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The Holy Spirit in the life of the primitive Church

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the Holy Spirit
General Audience, Wednesday 29 November 1989 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. The coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was a unique event, but it did not end there. Rather, it was the beginning of a lasting process, whose first phases are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. They concern first of all the life of the Church at Jerusalem. After having borne witness to Christ and to the Holy Spirit and having obtained the first conversions, the apostles had to defend themselves before the Sanhedrin. They defended the right to existence of the first community of Christ's disciples and followers. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that even before the elders, the apostles were assisted by the same power they received at Pentecost: they were "filled with the Holy Spirit" (cf. e.g., Acts 4:8).

This power of the Spirit was manifested in some moments and aspects of the life of the Jerusalem community, which are particularly mentioned in Acts.

2. Let us summarize them briefly, beginning with the common prayer of the community. On returning from the Sanhedrin, the apostles reported to the brethren what had been said by the chief priests and elders. "Then they lifted their voices together to God..." (Acts 4:24). In their beautiful prayer recorded by Luke they recognized the divine plan in the persecution, recalling that God had spoken "through the Holy Spirit" (4:25). They quoted the words of Psalm 2 (vv. 1-2) on the rage unleashed by the kings and peoples of the earth "against the Lord and against his Anointed." They applied these words to Jesus' death: "Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness" (Acts 4:25-29).

It was a prayer full of faith and abandonment to God, at the end of which there was a new manifestation of the Spirit and a new Pentecost event, as it were.

3. "When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken" (Acts 4:31). There was then a new manifestation of the Holy Spirit's power, perceptible to the senses, as had happened on the first Pentecost. Moreover, the reference to the place in which the community was gathered together confirms the analogy to the upper room. It indicates that the Holy Spirit wished to involve the whole community with his transforming action. Then "all were filled with the Holy Spirit": not only the apostles who had confronted the leaders of the people, but all the "brethren" (4:23) gathered with them, who constituted the central and most representative nucleus of the first community. With the enthusiasm aroused by the new fullness of the Holy Spirit, we are told by Acts, "they spoke the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:31). It was the answer to their prayer to the Lord: "Grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness" (Acts 4:29).

The "little" Pentecost therefore made a new beginning of the evangelizing mission after the Sanhedrin had judged and imprisoned the apostles. The power of the Holy Spirit was manifested especially in the boldness which the members of the Sanhedrin had already noticed to their amazement in Peter and John, "for they perceived that they were uneducated, common men" (Acts 4:13). Now Acts again emphasizes that "they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness."

4. Moreover, the whole life of the primitive community at Jerusalem bore the signs of the Holy Spirit who was its invisible guide and inspirer. The overall view of it given by Luke enables us to see in that community the model of the Christian communities formed throughout the centuries. This includes parishes and religious congregations, in which the fruit of the "fullness of the Holy Spirit" is given tangible form in some basic forms of organization, codified in part in the law of the Church.

They are principally the following: "communion" (koinonia) in fraternity and love (cf. Acts 2:42), so that it could be said of the Christians that they were "of one heart and soul" (Acts 2:32); the community spirit in handing over their goods to the apostles for distribution to each according to his need (Acts 4:34-37), or in their use, while retaining their ownership, so that "no one said that any of the things he possessed was his own" (4:32; cf. 2:44-45; 4:34-37); communion in "devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42) and their "testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 4:33); communion in the "breaking of the bread" (Acts 2:42), that is, in the common meal according to the Jewish custom, into which the Christians, however, inserted the Eucharistic rite (cf. 1 Cor 11:16; 11:24; Lk 22:19; 24:35); communion in the prayers (Acts 2:42; 46-47). The word of God, the Eucharist, prayer and fraternal charity constituted the quadrilateral within which the community lived, grew and became strong.

