In this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, it says: “When the days of Pentecost were accomplished.” Other translations say: “When the days of Pentecost were drawing to a close.” We call the Sunday we celebrate today “Pentecost,” but it comes from the Jewish custom of “counting the omer”—the days since the Passover, as commanded by God in the book of Leviticus. Modern Jews call this day Shavuʿoth in Hebrew (שבועות), literally, the feast of “weeks.” Agriculturally, this was the end of the barley, and beginning of the wheat harvests. Jewish men from all over Israel, and beyond, would journey to Jerusalem to observe Shavuʿoth,just as they had to observe Passover fifty days earlier.
It seems to have been God’s plan to send the Holy Ghost to Mary and the Apostles on the day in which Jerusalem was packed with religious people from the Jewish world, all around the Mediterranean. Not only was Saint Peter given courage, and wise words to speak, and the ability to be understood in diverse languages, but he was given a receptive audience to hear his preaching. If we read on a little further, we learn that Peter added three-thousand converts to the infant Church that day. Not bad for a lifetime of preaching—miraculous for a single day!
I should digress and mention that on Pentecost or Shavuʿoth, the Jews celebrated the reception of God’s Law by Moses on Mount Sinai. It was fitting that the New Law would replace the Old Law on this anniversary day. Not that the moral law would change, for it is an unchanging constant of God’s will. Murder will always be murder, adultery will always be adultery, theft will always be theft, and so on. But the old system of circumcision, and of ritual impurities and animal sacrifices would give way to Baptism and the Sacraments of the New Law. The priesthood would no longer be made up of the sons and grandsons of Aaron, but of the Apostles to whom our Lord said: “Do this for a commemoration of me,” and to those upon whom the Apostles laid their hands. These same priests would have the power to forgive sins, actually—rather than symbolically, by placing them on the head of the emissary goat and driving him out to starve in the desert on the Day of Atonement. Because, on Pentecost, the Apostles left their novena with the Blessed Virgin Mary to bring the Church into public life, Pentecost is considered the “birthday of the Catholic Church.”
Now, it seems that the descent of the Holy Ghost was a rather boisterous affair. We read today, in the Acts, that “there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming ... and there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire ... and they began to speak with divers tongues.” Not only on Pentecost, but throughout the Acts of the Apostles, it is always physically obvious when someone has received the Holy Ghost. In Acts 10, the Roman Centurion Cornelius and his whole family, and his close friends—probably none of them Jews—were visibly seen to receive the Holy Ghost while Peter was still explaining the Faith to them before their Baptism!
In Acts 16, Saint Paul baptizes a dozen men who had received the baptism of John, And when Paul had imposed his hands on them, “the Holy Ghost came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.”
In Samaria, a magician named Simon was so impressed with the Apostles ability to convey the Holy Ghost that he tried to buy the power to do so for himself. To this day, the sinful buying or selling of sacred things is called “simony”—named after Simon the magician.
We might ask why we never see such a boisterous outpouring of the Holy Ghost. Our bishops confer the Sacrament of Confirmation, uniformly without the sound of wind or cloven tongues of fire; no one prophesies, and no one speaks in tongues. Why not? And while we are at it, why do we not see the the “signs that shall follow them that believe” that were read aloud for seven days out of eight in the Gospels of the Ascension and its octave? “In my name they shall cast out devils: speak with new tongues; take up serpents: drink any deadly thing [and] it shall not hurt them; lay their hands upon the sick; and they shall recover.”
Throughout history there have always been some number of people who claimed to have such gifts—for the most part they were either fraudulent or foolish. Saint Paul had to deal with this in his Christians at Corinth. You can read the epistles and you will see that the Corinthians were a boisterous people, and Saint Paul took them to task for a number of things. They spoke in tongues, to which Paul wrote: “If therefore the whole church come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in unlearned persons or infidels, will they not say that you are mad?”
The late second century heretic, Montanus, and his prophetesses Maximilla and Prisca, claimed that their thunderings were God speaking through them, and they clashed with the Church about extremes in discipline, a nearly perpetual fasting, forbidding widows and widowers to marry again, and denying the possibility of sacramental forgiveness of sins. It is probably not coincidental that rigorist Catholics and Protestants (Jansenists and Huguenots) in Europe held much in common with the Montanists.
Joachim of Flora, a self-acclaimed prophet of the middle ages predicted the replacement of Gospels with his own writings, the elimination of the priesthood, and the end of the world around 1260.
The Great Awakenings here in eighteenth and nineteenth century Protestant America had their Pentecostalisms—some rather humorous, some rather tawdry. There was a group that got down on all fours, and began to bark at the devil, whom they claimed to see in a tree.
As recently as 1994
The common thread of all these experiences is heresy. People seeking authority for their erroneous beliefs often seek “mystical” justification. “The Blessed Virgin revealed to me that women should be ordained.” “The Little Flower told me that the true Pope is living in Canada.” “Look at me, I can speak in “tongues,” so what I say must be approved by God.” The plain and simple truth is that such mystical “acting out” could come from God, but also could come from the devil, and also from simple insanity.
Pope Gregory the Great put the general lack of miracles after the end of the first century in perspective centuries ago:
Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the Catholic Church. Far from being without miracles, wherever the Catholic Faith is practiced, the miracles described in the Acts and in the Gospel continue to be worked. More important than working physical good, they work the good of souls.
 Cf. Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Homily 29 on the Gospel, third nocturn of Saturday within the Octave of the Ascension