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Pentecost Marks the Beginning of the Church's Mission

General Audience — September 20, 1989

In the Council's Decree Ad Gentes , on the Church's missionary activity, the Pentecost event and the historical beginning of the Church are closely connected: "On the day of Pentecost (the Holy Spirit) came down upon the disciples.... For it was from Pentecost that the 'acts of the apostles' took origin" (AG 4). If, therefore, from the moment of her birth, by going out into the world on the day of Pentecost, the Church is manifested as "missionary," this was through the work of the Holy Spirit. We can also add that the Church always remains such: she remains "in a state of mission" (in statu missionis). The missionary character belongs to her very essence. It is a constitutive property of the Church of Christ, because the Holy Spirit has made her missionary from her origin.

An analysis of the text of the Acts of the Apostles which records the event of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), indicates the truth of this conciliar assertion which pertains to the common patrimony of the Church.

We know that the apostles and the other disciples, assembled with Mary in the upper room, heard "a sound like the rush of a mighty wind," and there appeared to them "tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them" (cf. Acts 2:2-3). In the Jewish tradition fire was a sign of a special manifestation of God who spoke for the instruction, guidance and salvation of his people. The memory of the marvelous experience of Sinai was alive in the soul of Israel and disposed her to understand the meaning of the new communications contained under that symbolism, as is evident also from the Jerusalem Talmud (cf. Hag 2, 77b, 32; cf. also the Midrash Rabbah 5, 9 on Exodus 4:27). The same Jewish tradition had prepared the apostles to understand that the "tongues" signified the mission of proclamation, witness and preaching which Jesus himself had enjoined on them. The "fire" was in relation not only to the law of God, which Jesus had confirmed and brought to completion, but also to himself, to his person, and to his life, death and resurrection, since he was the new Torah to be proclaimed in the world. Under the action of the Holy Spirit, the "tongues of fire" became the word on the lips of the apostles: "They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4).

Already in the history of the Old Testament there had been similar manifestations in which the spirit of the Lord was given for prophetic utterance (cf. Mic 3:8; Is 61:1; Zech 7:12; Neh 9:30). Isaiah tells us that one of the seraphim flew to him, "having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar." With it he touched his lips to cleanse him from all guilt, before the Lord entrusted him with the mission of speaking to his people (cf. Is 6:6-9 ff.). The apostles were aware of this traditional symbolism and were therefore able to grasp the meaning of what was happening to them on that Pentecost, as Peter testified in his first discourse, by linking the gift of tongues to Joel's prophecy about the future outpouring of the divine Spirit which was to enable the disciples to prophesy (Acts 2:17 ff.; Joel 3:1-5).

With the "tongues of fire" (Acts 2:3) each apostle received the multiform gift of the Spirit, just as the servants in the gospel parable had all received a certain number of talents to make fruitful (cf. Mt 25:14 ff.). That "tongue" was a sign of the awareness which the apostles had and kept alive concerning the missionary task to which they were called and dedicated. As soon as they were "filled with the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Their power came from the Spirit, and they carried out the task consigned to them under an interior impulse from on high.

This happened in the upper room, but very soon the missionary proclamation and glossolalia or gift of tongues went beyond the place where they dwelt. Two extraordinary events took place, and they are described in the Acts of the Apostles. First of all, it describes the gift of tongues by which they spoke words pertaining to a multiplicity of languages and used to sing the praises of God (cf. Acts 2:11). The multitude summoned by the sound and amazed by that fact was made up of "devout Jews" who were in Jerusalem for the paschal feast. They belonged to "every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5) and they spoke the languages of the peoples into whom they were civilly and administratively integrated, even though ethnically they were still Jews. Now that multitude assembled around the apostles "was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were amazed and wondered, saying, 'Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that each of us hears in his own native language?'" (Acts 2:6-8). At this point Luke does not hesitate to trace a kind of map of the Mediterranean world from which those devout Jews came. It was as though he placed that world of converts to Christ in opposition to the babel of languages and peoples described in Genesis (11:1-9), without failing to mention among the others, "visitors from Rome," "Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontius and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians" (Acts 2:11-19). In the mouths of them all Luke, as though reliving the event that had happened at Jerusalem and had been handed down in the early Christian tradition, places the words: "We hear from [the apostles, Galileans by origin] telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God" (Acts 2:11).

The event of that day was certainly mysterious, and also very significant. We can discover in it a sign of the universality of Christendom and of the Church's missionary character. The sacred writer presents it to us, knowing well that the message is destined for the people of every nation. It is the Holy Spirit who intervenes to ensure that each one understands at least something in his own language: "Each of us hears in his own native language" (Acts 2:8). Today we would speak of an adaptation to the linguistic and cultural conditions of each one. One can therefore see in all this a primary form of inculturation, effected by the work of the Holy Spirit.

The other extraordinary fact is the courage with which Peter and the eleven "stood up" and began to explain the messianic and pneumatological meaning of what was happening before the eyes of that bewildered multitude (Acts 2:14 ff.). We shall return to this matter in due course. Here we may make a final reflection on the contrast (a kind of analogy from contraries) between what happens at Pentecost and what we read in the Book of Genesis on the subject of the Tower of Babel (cf. Gen 11:1-9). There we are witnesses of the dispersion of the languages, and therefore of the people who, in speaking different languages, cannot understand one another. At Pentecost, on the contrary, under the action of the Spirit who is the "Spirit of truth" (cf. Jn 15:26), the diversity of languages no longer impedes the understanding of what is proclaimed in the name and to the praise of God. Thus there is a relationship of interhuman union which goes beyond the boundaries of languages and cultures, and this union is brought about in the world by the Holy Spirit.

It is an initial fulfillment of the words addressed by Christ to the apostles before ascending to the Father: "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

The Second Vatican Council comments: "The Church, which the Spirit guides in the way of all truth and which he unified in communion and in works of ministry, he both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts" (LG 4), "giving life, soul-like, to ecclesiastical institutions and instilling into the hearts of the faithful the same mission spirit which impelled Christ himself" (AG 4). From Christ, to the apostles, to the Church, to the whole world: under the action of the Holy Spirit the process of the universal unification in truth and love can and must unfold.