On Pentecost Sunday the Church celebrates a birthday. She is not celebrating the birthday of the Holy Ghost. That would be heretical. As the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, God the Holy Ghost is co-eternal and co-equal with God the Father and God the Son. There never was a time when He did not exist. Admittedly the Jews never identified Him as a separate Person. With the benefit of the Divine Revelation that finds its completion in the Christian Gospel, however, we can find plenty of traces of the Holy Ghost’s presence throughout the Old Testament. Scratch the surface of Genesis and there He is already in the third verse of the very first chapter, hovering over the primordial darkness at the beginning of Creation. It is His voice that speaks through the prophets and, indeed, inspires every word of the Old Testament.
The birthday that the Church celebrates on Pentecost Sunday is in fact Her own birthday. Pentecost really marks the nativity of the Catholic Church.
Like an embryo growing in a mother’s womb, the development of the Church was a gradual process. Our Lord laid Her foundations with His public ministry. He established Her hierarchical structure when He appointed the Twelve Apostles, with Peter in charge, and commissioned them and their successors – the bishops and the Pope – to be the teachers, governors and sanctifiers in His Kingdom on earth. He made Christian Baptism the means of incorporation into His Mystical Body. In the Upper Room, where so many of the milestone scenes in the drama of our salvation took place, He instituted the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrament of the Eucharist, along with the priesthood of the New Covenant, so that Calvary might be perpetuated in an unbloody manner in all subsequent ages, so that He might abide with us and feed us with His own living Body, and so that sins might be forgiven in Confession.
It was on the Cross that Our Lord purchased the Church for Himself, winning for Her members the grace of Redemption. In the water and blood flowing from His wounded side, we are reminded of Eve being formed from the rib of Adam. And so the Church glories in Her beautiful title ‘Bride of Christ’.
It was at Pentecost, however, that the Church was really launched as a universal concern that would extend across continents and centuries. In was in that same Upper Room in which Our Lord had already instituted the Mass, the priesthood and the sacrament of Penance, that the Holy Ghost descended on Our Lady and the Apostles, and the Church ceased to be the concern of a local body of disciples and became forever truly international, truly Catholic.
While the Church is two thousand years old, She remains eternally young. It is the Holy Ghost who is responsible for this perennial youth. Biologists tell us that the cells of the human body are constantly dying and being replaced. And yet a human being retains a continuity of memory and identity throughout his life. Similarly in the Church: as Her members are born, baptised, anointed and buried, it is the Holy Ghost Who gives to the Church Her own continuity of memory and identity as generations come and go. In the words of Pope Leo XIII: “If Christ is the Head of the Church, the Holy Ghost is Her Soul.” He is the Divine Spirit Who ensures that She remains ever faithful to the same Truth, without caving in to the spirit of the age.
All of this has to do with what might be called the ‘public’ role of the Holy Ghost in the Church’s life. What about His action in our lives as individual members of the Church? Read the Acts of the Apostles and you will see that Pentecost tells us that as Christians we are all called to be ‘charismatics’.
This might sound alarming to most sane Englishmen. In this part of the world people have a healthy suspicion of forms of worship that involve breathlessness and perspiration. Being genuinely charismatic, however, does not necessarily mean praying the Our Father with arms outstretched like a Spitfire or a Messerschmitt. Being charismatic really means being full of the gifts of the Holy Ghost. Above all, it means brimming over with divine love.
The word charism means gift. And it is important to discern whether perceived charisms are in fact gifts of the Holy Ghost, rather than manifestations of eccentricity or even the influence of some malign spirit. Here we always have to remember that the Holy Ghost is the Spirit of unity and of truth. And so if our gifts contribute to the unity and the building up of the Church, and if they are characterised by docility and faithfulness to the Church’s teaching authority, then we can probably be confident that they are genuine gifts of the Spirit.
The Oratory was founded by one of the greatest charismatic saints in the Church’s history, St Philip Neri. Later this month we shall celebrate his feast day. Before he was a priest, the young Philip Neri was praying in the Roman catacombs one night, for the gifts of the Holy Ghost. It was probably on the vigil of the feast of Pentecost in 1544. Suddenly the Holy Ghost appeared in the form of a ball of fire that descended into his heart with such force that he was thrown to the ground. That mysterious Presence never left him. The fire of the Spirit burned in his breast for the rest of his long life. It expanded his heart, forcing a rupture in his ribcage, and it seemed henceforth to be the source of a physical warmth and an outpouring of love that brought many souls to conversion. It made him joyful, wise and patient. It did not make him precious and esoteric but open and attractive.
Being the greatest of gentlemen, God never forces His gifts upon us. His desire is for us to receive them with open hearts. We should pray in this month of Pentecost, and in this month of the great charismatic St Philip, that the same spirit of love and zeal that enflamed St Philip’s hearts will burn in our own, so that through our generosity and our witness, many souls will be brought into the divine unity of the Catholic Church.
In occasions of necessity, the Church encourages the faithful to pray novenas, or nine day prayers of petition. The origin of this is the nine days of prayer made by the disciples in the Upper Room after the Ascension. Our Lord commanded them to remain together in Jerusalem in preparation for the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost (Acts 1, 4). To assist us in our vocation of building God’s Kingdom on earth, we might make a novena asking for the Gifts of the Holy Ghost. These gifts are wisdom, understanding, fear of the Lord (awe and wonder), counsel, knowledge, fortitude and piety. We can begin this novena on Friday 10th May, concluding on Saturday 18th May, the Vigil of Pentecost. A suggested prayer is the Veni SancteSpiritus:
Come, Holy Ghost, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and kindle in them the fire of Thy love.
V. Send forth Thy Spirit, and they shall be created
R. And Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.
Let us pray.
O God Who by the light of the Holy Ghost didst instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the gift of the same Spirit we may be always truly wise and ever rejoice in His consolation.
Through Christ our Lord.