This Sunday, we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, when the fullness of the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and they burst out of the upper room and began to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This feast is one of the most important events in salvation history for two reasons. First, Pentecost fully reveals the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. The strong driving wind and the tongues of fire that fell upon the apostles are the visible signs of the Holy Spirit, the love of the Father and the Son poured forth transforming the apostles and empowering them to be the witnesses of Christ to the ends of the earth thus fulfilling the words of Christ: “But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The coming of the Holy Spirit also institutes the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church and all four of these marks of the Church are present at Pentecost. When you carefully read the Pentecost account in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke makes it very clear that this is not just an individual experience of the coming of the Holy Spirit by the apostles and other disciples, but is in fact above all an ecclesial event.
First, St. Luke makes it clear that all the nations of the ancient world are present in Jerusalem, and, in fact, if you had a map of the ancient world at the time, Luke mentions almost all of the major regions and cities that encompassed the entire world at this time. And yet, each person by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is able to hear the Gospel of Christ preached in his own language. What is happening here? St. Luke is making strikingly clear that the same humanity that was scattered in the Book of Genesis at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) is now being intimately united in the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church. A humanity that was once scattered and divided in sin is now, by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, newly created as the Body of Christ, the Church. Thus, we see that this gathering of the human family at Pentecost is the Church that is both one and Catholic, or universal. In other words, the Holy Spirit brings about the Church that is intimately united in the Spirit and also knows no boundaries, for the Church is open to every person of every race, language and culture.
Secondly, we also see that this Church is holy, first and foremost because it is filled with the Holy Spirit. We also see that those who are joined to the Church are joined to her by virtue of the Sacrament of Baptism through which they die to their old sinful selves and become a new creation in Christ. The Holy Spirit sent by Christ not only inaugurates the presence and mission of the Church, but that same Spirit makes the Church holy.
Thirdly, we also see in the Pentecost event that the Church is Apostolic in that it is Peter and the other eleven apostles that are charged with handing on the Deposit of Faith that has been entrusted to them by Christ. This is the profound beauty of the Church, that Christ instituted the Church upon the Rock of Peter and the other apostles, and then filled them with a unique charism of the Holy Spirit to hand on, protect, and interpret the Deposit of Faith to each generation. This handing on of the faith beginning at Pentecost and continuing to this present day in the successors of the apostles, the Pope and the Bishops, is guided, protected, and guaranteed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Two years ago, I had the awesome privilege of visiting Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica where we celebrated Mass at the Altar of St. Peter. Above the altar at the very front of St. Peter’s is the famous stained glass window of the Holy Spirit pouring down from heaven over the Chair of St. Peter. This was one of the most moving experiences as I truly sensed the power of the Holy Spirit as he guides and protects the Church throughout the centuries. It is this presence of the Holy Spirit first given at Pentecost that inaugurated the mission of the Church that has also protected and kept the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church alive and well as the instrument of salvation in the world for over 2,000 years.
As we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, let us not only give thanks to God for the gift of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, but for the great gift of the Catholic Church that is truly the “church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15)