Pentecost – The Birthday of the Catholic Church

No doubt there are some Catholics who remember the beautiful season known as Whitsuntide. This began with Pentecost, also known as Whit Sunday, followed by Whit Monday and Whit Tuesday. Certain beliefs and practices associated with this time, though not necessarily spiritual, had nonetheless the benefit of focussing attention on the significance of the entire season of Pentecost. This liturgical season is preceded in importance only by Easter and Christmas. Before the reform in the liturgical calendar, every Sunday was named as a Sunday after Pentecost – the time we now call Ordinary Time.

Catholics knew that Whitsun was the real beginning of summer. It would be asking for trouble to leave off your winter woollies before Whit nor would you take a dip in the sea until after Whit. These are the kind of practices that so-called progressive people deplore. They think they know all about the nature of the Church but what they forget or never understood, is that in a country like Ireland religion, in the not so distant past, was so knit into the lives of the people that a distinct dividing line between the sacred and the secular was often lacking. Presumably this was also the case in other deeply Catholic countries.

Patrick Kavanagh understood this. He claimed that during the recitation of the family Rosary, the same tone of voice was used for the Hail Mary as was used to shoo the chickens out the door and the cat away from the cream. In England festivities for Whitsun included cheese rolling and Morris dancing. The word “Whit” seems to have been derived from “white” meaning the white garments worn by those presenting for Baptism. Some claim that it is a reference to the “wit” or knowledge as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Understanding the nature of the Church
Pentecost is the Feast of the Holy Spirit and the sealing of the paschal mystery of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It is also the birth of the Church. We should understand this in the correct way. If we fail to understand the nature of the Church in her many titles – Mystical Body of Christ, Holy Mother Church, the Bride of Christ to name a few – we could find ourselves celebrating ourselves instead.

Following the Second Vatican Council, it became usual to refer to the Church as the People of God. This is true of course; we are the people of God insofar as we are cells in the Body of Christ who is the Head of the Body. Unfortunately, this term has had some unforeseen consequences. Since liturgical malpractice is now so common as to be almost normal in some places, we would not be too astonished to find a parish where at Pentecost the choir sang ‘Happy Birthday to Us’ because of course the people are the Church!  

Tower of Babel – Pieter Bruegel The Elder

Seeing Pentecost within the context of the Old Testament and God’s covenant love helps us to understand the connections made in the liturgy. For example, at the Vigil Mass for Pentecost, the story of the tower of Babel is recounted. We hear how in those days the People of God tried to build a tower to reach heaven by their own efforts. God frustrated their attempt by confusing their language so they are unable to communicate with one another. In contrast to this, at Pentecost the Spirit, with the gift of tongues, demonstrates that his presence unites and transforms confusion into communion.

Pentecost was one of the major Jewish feasts occurring each year as directed by God. It was a means by which the chosen people could retain their sense of identity and unity. Pentecost was also called the “Feast of Weeks,” the “Feast of Harvest,” or the “Feast of First fruits,” and was held on the 50th day after Passover. For this reason, many devout Jews came to Jerusalem from other countries. They came to celebrate the feast which commemorated their own birth as God’s chosen people according to the law given to Moses at Sinai, recounted in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. What they heard instead on this day, were men they recognised as Galileans speaking diverse languages by means of the miraculous gift of tongues. These are the people who were the first witnesses to what happened in the upper room when the Holy Spirit descended on Our Lady and the Apostles.  

The day we celebrate as Pentecost Sunday is the fulfilment of the coming of the Holy Spirit and this is for everyone – not alone the apostles and disciples of Jesus and not just for the people of Israel. St. Paul, speaking to the Romans and by extension to all non-Jews, tells us that “Everyone moved by the spirit is a child of God….If we are children we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory.”

The Church makes our encounter with Christ possible
St.Matthew first drew our attention to the concept of Church when, following Peter’s affirmation, Jesus tells him that he is the rock on which the Church will be built. But that Church had yet to be born. In fact it is not born even when Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper. At that stage the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was anticipated, to be later fulfilled at Calvary when his side was pierced by the soldier’s spear. The Gospel at the Vigil Mass tells of Jesus calling on the scripture that refers to himself: “From his breast shall flow fountains of living water.”

The origin and growth of the Church are symbolised by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus. For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the ‘wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.’ (CCC 766)

In the Gospel we hear again that before Jesus ascended to heaven he told his disciples that another Advocate, the Holy Spirit would come who would teach them everything. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles leaves us with no doubt that this is what happened. The final sealing of the paschal mystery is the coming of the Holy Spirit.  As such, it is the “birthday” of the Church, in other words, the beginning. This is the external birth of the Church when she can be seen by all. Pentecost is the definitive creation of the Church in all her fullness. We can call this the historical date of the origin of the Catholic Church.

Pope John Paul II put it more simply: “In order to make this ‘encounter’ with Christ possible, God willed his Church.” (Veritatis Splendor ) The Pope said the Church “wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life” (Redemptor Hominis )

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