As Catholics, we celebrate the end of the Easter season with the Solemnity of Pentecost, that beautiful event where the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles in the form of tongues of fire, filling them with grace and strength. But this outpouring of the Holy Spirit is not reserved for the apostles only; it is promised to every Christian, a promise which is fulfilled at our Confirmation.
Of the seven sacraments, Confirmation is often the most difficult to explain and indeed to understand. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we find a connection between the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost and the Sacrament of Confirmation. Reflecting on the event of Pentecost can help us develop a deeper understanding of our Confirmation and what we are called to do as a result of our Confirmation.
Before Christ ascended into heaven, he promised the Holy Spirit would be sent as a guide for the apostles to strengthen them. As Our Lord promised, the Holy Spirit did come upon the apostles at Pentecost. We hear this story in Acts 2:1-11, which is the first reading for the liturgies on Pentecost Sunday. The entire passage is worth quoting at length:
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly, there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they ask, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God. (Acts 2:1-11)
Pentecost and the Proclamation of the Gospel
I am always struck by the immediacy with which the apostles respond to the Holy Spirit by going out and preaching the Good News. There is no hesitation. The apostles receive the Holy Spirit and immediately they go out into Jerusalem and proclaim the Gospel. They go out and evangelize.
Peter’s speech on Pentecost shows us the boldness of the apostles and we get a glimpse at the urgency of the message. As Peter addressed the Jews, he explained to them the meaning of Sacred Scripture, and invited them to repent, saying:
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” He testified with many other arguments, and was exhorting them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. (Acts 2:38-40)
Peter was so compelling that we are told “about three thousand persons were added that day” (Acts 2:41). In Acts 4, Peter and John are confronted by the Sanhedrin for preaching about Jesus and the two apostles explain, “It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Immediately after the descent of the Holy Spirit, the apostles began to preach and evangelize.
Pentecost and Hardships
I have always been challenged by how quickly the apostles began to experience hardships and sufferings for the Gospel. Soon after Pentecost, the apostles are confronted by the Sanhedrin for curing a crippled beggar (Acts 4) and are later arrested and flogged for preaching in the temple (Acts 5). In the end, all but one of the apostles is martyred for the sake of the Gospel. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost gives the apostles the strength to preach the Gospel and to suffer for Christ. Ultimately, they become Christ’s witnesses (from the Greek, meaning “martyrs”).
The apostles’ courageous actions show us a connection between the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and being witnesses for the Gospel. Think about these words from Christ: “You will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, emphasis added).
The Holy Spirit came upon the apostles to give them the power and strength to be Christ’s witnesses so that they might “go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). The strength to live out this mission is uniquely given by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This fact has important implications for us as baptized and confirmed Catholics. The Catechism makes a clear connection between Pentecost and the Sacrament of Confirmation. Quoting Pope Paul VI, it notes:
From that time on the apostles, in fulfillment of Christ’s will, imparted to the newly baptized by the laying on of hands the gift of the Spirit that completes the grace of Baptism. For this reason in the Letter to the Hebrews the doctrine concerning Baptism and the laying on of hands is listed among the first elements of Christian instruction. The imposition of hands is rightly recognized by the Catholic tradition as the origin of the sacrament of Confirmation, which in a certain way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church. (CCC 1288)
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was not just reserved for the apostles; the Holy Spirit is available to and wants to pour himself into each of us. The coming of the Holy Spirit is made available to the Church today through the laying on of hands in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
It is important to point out that all baptized persons do in fact have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. This is one of the graces of Baptism, the removal of sin and the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity within the soul. Because of our Baptism, the Holy Spirit does dwell in our souls.
The example of the apostles at Pentecost and the teaching of the Catechism help us understand the unique call we have as confirmed Christians to be Christ’s witnesses.
As lay people, we can find being witnesses of our faith challenging, often discovering that our Catholic beliefs are unwelcome in conversations and are stigmatized in the public square. However, as lay people, we can reach every corner of the world, and our society desperately needs us to be witnesses to the saving truths of the Gospel through our participation in the life of the Holy Spirit.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Pope Paul VI, who once said: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41). Our world today is in dire need of Christians living as authentic followers of Christ. The power of Christian witness cannot be underestimated. Let us return to the story of Pentecost in the book of Acts. We are told after Peter’s speech on Pentecost that three thousand persons became Christian (Acts 2:41). As the Christian community began to be established, the Scriptures tell us:
Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:46-47).
The witness of the Apostles and the early Christians continued to bring others to Christ, and we are called to do the same through our Christian witness.
Pentecost and the Laity
The Second Vatican Council discussed the importance of the role of the laity in bringing the Gospel into society by describing their witness and work in the world as leaven:
The laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper foundation and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. (Lumen Gentium, 31)
As lay people, being witnesses of the Gospel in the ordinary circumstances and situations of life is part of our mission and calling. Thanks to the sacrament of Confirmation, we are provided with the grace and strength we need from the Holy Spirit to be able to do this, just as we see the apostles do at Pentecost.
The Solemnity of Pentecost gives us a great opportunity to reflect on the lives of the apostles and on their transformation in the Spirit. This Pentecost, let us pray that we learn to participate with the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and become the witnesses Christ calls us to be.
Cover Image: “Pentecost” by Jean II Restout, 1732.