This Sunday, May 28, is the Solemnity of Pentecost. This great feast recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles gathered in prayer with Mary (Acts 2:1–31). But of what relevance is that today? The Diocese of Lansing’s Director of the Office of Worship, Jeremy Priest, now explains.
It’s Monday, May 18, 1970. The day after Pentecost Sunday. Pope St. Paul VI rises early and makes his way to the sacristy of his private chapel to prepare to offer Holy Mass. The sacristan has set out the papal vestments. Pope St. Paul looks at them, puzzled, then asks: “Why are the vestments green? This is the Octave of Pentecost. The vestments should be red.” The sacristan replies that, in fact, it is Ordinary Time, as the Octave of Pentecost had recently been abolished. “Who did that?” asks Pope St. Paul. “Your Holiness, you did.”
St. Paul VI wept.
You have, perhaps, heard that story before. It may be apocryphal, but its regular re-telling certainly reflects a sense of loss among many Catholics following the deletion of the Octave of Pentecost from the Church’s calendar in 1969. But why should this be missed?
An octave is an eight-day period in which the Church celebrates a great feast. The octaves of the Roman Calendar are the Octaves of Christmas and Easter. From about the seventh century until 1970, the Roman calendar celebrated the Octave of Pentecost. Many of the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate the feast of All Holy Martyrs (something like our All Saints’ Day) on the Sunday after Pentecost, as a way of celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the saints who gave the supreme witness to Christ through the shedding of their blood. The gift of the Holy Spirit is so immense that one day is not enough to take it in.
The celebration of the Octave of Pentecost was a way to model and show forth the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church: the witness of love unto death in the witness of the saints and martyrs. The Church is continually sent by the Holy Spirit, the “promise of the Father,” so that she can proclaim Christ and him crucified to the world. (cf. 1 Cor 1:23) The School of Pentecost is the model of evangelization. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the “soul of the Church” and the “principal agent of evangelization.” (EN, 75) The Holy Spirit “both equips and directs” the Church “with hierarchical and charismatic gifts,” making “the Church keep the freshness of youth” and leading her “to perfect union with her Spouse.” (LG 4)
So, the Holy Spirit animates our mission. But the Holy Spirit does not just act through signs and wonders of physical healings, speaking in tongues, and words of prophecy. (cf. CCC 739) The Holy Spirit stands at the very center of the Church’s sacramental life. After Christ’s Ascension, he is “seated at the right hand of the Father … pouring out the Holy Spirit on his body which is the Church” and acting “through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace.” (CCC 1084) Indeed, the gift of the Holy Spirit “ushers in a new era … during which Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church.” (CCC 1076)
You might say, “Well, I understand the Holy Spirit acting in the Mass and the sacraments — but in the calendar of feasts and octaves?” Every year, the Church celebrates the actions of the Holy Spirit in order to unfold the “whole mystery of Christ” throughout the calendar. The mystery of Christ permeates all time, and that mystery is stretched out over the hours, the days, the weeks, the months and the years. So immense and multi-faceted is the mystery that we can’t take it all in at once. Even the feasts of the saints are like facets that reflect the glorious light of Christ that shines in the darkness. Throughout the liturgical year, the Church draws us into the depths of the mystery of Christ little by little, not as dates on a page but as portals of entry, ways given by the Holy Spirit to live more deeply in Christ. The whole mystery of the Holy Spirit’s work is thus remembered and unfolded year after year so that the we can give ourselves over to the Holy Spirit and he can form us in Christ. Thus formed by the Holy Spirit, we have been called by our shepherd to go out with “a new boldness, [with] tongues of fire given us by the Holy Spirit.” (Bishop Boyea, Go and Announce the Gospel of the Lord)
Exactly a half-century on from the liturgical reforms of 1969, Bishop Boyea made his ad limina visit to Rome to provide the Holy Father with an update on the health of our diocese and to pray at the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul. During his audience with Pope Francis, His Holiness asked Bishop Boyea if we had any requests. Bishop Boyea replied: “Holy Father, would you please consider restoring an Octave of Pentecost?” Not surprisingly, Pope Francis received the request graciously. The Holy Father replied by saying that he had something like an Octave of Pentecost in mind when he established the Monday after Pentecost as the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church.
Whether a Pentecost Octave is restored or not, what is certain is the necessity of placing ourselves in the School of the Holy Spirit where the apostles prayed with Mary for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit … and then living from that Gift. As Pope St. John Paul II has said, the School of the Holy Spirit “is foundational and paradigmatic” for us. Indeed, it “is only with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that the work of evangelization begins. It is necessary therefore to commence evangelization by invoking the Holy Spirit and in searching where he blows (cf. Jn 3:8).”
Let us begin, again.