It was my first year in seminary and I was out with my family at a restaurant in Fairfield when we ran into some old friends of ours who had lived in our neighborhood when we were growing up. Jim, the father, was interested in what I was doing and so we talked about how my experience at St. John Fisher was going. At some point during the conversation, there was a pause, and a troubled look came over his face and he said quietly to me, “I went to the doctor the other day. My cancer is back. The doctor said it doesn’t look good.” When he said that to me, I suddenly heard myself say to him, “Have you been to confession?” My words surprised me, because that was not a typical way for me to speak. I was also taken aback by the way he responded. “No, not for a while. But it’s been on my mind.” Hearing that, I said, “It’s probably time to go.” He nodded his head. I saw him again a few weeks later and he told me that he knocked on the rectory door of a local parish (not his own) and the priest heard his confession, which he said went well, and he was much relieved. Jim went through a few rounds of chemotherapy, but the cancer eventually got him. He died within the year of our initial conversation.
This incident came to mind when I was thinking about the first reading from today’s Mass, which comes from the Acts of the Apostles (8:26-40). It gives the account of the St. Philip the Deacon, who is told by the Lord to make his way south, out of the city of Jerusalem. No other instruction is given. But as Philip is traveling along the road, he sees the chariot of a high-ranking official, a eunuch, who served in the royal court of the Queen of the Ethiopians. The Holy Spirit moves Philip to approach the chariot and the Apostle hears the eunuch reading aloud from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Intrigued, the eunuch invites Philip to join him in the chariot and shares with him the passage he was reading. “I beg you,” the eunuch says to Philip, “about whom is the prophet [speaking]? About himself or about someone else?” The scripture then states that “Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this Scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him.” The eunuch is so moved by Philip’s words that he orders the chariot to stop along the shore of some body of water and asks Philip to baptize him then and there. With the baptism performed, the Holy Spirit “snatched Philip away.” The passage continues: “The eunuch saw him no more, but continued on his way rejoicing.”
The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. Looking back, I am convinced that the Lord had been working on Jim, inviting him to receive His mercy in confession, to prepare him for what was coming. That evening, the Holy Spirit worked through me, prompting me to say the very thing that Jim needed to hear. I didn’t really have to think about it, the words just came. Jim responded, and went off to be reconciled. It was an awesome thing to be a part of, and I have recognized that same movement of the Holy Spirit at other times in my ministry as a priest, most often in the confessional. It never fails to leave me in awe when I hear myself saying something to someone that is far more insightful than anything I could have come up with on my own, and which seems to be exactly what the person needed to hear.
It’s a reminder that the Holy Spirit is active among us, and that the Spirit’s gifts are real. Through those gifts the Lord wants to draw us closer to Him and draw others closer to Him too. But we need to have hearts that are sensitive to the movements of the Holy Spirit. We cultivate such hearts through regular prayer, reflection on scripture, acts of charity, and the sacramental life – especially confession and the Eucharist. The amazing experience of the St. Philip in today’s reading is not something limited to the great saints of the past. The Holy Spirit is inviting you and me to participate in the proclamation of the Gospel to those around us. We never know whom the Holy Spirit is disposing at any moment to receive through us the life-giving Word. In our relationship with Christ, we must ask Him for the grace to recognize and respond to the movements of the Holy Spirit, that we might know the joy of working with Him for the salvation of souls, including our own.