When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And, suddenly, there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
— Acts of the Apostles 2:1-4
The day my group visited the Upper Room during a journalists’ tour of the Holy Land last month, the room itself was closed to the public, although we were allowed to peer into the building’s lower floor and meander in its courtyard. Later that day, Pope Francis would celebrate Mass in the Cenacle (another word used for the Upper Room) with the bishops of the Holy Land as part of his visit there, which included the historic meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I.
When the security personnel informed us that the Upper Room had been closed off for the day, I was miffed. That, for me, had been a high-priority site. I wanted to stand in the room in which Jesus shared the Last Supper with his apostles and imagine I was there among them, witnessing the institution of the holy Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood.
I wanted to listen for the sound of the wind and “see” the tongues of fire above the heads of Mary and the 120 other men and women at the first Pentecost. I wanted to breathe in the presence of the Paraclete while praying the Veni Sancte Spiritus. As it was, I’d have to be content with standing on the outside looking in, so to speak, and later studying photos of the Upper Room’s interior from other sources.
Trained journalists know that, when things don’t work out the way they’d expected, they simply shift gears and make the best of it, and this was no exception. I took in what I could of the building from the exterior, asking Our Lord to reveal to me exactly what he wanted me to see, given the circumstances. Then I began to understand.
As I stood in the small courtyard of the dwelling, looking in the narrow windows of the room above, I “heard” not the sounds from within, but, rather, the sounds from without. I heard the merchants in the markets, the mothers calling, the children laughing and the townspeople gossiping about Jesus the Nazarene, who claimed he could rise from the dead.
I saw the sneering Roman soldiers sauntering along, glad they’d gotten rid of another troublemaker. At that point, it occurred to me that, while the Holy Spirit appeared to the disciples inside the Upper Room, the Church itself unfolded outside of it — out on the streets, where the newly transformed Peter and other disciples praised God, began proclaiming the Good News and converted thousands in a single day.
The Church may have been conceived in the Upper Room, but it was born on the streets of Jerusalem.
I stood in the courtyard and looked up at the windows again, this time not with irritation over what was lost (my view of the inside), but, instead, with great gratitude and joy for what was gained (the Church). I turned around and scanned the city of Jerusalem, with its steep inclines and narrow stone streets and imagined the apostles making their way along, boldly preaching about Christ crucified and risen and inviting all to the baptism that would secure their salvation.
Suddenly, my little courtyard post took on a completely different significance: Had the Spirit-filled disciples stood right where I was standing as they gave glory to God, expressed their wonder and amazement over what had transpired in the Upper Room and discussed and decided who would proceed in which direction? I’d like to think so.
Later, I read the text of Pope Francis’ homily in the Upper Room, and I smiled because it reminded me of everything I had experienced while standing in the courtyard earlier that day:
"Here, where Jesus shared the Last Supper with the apostles; where, after his resurrection, he appeared in their midst; where the Holy Spirit descended with power upon Mary and the disciples. Here, the Church was born and was born to go forth. From here, she set out, with the broken bread in her hands, the wounds of Christ before her eyes and the Spirit of love in her heart. In the Upper Room, the risen Jesus, sent by the Father, bestowed upon the apostles his own Spirit; and with this power, he sent them forth to renew the face of the earth."
From the Upper Room, the Church was to go forth in the spirit of love. It did, and because of that, I was standing in the courtyard looking up at the windows from which the disciples viewed the places of their mission. At that moment, I realized that the courtyard was the perfect place for me to be.
In his Upper Room homily, Pope Francis also said, “The Upper Room reminds us of sharing, fraternity, harmony and peace among ourselves. How much love and goodness has flowed from the Upper Room! How much charity has gone forth from here, like a river from its source, beginning as a stream and then expanding and becoming a great torrent. All the saints drew from this source; and hence, the great river of the Church’s holiness continues to flow: from the Heart of Christ, from the Eucharist and from the Holy Spirit.”
The river began to flow at the Last Supper, and its current was bolstered at Pentecost; 2,000 years ago, it came thundering out of the windows above my head and washed through the streets of Jerusalem, over the regions of Israel, Judea and beyond to eventually cover the entire world.
Toward the end of our trip, our group made a second attempt to get to the Upper Room but failed because of an unfortunate delay. Of course, I was disappointed (and, yes, again, somewhat irritated). But my irritation soon melted into resignation.
Not being able to enter the Upper Room had a profound impact on me. It lifted me out of the time and place vacuum that often entraps us when visiting an historic place and moved me into the grace and freedom of the then-and-forever.
I can view pictures of the Upper Room’s interior and get some idea of what it’s like inside. But no picture, not even setting foot inside it myself, could convey to me the meaning I was to gain from standing on the outside looking in.
Register correspondent Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin. She was a member of the U.S. media group selected to tour the Holy Land during the period of Pope Francis’ recent trip there.