This reflection is based on John 20:19-23 and Acts 2:1-11 on the occasion of Pentecost Sunday.


Pentecost Sunday is the day we recall how as promised, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Lord’s disciples. The narrative is dramatic: the disciples huddled in fear (despite the Lord’s resurrection!), the gust of a strong wind, a vision of descending flames, and the miraculous gift of tongue. What is more remarkable than the gift of tongue, however, is the disciples’ newfound courage to preach the Good News. It is a testament to what the Spirit can enable us to do when it descends upon us.

If you are told that you have received that selfsame Spirit in baptism, you’ll probably raise your eyebrows in bewilderment, if not in skepticism. Like me, you probably don’t remember ever receiving the Spirit in any dramatic or even perceptible way (unless you’ve attended a prayer session where you were “slain by the Spirit”).

It’s a notion most of us have–To expect the Spirit to descend only in a dramatic way. Whether we want to admit it or not, we mistake receiving the Holy Spirit for possession! You’ve seen enough exorcism movies to know that when a demon possesses people, they take over their personalities and their faculties. Nothing can be more contrary to the way of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit never invades us–even if sometimes we are more than willing victims! God always respects our free will, and will never enter a heart that is closed to Him. And when the heart does open itself, God will never dissolve that person’s identity. The person retains full control of his or her faculties. What the Holy Spirit does is provide the person with the resources needed to do what he or she wants to do.

In the case of the first Pentecost, Peter and the disciples were given the courage to speak and the gift to communicate the Good News to all those present. Contrary to the common notion, therefore, the Spirit descends quietly and gently. But just as importantly, the Spirit descends differently on different people as well.

I was never partial to charismatic prayer. When I was in high school, a couple of charismatic youth leaders were invited to give our class a talk. Well, they didn’t just talk about prayer; they actually led us in praying in tongues. I remember the students exchanging glances as we began. But the experience was actually more powerful than I expected. My misinformed stereotypes about praying in tongues were all proven wrong. I realized then that if we open ourselves enough, the Spirit can give us a gift that we don’t expect–or even believe in!

More recently–just the other day, in fact–I was fortunate enough to be in Fatima to join the celebration of the 99th anniversary of our Lady’s first apparition to three young Portuguese shepherds. Now, I’ve always had a special devotion to Mary and the rosary, but just as I was towards charismatic prayer, I was never into the other devotions that many Catholics with so-called “simpler spiritualities” tend to have–like kissing statues or praying while walking on your knees.

When I got to the Santuario de Fatima, I was astounded by the number of pilgrims–men and women, young and old–walking on their knees while saying the rosary. And this isn’t just from the church entrance to the altar as we so often see in the Philippines. The pilgrims get on their knees as soon as they set foot on the Santuario–this means they have to cross the entire span of the esplanade before they reach their destination, the Chapel of the Apparition, which is the site of the Virgin of Fatima’s apparitions. There they circle around the statue of the Virgin–some once, others as many as three or four times.

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Even if I had never done it before and I actually had no intention of doing it, I was so moved by the pilgrims’ devotion that I convinced myself to do it. Just this once! “Should be okay to just go around the statue of the Virgin in the chapel,” I told myself. I figured that I would never get a chance to do something like this again anyway, and I thought this would be the perfect occasion to offer it to the Lord on behalf of those I was praying for.

Well, famous last words. First of all, I was suddenly seized with embarrassment! It’s irrational because a lot of pilgrims were doing it anyway. I was surprised that I would feel such strong shame! I hesitated, but eventually decided to go for it! I went to the Portuguese-speaking attendant and used sign language to indicate my plan. “Only five minutes,” he signaled with his hand. I nodded. “No problem!”

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Again, famous last words. By the time I got to the beginning of the first decade, my knees were screaming in pain. I couldn’t believe how painful it was. I was the youngest in the group of pilgrims there at that time, but one old lady overtook me–twice! I don’t know how I did it, but I eventually made it to the final stretch. With the end in sight, I felt such relief until the attendant came to me and signaled for me to hurry up (!). I finally finished reached the finish line and managed to get up on my feet without swearing. More significantly, I managed to resist the urge to strangle the attendant’s neck with my rosary. I didn’t think the Blessed Mother would approve of that.

I walked away with a new respect for the piety of simple folks. What pain and sacrifices they are willing to endure in their devotions. Again, I was ashamed to realize that I had unconsciously thought my spirituality more sophisticated and superior to others’.

It’s an important lesson to learn for Pentecost: The Spirit of the Lord descends quietly and differently upon us. The Holy Spirit works behind the scenes, as it were, providing the support we need and enabling us to do what is right. But how the Holy Spirit performs Her work also varies for different people. No one can claim to have an exclusive franchise on the Holy Spirit.

On this Sunday of Pentecost, let us ask for the grace to learn from the spirituality of others, no matter how different from ours.


Fr. John we were there at the same time as u in Fatima and we saw u but did not recognize u until we thought about it . The first time i came to Fatima i was on my knees from entrance to Sanctuario for i prayed for my brother to have a job as soon as i was back in London he phoned me to say he has a job. I do believe on praying the rosary on ur knees that i did several rounds in Fatima’s 99 th. I was there again to celebrate my birthday with my Sister last Dec.13,2017. I love to go to Fatima to say the rosary on my knees.

