Each year at the conclusion of the Easter Season the Catholic Church liturgically celebrates the Solemnity of Pentecost, but it is sometimes difficult to understand the specific nature of the grace of Pentecost that is given to the faithful who advance in the spiritual life. The first reading for the Pentecost Mass during the day describes the experience of the original disciples of Christ as they personally received this special grace:

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.[1]

The doctrine that they then began to proclaim is that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God who became man in order to open heaven to us, that he has gone there to prepare a place for us, that from there he now constantly intercedes for us as our High Priest and Advocate before our Heavenly Father, and that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. In the meantime, Christ has sent us his Holy Spirit as another Advocate (Paraclete) to be with us always and to teach us everything that he has commanded us through his Holy Apostles.[2]

What happened to the disciples of Christ when they received the grace of Pentecost?

While still on earth, Christ Jesus explicitly promised his disciples that when he left them the Holy Spirit would come to them.[3] After Christ’s Ascension into heaven, but before Pentecost, their understanding of his life and teaching was quite limited, and apparently they still thought that he planned to restore political autonomy to Israel.[4] But as Christ had instructed them, they quietly went back to Jerusalem and waited for the fulfillment of his mysterious promise, whatever that fulfillment might turn out to be.[5]

As St Augustine points out, we know that as the first disciples of Christ were praying together with his mother Mary for those nine days in Jerusalem in the Upper Room, they already had the Holy Spirit hidden in their souls.[6] The Gospel of John even tells us explicitly that Jesus had given them the gift of the Holy Spirit immediately after his Resurrection.[7] They had probably already received the Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacrament that would later come to be called Confirmation. And the Apostles could not have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders without having already received Baptism at least by desire.[8] Certainly they already had the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but they had not yet received the outpouring or manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

Then, on the Day of Pentecost, there was a sound like a rushing mighty wind, and their minds and hearts were suddenly filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit. It was an amazing experience and a radical transformation. Suddenly they understood everything, took courage, and were no longer afraid. Finally, they were strengthened and empowered to carry out their mission. They went out of that Upper Room and boldly proclaimed the Resurrection of Jesus and began to teach everything that he had commanded them. And there were many who immediately accepted their message, were baptized, and were also given the gift of the Holy Spirit.[9] It was not long before they all began to be persecuted, even unto death, just as Jesus had suffered before them, but they lived and died as faithful witnesses to the Gospel.[10]

What exactly is the grace of Pentecost?

St Catherine of Siena in her famous Dialogue with God the Father tells us that when the Holy Spirit came to the original disciples of Christ on the Day of Pentecost, he did not come alone. The Holy Spirit came to them together with God the Father and God the Son. God the Son still possessed the human nature he had assumed, but after his Ascension into heaven his physical body was no longer visible to his disciples. Enlightened by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the disciples of Christ suddenly realized that the whole Trinity was dwelling in their own souls by grace.[11]

True to his word, Christ Jesus had not left them orphans, and he had mysteriously come back to them. Jesus had left them visibly when he ascended into heaven, but now he had come back to them invisibly with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and he had taken up residence in their souls. They could no longer see Jesus physically, but now they could see him spiritually, through faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. On that day, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit enabled them to recognize that Jesus was in the Father, and that they were in Jesus, and that Jesus was in them. And they began to know the Holy Spirit personally, because the Holy Spirit remained with them, and was also in them.

Through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they were enlightened with divine wisdom, and suddenly they had a profound understanding of the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Passion of Christ. They finally understood the true nature of the new and everlasting covenant that God had given them in Christ, and how it was the fulfillment of the covenant God had given to Israel. They discovered that the Holy Spirit wanted to make the saving work of Christ present through the Sacraments that he had entrusted to them. They recognized that Christ was substantially and most fully present to them in the Breaking of the Bread—in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. And they realized that Christ remained present in their souls by the grace of the Holy Spirit, even though this mystical presence was hidden from the eyes of the world.[12]

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost gave the original disciples of Christ nothing less than a conscious mystical awareness of the abiding presence and activity of the three divine Persons of the Holy Trinity in their souls. The disciples of Christ thus became sensitive to the instruction and direction of God within them.[13] This was not a philosophical or a theological knowledge of God. It was, rather, an active, abiding, spiritual knowledge of God, a knowledge that is obtained only through the supernatural gift of wisdom, conferred by the Holy Spirit. It was the secret knowledge of the heart burning with the love of God, obtained in the existential encounter with God dwelling in the soul by grace.[14]

The Doctors of the Church tell us that this supernatural enlightenment is the essential grace of Pentecost, and that it is the one great secret of apostolic success in every generation and in every culture. It is a transforming union with God through an outpouring of his love in the soul. Sometimes this union is accompanied by extraordinary manifestations such as the working of miracles or speaking in tongues, but the Doctors of the Church also tell us that these external manifestations and wonders are merely incidental to the specific grace of Pentecost. Indeed, St John of the Cross warns us that if we focus too much on the externals, we run the risk of losing sight of what is truly essential.[15]

Is the grace of Pentecost given to everyone?

