Pentecost is perhaps the richest of all the liturgical Feasts of the Holy Roman Catholic Church… in the Vetus Ordo, at least. In the Church’s Vetus Ordo, like Easter, Pentecost has a Saturday Vigil with the blessing of baptismal water and an Octave, during which we sing the stunning Sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus, and the priest recites in the Canon a proper Communicantes and Hanc igitur. Not only that, but during the Pentecost Octave we have the Spring Ember Days on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. This was and is also the time to baptize those who did not receive the foundational sacrament at Easter.
Paul VI, under the ensorcellment of the Consilium’s leadership, did away with most of Pentecost’s liturgical weight. It is hard to square that with the Council Fathers’ command in Sacrosanctum Concilium that no reform should be made unless the true good of the people required it and that changes must flow organically with what tradition had handed down (SC 23).
To understand better the beautiful Feast of Pentecost, it is good to look at it through the lens of the ancient Jewish parallel feast. This provides us with some context.
Adult male Jews were required to travel to Jerusalem for three annual festivals, thus enormously swelling the population of the city. We Christians have ported over into our calendar two of these pilgrimage feasts: Passover, transformed and completed into Easter by Lord’s Resurrection, and Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, transformed and completed into what we call in Greek Pentekosté, Fiftieth Day Feast.
Jewish festivals looked backward to an event in salvation history and forward to something not yet accomplished. At Shavuot, the Jews commemorated the descent of God’s Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, wreathed in fire, fifty days after the Exodus (Ex 19). They also looked forward to the return someday of God’s presence in the Temple, the fiery glory cloud.
Fifty days after Our Lord’s Resurrection, the tenth (10 – a symbol of perfection) from His Ascension, the Holy Spirit in the form of fire descended on the Apostles and first disciples to breathe grace-filled life into Christ’s Body, the Church. Hence, Pentecost is known as the birthday of the Church. It is the fulfilment of Sinai and the hope of the Jews.
In the first reading for Holy Mass in the Vetus Ordo we hear the account of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, especially, the other believers, and foreign visitors who were enabled to understand what was being said in their own languages, undoing the division of peoples at the Babel event (Gen 11). Peter is emboldened and preaches, and many thousands – who had come to Jerusalem for the spring festival – are converted.
In Acts 1 we learn that the Spirit descended not in the form of a dove but as “tongues of fire.” The Jews at that time would have also quickly made a connection with something in an ancient Jewish apocalyptic work, not part of their canon of Scripture but well-known, the Book of Enoch, which has a description of the heavenly temple as being made of tongues of fire. Hence, this Pentecost event would have really got the attention of the multitudes, perhaps a million people, thronging Jerusalem for the Shavuot.
In Exodus 19, at Mt. Sinai, God descended on the Twelve Tribes giving them the Law written on tablets of stone. In Acts 1, at Jerusalem, God the Holy Spirit descended on the Twelve Apostles and the 120 believers at the time of the Ascension (Acts 1:15 – 12×10) giving them the New Law and the Great Commission written upon their hearts.
Moreover, Shavuot was the spring harvest festival. At Passover, fifty days earlier, they would have cut the first sheaves of grain as a first fruits offering to God. At Shavuot, they would by that time have collected a full harvest which they celebrated. In a sense, Shavuot brought to completion what was begun at Passover. So too, Pentecost brings to fruition what was begun on that first Easter Sunday and then the Lord’s Ascension. One sees in this continuity also the connection of the Sacrament of Baptism with the Sacrament of Confirmation, both conferring an indelible mark on the receiver, an ontological and unrepeatable change to the soul.
Continuing with the harvest theme for Pentecost, with the breathing of the Holy Spirit the Church was further empowered in a mission. Several times the Lord had talked about the Spirit and had breathed on his Apostles, such as in John 3 or in the upper room after the Resurrection in John 20:22. This is the ongoing culmination of the Lord’s promises and command to go forth with the Good News. As there was a first fruits harvest at the beginning, there is an ongoing harvest of converts and the newly baptized now. Or there ought to be.
Moving on, Pentecost is often and obviously associated with the conferral of the Sacrament of Confirmation. This is on my mind today because, as I write, in Rome, at the personal traditional parish there will be confirmations this afternoon. Let us, therefore, look briefly at the differences in the Rite of Confirmation in the Vetus Ordo and in the Novus Ordo.
Firstly, as the manualist theologian Ludwig Ott explains in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, keep in mind that the effect of the Sacrament of Confirmation is an increase of sanctifying grace, specifically the perfection of baptismal grace with the purpose of strengthening the recipient to give testimony to Christ (Acts 1:8) and a heightened power for the inward strengthening and the courageous outward confession of Faith.
