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The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Pentecost Pastoral Letter 2021
From Bishop Wayne Kirkpatrick

My Dear People:

The feast of Pentecost dates back to the first century. It originated from the Jewish feast of Weeks, which occurs fifty days after Passover. Pentecost means fiftieth day. According to Jewish tradition, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses 50 days after the first Passover, which freed the Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt. As the Hebrews settled into the land of Canaan, the feast became a time to honour the Lord for blessing the fruits of their labours.

Described in Leviticus 23, the Feast of Weeks is the second of the three “solemn feasts” that all Jewish males were required to travel to Jerusalem to attend.  All three of these feasts required that “first-fruit” offerings be made at the temple as a way of expressing thanksgiving for God’s provision. The Feast of Weeks was in celebration of the wheat harvest. To the Jews, this time of celebration is known as Shavuot, which is the Hebrew word meaning “weeks.”  It normally occurs in late spring, either the last part of May or the beginning of June.  It was a day of great thanksgiving, which explains why Jerusalem was filled with an international crowd of pilgrims who had come there to worship. On Pentecost day, a great transformation took place among the disciples. The reading from the Acts of Apostles gives us a graphic picture of Pentecost. The bewildered disciples were gathered together in the upper room; hiding behind locked doors when suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind that filled the entire house where they were sitting and then divided tongues of fire rested on each of them. All were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability. The Holy Spirit gifted them with a new power of speech in order to proclaim the gospel.  It is most significant that tongues of fire appeared since it is by tongues that testimony is given.  All were amazed and astonished. The transformation of the disciples was immediately evident.  They were no longer afraid but they boldly went into the streets of Jerusalem openly proclaiming “the mighty acts of God.” This is why Pentecost is often referred to as of the birthday of the Church. Others would remind us that the fountain of the sacramental life of the Church came as water and blood flowed from the wounded side of Jesus hanging on the cross.  Nevertheless, the Church was made manifest to the world on the day of Pentecost by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.   

The gospel of John presents a similar but somewhat different story of Pentecost. The disciples were hiding behind locked doors in the Upper room when suddenly the risen Lord appeared in their midst. He calmed their fears when he said ‘Peace be with you’ and then he empowered them to carry on his mission by breathing on them saying receive the Holy Spirit. In many ways, we find ourselves in a similar situation as the disciples did on that first Pentecost Sunday.  We are under stay-at-home orders and so we gather behind closed doors, or we are working under restrictions, wearing masks and keeping our distance from each other. We have not been able to attend Mass and our homes have become places of intense prayer. Not able to gather with our parish community, we watch the Mass on television or through social media or we listen on the radio. We long for the day when we will be able to gather again and celebrate the Eucharist together with our friends and neighbours.  Like Mary, Mother of the Church who gathered and prayed with the disciples, we too gather together with Mary our Mother and pray that we might be strengthened with gift of the Holy Spirit.

The image of the Holy Spirit presented in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles is that of wind and fire which are symbols of the divine presence. The purifying power of fire is complemented by that of the mighty rushing wind recalling the theme of creation by the breath of God that gives life.

We know all too well that breath is life.  If we cannot breathe, we die.  COVID-19 causes a respiratory type of infection in the lungs marked by a shortness of breath with difficulty in breathing.  In the Bible, breath is a symbol for the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew word for spirit “ruah” occurs over 300 times in the Old Testament, from the very first chapter of Genesis.  “Ruah” means “breath.” The beginning of Genesis tells us, God’s Spirit was “sweeping over the waters of chaos and darkness. God forms the first human from the soil and breathes life into it and the human begins to breathe. We began through the “life-giving” breath of God and each breath we take is an ongoing gift. We breathe in, we breathe out. We are alive because of God’s breath in us.

The Spirit is manifested in a variety of ways. God is not restricted to one way of doing things; wind, fire, and the gentle breath are all manifestations of the one Spirit. Whatever way the Spirit is manifested in our lives; it is gift, and these gifts are given for the good of the church. At Pentecost, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit that was poured out upon the first disciples but that first Pentecost was not a one-time event, that the same Spirit is given to each of us today.  The Holy Spirit is always present and active in our hearts and in the life of the church. Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are gifted with the Holy Spirit and through the Sacrament of Confirmation we are strengthened with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit to bring spiritual renewal to our lives, our parishes, and to our world. 

Each one of us is part of the Church; each one of us has a different role to play always with the power of the same Spirit. That is why Paul says, there are a variety of gifts but the same Spirit, there are a variety of services, but the same Lord; there are a variety of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good for the building up of the one Body of Christ.

With a new Apostolic Letter last week entitled ANTIQUUM MINISTERIUM  Pope Francis established the lay ministry of catechist.  This new ministry has ancient origins, going back to the New Testament.  With his Apostolic Letter, Pope Francis is responding to an urgent need for the evangelisation of our world. “The ministry of Catechist in the Church is an ancient one (#1).”  “From the beginning, the Christian community was characterized by many different forms of ministry carried out by men and women who, obedient to the working of the Holy Spirit, devoted their lives to the building up of the Church (#2).”  “The history of evangelization over the past two millennia clearly shows the effectiveness of the mission of catechists (#3).”  The Pope hopes there will be an “Awakening personal enthusiasm on the part of all the baptized and reviving the awareness of their call to carry out a proper mission in the community demands attentiveness to the voice of the Spirit, who is unfailingly present and fruitful (#5).”  “In their daily life, interwoven with family and social relationships, the laity come to realize that they “are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances (#6).”  We are blessed to have this ministry of catechist already actively engaged in our diocese but it needs to expand to every parish and engage everyone. 

Scripture scholar, Patricia Sanchez once told this story in her commentary on the feast of Pentecost. A teacher at a Catholic University asked her students if they thought their faith was worth sharing. One student’s response struck the teacher, “If you love someone, or something, enough you want to share it. If you are in love, you cannot wait to tell others. So, if you love what it means to be a Christian, it makes all the difference in the world that you give this gift to someone you love.”

People who breathe with the breath of the Spirit are not bystanders in life. They do not live behind locked doors in fear. When an opportunity to share their faith arises, they speak up. When an injustice has been done, they act on it. When someone is grieving, they will sit with him or her in consolation. When a classmate is bullied, they stand alongside them. When new workers show up on the job, they help them get oriented. When a wrong is done them, they forgive, even before being asked. When they have important choices to make, they choose the most loving one.

No one image can capture the Holy Spirit. Today the Holy Spirit is described as a life-giving breath. As we are facing issues these days that are testing our faith, draining our energy, and leaving us short of breath, then there is a prayer we can say.  As we breathe in and breathe out, we pray this ancient prayer:

Come Holy Spirit come, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.


Communications Officer, Diocese of Antigonish