by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem., Prior


It was an event like no other. What we heard in the first reading has resounded throughout the centuries as the birthday of the Church, the day on which her missionary movement began, never to cease until the last day on earth. The sky cracked, wind rushed, fire roared. And the Holy Spirit, Who was already in every soul enjoying God’s good pleasure, now imparted an impetus, the unstoppable need to make disciples of all nations, to spread out to the four corners of the earth and bring every living person under the sweet yoke of Jesus Christ.

Before the account of Pentecost, the Acts of the Apostles testifies that there were about 120 disciples; after St. Peter’s first sermon that day, over 3000 men were baptized. And the Scriptures say “men,” as in “males,” since the Mosaic Law was that men had to travel to God’s dwelling place for three feasts per year, Pentecost being one of them. Yet this is not to indicate that no women converted, but rather to say that the heads of households converted, implying that those first converts went home as the first missionaries, and their families came into the faith soon enough.

So what happened? Those heroic men, the Apostles, walked to Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, and India. They endured beatings and shipwrecks and death. They laid the foundation for every succeeding age of the Church. Do we not seem so lackadaisical by comparison, hardly caring about our own salvation sometimes, let alone about those who still have not heard the only Name of salvation? Has holiness really so waned in the Church?

If we look to the living members of the Church, we have the certitude of the faith that no one alive today is in the same league as those first missionaries, and the Apostles themselves, and especially the immaculate Mother of God. Nevertheless, there seems to be some way in which God expects us to be just like them, for our collect today at the beginning of Mass said, “With the divine grace that was at work when the Gospel was first proclaimed, fill now once more the hearts of believers.”

If that divine grace that once filled the members of the Church with such apostolic fruitfulness annually refills us, then we can see that the dilemma does not admit of a simple yes or no answer. If we ask ourselves, Is the Church not as holy as it once was?, on the one hand it doesn’t seem so, but can we really then posit that the Holy Spirit packed up and left? Certainly not! He is the soul of the Mystical Body. “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God,” we heard in the second reading. And, “whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him.” He is the principle and cause of unity between Christ the Head and us the Members. If He were to withdraw entirely, the Mystical Body would die, which is unthinkable.

And so, in one sense the holiness of the Church is exactly the same as it ever was or ever will be. You cannot get holier than God’s very presence. And in another sense, the human receptacles of that holiness are oftentimes underwhelming. Still, if under the light of faith we expand our mental horizons, we can see that the Church is holier now than it ever was. How?

Those who strode this earth like giants among men in the first age of the Church have only left this earth, not the Church. They now enjoy the light of glory who once had walked by the light of faith. They are confirmed in their union with the Holy Spirit, not bereft of it. And so with each passing age, as more and more souls victoriously cross the finish line, they are added to that permanent number of the saved even as they are replaced here below by various numbers of strugglers. And so the Church always grows holier.

Still, we cannot blind ourselves to the fact that the rushing presence of the Holy Spirit seems to have had much greater effect in those first Christians than today’s celebration is having on us right here and now. I don’t see tongues of fire, and you don’t look amazed that I’m speaking in Spanish or Tagalog, or whatever. And yet souls have just as much need for the Gospel of Christ as they ever did. How do we make that prayer we said at the beginning of Mass find fulfillment?

The disciples before Pentecost were ready for the Holy Spirit. Jesus had told them Who He was: that He would come from the Father and the Son; that He would be on their legal defense team; that He would guide them into all truth; that He would remind them of everything Christ had told them; that He would only come to them if Christ left them, which was better for them; and that He would be with them always. All this they knew, but more so, they wanted Him to come; they desired it with all their hearts. No one was more attuned to the promptings of grace than the Blessed Virgin, and the disciples were gathered in prayer around her. They were praying for Him to come. The longing of their hearts were put into the words of prayer, so that when the Holy Spirit came, the onrushing of His power found them willing vessels of His glory. And then they opened their mouths…

If we look around and see a world, a nation, a county still pagan, still hostile to Christianity, or hostile once again, then Pentecost needs to start again with us here and now. We need to want our whole lives to be turned upside down as we preach the Gospel wherever we are to whoever will listen. What is a little suffering, a little embarrassment, a little revilement if even one soul turns from darkness to light, from hatred to love, from misery to happiness? Gather, let us gather, then, around the Mother of God in prayer, opening our hearts to the onrush of grace. For the Church prays, and therefore God grants, that the Holy Spirit will fill us even as He did on that day which forever changed the history of the world for the infinitely better.

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