On the Octave of Pentecost
Apr 22, 2024

On the Octave of Pentecost

It’s Monday, May 18, 1970. The day after Pentecost Sunday. Pope Paul VI rises early and makes his way to the sacristy of his private chapel to prepare to offer Holy Mass. The sacristan has set out the papal vestments. Pope Paul looks at them, puzzled, and asks: “Why are the vestments green? This is the Octave of Pentecost. The vestments should be red.” The sacristan replies that, in fact, it is Ordinary Time as the Octave of Pentecost had recently been abolished. “Who did that?” asks Pope Paul. “Your Holiness, you did.” Paul VI wept. 

You have, perhaps, heard that story before. It may be apocryphal but its regular re-telling certainly reflects a sense of loss among many Catholics following the deletion of the Octave of Pentecost from the Church’s calendar in 1969. But why should this be missed?

An octave is an eight-day period in which the Church celebrates a great feast. The octaves of the present Roman Calendar are the Octaves of Christmas and Easter. From about the seventh century until 1970 the Roman Calendar celebrated the Octave of Pentecost. Many of the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate the Feast of All Holy Martyrs (something like our All-Saints Day) on the Sunday after Pentecost, as a way of celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the saints who gave the supreme witness to Christ through the shedding of their blood. The Gift of the Holy Spirit is so immense that one day is not enough to take it all in.

The celebration of the Octave of Pentecost was a way to model and show forth the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church: the witness of love unto death in the witness of the saints and martyrs. The Church is continually sent by the Holy Spirit, the “promise of the Father,” so that she can proclaim Christ and him crucified to the world (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23). The School of Pentecost is the model of Evangelization. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the “soul of the Church” and the “principal agent of evangelization” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 75). The Holy Spirit “both equips and directs” the Church “with hierarchical and charismatic gifts,” making “the Church keep the freshness of youth” and leading her “to perfect union with her Spouse” (Lumen Gentium, 4).

So, the Holy Spirit animates our mission. But the Holy Spirit does not just act through signs and wonders of physical healings, speaking in tongues, and words of prophecy (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 739). The Holy Spirit stands at the very center of the Church’s sacramental life. After the Ascension, Christ is “seated at the right hand of the Father…pouring out the Holy Spirit on his Body which is the Church” and acting “through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace” (CCC, 1084). Indeed, the Gift of the Holy Spirit “ushers in a new era…during which Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church” (CCC, 1076).

You might say, “Well, I understand the Holy Spirit acting in the Mass and the sacraments—but in the calendar of feasts and octaves?” Every year the Church celebrates the actions of the Holy Spirit in order to unfold the “whole mystery of Christ” throughout the calendar (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 102). The Mystery of Christ permeates all time and that Mystery is stretched out over the hours, the days, the weeks, the months, and the years. So immense and multi-faceted is the Mystery that we can’t take it in all at once. Even the feasts of the saints are like facets that reflect the glorious Light of Christ that shines in the darkness. Throughout the Liturgical Year the Church draws us into the depths of the Mystery of Christ little by little, not as dates on a page, but as portals of entry, ways given by the Holy Spirit to live more deeply in Christ. The whole Mystery of the Holy Spirit’s work is thus remembered and unfolded year after year so that we can give ourselves over to the Holy Spirit and he can form us in Christ. Thus, formed by the Holy Spirit, we have been called to go out with a renewed boldness, with tongues of fire given us by the Holy Spirit.

Exactly half-a-century on from the liturgical reforms of 1969, an American bishop made his ad limina visit to Rome to provide the Holy Father with an update on the health of his diocese and to pray at the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul. During his audience with Pope Francis, His Holiness asked the bishop if he had anything he would like to ask. The bishop replied: “Holy Father, would you please consider restoring an Octave of Pentecost?” Not surprisingly, Pope Francis received the request graciously. The Holy Father replied by saying that he had something like an Octave of Pentecost in mind when he established the Monday after Pentecost as the Feast of Mary, Mother of the Church.

Whether a Pentecost octave is restored, what is certain is the necessity of placing ourselves in the School of the Holy Spirit where the Apostles prayed with Mary for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit…and then living from that Gift. As Pope Saint John Paul II has said, the School of the Holy Spirit “is foundational and paradigmatic” for us. Indeed, it “is only with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that the work of Evangelization really begins. It is necessary therefore to commence evangelization by invoking the Holy Spirit and in searching where He blows” (cf. John 3:8). Let us begin, again.

Image Source: AB/Wikimedia. Pentecost descent of the Holy Ghost as a dove.

Jeremy J. Priest

Jeremy J. Priest is the Director of the Office of Worship for the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, MI, as well as Content Editor for Adoremus. He holds a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He and his wife Genevieve have three children and live in Lansing, Michigan.