Posted by: liturgicalyear | May 19, 2013

A Catholic Understanding of Pentecost: Historical, Doctrinal & Practical


Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

When Jesus warned the disciples of his impending once-for-all sacrifice, he reassured them that He was not leaving them alone: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever.” (John 14:16) In essence, Jesus told the disciples: When the door closes on my time with you a window will open for the Holy Spirit.

From the Divine Realms to the Church’s Birth

While “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God…it is the Spirit who reveals him.” The Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth who unveils truth to us.” With the Holy Spirit, the fullness of the Trinity is revealed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clarifies how this spirit of truth comes to us through the Holy Spirit: “We know [God] only in the movement by which he reveals the Word to us and disposes us to welcome him in faith.” (CCC, 687) The Spirit reveals the Trinity to us through the birth of the Church, the establishment of the Sacraments, and through the promptings of inspiration.

More immediately in the Gospel story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, we learn that the Spirit came in wind and fire, to blow the disciples out of their cowering position in the upper chamber out into the streets of Jerusalem to proclaim bravely and clearly (miraculously in all the languages gathered there)  the Good News to all the world.

Jewish Roots and God’s Timing on Pentecost

Much of the known Jewish world happened to be in Jerusalem at this time for the Jewish Pentecost ceremony, a date set 50 days after the Passover. This Jewish celebration of Pentecost, called Shavu’ot, commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and corresponds to the first harvest season. The juxtaposition of this Jewish feast that honors the giving of the law with the first fruits shows the divine timing of the birth of the Church and the sending forth of the disciples to witness and convert.

The term “Pentecost” in Hebrew indicates the mechanism by which we experience this third person of the Trinity: “The term “Spirit” translates the Hebrew word ruah, which, in its primary sense, means breath, air, wind.” (CCC, 691)  One recalls the creation story where God breathed his life into the created clay structure which becomes man. This calls to mind the beautiful prayer that reminds us we are sustained with each breath by the divine presence. St. Athanasius’ beautiful, yet simple, prayer: “In you we live and move and have our being.”

From Symbols to Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is revealed in a series of symbols in the faith: water, anointing, fire, cloud and light, the seal, the hand, the finger and the dove. See the Catechism (294-701) for a full explanation of these symbols. We first receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism, where the wellspring of divine life is opened within us, and we are marked as Christ’s own. The consecrated holy water initiates the ritual and the stinging oil of chrismation images the water and fire symbols.

We are initiated in the anointing of the Holy Spirit and conjoined into the Body of Christ at Baptism. First Communion brings us closer to the Body of Christ by inviting us into the full participation in the Eucharist, where grace reinvigorates our spirit continuously. In Confirmation, the initiation rites are complete, and we receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and its gifts: wisdom, understanding, prudence, fortitude, reverence, knowledge.

When we cooperate with these graces, we bear the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit provide us with the knowledge of our divinely-infused capabilities. The extent to which we are fulfilling the promise of our baptism is measured in this world by the extent to which our lives are marked by the fruits of the Holy Spirit. This makes for a great list to prepare for Confession, and it reminds us we have been given what is needed to realize the fullness of Grace and to reflect this in our lives on Earth. We know the struggles against sin, and it is in this humble journey that we prepare for sainthood – the only true fulfillment of the great promise of our baptism.


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