Summary: All Christians are anointed with prophetic gifts by our baptismal anointing, but before speaking for God, we must also practice discernment of spirits.
Feast of St. John Neumann (January 5)
Thirteen Days of Christmas
Today St. John speaks to us of “testing the spirits.” In theological language, derived from St. Paul, this is the spiritual gift of discernment. Let’s talk about its exercise in the first century: in the churches St. Paul and others founded, Christians practiced the gift of prophecy. Sometimes that was just a matter of giving a good sermon or reflection on the Scriptures. All Christians are called to the prophetic gift by our baptismal anointing, and most folks practice that by witnessing to the faith when the occasion presents itself. We who are ordained practice prophecy more formally when we give homilies and sermons. But there were in the early Church, and I believe today, gifts of prophecy given to individuals outside those nine dots. In prayer meetings, I have heard men and women get up and speak as if the Lord is saying it. The words are usually of encouragement to do good and avoid evil, or words of praise of God.
But not all these messages–and not even all sermons–are from the Holy Spirit. That’s why the gift of discernment operates in the Church. We are all called to exercise that gift on ourselves. I call that “thinking twice with the mind of Christ.” If we are prompted to say something to a person or group, we should always look at those words as Jesus would look at them. Particularly ask if what you are about to say or advise has a chance of doing good for that person or group. If not, take counsel with a wise person about saying it. Often you’ll find that instead of being upbuilding of the community, those words would most likely be hurtful or destructive. When Jesus preached, He also healed. His kingdom cannot be built by scattering believers. May God save us in this new year from the kind of divisions that have given us 40,000 Christian denominations.
Today’s saint, John Neumann, was the first U.S. Catholic man to be canonized. That was just in 1977. He came to our country, remarkably, because there were too many priests in his native Bohemia. That was in 1836, the year of the foundation of the Texas Republic. The U.S. was growing fast, largely because Catholics were fleeing the chaos and religious persecution in Europe. Recall that in 1845 the great Irish potato famine, that killed a million people, mostly Catholics, began and lasted seven years. The migration included Germans and Italians and eastern Europeans, and the Alsatians who founded Castroville down the road to the west. This large immigrant population needed priests and bishops. Philadelphia and New York were two places where many settled.
John Neumann dedicated himself to missionary work, especially among German-speaking Catholics in upstate New York, for his first four years of ministry. The new evangelization, you see, is not really new. All are in need of evangelization, conversion, repentance. Neumann then became the first Redemptorist to take vows in the U.S. He worked in Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. As bishop of Philadelphia from 1852, he vigorously organized the church in that area, and in eight years as bishop, increased the number of schools from two to a hundred! In other words, you’d expect that it would take two lifetimes to accomplish what the Holy Spirit did in this man, but he didn’t even live to see his forty-ninth birthday!
So, like him, exercise your prophetic gift, but always subject it to proper discernment.