Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The First Pentecost

Reading N° 2 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Jean II Restout (1692-1768)
They were all together in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues, as it were, of fire, and it sat upon everyone of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with diverse tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak. Now there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. And when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together and were confounded in mind, because that every man heard them speak in his own tongue. And they were all amazed and wondered, saying: 'Behold, are not all these that speak, Galileans? And how have we heard, every man our own tongue wherein we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews also, and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians; we have heard them speak in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.'[1]
This long enumeration should not surprise us. The historian Josephus says that there was no nation in the world where the Jews had not established a foothold.[2] Philo declares that in his time they were to be found in every important city of the Empire and even in the islands of Europe and Asia. Scattered by their conquerors, or drawn to commercial cities by their mercantile spirit, the children of Israel had penetrated almost everywhere. This dispersion seems to have been providential; in the midst of idolatrous peoples, the Jews had sturdily maintained the two essential doctrines of their religion: belief in one God and hope for a Messias. Thereby Judaism was preparing the world to receive the teaching of Christ.

Areas of Jewish Settlement ca. AD 1

Although the Jews were scattered in the world, they loved to come home to strengthen their faith at the traditional feasts of their nation. It is not surprising, therefore, that the feast of Pentecost, at the end of the harvest time, drew a large number of them to Jerusalem.

These men of foreign speech were astounded at the miracle of Pentecost. The believers among them humbly glorified the God of their fathers. Others, in a spirit of skepticism or raillery, exclaimed: "These men are full of new wine."

But the chief of the Twelve arose - Simon Peter, to whom Jesus had shortly before entrusted the care of feeding the lambs and the sheep. "Ye men of Judea," he said, "and all you that dwell in Jerusalem, be this known to you, and with your ears receive my words. For these are not drunk, as you suppose. [...] But this is that which was spoken of by the prophet Joel. [...] 'I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.'"[3] "Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you, by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by Him, in the midst of you, as you also know: this same being delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you, by the hands of wicked men, have crucified and slain. Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the sorrows of hell, as it was impossible that He should be holden by it."[4]

Peter Preaching at Pentecost
Fresco, Cappella Brancacci, Florence
Thus, at the very moment when the most genuine inspiration of the Divine Spirit enlightens his soul, the Apostle Peter, representative and head of the teaching Church, rests his whole preaching upon a fact and upon a truth. The fact is that of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who, having been put to death before the whole people, came forth triumphantly from the tomb. The truth, suggested by this deed, is the right of that Jesus to an immortal survival, for "it was impossible that He should be holden by the bonds of death," and He already begins to show how He survives in the souls of His faithful followers and in the authority of His Church. With mounting enthusiasm, Peter cries out: "This Jesus hath God raised again, whereof all we are witnesses. Being exalted therefore by the right hand of God, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He hath poured forth this which you see and hear."[5]

Even while Peter was speaking, the Holy Ghost performed in the hearts of the listeners another prodigy, of a kind different from the gift of tongues bestowed on the eleven Apostles. An all-powerful inner grace, such as that spoken of by Christ when He said, "No man can come to Me, except the Father, who hath sent Me, draw him,"[6] transformed their souls. Addressing Peter and the other Apostles, some cried out: "What shall we do, men and brethren?" "Do penance," Peter answered, "and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ." He thus pointed out the two-fold condition required for initiation into the Christian life and for salvation. That condition is both interior and exterior; it includes a disposition of the soul and a ceremony performed by the priest in the name of Christ. The essential characteristics of the Catholic Church could not be announced more clearly and precisely, and this at the very moment when the Church was born.[7]

This Pentecost has always been regarded by the Catholic Church as the date of her birth. On that day, the rites of the Old Law lapsed[8] and the New Law became of universal obligation.

At Peter's words, three thousand persons were converted and baptized. Of these three thousand converts, some bore the gospel seed to the various countries where they lived, others formed the nucleus of the Church at Jerusalem.


[1] Acts 2:1-11.
[2] Josephus, Jewish War, II, xvi, 4. About 140 B.C., a Jewish poet wrote this line about his own race:
Πᾶσα δε γαῖα σέθεν πλήρης καὶ πᾶσα θάλασσα.
"The earth and the sea are full of thee." (Sibylline Oracles, III, 271. Cf. Batiffol, Primitive Catholicism, pp. 1-6; Lagrange, Le Messianisme chez les Juifs, pp. 273-284.)
[3] Acts 2:14-17.
[4] Acts 2:22-24.
[5] Acts 2:32 f.
[6] John 6:44.
[7] In the Theologische Literaturzeitung of January 16, 1909, Dr. Adolph von Harnack, the most illustrious German church historian of our day, acknowledges that "some of the principal elements of Catholicism go back to the Apostolic age" and that "it is possible to establish, by impressive proofs, that the Catholic concept of the infant Church is historically the true one, i. e., that Christianity, Catholicism, and Romanism are, in the light of history, perfectly identical." This was the first time that a Protestant theologian uttered a proposition so diametrically opposed to the traditional contention of his church. It merits special attention because of Harnack's particular competency. True, he restricts his declaration by adding that "the chasm that separates Jesus from the Apostles has not yet been bridged over," and that "the hierarchy of the factors at work within the complex organism of Christian thought and the forms of ecclesiastical life were constantly changing." But the importance of his general declaration is great. Harnack's article is reproduced almost in its entirety and critically examined by Batiffol in his Primitive Catholicism, particularly pages ix ff., 94-113.
[8] Hurter, Theologia dogmatica; De Ecclesia, thesis 37, no. 281.

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