Confirmation is a sacrament “of the living.” That means that the recipient must be alive in the state of grace, not “dead,” as before baptism or in the state of mortal sin. The sacrament cannot be lost, and it cannot be repeated. However, it can go “dormant” in a person who is habitually in the state of mortal sin. Confirmation is not absolutely necessary for salvation, but who would not want it? Still, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that it is possible to receive the effects of the sacrament by desire, as one could also the effects of baptism (STh III, 72, 6 ad 1 and 3).
All sacraments have matter and form. The matter and form of Confirmation are – with a bit of a hedge – the laying on of the hand and anointing the head with chrism while saying the formula. However, Ott says that there was no official dogmatic decision on the essential matter. Trent mentions only anointing with chrism (olive oil and balsam consecrated by a bishop). Most theologians hold that imposition of hands, with the anointing, these being the proximate and the remote matter, are both essential. We see in medieval and renaissance art the anointing done with a stylus. Practices have varied over the Church’s long life, but the essentials remain.
One of the major, obvious differences between the new, post-Conciliar rite and the traditional way is that in the traditional rite of confirmation, the sacrament is given in a “free-standing” ceremony. In the Novus Ordo, it is usually conferred during a Mass after the homily, where a Creed would be. So, in the Novus Ordo the rite continues with a profession of Faith. In the older rite the bishop lays his hand on the head of each confirmand as he anoints the forehead with chrism. In the Novus Ordo, there is an extension of hands over the confirmands. In the first promulgation of the new rite in 1971, the extension of hands, called “laying on of hands” in the rite was omitted, but it was reinserted later. In the new rite there are the obligatory intercessions which are found in every Novus Ordo rite.
In the older, traditional rite, as the bishop puts his hand on the confirmands head and anoints the forehead, he says in Latin: “N., I sign thee with the sign + of the Cross, and I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation; in the Name of the Father + and of the Son + and of the Holy + Ghost.” So, the effect of confirmation is mentioned explicitly, the minister is clear and the true source of the sacrament, the Trinity is invoked.
In the Novus Ordo version there is a general petition to God: “Let us pray to our Father that he will pour out the Holy Spirit to strengthen his sons and daughters with his gifts and anoint them to be more like Christ the Son of God.” Then, extending hands over all the confirmands, the bishop says: “All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy Spirit you freed your sons and daughters from sin and gave them new life. Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their Helper and Guide. Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence. Through Christ our Lord.” Afterward, the rite says – without mention of laying on of the hand – that the bishop makes the sign of the cross on the forehead and says: “N. be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Note that in the older form, the bishop is clearly the agent saying, “I sign you” and in the Novus Ordo the bishop says, “Be sealed.” The later is not unlike Eastern practices. Since the 5th century Greeks say: “The seal of the gift of the Holy Ghost.” It is also rather like Protestant practices, though they don’t believe that Confirmation is a sacrament.
It is good to be aware of these changes. Whereas the older, traditional rite is quite explicit in what is being imparted, the newer rite needs some juggling of the parts to know what is being imparted, which places a greater burden on the intention of the confirming minister.
Finally, in the older, traditional rite there is a rubric that the confirming bishop taps or strikes the cheek of the newly confirmed, which is a symbol that he or she is a soldier of Christ in the Church Militant and that the confirmed must be ready to suffer and to be strong for the sake of the Faith, inwardly and outwardly. This is not of the essence of the sacrament, of course, but it is a beautiful tradition. The Novus Ordo doesn’t have it, though I think some bishops do it anyway.
For those of you who are confirmed, I want to remind you of your dignity as being sealed with the Holy Spirit, which placed a mark on your soul that will last for eternity. Confirmation helps us to perform actions which are necessary in the spiritual battle against the enemies of the Faith. We need this in our times more than ever. The enemies are within the walls. It has ever been so, but now it is more than ever.
Here is a prayer I wrote and posted on the blog (fatherzonline.com). You can always find it there. Perhaps you might find it useful:
Almighty God my heavenly Father, You knew me before the creation of the cosmos and You wanted me to come into existence to bring You glory. Of all the possible universes You could have created, You created this one and You called me into it at exactly the time and place You chose for me so that I could fulfill my part in Your unfathomable plan. You willed that I have the honor to be baptized into the Church You designed and You maintain for our well-being. You willed that I receive the Body and Blood of Your Son and the indwelling of Your Spirit. You willed that I should also be confirmed so that our relationship be even deeper and that I might be an even better instrument of Your will.
I now call upon that mighty Sacrament of Confirmation. Through it make me strong to bear whatever burdens I must endure in Your service. Make me wise to recognize accurately and then strong to resist, resolute, whatever is out of harmony with Your will as manifested especially in the beautiful Tradition You have guided in the authoritative, infallible and indefectible Church. Even if that disharmony should come from those whom you have endowed with the grace of Orders and seated even in the highest places of teaching, governing and sanctifying, make me steadfast. With confidence in Your plan for me I ask this for myself and for the brethren through the Holy Spirit’s Gifts and in the Name of Jesus Christ Your Son, who lives and reigns with You, ever one God, world without end. Amen.”