Last week, a colleague of mine at work began a pastoral visit to one of the forgotten corners of the world: Armenia.
Armenia is a country suffering from devastations most of us can only imagine – genocide, war, earthquakes, economic disaster. It’s all taken a toll. The young have left, looking for better opportunities. Many of those left behind—the elderly and even young mothers with children—live in what my colleague called “grinding poverty.”
Their homes are tin sheds with no running water. Indoor plumbing is a hole in the floor. These are people who once had lives and careers, families and businesses—and now they have nothing. Some collect a small pension. But many today are barely able to live.
My boss calls them—in a phrase that has echoes of today’s Gospel— “the new orphans.”
The organization I work for, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, or CNEWA, is supporting efforts by the Armenian Catholic Church to help these people who seem, so often, helpless.
Reflecting on all this, my colleague emailed me, “I know God is everywhere, but it seems sometimes that he is nowhere.”
His unspoken question seemed to ask: “Where is God?”
It is a question that has been asked again and again throughout history—many asked it, I remember, after the tragedy of 9/11. When things seem most bleak, when the world is wracked by despair, where is hope? Where is faith?
Where is God?
I think we find one answer in this Sunday’s Gospel.
Just before he ascends to the Father, Jesus tells his disciples: you will not be alone.
“The Father will give you another Advocate to be with you always,” he says, “the Spirit of truth, you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans…I will come to you.”
The Advocate, of course, is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will be with you, Jesus says. You will not be abandoned or alone.
And he was right.
Soon, we will celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit fell like fire upon the apostles. That fire is still burning. The Advocate continues to advocate for all of us.
To those who ask, “Where is God?,” the answer is: “Look around you.” God the Holy Spirit is vibrantly, wondrously, beautifully alive.
In Armenia, he lives in the hearts of those who are caring for the sick, the elderly, the poor, the helpless. He is in the hands that reach out to bathe the old, or feed the hungry. He is in the eyes that look into the faces of those who are alone. He is in the arms that embrace children who have been pushed aside.
God is there. Jesus is there.
Closer to home, God is in the work of people like Sister Mary Scullion, who delivered the commencement address at Georgetown University yesterday. Sister Mary is the president of Project HOME, an advocacy group for the homeless in Philadelphia. She encouraged the graduates to embark on what Pope Francis called “a revolution of tenderness,” and she urged them to “see the human face of those you earnestly seek to help.”
Seek that, I believe, and you will see the face of Christ. And you will be engaged in the ongoing advocacy work of the ultimate Advocate, the Holy Spirit.
It is work that is happening everywhere. You see it in seminaries and houses of formation, in nursing homes and orphanages, in classrooms and mud huts and in open fields and in soup kitchens—any place where the Good News is being proclaimed not just with words, but with lives.
And if you want to look even closer for signs of God’s work in the world, look no further than this parish.
Next Saturday, one of our own, Thomas Jorge, by the grace of God will be ordained to Holy Orders as permanent deacon. He is one of 12 men in the Diocese of Brooklyn who are pledging their lives to the Church. And their numbers are growing.
Last month, the Vatican released its annual report on worldwide vocations. It wrote, and I quote: “The number of deacons is improving on every continent at a significant pace.” As proof: the number of deacons has climbed 14% in five years, to more than 45,000 around the world.
Behold, the Holy Spirit at work. The Advocate is advocating.
It was almost exactly 10 years ago, May 20th, 2007, that I first stood in this pulpit and had the great privilege to read the Gospel and proclaim to you the Good News.
This morning, I proclaim it to you again. And it is good news we need to hear now, more than ever.
The Good News is that Jesus has not left us orphans. God lives on around us and within us. Love prevails. Hope endures.
The letter from Peter this morning exhorts us: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.”
Here is my explanation, my reason for hope: It is Jesus Christ! It is God’s son showing us, with open arms on the cross, just how wide is the breadth of his love.
My reason for hope? It is The Word made flesh keeping his word.
It is the joy and certainty of a two-thousand-year-old promise that has been kept.
It is the continuing presence of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, doing his advocacy work in the world in astonishing and exuberant and surprising ways. I have seen it in my life and ministry. I see it in those sitting before me this morning in the pews, people whose faith and generosity continue to leave me grateful and moved and humbled.
I see it in men like Thomas Jorge who, just six days from now, will literally lay down before God and give his life to serve God’s people, and do it out of love and generosity and because of the unquenchable fire of the Holy Spirit.
There are thousands more like him around the world, men and women, devoting themselves to a religious vocation, answering God’s call to serve.
Pray for them. Pray for Tom Jorge and his wife. Pray for all who are sensing in some small way the whispered voice of the Advocate calling them, inviting them, seeking them out.
You want a reason for hope?
Look before you, to the tabernacle.
Look around you, in the pews.
Look within you, to the fire that still burns, the flame that won’t die.
Trust and believe: here is our hope.
We are not orphans.
God—Father, Son and Spirit—is with us.
Image: Wikimedia Commons