We read in today’s excerpt from the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-11) that the apostles had all met in one room on Pentecost day. Why? Because as the rest of the Jewish nation, in fact Jews in every nation, they were celebrating the second of the great Jewish national festivals coming 50 days (or 7 weeks) after the Pascal Feast, the Passover Feast, which as you know was in recognition of the Israelites freedom from slavery in Egypt. In the Old Testament it was called “the feast of weeks”. The Christian feast of Pentecost, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and of course other followers of Jesus, fits as snugly with the Jewish feast of Pentecost as ‘Lego Bricks’, [49 days after Jesus resurrection on Easter Sunday]…albeit different coloured bricks but from the same spiritual mould!
Jerusalem was jam-packed with ‘festival-goers,’ and in my imagination the din may well have reached a similar volume as that generated by a modern-day music festival. Through this din, devout Jewish revellers in Jerusalem ‘heard’ the noise of the Holy Spirit descending on the Apostles. The Holy Spirit didn’t creep into the lives of Jesus’ followers, …….. the Holy Spirit crashed into them like a meteorite! We are told that the noise ‘attracted’ the devout men of Jerusalem [they just had to see what was going on, … as all of us would] and when they arrived at the house of the ‘big bang’ were bewildered to hear the followers of Jesus speaking every language known to man. If I was one of the devout Jewish witnesses to this event, I would have been extremely jealous, as my foreign language skills amount to little more than a school boys skill at speaking Franglais! In my youth, the Holy Spirit was referred to as the Holy Ghost, and I always imagined the Holy Ghost floating through walls of houses on his daily rounds, not dissimilar to ‘Wee Willy Winkie who went through the town, upstairs and down stairs in his night gown!’
As a child, I never fathomed out who the Holy Spirit was, or the purpose of his/her existence, not that the thought bothered me much. As many other aspects of life during my youth which left me confused, mentally I threw such imponderables into the ‘to be disposed of’ box! Those halcyon days of youth were not to last, and as the years passed and decades accumulated, some of those ‘throw-away imponderables’ escaped from the disposal unit of my mind and emerged as subtle influences. It was during one of these ‘emergencies’ [pun intended] that I learnt that the Holy Spirit was real, and that there was damn-all I could do about it.
I mentioned a few weeks ago the sequence of events which led [with a little reluctance] to my ending up in Rome to study for the priesthood. As on such ‘change of life’ occasions, more often than not there is a honeymoon period, an induction, or assimilation period, a time more akin to a holiday rather than anything serious, a time when one begins to relax and unknowingly ‘lets down ones guard!’ At ‘The Beda’, this induction period lasted for two weeks. Not only were we [the new intake of the student body] given basic lessons on Italian, introduced to the transport system and where to purchase tickets, enjoy ‘Gitas’ [day trips which included trips to the sea-side as well as visiting historical sites] but also to experience hearing Mass in the great basilicas. You’ve guessed it already haven’t you! Yes, St Peter’s was one such venue.
The Mass was to be celebrated in one of the chapels situated underneath the High Altar in St Peter’s, the celebrant being the Rector of the Beda, Mgr Roderick Strange. The time for Mass was scheduled for either 7.00 or 7.30 am, a time when visitors were absent as tourists were not allowed in until later on in the morning. To stand in this vast basilica early in the morning with hardly a person in sight, and experience the beauty of silence, cannot be expressed in words.
The first time I had visited St Peter’s was in 1950, the Holy Year, as an innocent chorister with the Pueri Cantores, a choir composed of schools from the UK. Not only did we sing in St Peter’s but in other venues in the Eternal City. I returned to Rome 4 years later -the Marian Year - again as a chorister, but this time without association with any other school. So, here I was, back in St Peter’s 46 years after my last visit, and nothing had changed.
The quiet and stillness I experienced that morning in St Peter’s generated many thoughts which focussed on the reality of being in Rome and the reasons why I was there. For some reason, I have always felt more closely in tune with St Paul rather than St Peter, perhaps because St Paul was more of a risk taker to my mind than Peter, and yet, that day, for the first time in my life, St Peter was in Pole Position. Those of you who have visited St Peter’s or enjoy reading the history of such architectural masterpieces will know that St Peter’s is built on the site of a Necropolis, a City of the Dead, in other words, a cemetery which was already in situ at the time St Peter was in Rome. For donkey’s years it had been postulated that St Peter could have been buried there, and so, either just before WWII or at the beginning of WWII, Pope Pius XII gave permission for work to commence on excavating underneath the Basilica to see what was there. Sure enough, the archaeologists found tombs, some quite elaborate monuments for the more well-to-do, and ultimately a tomb which they say is that of St Peter. St Peter’s Scavi can be visited, and I do recommend a walk through a ‘city of the dead’.
However, to return to the day in question: our ‘international’ group of seminarians gathered in one of the chapels underneath the sanctuary, and as I was not particularly inspired or overawed by either the occasion or its relevance to my situation I stayed at the back of the chapel distancing myself from the rest of the group. My attitude was that of a casual bystander as if to say ‘what’s all the fuss about? …. been here before! ….. got the T shirt!’ As usual on such group occasions I tried to concentrate on the Mass, but true to character my mind wandered far away from that underground chapel close to the tomb of St Peter. I do not know how long I was in dream-land, but without a cue, my mind reengaged with the real world with the same ease as it must have departed, and then to my embarrassment I realised I was crying! The thought of anyone in the group turning round and witnessing this unseemly spectacle had to be avoided, and quickly I ‘pulled myself together.’
The most natural question that anyone would ask oneself after such an experience was … Why? In what had been a semi-comatose mental state why should one come-to in such an emotional state?
Twelve months later I returned to the Beda two weeks before the semester started to join the ‘new intake’ for their induction period, as a sort of ‘helper’ or more probably a ‘hinderer’. The format followed the well proven course, and I was amazed at how much I had forgotten during the previous twelve months. Before one could say Holy Spirit, I was back in St Peter’s in one of the chapels under the sanctuary, and this time, I was determined to keep a grip on my emotions. For the sake of prudence I stood at the back of the chapel, just in case! I was determined to remain fully in control. I didn’t stick a pin in my hand to stop my mind wandering, but I knew I had a firm grip on my emotional state.
Mass started: I was focussed: ……. then I came to, ….. and I was crying! St Peter and the Holy Spirit are a powerful combination: sometimes they just won’t leave you alone! The Holy Spirit doesn’t always announce his presence with a bang as he did on that day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. Sometimes he can be as subtle as he was in St Peters’ in Rome twenty years ago.