5. On their part the apostles "with great power gave testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (4:33). They worked "many signs and wonders" (5:12), as they had asked in the prayer in the upper room: "Stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus" (Acts 4:30). They were signs of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit, to whom the entire life of the community was referred. Even the guilt of Ananias and Sapphira, who pretended to bring to the apostles and the community the whole price of the property they had sold while holding back part of the proceeds, was regarded by Peter as a fault against the Holy Spirit: "You have lied to the Holy Spirit" (5:3); "How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord?" (Acts 5:9). It was not a case of a "sin against the Holy Spirit" in the sense in which the Gospel speaks (cf. Lk 12:10) and which would be handed down in the Church's moral and catechetical texts. Rather, it was a failure to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, as St. Paul would say (Eph 4:3). It was therefore a pretense in professing that Christian community in charity, whose soul is the Holy Spirit.

6. The awareness of the Holy Spirit's presence and action is found in the choice of the seven deacons, men "full of the Spirit and of wisdom" (Acts 6:3), and in particular of Stephen "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5). Very soon he began to preach Jesus Christ with zeal, enthusiasm and boldness, working "great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8). Having aroused the anger and jealousy of some of the Jews who rose up against him, Stephen did not cease to preach and he did not hesitate to accuse his opponents of being heirs to their fathers in "resisting the Holy Spirit" (Acts 7:51). He thus went serenely to his martyrdom, as we read in Acts: "Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God..." (Acts 7:55). In that attitude he was put to death by stoning.

Thus the primitive Church, under the action of the Holy Spirit, added martyrdom to the experience of communion.

7. The community of Jerusalem was composed of men and women of Jewish origin, like the apostles themselves and Mary. We cannot forget this fact, even though later those Jewish Christians, gathered around James when Peter set out for Rome, were dispersed and gradually disappeared. However, what we learn from Acts should inspire us with respect and gratitude for those distant "elder brothers and sisters," inasmuch as they belonged to those people of Jerusalem who showed their favor to the apostles (cf. Acts 2:47) who gave "their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 4:33). No less can we forget that after Stephen's stoning and Paul's conversion, the Church which had developed from that first community "had peace and was built up throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied" (Acts 9:31).

So the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles attest to the fulfillment of the promise made by Jesus to the apostles in the upper room before his passion: "I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth" (Jn 14:16-17). As we have seen before, "Counselor" (in Greek Parakletos) also means Advocate or Defender. Both as Advocate or Defender and as Counselor the Holy Spirit is revealed as present and at work in the Church from her beginnings in the heart of Judaism. Soon we shall see that the same Spirit will lead the apostles and their collaborators to extend the experience of Pentecost to all nations."


After the Catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai pellegrini francesi 

Chers Frères et Sœurs,

JE SUIS HEUREUX d’accueillir les Sœurs franciscaines Missionnaires de Marie, en session de spiritualité. Je vous encourage avec ferveur pour votre vie religieuse et votre apostolat. Que l’Esprit de Pentecôte vous donne assurance et joie dans votre mission!

* * *

JE SALUE cordialement le groupe des stagiaires africains en formation pour le service des coopératives. Je vous offre mes vœux pour le service que vous allez rendre dans vos pays.

A tous les pèlerins et visiteurs de langue française, je donne volontiers ma Bénédiction Apostolique.

Ai fedeli di lingua inglese

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I WISH TO GREET the deacons from the Society of African Missions, and the international group of Christian Brothers who are participating in programmes of formation and spiritual renewal in Rome. May your visit to the city of the Apostles Peter and Paul inspire within you an ever deeper desire to place your lives at the service of Christ and of his Church. To all of the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s audience I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of God’s infinite mercy and love.

Ad un gruppo di buddisti provenienti dal Giappone 

SALUTO I MEMBRI della “Tenrikyo” (= gruppo buddista) di Gifu. Ringrazio sentitamente per la vostra visita annuale qui in Vaticano.

La preghiera, come ben sappiamo, è un mezzo potente anche per trasformare il mondo. Ebbene, dilettissimi, continuiamo a pregare per la pace nel mondo, come tante volte ho suggerito e come tre anni fa abbiamo fatto insieme ad Assisi. 

