler



May 28, 2017

by Fr. George W. Rutler

It is a wise policy, issuing from experience, and one hopes not from cynicism, to distrust email messages that begin by saying that the writer is “excited to share” something. Inevitably, this involves an overuse of exclamation points and much self-advertising. In religion, various movements keep pumping themselves up with excited promises of something great about to happen, some new program or rally or change of custom that blurs the distinction between the Good News and novelty.

Such was the case in the area of Phrygia in what is now Turkey during the second century. A convert priest named Montanus stirred up a lot of excitement when he confused himself with the Holy Spirit and started to deliver various “prophecies” while in a trance. Like the typical fanatic so defined, he was confident that God would agree with him if only God had all the facts. In a languid and dissolute period, his ardor and amiability attracted many as far away as North Africa and Rome, and even the formidable intellect of Tertullian was misled by it.

Sensational outbursts of emotion were thought to be divinely inspired, and the formal clerical structure of the Church was caricatured as the sort of rigidity that quenches the spirit. Maintaining that prophecy did not end with the last apostle, new messages were declared, sensationalism in the form of purported miracles and exotic languages was encouraged, and women like Priscilla and Maximilla left their husbands and decided that they could be priests.

In the twentieth century, the Montanist heresy sprung up again in the Pentecostalist sect, and even many Catholics were attracted to “reawakenings” that gave the impression that the Paraclete promised by Christ had finally come awake, having  been dormant pretty much since the early days of the Church. While bizarre in its extreme forms, such as dancing in churches and barking like dogs while rolling on the floor, any quest for novelty quickly grows bored, for nothing goes out of fashion so fast as the latest fashion.

In preparing for the celebration of Pentecost, the Church prays for a holy reception of the truth “ever ancient, ever new” that comes not through a Second Pentecost or a Third Pentecost, but through an enlivened embrace of God’s timeless grace. Christ makes “all things new” and does not superficially make all new things. (Revelation 21:5) Heresies are fads, but the eternal dogmas of the Faith never go out of date because they never were fashionable to begin with.

Chesterton thus described the romance of orthodoxy by which the Church is like a chariot “thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” That truth needs no artificial excitement or manufactured heartiness, and the Gospel has no orchestrated exclamation points, for when the mystery of God is revealed, everything falls silent (Revelation 8:1), and then . . . the Great Amen.

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