Fear is a powerful human emotion that shapes our actions and words. A young man named Karol Wojtyla experienced firsthand the deep fear of his community as Poland endured the inhumanity of the Nazis during World War II. Karol belonged to a local theater group whose members were forced to go underground as the Nazis occupied their city.
One clandestine theater performance was particularly memorable as the young actors gathered, in secret, in a dark room lit only by a single candle, with no stage props and curtains drawn tight to muffle the sound of their voices. In the street below, they could hear Nazi soldier patrols blasting propaganda over crackling loudspeakers to instill fear in the hearts and minds of the people.
The young actors continued with their recitation of Polish poetry in the conviction that their secret performance was a form of cultural resistance that was keeping alive the religious and cultural history of Poland. The young man, Karol, went on to answer the Lord’s call to the priesthood and would, in time, be called to serve as bishop of Krakow.
Decades later, Karol was elected to the papacy, taking the name John Paul II. In his inaugural homily as pope, spoken on a world stage, he said, “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ.”
In today’s Gospel, the disciples remained in deep fear after Jesus’ death on the cross. They stayed behind locked doors for fear of religious authorities, expecting the same fate as their master. It was at this moment of utter fear and isolation that Jesus appears to the disciples, saying to them, “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus shows them his hands and his side, the unmistakable signs of his self-giving love in his death on the cross.
The disciples’ fear turns to rejoicing at the presence of the Lord. And when Jesus breathes on them, bestowing on them the gift of the Holy Spirit, they leave behind the chains of fear and become bold witnesses to faith.
The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Blessed Trinity, the love of the Father and the Son whose presence sanctifies and vivifies the church in every age. At Pentecost the entire church receives the Holy Spirit that Jesus first promised to his disciples.
Today, that same Holy Spirit is offered as gift to every disciple of Jesus so we might face and overcome the fears, anxieties and worries of life. In the power of the Holy Spirit we are strengthened to replace fear with faith and exchange the anxieties and worries of daily life with trust in God.
The Holy Spirit invites us today and every day to leave behind our fears and live in the freedom of friendship with Jesus, as we say in faith, “speak to me, Lord.”