Ai fedeli di lingua tedesca 

Liebe Brüder un Schwestern!

VON HERZEN ERTEILE ich euch und allen, die euch verbunden sind, meinen besonderen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai fedeli provenienti dalla Spagna e dall’America Latina 

Amadísimos hermanos y hermanas,

ME ES GRATO saludar ahora a los sacerdotes, a los religiosos y religiosas, así como a las personas y grupos de América Latina y España presentes en esta Audiencia. Antetodo, agradezco profundamente vuestra presencia en este Encuentro y, como fruto del mismo, os animo a dejaros iluminar en todo momento por las enseñanzas de Jesucristo, tan necesarias para el hombre y la sociedad actual, sedienta y hambrienta de Dios.

De corazón os imparto mi Bendición Apostólica, que complacido extiendo a vuestros seres queridos. 

Ai fedeli di lingua portoghese

Caríssimos irmãos e irmãs,

A OS IRMÃOS de língua portuguesa gostosamente saúdo, e abençoo de coração. Seja louvado Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo. 

Ai pellegrini provenienti dalla Polonia 

WITAM PELGRZYMÓW z Polski: pielgrzymkę z parafii Najświętszego Serca Pana Jezusa z Łodzi; duszpasterstwo kolejarzy z Lublina; pielgrzymów z parafii Wszystkich Świętych z Sieradza; duszpasterstwo oo. franciszkanów z Gdańska, Gdyni i Elbląga; pielgrzymów z parafii św. Jadwigi z Białogradu; grupę Juventuru z Rymanowa; pielgrzymkę polinijną ze Stanów Zjednoczonych; uczestników grup turyseycznych, zwlaszcza Orbisu, oraz innych indywidualaych pielgrzymów, przybyszów z kraju oraz z emigracji. 

Ai gruppi e pellegrinaggi italiani 

Giunga ora la mia parola di benvenuto ai rappresentanti del Comitato Permanente per il Seminario Internazionale “Terra Mater”. Volentieri esprimo a voi ed a quanti con voi collaborano il mio saluto e il mio apprezzamento per quanto compite con l’intento di far crescere in ogni persona quel rispetto per l’ambiente e quell’atteggiamento religioso, che S. Francesco d’Assisi ebbe dinanzi al creato, opera di Dio. 

* * * 

Rivolgo poi il mio saluto ai Sindaci, agli Assessori ed ai Consiglieri dei Comuni della Diocesi di Chiàvari, che sono oggi venuti qui insieme col Vescovo, Monsignor Daniele Ferrari. Vi esorto ad edificare la città dell’uomo, costruendola sul fondamento del Redentore e del suo messaggio evangelico di giustizia e di amore, di servizio e di concordia.

La Madonna, che è molto venerata nei numerosi santuari della vostra terra, vi ottenga grazie ad energie spirituali a sostegno del vostro lavoro, che mira al progresso morale e civile delle popolazioni che rappresentate. 

Saluto ora i giovani, i malati e le coppie di sposi novelli.

Esorto ciascuno di voi, carissimi giovani, ad accogliere il Redentore e la sua grazia, che rende ogni credente, come lievito evangelico, operatore di serenità e di pace tra i fratelli. Gesù il Cristo, che mediante la Croce e la Risurrezione ha mostrato la profondità inaudita del suo amore, conceda a tutti voi, malati, l’atteso conforto, perché la vostra esistenza sia ancorata fortemente alla speranza che proviene da Dio. Egli dà valore e dignità a ciascun istante della vita, anche quando essa è afflitta da sofferenze. Invito voi, infine, sposi novelli, che avete riconosciuto nel vostro amore un dono del Signore, a cooperare con la grazia sacramentale del matrimonio, che rende pura, feconda e profondamente lieta la vita familiare.

Imparto a tutti la mia Benedizione Apostolica.

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