Pentecost – WhitSunday or Rose Sunday?

Red rose

It’s fascinating that throughout our life, no matter how long we may have been a Catholic, we continue to discover more about our faith.   Of course, if we have a willing heart, we will never stop learning and – most importantly – we will never stop developing and deepening our relationship with the Lord, which is the aim of learning about our faith.

The fact that Pentecost (known to us as Whitsunday) is called Rose Sunday in Rome and other places in Italy may be something which many of us in this country are unaware of but what a wonderful tradition it is based on.  At   Philip Kosloski explains that it is customary in these places to drop rose petals from the ceiling at the end of Mass on Pentecost Sunday.  He quotes the Catholic Encyclopedia’s explanation of its history:

“In Italy it was customary to scatter rose leaves from the ceiling of the churches to recall the miracle of the fiery tongues; hence in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy, Whitsunday is called Pascha rosatum. The Italian name Pascha rossa comes from the red colours of the vestments used on Whitsunday.”

What a magnificent, joyful sight this must be (so appropriate for the celebration of the birth of our Church) and, apparently, many who have witnessed it speak of the churches being filled with the scent of roses.

At  the same writer in an article written in 2017 explains why, in this country, we refer to Pentecost Sunday as Whitsunday:

“The English term is principally derived from a practice in the early Church that made the celebration of Pentecost similar to the Easter Vigil. There was a service called “Whitsun Eve” where the catechumens who had not been baptized at Easter received the sacrament on the eve of Pentecost. Similar to the Easter Vigil, it was celebrated in a “night watch” liturgy that included the reading of six prophecies and a solemn blessing of the baptismal font.  After the celebration of Baptism, the newly baptized would be vested in a white alb, symbolizing their new birth in the life of grace.”

He goes on to explain the etymology of the word “Whitsunday” from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary which traces the Middle English “Whitsonday” to the Old English “hwita sunnandaeg” meaning white Sunday.   The link with the white robes of the newly baptised explains why we call Pentecost whit(e) Sunday when the colour of the priest’s vestments is red!

It is most apt that the connection between the new life in Christ which we receive in the sacrament of Baptism is thus linked to the new life of the birth of the Church celebrated at Pentecost, even though we more commonly associate Pentecost with the sacrament of Confirmation (our new life in the Spirit). The Church teaches that in the Sacrament of Confirmation we are given a richer share in the gifts of the Holy Spirit that we received in Baptism.  Seven gifts are defined which are given to help us in our adult life: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord (Proper Reverence for the Lord).

We can clearly see the effects of these gifts in chapter two of the Acts of the Apostles where Pentecost is described.   The chapter is well worth reading in its entirety.   Not only is there the familiar awe-inspiring description of the descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire on Mary and the Apostles amidst a wind which shook the whole building and drew large crowds, but we see Peter leading the others in proclaiming, through the gift of tongues, that Christ is the Messiah and converting over three thousand in that one day.   From hiding in fear in the Upper Room his courageous, straight-talking call for repentance and baptism produces huge results – without the benefit of social media or even a megaphone!

The chapter ends with such a wholesome and inspirational description of the truly Christian lives which the new community, the start of our Church, went on to live:

“These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.   The many miracles and signs worked through the apostles made a deep impression on everyone.  The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the profits among themselves according to what each needed.  They went as a body to the Temple every day but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously; they praised God and were looked up to by everyone…”  Acts 2:42-7.

They were looked up to by everyone – they were known for their love – and “Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.” Acts 2:47.