An Outpouring of Divine Fire at the Birth of the Church

The Solemnity of Pentecost, in which we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Our Lady and the Apostles, is one of the most important festivities of the liturgical calendar. This event conferred maturity upon the Church, for, until then, it had rested in the arms of the Blessed Virgin as a child. And just as Mary was present on Calvary at the foot of the Cross, as Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, she was present in the Cenacle as Mother of the Mystical Body of Christ. Mother of the Head at Calvary, Mother of the Body in the Cenacle, she wanted this newborn Church to grow and develop, so as to become fitted for exercising its evangelizing mission.

On that day, Our Lady saw this maturation take place in an instant, when the Holy Spirit was poured forth in tongues of fire, first upon her, and then from her to the Apostles, disciples, and Holy Women who were there in large numbers. From then on, the Church had a greater effusion of sanctity, of gifts and of grace, and was instituted in practice as regards its external action, strength, and increase. The Cenacle is – the starting point of the astonishing growth of the Church – a veritable explosion of evangelization.

Jesus washes the Apostles’ feet – Diocesan Museum, Palma de Maiorca (Spain)

Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira comments on this event: “In spite of everything Our Lord had done for the Church until that hour, it could be said, in a sense – I do not want to make an exact comparison – that the Church, before Pentecost, was a clay figure, which received a breath of life from God at Pentecost, with the Divine Holy Spirit. There, everything changed, everything came to life and began to set fire to the world, and to spread contagiously over the earth until the apogee of today, in which the Gospel is preached to all peoples.”

Instantaneous and complete change

It is clear that, even beforehand, the Apostles were in the grace of God, as was evidenced in the episode of the foot washing at the Last Supper, when St. Peter showed resistance and was rebuked by Divine Teacher: “‘If I do not wash you, you have no part in Me.’ Simon Peter said to Him: ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him: ‘He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean’” (Jn 13:8-10). Nonetheless, the divine presence has degrees; the state of grace signifies a very high condition, but even superior to this is the presence of the Holy Spirit within the soul in a manner that is so active as to fill it with wisdom and discernment.

Such was the outpouring of the supernatural at Pentecost, as is borne out by the change in the Apostles after the coming of the Holy Spirit. They became different people; indeed, even their appearance was transformed, they began to express themselves with more elevated language, their demeanour must have changed… Why? Because something had taken place in the depths of their souls and, since the soul is the form of the body, the effects necessarily became outwardly apparent. The Apostles also attained new knowledge and understanding, as Our Lord had foretold: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). They received, moreover, the gift of prophecy, of miracles and of tongues, by which they spoke in their own language and everyone understood them in his own!

The indispensable impulse for the Church’s expansion

Here we see an entirely sui generis infusion of grace, which opened a new era for the Church, since, in order for the Apostles and disciples to accomplish the mission of preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments, so that the face of the earth would be penetrated by the Good News, it was necessary that they be confirmed in faith and pervaded by a plenitude, an impetus of love. They were set ablaze, as the tongues of fire aptly symbolize. The tongue is a sign of communication and interlocution, but these tongues were of fire; they generated heat and light, signalling that the words of the Apostles would have the power to move others. Going forth from there, St. Peter preached so eloquently that three thousand people converted and were baptized (cf. Acts 2:41).

This is a rapid synthesis of everything the Holy Spirit brought to the newly born Church on that unsurpassable occasion. Notwithstanding, when we celebrate this event, we could erroneously deem it a remote, merely historical episode, bearing no relation to us. Could Pentecost possibly fail to shed its profuse rays on our day as well? Having discussed the Liturgy of this Solemnity on other occasions, let us now approach the subject from an angle of special value for us today.

Pentecost – Valencia Cathedral (Spain)

Pentecost in the Twenty-First Century

As human creatures accustomed to perceiving through our senses – that is, by what we see, hear or touch – we are generally more attuned to the material than the spiritual. Accordingly, we tend to give credence only to the physical, like the Apostle St. Thomas who, upon receiving tidings of the Resurrection of Our Lord, said: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe!” (Jn 20:25). This is exactly how we are; we want to verify in order to believe. We forget, though, that once shown evidence, reason reaches its conclusions and belief becomes unnecessary. Faith, however, is precisely the virtue that leads us to accept that which surpasses our verification, as we read in Scripture: “faith is […] the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).

God is all-powerful

Our difficulty, in this area, lies is convincing ourselves of one point, which is God’s omnipotence, although we always proclaim it at the beginning of the Creed: “I believe in God, the Father almighty.” Even the Apostles faced this difficulty, as is inferred from that Gospel passage in which the rich man resolved to keep his goods instead of following the Master, and Our Lord remarked: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Lk 18:25) In surprise, the disciples asked: “‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus responded: ‘What is impossible with men is possible with God’” (Lk 18:26-27).