In every age, the special grace of Pentecost is the eventual outpouring or manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the life of the disciple of Christ who has received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit through faith and Baptism and has sacrificially advanced in virtue. It is nothing less than a mystical enlightenment and empowerment. In the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the disciple of Christ receives a mystical awareness of the abiding presence of the Holy Trinity dwelling in the depths of the soul by sanctifying grace. This spiritual enlightenment is typically accompanied by a call to a personal mission in the Church, and the disciple also receives some special gifts which will be utilized in fulfillment of that mission. These gifts are not necessarily sensational and do not typically include the miraculous power to speak in foreign languages, but the disciple does receive a new and higher personal awareness of the indwelling presence of God and a greater sensitivity to the personal direction of God.[16]

The grace of Pentecost is offered to everyone who actively seeks greater union with God and makes a sustained effort to live the moral life and to exercise the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Spiritual enlightenment is the ordinary outcome of the sanctifying grace received in Christian Baptism or in the baptism of desire. All the graces necessary for perfect mystical union with God are given in Baptism. Indeed, one of the original terms for Baptism is the “Sacrament of Enlightenment.” God desires everyone to receive Baptism and to come to a personal knowledge of his presence and activity in the soul. The grace of Pentecost is truly ecumenical and is available to everyone who does not put up an obstacle to it. Furthermore, a valid sacramental Confirmation makes the grace of Baptism even more efficacious for the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual enlightenment is given to individuals not for themselves alone but to build up the Kingdom of God on earth.

A greater actualization of the infused power of grace normally requires proper disposition and personal effort. Pentecost begins when we are filled with the wisdom and love of God and are successful in bringing others to faith and the Sacraments, just as the original Apostles were. Pentecost begins when we intentionally aspire to advance the Kingdom of God present here on earth in mystery and boldly proclaim the teachings and Sacraments of Christ to everyone we encounter, just as the original Apostles did. The essential grace of Pentecost is universal. It’s truly for everyone. God desires that everyone be filled with the living flame of his love and come to a mystical knowledge of his invisible presence.

Every Catholic has received the gifts of the Holy Spirit in Baptism. These are strengthened and sealed in Confirmation. Let us pray that many more of those who have received the gifts the Holy Spirit will also receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and become aware of the abiding presence of God in their hearts. The lives of the Saints teach us that this spiritual development ordinarily takes many years, even a lifetime, but we should all expect that we will experience the grace of Pentecost at some point in our lives, provided that we actively cooperate with Christ’s relentless transforming activity in our minds and hearts.[17]

Why is the grace of Pentecost not normally given immediately at Baptism or Confirmation?

For most of us, our spiritual enlightenment in Christ entails that we first pass through a time of spiritual darkness, even desolation, just as it did for his original Apostles. To receive the grace of Pentecost, we must first experience the desolation of the Cross. But we have this hope, based on the promises of Christ and the teachings of the Saints. “Whoever loves me,” Jesus assures us, “will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.” When the presence of Christ is not apparent, Christ simply asks us to love him and one another and to persevere in prayer, following the example of his mother Mary and his faithful disciples in the Upper Room.

The path to a greater and more perfect union with God is always by faith, and faith requires us to obey God and trust his promises over the entire course of our lives, in times of desolation as well as times of consolation. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit requires God’s direct intervention in our lives in order to perfect the life of grace in us. The grace of Pentecost is received only when God decides that the time has come to manifest himself more completely to us, and ordinarily God manifests himself completely only to disciples who have made a sustained personal effort in the practice of prayer and virtue in imitation of the sacrificial love of Christ.[18]

The grace of Pentecost is not a cheap grace. Spiritually speaking, the Resurrection comes only after the Passion, and in the same way Pentecost (in which Christ manifests his invisible presence) comes only after the Ascension (in which Christ disappears). As the lives of the Saints indicate, the actualization of the grace of Pentecost ordinarily requires perseverance in the active practice of mental prayer and works of mercy for many years, and often the grace is gradually imparted in varying degrees.

