Little did Adam and Eve think that their initial disobedience would have worldwide repercussions. First, their son Cain sadly follows their bad example and slays his brother Abel out of envy. Then, Noah and his wife and sons find corruption all around them. Sin is so wide spread that God sees a universal flood as the only solution to humanity’s evil. Still, the pride of mankind continues to swell until the whole of civilization, bloated with vanity, decides to build a monument to itself in the notorious Tower of Babel. God loathes this arrogant attempt at glory so he confuses their tongues so that each laborer on the massive project speaks a different language. The reading of the plans, the dimensions of the foundation, the ingredients of the cement, and the choice of proper bricks all become impossible because of mankind’s self-centered conceit. After Babel, the human race is severed, splintered, and scattered by pride and vanity. With no common language, communication and, alas, community life are impossible challenges.
Today, the solemnity of Pentecost joyously celebrates the reversal of Babel’s confused tongues. Pentecost hails the happy restoration of authentic community life for mankind through God the Father’s gift of the Holy Spirit. St. Peter, a rustic Galilean, preaches from a balcony in Jerusalem to “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.” And this multi-languaged assembly joyously declares: “…we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
With the arrival of the Spirit, the many languages of man are again made one. Now through the Spirit, the human family can comprehend one another, support one another, instruct one another, reconcile one another, and, most of all, praise and glorify the same God. The original sin of Adam and Eve is reversed; the cacophony of Babel yields to a Spirit-filled harmony. Joel’s prophecy quoted by St. Peter is indeed coming true: “I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams.” The world celebrates today this new beginning for the human race. The proud confusion of Babel is history; the common language of Pentecost is the future.
Alas, after two thousand years, the prospect of universal salvation preached at Pentecost still has more of the aura of prophecy than the appearance of promise. The majority of the world has yet to hear the Name of Jesus preached effectively. And many regions on this planet where Christ has been perennially embraced have sadly lapsed from the Gospel message.
The missionary methods of yesteryear effectively re-evangelized Europe after Eastern hoards had ransacked the Roman church and they successfully spread the Gospel to the Americas after Columbus’ momentous discoveries. Today the Christian must similarly heed the words of Pope St. John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio: “No believer, no institution of the Church can avoid the supreme duty to proclaim Christ to all peoples.” And again Pope St. Paul VI wrote: “The task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize” (Evangelii nuntiandi).
Yet today’s Church is also advised to be respectful of the alien cultures she is bound to evangelize. Pope Francis seriously cautions against any heavy-handedness in the spread of the Gospel message. In answer to a question in Sweden, the Pontiff remarked, “Proselytism is the strongest poison against the ecumenical path.” His Holiness was of course only repeating the instruction Pope Benedict offered in South America: “The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by attraction: just as Christ draws all to himself by the power of his love.”
Pope Benedict happily offers a balance between rough proselytism and diffident evangelization. He advised the South American Church, “I say to you: be faithful disciples, so as to be courageous and effective missionaries.” The conversion of the world begins with the conversion of our own hearts and hands in the service of the Gospel. Good example is the heart of evangelization. In this case, seeing is believing. Those who would preach the Gospel must first live the Gospel.