We must, therefore, always bear this truth in mind: God is all-powerful! He made the universe – a multitude of creatures – from nothing! Watching a colony of ants prepare for winter, for example, we may take it a matter of course how they bring leaves and provisions to the ant hill, and fail to ponder that it is the Creator who sustains them, as well as all other beings: stones, trees, insects… everything! We ourselves exist, are filled with vitality, and are capable of reading this text, because God maintains each one of us.

With His absolute power, He formed a clay figure which no artist could imitate; then He breathed into its nostrils and the figure came to life (cf. Gn 2:7), endowed with intelligence, will and sensibility, in a perfect body. Moreover, besides being gifted with a spiritual soul, man possessed the state of grace, as well as all of the supernatural gifts, and preternatural gifts such as the gift of integrity, which precluded the inclination to evil, except “if he were to previously break the harmony stemming from the submission of his superior reason to God;” the gift of immortality, by which he would not die, but would pass from earthly to heavenly life without the painful separation of the soul from the body; the gift of infused knowledge which, in the capacity of king of creation, conferred upon him the knowledge of all things and the reasons for which God made them. When the animals were brought to Adam to be named (cf. Gn 2:19-20), he conferred the title that corresponded to what he understood of the essence of each one: lion, tiger, ostrich, ant… the first man received all of these marvels through a divine breath! Why? Because God is all-powerful!

The Preaching of St. Peter, by Pere Mates – Museum of Art of Gerona (Spain)

A plan stained by sin

Nevertheless, the plan conceived by God when He gave man existence was ruined by sin. Adam consequently lost the gifts of integrity, immortality, infused knowledge, and especially grace. From him, all his descendents were born with the stain of original sin, and, with rare exceptions, it was a lawless posterity that multiplied. The deluge and the Tower of Babel were consequences, as was the sequence of horrors that played out across millennia of history, in which decadence became more flagrant at every turn. Finally, at the fullness of time, humanity was redeemed by the most precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but, despite this restoration, most of the generations that succeeded the Messiah turned their backs on the infinite merits of the Passion and descended again into vice: “the world knew Him not. He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not” (Jn 1:10-11). Human nature itself is in a state of deterioration; in the Old Testament, people had robust physical endurance and lived as long as hundreds of years – as for instance did our parents, Adam and Eve, and Methuselah (cf. Gn 5:5-27), while the current human life expectancy is between 70 and 75 years.

Additionally, man’s willpower and psychological makeup has experienced significant degeneration. In ancient society, which was much more organic than that of our day, nervous and mental balance was more durable; this stability has diminished today amid our agitated pace of life. In sum, virtue is disappearing from the face of the earth, beauty is bidding humanity farewell, and we find ourselves in a dramatic situation, perhaps worse than when the Word became incarnate to preach the Gospel and to die on the Cross.

The mystical currentness of the Liturgy

But what relation do these reflections bear on the Solemnity of Pentecost? Liturgical feasts should not be considered mere occasions for exercise of the memory, similar to pausing for a moment to remember a relative or friend on the anniversary of his death, by gazing upon his photo and recalling his good points, before resuming one’s daily affairs without further ado. While the Liturgy does, in part, entail remembrance, there is a mystical currentness that comes into force in the Holy Mass, bringing a real, authentic, and direct participation in the graces distributed long ago on that day – today, specifically, the effusion of the Holy Spirit – , because it congregates us around the living Christ, constituting more than a mere reminiscence of the period in which He was on earth.

This is the doctrine of the Church, according to the teaching of Pope Pius XI in the Encyclical Quas primas: “For people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church.” And Pope Pius XII, in the Encyclical Mediator Dei on the Sacred Liturgy, affirms: “The liturgical year, devotedly fostered and accompanied by the Church, is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, or a simple and bare record of a former age. It is rather Christ Himself who is ever living in His Church. Here He continues that journey of immense mercy which He lovingly began in His mortal life, going about doing good, (Acts 10:38) with the design of bringing men to know His mysteries and a way to live by them. These mysteries are ever present and active, not in a vague and uncertain way as some modern writers hold, but in the way that Catholic doctrine teaches us. According to the Doctors of the Church, they are shining examples of Christian perfection, as well as sources of divine grace, due to the merit and prayers of Christ; they still influence us because each mystery brings its own special grace for our salvation.”

