When I started my freshman math class in algebra I thought it was a piece of cake, the answers came quickly and easily. My teacher, however, would not accept the answers alone. “Show your work” was the constant refrain I heard. She wanted me to think through the problems step by step so that I could be confident about getting the right answers. I hated doing it, but she was right. It helped me form good algebraic habits that paid off later that year and beyond as I progressed through trigonometry and into calculus.
Forming good habits is an essential part of a good life. Parents want their children to develop good habits like brushing their teeth, saying “please” when they ask for something or sharing their toys. Teachers want to develop good habits in their students. One of the good habits called for in the Unleash the Gospel pastoral letter is “docility to the Holy Spirit.”
“Docile” comes from the Latin word docere(to teach). Being docile means being teachable. We can think about it as being attentive to the instructor, having our ears attuned to the teacher’s voice and our pen and paper ready to take notes. It means an attitude of receptivity to what the teacher offers. This posture and attitude imply a realization that the teacher offers something which I do not have and is good for me.
Docility to the Holy Spirit means that I look to the Holy Spirit – the Spirit who is the love between the Father and the Son in the internal life of the Trinity – for the wisdom to be faithful to Jesus Christ. The example of the early Church is a window into how we can form and live out this good habit.
While the Church was praying and fasting, we read in the Acts of the Apostles, they had a conviction of a word from the Holy Spirit: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So they did just that, “they laid hands on them and sent them off. So they, sent forth by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and from there sailed to Cyprus.” (Acts 13:2-4)
One common question is “how can I be certain it is the Holy Spirit?” If I knew for surethat it was God asking me to do this thing, I would do it. But that’s not how the Holy Spirit usually works. He does not knock us over the head.
We can use the same tools for discerning that we read about in Acts. Are we praying and fasting, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal his will to us? Are we praying and fasting together? If we want to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, we need to declutter our spirituallives. This means carving out time for God and actively working to be free from distractions. No one will ever be perfectly distraction-free, but the more we set ourselves “like flint” on the Lord in prayer, the more ready we will be to hear his word. There is tremendous power in fasting as well. It is a prayer of our bodies that helps to focus our minds and creates a physical hunger that emulates our spiritual hunger. Fasting is a time-tested method of clearing away distractions to hear the Holy Spirit.
Docility ultimately means that I have to step out in faith once I have some degree of certainty in the Holy Spirit’s will for me. We are called to “walk by faith and not by sight.” St. Paul’s words are a reminder that God’s will is rarely made manifest to us in some absolute way. It requires trust in him and stepping out into the unknown. Because God is gentle with us, he often moves us gradually. He calls for small acts of trust and builds on our cooperation; he invites us to greater faith. Thus, we learn to be docile to the Holy Spirit in degrees: “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.” (Luke 16:10)
We are upon such a moment of growing docility to the Holy Spirit. In light of the work of Synod 16 and the call to embrace the identity of a missionary archdiocese, Archbishop Vigneron is leading us to enter a new way for our parishes to relate to each other. The deeper level of cooperation and sharing of resources will require all of us to grow in trust in the Lord. The Holy Spirit is not a safe spirit, and we do not know the challenges this new model of Families of Parishes will bring. But we know that docility to the Holy Spirit means fearlessly saying yes to whatever he asks of us.
The work of the Church is nothing less than the salvation of souls and winning the world back for Jesus. Our work of parishes entering into families means that we are embarking on a new era in the Archdiocese of Detroit. We do not have the luxury of knowing the will of the Holy Spirit “for sure.” Instead, we trust that he guided us through Synod 16 and continues to guide us through our chief shepherd, our Archbishop. I have every confidence that the work we are doing through Families of Parishes is a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit, inviting us to trust more deeply in him and be transformed into the diocese he wants us to be, poised to proclaim Jesus as Lord for the next generation.
The work to unleash the Gospel is a long process involving not simple solutions but calling for a “renewal of structures to make them Spirit-led and radically mission-oriented.” (Unleash the Gospelpastoral letter, Foundational Conviction) We cannot do this without docility to the Holy Spirit.
Come Holy Spirit, teach us and guide us.