The Descent of the Holy Ghost
By Fr McKenna O.P.
In this Third Glorious Mystery of the Rosary, we commemorate:
— the coming of the Divine Spirit upon the disciples of Christ,
— and the foundation of our Holy Mother the Church.
Pentecost gloriously completes the cycle of the work of the Triune God:
— in the Creation, we worship the almighty power of the heavenly Father;
— in the Redemption, we behold with wonder the sublime mission of the Eternal Son, who said: “The Father hath worked till now, now I work.” Jesus finished in Calvary’s awful hour the work which His Father gave Him to do; and now, after His Ascension, He and the Father send down the Holy Ghost to complete the work of the Blessed Trinity;
— thus, the Holy Ghost is especially the gift of the other two Divine Persons. His mission is the sublime work of guiding the Church, illuminating her supreme pastors, inspiring her saints, filling her doctors and her confessors with His choicest gifts, and establishing the reign of God in the souls of the faithful.
It is true that the Holy Ghost was always in the world. The Spirit of God spoke by the mouth of the patriarchs and the prophets from the beginning; but on the great festival of Pentecost He came in a different manner, being, in the language of Scripture, poured out on the disciples to fit them for their exalted office. His advent was the especial fruit of our Blessed Lord’s sufferings and death. The world had no right to His coming; it was unfitted for His sublime presence and work.
But Jesus merited for us this heavenly gift, and went before the Father in order to plead for it in our behalf. “If I go not,” He said, ” the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John xvi. 7). Presenting His sacred humanity before His heavenly Father, Our Lord besought Him through His adorable wounds to bestow this sublime gift upon His followers.
And why was this? Why, we may ask, was the Paraclete sent to us? It was to perfect the work which the Son of God came on earth to inaugurate. He had come to establish His Church, He had come to build the Bark of Peter. During His public life Our Lord had collected the materials for that vessel. He had placed its timbers in their proper order; and, to use a figure employed by the early Fathers of the Church, having completed that Bark of Peter, it was destined to sail over every sea, to brave every storm, to be tried by every tempest, to be pursued by every piratical enemy. Men and demons would do their utmost to destroy it; but it was not destined to perish, for on it depended the salvation of the world.
On the first glorious Feast of Pentecost St. Peter’s Bark was launched — the sails of that mighty vessel were first unfurled. What, then, was needed but a skilled Pilot to guide her course and favorable winds to fill her sails? To-day, she commences her glorious voyage ; to-day, the divine Pilot — the Holy Ghost— is on board! To-day, the winds of heaven fill her sails; to-day, her crew begin to cast forth their net. St. Peter’s Bark will sweep over every sea and gather in all souls destined for a happy eternity!
Let us here reflect for a moment upon the disciples of Christ, who formed the crew of that vessel. Let us consider their condition before the coming of the Holy Ghost.
In the first place, we are told that they were hidden away in an upper chamber in Jerusalem, fearing the Jews. They were timid, cowardly men; their faith was yet weak: their hearts were trembling within them. They dreaded to proclaim publicly the glorious name of their Master, in whom they firmly believed; nay, more, they were poor laborers — ignorant, uneducated men, little skilled in public preaching.
But lo! at the sound from Heaven, “as of a rushing mighty wind which filled the whole house where they were sitting,” a great change came over them. “They were all filled with the Holy Ghost,” says the Scripture. That Divine Spirit appeared to them like tongues of fire, whereby their exalted mission as preachers of the Gospel was typified and emphasized. Instantly their cold hearts burned with the fire of the Apostolate! Fear and, cowardice departed forever.
The Apostles, having become in a manner new men, are now inflamed with the love of God and with the desire for the salvation of all mankind. They go forth immediately to proclaim the dignity, the power and the sanctity of that name which was so despised by the Jews, the glorious name of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus-Christ. Boldly declaring their belief in His divinity, these once timid men are now willing to die martyrs for their Faith and the cause of the Blessed Master. The effect of Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Three thousand were converted — “devout men out of every nation under heaven;” for at that time were gathered in Jerusalem, in order to celebrate the Pentecostal festival, Jews from nearly every part of the world whither the Hebrews had been scattered. All these were confounded, as the Acts testify, because every man with amazement heard the Apostles speak to him in his own tongue.
