Pentecost Sunday, which fell on 23 May this year, commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ's disciples, 50 days after His Resurrection. This took place on the ancient Jewish festival called the 'feast of weeks' or Pentecost which occurred 50 days after the Passover and celebrated the sealing of the Old Covenant on Mount Sinai.
Pentecost marked the foundation of the Christian Church and, as Benedict XVI explains (see Reflection, page 20), it also underlined in dramatic fashion the Church's universality and foreshadowed her future move from Jerusalem to Rome - in those days regarded as capital of the known world. Pentecost also confirmed the essentially Trinitarian character of Christian belief.
Christ had promised the Apostles that He would sent the Holy Spirit, and, on Pentecost, they were granted the gifts of the Spirit which would empower them to spread the Good News to the four corners of the world. This was evident as the Apostles began to preach the Gospel in the various languages spoken by the Jews gathered there for the Jewish festival from different parts of the Roman Empire. We are told about 3,000 people were converted and baptised that day. Many, no doubt, had been followers of Jesus.
That is why Pentecost is often called 'the birthday of the Church' for on this day, with the descent of the Holy Spirit, Christ's mission was completed and the New Covenant inaugurated.
At the same time, St Peter, the Vicar of Christ and the first pope, was clearly shown to be the leader and spokesman for the Apostles (see Acts 2:14ff) as Christ had intended.
In past years, Pentecost was celebrated with greater solemnity than it is today. In fact, the entire period between Easter and Pentecost Sunday was known as Pentecost (and it is still called Pentecost in the Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox).
Michael Gilchrist: Editor (email address available on request)