What is the source of this doctrine about Pentecost, and where can I learn more about it?

The traditional Catholic doctrine of the progressive development of the spiritual life toward the contemplative and apostolic grace of Pentecost is explained thoroughly in the writings of many of the Doctors of the Church, above all in the writings of St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and St John of the Cross (1542-1591). The received body of Catholic teaching on the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is often called “The Science of the Saints.” It is unfortunate that this divine science is not widely taught these days. Most Catholics have never studied it and therefore know very little about it. Let us pray that bishops, priests, deacons, and those who direct adult faith formation in parishes would study this science and actively include it in their teaching ministries. The transmission of such spiritual knowledge is essential to bringing about a New Pentecost and a New Evangelization. To understand and transmit this knowledge it is not necessary to have already received the grace of Pentecost.

What is it like to receive the grace of Pentecost?

When the Spirit comes, the hidden presence of Christ in the Church is revealed to us, and we are able to live in the present, without worries about the future or regrets about the past, recognizing that we are truly inadequate but that we can do everything through him. When the Spirit comes, we receive the divine wisdom and love that overcomes all our fears and makes us of one heart and one mind, in the harmony of diversity and with no real oppositions among us. When the Spirit comes, we appreciate the beauty of the Church as she really is in the most generous souls who faithfully live the divine union that she gives to us, and we boldly proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus and the saving power of his Sacraments, as the Apostles did on Pentecost.[19]

As with any authentic religious experience, only those who have personally received the fullness of this grace know firsthand what it is like. But most people of faith have had at least a taste of the mystical encounter with God, and thus we can grasp something of the meaning of the words of those who have attempted to describe that encounter existentially. Consider, for example, the descriptive phrases of the famous Memorial of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):

The year of grace 1654, Monday, November 23rd,
Feast of St Clement, pope and martyr and others in the martyrology.
Vigil of St Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight…

GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob,
not of the philosophers and the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything except GOD.
He is to be found only through the ways taught in the Gospel.
Greatness of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him.
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, knowing you, the one true God,
and the one whom you have sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him, fled him, renounced him, crucified him.
Let me never be separated from him!
He is kept securely only through the ways taught in the Gospel.
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Total surrender to Jesus Christ and to my spiritual director.
Eternally joyful for one single day of renunciation on earth.
I shall not forget your words.

Like the Saints, Pascal knew firsthand what it was like to receive the grace of Pentecost. He wrote this Memorial as a note to himself in order to remember what he had experienced in his personal encounter with the living God. Pascal kept the note secretly sewn on the inside of his coat for the rest of his life. It was found there when he died. The Sacred Scriptures and the lives of the Saints contain many references to this kind of encounter with God. We should be familiar with them and meditate on them frequently.[21]

What is the Holy Spirit telling us to do in the present moment?

The Holy Spirit speaks to us in the present moment not only in the depths of our hearts but also through the direction of the Holy Father. The celebration of Pentecost each year reminds us to pray for a greater personal transformation and union with God and not to neglect the experiential dimension of that transforming union. Leo XIII decreed in 1897 that special prayers to the Holy Spirit be offered by the whole Church each year in the time between Ascension and Pentecost.[22] And each year Pope Francis offers us a homily for the Solemnity of Pentecost. Are we listening? Let us set aside our personal agendas and hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

The first advice offered by the Holy Spirit is, “Live in the present.” The present, not the past or the future. The Paraclete affirms the primacy of today, against the temptation to let ourselves be paralyzed by rancor or memories of the past, or by uncertainty or fear about the future. The Spirit reminds us of the grace of the present moment. There is no better time for us: now, here and now, is the one and only time to do good, to make our life a gift. Let us live in the present!

The Spirit also tells us, “Look to the whole.” The whole, not the part. The Spirit does not mold isolated individuals, but shapes us into a Church in the wide variety of our charisms, into a unity that is never uniformity. The Paraclete affirms the primacy of the whole. There, in the whole, in the community, the Spirit prefers to work and to bring newness. Let us look at the apostles. They were all quite different. They included, for example, Matthew, a tax collector who collaborated with the Romans, and Simon called the zealot, who fought them. They had contrary political ideas, different visions of the world. Yet once they received the Spirit, they learned to give primacy not to their human viewpoints but to the “whole” that is God’s plan. Today, if we listen to the Spirit, we will not be concerned with conservatives and progressives, traditionalists and innovators, right and left. When those become our criteria, then the Church has forgotten the Spirit. The Paraclete impels us to unity, to concord, to the harmony of diversity. He makes us see ourselves as parts of the same body, brothers and sisters of one another. Let us look to the whole! The enemy wants diversity to become opposition and so he makes them become ideologies. Say no to ideologies, yes to the whole.

