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June 6, 2011

In reading the history of the Second Vatican Council, one cannot help but be awestruck by the enormous trust Blessed Pope John XXIII had in the Holy Spirit. Elected pope at the age of 78, Angelo Roncalli was expected to be a caretaker pope, someone who minded the store for a few years after the long pontificate of Pope Pius XII.

Instead, three months after his election, Pope John called a council of the whole Church. Perhaps he had been waiting in the weeds, hoping for his chance to impose his agenda on an unsuspecting Church? This was nothing of the sort. Pope John had felt a glimmer of an insight, a little spark from the Holy Spirit and realized he must act.

In the history of the Church, a council with no agenda had never been called. Always, there had been some problem to be fixed. Pope John saw no problem; he just called a council.

During the long three and a half years before the council began, the pope kept his hands off the preparations. Others created a mountain of documents for the council to rubber stamp. Pope John talked about the need for Church unity and for explaining the Gospel in a way that met the spirit of the time.

In October 1962, as the council began, many were confused and frustrated about the lack of a plan of action. They waited for the pope's opening address to present such a plan. It provided nothing of the sort. By then, the pope apparently knew he was dying. Instead, he encouraged the council fathers and urged them not to be led astray by "prophets of doom."

After an initial period of turmoil, the council did its work. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council is still bearing fruit. That is not to say that everything done in the name of Vatican II or that everything done since the council is the work of the Holy Spirit.

But those who remember the pre-Vatican II Church know what a transformation has been wrought. It happened, in the first order, because Pope John gave the Spirit more space to act.

On June 12, we celebrate Pentecost. The small band of Jesus' followers huddled in the Upper Room between the Ascension and Pentecost had no experience of the Holy Spirit and no notion of what the Spirit could do. Pentecost was a totally unanticipated explosion of the power of the gentle, self-effacing Holy Spirit.

We do not pay enough attention to the Holy Spirit. When we do pay attention, the Spirit will be transparent, allowing some other reality to be seen through him.

The "lesson" of Pope John and of Pentecost is that we should listen to the Spirit and trust in the Spirit. Incredible things happen when we refrain from imposing our own agendas and create room for the Spirit. This is not a counsel to be passive. Rather, it is a counsel to listen, to pray and to let the Spirit act.