In creating this material world our heavenly Father was pleased not to leave it in darkness, but placed the sun in the heavens to shed light and heat over its surface, to bring fruits and flowers to perfection. And that sun is so exalted, so far removed from human influences, that no man or nation can interfere with its light. So, in creating His Church, our Blessed Lord gave to it His Holy Spirit, which is its true Light, abiding with it forever, and conducting its children to paradise by the way of Christian perfection. Nor can men or demons prevent that sublime mission:
— Following St. Peter, the first to claim the special indwelling of the Paraclete is the supreme Head of the Church, its visible ruler and vicegerent of Jesus Christ. The Holy Ghost abides with our Holy Father the Pope, illuminating his counsels, filling him with divine wisdom, guarding him from error in his teachings, and, in short, making him what he is — the infallible guide for both pastors and people1.
— He, the Third Person of the Adorable Trinity, is with the Church in her councils, filling her hierarchy with zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of their people2. He directs their deliberations, illuminating their intellects so as to guard their people from all error and heresy.
— He is with the individual bishop, assisting him with the work of his diocese.
— He is with the pastor, instructing and enlightening his people. He is with the priest in the administration of the Sacraments. In the words of St. Augustine: “When I baptize, it is the Holy Ghost who purifies; when I pronounce the words of salvation, it is the Holy Ghost who cleanses from sin; when I speak the words of consecration, it is the Holy Ghost who changes bread into the Body of Our Lord, and wine into His Blood.”
— The Holy Ghost is with the nun in the schoolroom, with the mother in the Christian home, teaching the child the simple but sublime truths of our holy religion. He is with the faithful, welding them together, uniting them, as the grains of wheat in the bread, into that glorious body of believers of which Jesus Christ is the Head3.
Sublime mission of the Holy Ghost! Wonderful gift of God to a sinful world! For nineteen hundred years4 has that sublime Spirit continually remained with the Bark of St. Peter, bringing and preserving therein all the children of God in the unity of faith and in the bond of charity.
From these marvelous conditions and results shall not all men, not willfully blind to the light of truth, believe and testify that the Church is the spotless Spouse of Christ, the immaculate Bride of the Lamb? “By this shall all men know,” says Christ, “that you are my disciples— if you have love one for another;” and again, in the discourse at the Last Supper: “I pray for them that they all may be one, as Thou, Father in me, and I in Thee” (John xvii. 21).
Proceeding to reflect upon the work of the Holy Ghost in the individual soul, we should, each of us, consider here the infinite debt we owe to that Divine Spirit for the precious graces which He has bestowed on us through the holy Sacraments:
— First of all, should we gratefully acknowledge the gift of Faith — that gift which is so inestimably precious that without it it is impossible to please God, as St. Paul emphatically declares.
Though the Holy Ghost, according to Sacred Scripture, is most prodigally shed abroad throughout the whole universe, how many are there, alas, who place obstacles to that divine Luminary and prevent its rays from penetrating their souls! Ignorance, prejudice, and the corruption of gross vices are as so many dense clouds which prevent the rays of that divine Light from illumining the soul. It is true that Faith is a free gift of God, and that God may and can, and often does, bestow that gift, even unasked, upon persons leading a life of sin. Thus, He enlightened Saul on the road to Damascus, and made him an apostle at the very time that he was breathing threats against the Christians. But, as a rule, the priceless gift of Faith must be asked of God, and the means of obtaining it must be employed by those who desire to possess it, one of those means being the Sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is not only the door to the other Sacraments, but it gives us a spiritual right to the Holy Ghost. It infuses into the heart of the recipient the gift of divine Faith, which is to the soul what sight is to the body; and it enables even a child, as reason dawns, to grasp the lofty teachings of the Church. Later on in the Christian life, the Holy Ghost is given to the children of God in the Sacrament of Confirmation, by which, in the language of St. Paul, we become the temples of the Holy Ghost, and should (as he tells us) glorify and bear God in our body. The work of the Holy Ghost in the individual soul is to form Jesus Christ in it. Hence, again says the Apostle of the Gentiles, “The Holy Ghost is laboring with unceasing groaning that Jesus Christ be formed in you.” And if, true to His guidance, the soul advances from perfection to perfection, becoming more and more enlightened, more and more inflamed with the love of God, it at last arrives at that sublime state to which Christ called all His followers when He enjoined upon them: “Be ye perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
According to St. Paul, there are three ways of opposing the Holy Ghost in His action on the soul:
— The first is our resistance to His divine influence when we do not cooperate with His loving designs in the work of our sanctification. He is ever laboring with unceasing groaning (says the Apostle) to form Christ in us. He is urging us to more fervent and frequent prayer, to more manly self-denial, more frequent and profitable approach to the Sacraments, more earnest imitation of our Blessed Lord, who counsels us to renounce ourselves, and daily to take up our cross and follow Him.