Stained glass of the Altar of the Chair – St. Peter’s Basilica

The Church requests, for “now,” the graces once bestowed in the Cenacle

It is not for us to wholly penetrate the significance and substance of the event of Pentecost, since it is filled with mystery. But what would have become of the Spouse of Christ if the Paraclete had not descended upon the Apostles? We must not forget – though citing the fact with all due respect – how cowardly they were during Our Lord’s Passion; they abandoned Him, took flight and disappeared (cf. Mt 26:56; Mk 14:50). After Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, they regrouped, desiring to witness the implantation of the kingdom of Israel over all peoples (cf. Acts 1:6), and not the Kingdom of Heaven that the Divine Master had preached! Such is human nature… of itself unfitted for supernatural acts. Perhaps Providence permitted their pusillanimity to show the distance that separates our condition – in which we so often take pride – from the strength of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we frequently judge that the Saints were persons of extraordinary willpower, thanks to which they overcame obstacles and conquered the crown of justice. Yet, no man, however capable, can attain perfection through personal effort; he will only stably practise the virtues if he is assisted by the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit Who sanctifies the whole Church, as on that morning, when the wind invaded the entire house where they were gathered and tongues of fire alighted upon the heads of the Twelve and their companions, as the first reading of this solemnity narrates (Acts 2:1-11): they were transformed from timorous individuals into heroes!

As we pray the Collect for the day, we find a request that holds great efficacy, much more than all of our private prayers, since it is an official supplication of the Church and, therefore, enjoys absolute audience with the Most High: “O God, Who by the mystery of today’s great feast sanctify Your whole Church in every people and nation, pour out, we pray, the gifts of the Holy Spirit across the face of the earth and, with the divine grace that was at work when the Gospel was first proclaimed, fill now once more the hearts of believers.”

We Catholics possess the incomparable gift of belonging to the Mystical Body of Christ and of receiving the Holy Spirit through the Sacrament of Baptism and, above all, of Confirmation, albeit without the spectacular phenomena of the Cenacle. But the Church implores that the graces granted on that occasion to the Apostles and disciples – and, a fortiori, to Our Lady – be copiously poured out “now” into the hearts of the faithful, across the whole world.

A deluge of fire will flood the earth

Thus, the commemoration of the coming of the Holy Spirit offers us the solution for all the problems of the contemporary world. Very fittingly, St. Louis Grignion de Montfort writes in his Fiery Prayer: “The special reign of God the Father lasted until the flood and ended with a deluge of water; the reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ ended with a deluge of blood, but Thy reign, Spirit of the Father and of the Son, continues to the present day and will be ended by a deluge of fire, of love and of justice.” Fire burns, heats and illuminates; further on, St. Louis Grignion adds that it renews.

It is impossible for God not to fulfil His original plan for humanity, in one way or another. Man sinned and, as was previously discussed, his nature became deteriorated due to his wickedness. But let us again focus on divine omnipotence, with Jesus’ words to the Apostles resounding in our ears: “What is impossible for men is possible for God.” If the Lord permitted such decadence, His objective was to clearly show, on one hand, human failure, while, on the other, the plenitude of His power. How can the authenticity of these two poles be made clear? The first is evident, with the proof of our exceeding weakness. However, the time has come for us to witness an advent of the Holy Spirit; for, if this effusion was necessary for the primitive Church to effect its passage from infancy to adulthood, in our day His coming is indispensable for conferring upon the same Church the splendour that Our Lord Jesus Christ desired when He founded it, and to impart a new radiance to the face of the earth!

Pentecost today

Again, it is St. Louis Grignion de Montfort who predicts an historical era in which souls will strive to practise virtue in an extraordinary way. Where will this strength come from? “Lord, send out Your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth,” has been our plea for two thousand years and our canticle in the Responsorial Psalm (cf. Ps 104:30). Yes, everything can be renewed; we can be completely changed, as were the disciples! Then we will participate, in a unique way, in the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Virgin Mary and the Apostles that we celebrate today. We should remain steadfast in the belief that nothing is impossible for God, and that He is reserving His choicest graces for this phase of history called the latter days by numerous Saints.

“This will happen, particularly toward the end of the world, and indeed soon, because the Most High with His Holy Mother will form great Saints who will surpass in holiness most other Saints, as the cedars of Lebanon tower above small shrubs. […] They will be small and poor according to the world […]; but in compensation for this they will be rich in the graces of God, which Mary will distribute to them abundantly, great and eminent in sanctity before God, superior to every creature by their energetic zeal, and so powerfully supported by divine aid that, in union with Mary and with the humility of her heel, they will crush the head of satan and bring victory to Jesus Christ.”

Humanity stands in critical need of this effusion of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, we ardently gather around the altar to bring our request to the Mother of mothers, she to whose love we were all entrusted by her Son from the height of the Cross (cf. Jn 19:26-27). We ask her, as the Mother of the Mystical Body, to obtain from her Divine Spouse graces of greater fervour, consolation, piety, and strength to equip us to confront every evil. May the Paraclete come without delay, and the face of the earth be renewed!