The third advice of the Spirit is, “Put God before yourself.” This is the decisive step in the spiritual life, which is not the sum of our own merits and achievements, but a humble openness to God. The Spirit affirms the primacy of grace. Only by emptying ourselves, do we leave room for the Lord; only by giving ourselves to him, do we find ourselves; only by becoming poor in spirit, do we become rich in the Holy Spirit. This is also true of the Church. We save no one, not even ourselves, by our own efforts. If we give priority to our own projects, our structures, our plans for reform, we will be concerned only about effectiveness, efficiency, we will think only in horizontal terms and, as a result, we will bear no fruit. An “-ism” is an ideology that divides and separates. The Church is human, but it is not merely a human organization, it is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus brought the fire of the Spirit to the earth and the Church is reformed by the anointing of grace, the gratuity of the anointing of grace, the power of prayer, the joy of mission and the disarming beauty of poverty. Let us put God in first place!

Holy Spirit, Paraclete Spirit, comfort our hearts. Make us missionaries of your comfort, paracletes of your mercy before the world. Our Advocate, sweet counsellor of the soul, make us witnesses of the “today” of God, prophets of unity for the Church and humanity, and apostles grounded in your grace, which creates and renews all things. Amen.[23]


[1] Acts 2:1-4, from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States.

[2] Matthew 28:19-20.

[3] John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7.

[4] Acts 1:6.

[5] Luke 24:49; Acts 1:12-14.

[6] St Augustine, Commentary on John, Tractate 74.

[7] John 20:22.

[8] Paul Haffner, The Sacramental Mystery (Herefordshire, UK: Gracewing, 1999), p. 32.

[9] Acts 2:5-47.

[10] Acts 8:1-3.

[11] The Dialogue of St Catherine of Siena, “Part II: A Treatise of Discretion,” trans. by Algar Thorold (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1907), pp. 87-89, 151-154.

[12] Rev. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1938), pp. 48-55.  Garrigou-Lagrange effectively synthesizes the mystical theology of St Teresa of Avila with the mystical theology of St Catherine of Siena.

[13] Pere Jacques, O.C.D., Listen to the Silence, trans. by Francis Murphy (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2005), pp. 91-94.

[14] Garrigou-Lagrange, pp. 60-62.

[15] St John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book Three, Chapters 30-32, The Spiritual Canticle, Stanzas 14 & 15, The Living Flame of Love, Stanzas 2 & 3, in The Collected Works of St John of the Cross, trans. by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991), pp. 323-329, 524-529, 657-659, 676.

[16] Blessed Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, O.C.D., I Am a Daughter of the Church, Vol. II of A Practical Synthesis of Carmelite Spirituality, trans. by M. Verda Clare, C.S.C. (Notre Dame, IN: FIDES/Claretian, 1955), pp. 654-660.

[17] Blessed Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, O.C.D., I Want to See God, Vol. I of A Practical Synthesis of Carmelite Spirituality, trans. by M. Verda Clare, C.S.C. (Notre Dame, IN: FIDES/Claretian, 1953), pp. 487-490.

[18] Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, I Want to See God, pp. 475-482.

[19] Garrigou-Lagrange, pp. 55-57.

[20] Romano Guardini, Pascal for Our Time (1935) (New York: Herder, 1966), pp. 33-44.  https://inters.org/faith-reason-pascal-memorial.

[21] This article by Deacon Jamison was originally published as “Understanding and Seeking the Authentic Grace of Pentecost” in the Josephinum Diaconal Review 6 (Spring 2018): 36-41.  Used with permission.

[22] Leo XIII, Encyclical on the Holy Spirit, Divinum Illud Munus, http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_09051897_divinum-illud-munus.html.

[23] Francis, Homily for the Solemnity of Pentecost, 23 May 2021, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2021/documents/papa-francesco_20210523_omelia-pentecoste.html.

Image: By Giusto de Menabuoi. – https://web.archive.org/web/20110704210144/http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/giorgio.vasari/giusto/giusto5.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65678388

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Tracy Jamison is a Catholic deacon in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a secular Carmelite (OCDS) and a professor of Philosophy at Mount St Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology (MTSM). Tracy and his wife Joyce met in a Protestant seminary and have been happily married for over thirty years.

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