Hi Fr. Johnny!

I share the same shame and guilt on looking down on the piety of simple folks; especially those in small churches in remote provinces. After my freshman theology in the ateneo where we discussed the ”split level Christianity “ among Filipinos, I used to look with disdain on folk religious piety. This has changed greatly after my experiences during my travels abroad and living in the USA and Europe. I realized that faith must be embodied and lived, and I am glad that was born and is living in the Philippines where Christian faith is so alive with plentiful manifestations. I was so touched and inspired witnessing the thousands of Sto. Nino devotees during the annual Saturday procession two years ago. Thank for your sermon and confirming my new found sentiments.

May the good Lord continue to bless you and works, Fr Johnny!

Thank you for sharing your experience, Father. I couldn’t resist laughing at what happened. (Almost
strangling the attendant with the rosary ?). Yet, I appreciate your reflection and I realized I, too, feel superior in terms of my spirituality, which should never be. Thank you. ?

On not a few occasions, i get this special feeling about having a deep spirituality and scoff at the simplicity of other peoples’ faith brushing it off as plain ignorance.
Yet as often as i do, i also get rebuffed and humbled by the HSpirit in very gentle and subtle ways — either my silent prayer, reflections or scripture meditation. I pray that He always does this to me.
Happy Pentecost

Thank you for the sharing. I, too , am sometimes guilty of this “looking down” on folks’ practices of piety and adoration. But the Holy Spirit gently chides me every time with : “Appreciate these people because they show their faith and devotion spontaneously without too much overthinking as you do.”
Thank You Po Holy Spirit!
Thank you Fr. J

Very inspiring and apt. I do believe that each one of us has our own way of expressing our spirituality and we need not judge anyone who does it differently from us. In the same manner that we should not be ashamed of doing it our way and not to conform to what society dictates us. Ultimately it is what is in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that will allow us to have that spiritual connection with God and His words. I am thankful, grateful and blessed.

Fr J your story convicts me. Now working 4 anawims, I get exasperated by their simple piety and practices. I still have to eat my humble pie and learn to accept that the Spirit descends in different ways. May God forgive me.

Thanks for this, Fr J. It hit close to home. I am no stranger to the embarrassment, shame and pride you speak of and I’m thankful that God is working to chide us with love and surprise us with joy.

Many years ago, I had made the mistake of defining the form through which the Spirit comes and how She manifests her presence in me. For years, I had felt wanting because I had thought it was only through exultations in tongues that She enters my heart and makes herself known. In time, I realized that She comes in varied ways, meeting us not only where we are, but in accordance with who we are and how God has shaped us. Imagine that! Not only is it true that no one can claim exclusive franchise to the Spirit, but that the Spirit generously customizes Herself to us.

Blessed Pentecost, Fr J. Maraming salamat!

“I managed to resist the urge to strangle the attendant with my rosary!” I LOVE IT!
Thanks for being so real, Fr. Johnny 🙂

Thank you Father for your wonderful sharing. The devil creeps into our hearts everytime we are about to sanctify ourselves to God. He induces pride which can separate us from grace. Only humility can save us each and every time. Thank you for this lesson. God bless po.

Thank you for this touching witness in which you agree with truthfulness to open up to us your “spiritual bias” about the piety of simple folks. You also relieve us of one of the numerous prejudices which encumber the mind in its quest for truth, and prevent our hearts to be open to the Holy Spirit. Thus you show us how our ego is a paltry fortress in which the Spirit will not penetrate without our consent. And when He does, He does it quietly without housebreaking, and illuminates in our soul the corners which are yet dark.
“First of all, I was suddenly seized with embarrassment …but eventually decided to go for it! ” Your evidence is a lesson in both humility and will, “humility being the intelligence of those who dare” “despite his/her weaknesses or doubts. According to St. Benedict, humility is also the ability to recognize the presence of God in all events. And it cannot go without simplicity. Just like as the pilgrims walking on their knees while saying the rosary.

And if you stay in Lisbon, I think you will visit the first building built by the Jesuits.

Hi Fr J, have never been to Fatima, nor hope to visit it in my lifetime. This vicarious experience of your pilgrimage is the next best thing. Appreciate very much the photos (and the hilarity).

Could you pls clarify for me: Isn’t it that the disciples already received the Holy Spirit from Our Lord himself when, during one of his post-resurrection appearances, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…’?

Hi abc, thanks for your question! The Gospels have different ways of communicating the same reality. In this case, the reality is the sending of the Holy Spirit. John expresses it with the Lord appearing to the disciples and “breathing” on them. Luke talks about the same reality through this great event of the Pentecost. Sometimes the same reality is expressed through several events too. Moderns like us tend to focus on events more than the underlying reality, so it’s understandable to get confused. Hope this helps 🙂

Thanks for sharing. I was hit when I realuzed that I do have that spirituality which I think was better than some of my friends and parish workers” of what appears to me as fanatic superficial piety.

Truly resonated with me father esp. this part:
” The Spirit never invades us–even if sometimes we are more than willing victims! God always respects our free will, and will never enter a heart that is closed to Him. And when the heart does open itself, God will never dissolve that person’s identity. The person retains full control of his or her faculties. What the Holy Spirit does is provide the person with the resources needed to do what he or she wants to do.”
Salamat po

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