Nothing Catholic happens in the absence of the Holy Spirit

By: By Tim Irwin

Solemnity of Pentecost/May 24

Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11; Psalm 104:1,24,29-30,31,34; Galatians 5:16-25 or 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7,12-13/Sequence: Veni, Sancte, Spiritus; John 15:26-27; 16:12-15 or John 20:19-23

The church offers a rich selection of readings for the celebration of Pentecost Sunday. Rightly so, as Pentecost celebrates both the beginning of the Catholic Church and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.

Depending on where and when you celebrate Pentecost, you will hear a different set of readings. If you attend Mass at the Saturday night vigil, you may hear a first reading from Genesis, Exodus, Ezekiel, or Joel. Each addresses an entirely different matter. The Genesis reading recounts the Tower of Babel. The Exodus reading covers part of the Children of Israel’s sojourn to the Promised Land. Ezekiel says these dead bones will live again. The reading from Joel promises that God’s presence will be become more apparent with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. At first glance, it may be difficult to see what all of these readings have in common. Perhaps, that’s the point. Regardless, of what is happening in the story of our salvation three things seem clear. The Holy Spirit presides, His presence is essential to our redemption, and responding to His abiding presence is a struggle.

The second reading for the vigil Mass comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul says, “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Perhaps because of the wondrous and difficult challenge of being both spirit and flesh, we keep looking for the infinite in the finite. We think we can build our own stairway to heaven or find our own path to the Promised Land without the Holy Spirit. Herein lies our struggle.

The first reading on Sunday comes from the Acts of the Apostles and recounts the actual events of Pentecost. This is the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit foretold in Joel. People from everywhere hear the first proclamation of the apostles and are amazed and astounded.

One of two excerpts from Paul serves as the second reading. In Corinthians, Paul says, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” In Galatians, Paul teaches, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.” Again, the message is clear. Left to our own devises, the struggle of discipleship leaves the salvation that it promises beyond our grasp.

Regardless of which Mass you attend on Pentecost, the Gospel comes from St. John and like the other readings, each of the three options highlights the Holy Spirit as the source of Divine empowerment for the church and its members. The role of the Holy Spirit doesn’t end with John’s Gospel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites the Holy Spirit in 448 paragraphs touching every facet of Catholic life. From sacraments to service, the clergy to the laity, nothing Catholic happens in the absence of the Holy Spirit.

In one respect, the Holy Spirit seems like the unsung hero of the Catholic faith. Pentecost is the closest thing to a feast day we have for the Holy Spirit and if we get too engrossed in the role of the apostles, we might miss Him.

Once, when my son was 5 years old, I watched as he repeatedly ran through the incoming surf with his toy sand bucket in hand. “What are you doing?” I asked. He answered, “Dad, I’m trying to catch a wave in a bucket, but all I get is water.” The Holy Spirit seems no easier to catch. His activity in salvation history is so pervasive that particularizing it in the context of a special occasion seems to underestimate His enduring presence.


TIM IRWIN teaches at Peoria Notre Dame High School, where he chairs the Theology Department. He is a member of St. Mark Parish in Peoria.

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