It grieves this Blessed Spirit of God to behold us so careless and indifferent in the great work of our own sanctification. We are like a lazy farmer who, possessed of rich soil which if well cultivated would produce luscious and abundant fruit, fails to improve his opportunities. We also fail to cooperate with our gracious Lord in producing a golden harvest. We also fail to obey Him who tells us to lay up treasures in heaven, where the rust cannot destroy, nor moths consume, nor thieves break through and steal.
— The second way in which we oppose the Holy Ghost is when we grieve Him by deliberately committing venial sin. Venial sin does not kill the soul, but it often seriously wounds it. It defiles it, and, in a manner, paralyzes it by weakening its energies and leaving it faint and sickly. Just as neglect of a trifling malady often leads to the death of the body, so venial sin too often leads the soul to mortal sin.
Alas, for the careless Christian whose life abounds in many willful venial sins! By undue indulgence of the appetite, slothfulness in prayer and other religious duties; by slight fits of anger, or of impatience; and, what is far more serious, by frequenting dangerous company, and giving the eyes, the tongue and the mind liberties that are dangerous to modesty, how often do men and women seriously wound the soul, even though they do not actually cause her death!
— But the greatest of all evils occurs when the sinner utterly quenches the light of the Holy Ghost by willful mortal sin. “Know you not that your bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost?” “He who defileth the temple of God,” says St. Paul, “him shall the Lord destroy.” It is true that although the sentence of death is passed upon deadly sin, through the infinite mercy of God, its execution is often deferred. Though the Holy Ghost is driven away from the soul by one mortal sin, and the temple of God is horribly deformed and devastated, like a beautiful structure charred and blackened by fire, yet, praise be to God! the Holy Ghost does not yet abandon the unworthy Christian. By many gentle and loving means He still strives to bring back the sinner to repentance. Even as the dove, driven from its little cote by the serpent which has entered and defiled its nest, hovers around, waiting for the venomous intruder’s departure, in order to return and cleanse its nest and again dwell in its cherished home, or as the poor Irish mother, driven from the loved cottage of her youth by the emissary of the landlord, does not abandon the home of her heart, but sits by the roadside with her children till the intruder has withdrawn, and then goes back to her dwelling, rekindling the fire upon her humble hearth and making bright again her little cottage, so the Holy Spirit does not completely abandon the soul when it falls into mortal sin, but mercifully endeavors to excite it to remorse. Sometimes He makes use of sickness, of loss of temporal goods or friends; sometimes, of the sudden death of a companion in sin. Or, it may be by a mission, a sermon, or a word of advice that the transgressor is induced to enter into himself, to forsake his sinful life, and return once more to his God.
Yes, it is the Holy Ghost who, acting thus upon the sinner’s soul, urges upon him this vital change. And when at length the unfortunate one yields to this Divine Spirit, immediately like a skillful architect, divine love and mercy begin to purify and sanctify the soul, to rebuild its beautiful temple, to adorn it, and make it once more His dwelling place, causing the angels in heaven to rejoice over the sinner doing penance.
Such is the mission and the work of the Holy Ghost. We should then labor earnestly to cooperate with Him in that blessed work of our sanctification:
— Let us be fervent in prayer for this is the will of God that we watch and pray without ceasing, lest we enter into temptation.
— Frequently, too, let us approach the Sacraments of Penance and the Blessed Eucharist, for they are the great channels through which the Holy Ghost directly acts on our souls.
— Let us not grieve the Holy Spirit by exposing ourselves to sin or the occasions of sin, but faithfully correspond to His graces, and grate fully thank Him for the gift of Faith, which infinitely surpasses all the riches and treasure of this world.
(From the book of Fr. Charles-Hyacinth McKenna O.P., The Treasures of the Rosary, New York, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1917 (written 1835)