After Easter Sunday, Christmas is the second-greatest feast in the Christian liturgical calendar, but Pentecost Sunday is not far behind. Coming 50 days after Easter and ten days after the Ascension of Our Lord, Pentecost marks the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. For that reason, it is often called the "the birthday of the Church."
Through the links in each of the sections below, you can learn more about the history and practice of Pentecost in the Catholic Church.
Pentecost Sunday is one of the most ancient feasts of the Church, celebrated early enough to be mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (20:16) and St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (16:8). It supplants the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which took place 50 days after the Passover and which celebrated the sealing of the Old Covenant on Mount Sinai.
For Christians, Pentecost is the 50th day after Easter (if we count both Easter and Pentecost). That means that it is a moveable feast--a feast whose date changes every year, based on the date of Easter in that year. The earliest possible date for Pentecost Sunday is May 10; the latest is June 13.
On Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, they were granted the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Those gifts helped them to fulfill their mission to preach the Gospel to all nations. For us, too, those gifts--granted when we are infused with sanctifying grace, the life of God in our souls--help us to live a Christian life.
After Christ's Ascension into Heaven, the Apostles knew that He had promised to send His Spirit, but they didn't know exactly what that would mean. Granted the gifts of the Spirit at Pentecost, however, they were emboldened to speak the Good News to all men. On that first Pentecost Sunday, over 3,000 people were converted and baptized.
The example of the Apostles shows that the gifts of the Holy Spirit lead to the fruits of the Holy Spirit--works that we can only perform through the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
Between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary spent nine days in prayer, waiting for the fulfillment of Christ's promise to send His Spirit. This was the origin of the novena, or nine-day prayer, that became one of the most popular forms of Christian intercessory prayer (prayer asking God for something).
From the earliest days of the Church, the period between Ascension and Pentecost has been celebrated by praying the Novena to the Holy Ghost, asking God the Father to send His Spirit and to grant us the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.
While the Novena to the Holy Ghost is most often prayed between Ascension and Pentecost, it can be prayed at anytime we find ourselves in particular need of the strength that the Holy Spirit grants through His gifts.
There are many other prayers to the Holy Spirit that are appropriate both for Pentecost and for all year long. When the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, He appeared as tongues of fire. Living as Christians means letting that fire burn within us every day, and for that, we need the constant intercession of the Holy Spirit.