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The Holy Spirit is active at Pentecost and in the sacrament of Confirmation. The New Testament portrays the Spirit as an advocate or paraclete while the Church sees the Spirit as its "Living Memory" to keep alive the gospel of Jesus.


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The Holy Spirit in the Church

by William Shannon

Celebrating the feast of Pentecost reminds us of our Confirmation when, through the anointing of the bishop, the Holy Spirit was sent upon us. Confirmation is a sacrament that is not clearly understood even by many who receive it. We do not quite know what to make of the Holy Spirit. An elusive Spirit indeed! All too many people don't get much beyond an image: a kind of holy bird or a piece of fire. Etymology doesn't help much either. Spirit simply means "breath" or "wind."

The Elusivenss of the Holy Spirit

This issue of Scripture From Scratch seeks to discover something of what the New Testament has to say about the Spirit. These Scriptures confirm our sense of the elusiveness of the Spirit.

It is as if the Spirit is in the background, revealed to us not so much in personal qualities but in what the Spirit does. This seeming "hiddenness" of the Spirit is what makes it difficult to speak with clarity about the third person of the Trinity. But, elusive though the Spirit may seem, one thing is clear: The Spirit's presence is always a presence that energizes people. Thus the Spirit of God overshadows Mary and she becomes the mother of the one who is to be her redeemer and ours. The Spirit of God overshadows Jesus at his baptism and he is anointed, energized, for his mission as the Beloved One of God.

The feast of Pentecost is about the earliest disciples of Jesus being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. And does this Spirit energize them! First the Spirit enables them to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead by the Spirit of God. Second, the Spirit makes them realize that their mission is to proclaim that the Risen One had been taken into God. Third, the Spirit energizes them to carry the Gospel to the whole world.

The Spirit in Paul

Our old apologetic books used to tell us that we could prove Jesus' resurrection by reason alone. Paul says: "Nope, you're all wrong. No one can say —Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit" (see 1 Cor 12:3). Not only does God's Spirit enable us to believe in Jesus' resurrection, this same Spirit enables us to rise with Jesus; at the same time the Spirit dwells in us. Again Paul: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Rom 8:11).

Paul's epistle to the Romans has much to say about the Spirit, including some wonderful things about the Spirit and prayer—things we need to hear. For most of us don't think of ourselves as being very good at prayer. Paul says to us: "That's OK. Don't worry. So, you don't know how to pray as you ought. Well, let me tell you: —The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words'" (see Rom 8:26). Yes, the Spirit of God energizes our prayer. It is not so much our effort that makes good pray-ers of us, but our openness to the Spirit who dwells in us and prays in us.

The Spirit in the Fourth Gospel

The Spirit figures prominently in Paul's writings, but also in the Fourth Gospel, especially in chapters 14—16. In most modern translations of these chapters, the Spirit is called our "Advocate." The term "Advocate" is a translation of the Greek word paracletos. The older translation of the Bible (the Douai-Rheims translation, the only one Catholics were allowed to use in the past) left the Greek word untranslated; thus it appears as "Paraclete" instead of, in translation, "Advocate." That is probably a good approach to this Greek word, as it allows for several possible translations.

The word occurs in only five passages and all are in the Fourth Gospel. Its literal meaning is "one called alongside." So if a friend of yours is in the hospital and you are called to visit her, you could be described as her "paraclete."

The word is sometimes translated as "advocate" or "Counselor." Thus, it can mean a defense attorney working on our behalf; or a prosecuting attorney: the Spirit who convicts the world of wrongfully putting Jesus to death. The Paraclete reverses the sentence and declares Jesus' innocence and does this by raising him from the dead.

Another role for "one called alongside" is to comfort and console. (This is what you would be doing in your "paraclete" visit to your hospitalized friend.) This meaning is picked up in the sequence of the Mass, the Veni Sancte Spiritus wherein the Spirit is called Consolator optime—"the best consoler in all the world."

When the disciples appear sad about Jesus' impending departure, he assures them: Don't look so sad. "The Father will give you another paraclete to be with you forever." Notice: it will be another paraclete. Jesus is the first paraclete, the first one who came into our world to be at our side, i.e., paraclete for us. The Spirit is the second paraclete, but, whereas Jesus was on earth for but a short time, this second paraclete will be with us till the end of time.

According to Scripture scholar Raymond Brown, "A major emphasis in the Johannine presentation of the Paraclete is the likeness of the Spirit to Jesus." That is why the Spirit can be seen as a substitute for Jesus. Remember Jesus' saying about his leaving his disciples: "It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you" (Jn 16:7).

You see, the Paraclete cannot come until Jesus goes. The resurrection marks the end of Jesus' mortal life and the beginning of Jesus' being with us in a new way: namely, through the Spirit whom he will send upon us. In the days of his mortality, Jesus was present in limited time and space; through the Spirit Jesus is with us always and everywhere.

That is why it is theologically incorrect to see the Eucharist as the way in which the Risen Jesus remains present among us. No, he is with us always through the Spirit whom he has sent. The Spirit is Jesus' alter ego. He is, so to speak, Jesus redivivus. Indeed, as the Eucharistic prayers of the Mass make clear, we call on God to send the Holy Spirit to overshadow the gifts and change them into the sacramental presence of Jesus. We also ask God to send the Spirit on us that we may be changed into the living Body of Christ on earth. It's all the Spirit's work: making Jesus ever present among us.

The Church's 'Living Memory'

What else does this wonderful energizing Spirit do in the Church? The Spirit is our teacher, helping us to understand the revelation of God made once and for all in Jesus. Jesus says: he will teach you everything and will remind you of what I have taught (see Jn 14:25).

God revealed the divine Self completely in Jesus. There is no more revelation. But each age has to understand that revelation in ways that make sense to it. The task of the Spirit is to enable us to do this. The Paraclete is present in every time and culture: not to bring new revelation from God, but to take the revelation of the Word made flesh and declare and interpret it anew, enabling the Church in every age to face the future with confidence and to safeguard the integrity of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Thus it is that the Spirit is a divine guarantee that the Church will never lose the Gospel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses so beautifully the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Church: "The Holy Spirit is the Church's living memory" (art. 1099)—recalling past intuitions, even opening up new insights. As we grow older we sometimes experience "memory lapses" which we euphemistically refer to as "senior moments." The Church also has its "senior moments," when aspects of her Gospel-commitment seem temporarily forgotten. The living memory who is the Holy Spirit is always there to remind us, to call us back to whatever of the message of Jesus we may have momentarily forgotten. The Gospel is safe in the care of the Church's "Living Memory."

This "Living Memory" acts in the Church through the Magisterium (the teaching authority) of the Church. In every age the bishops of the Church, united with the bishop of Rome, have the pastoral authority to teach the whole Church matters of faith and morals, especially at times when conflicts arise and questions are raised demanding authoritative answers.

The —Sense of the Faithful'

Yet it is important to realize that the Holy Spirit does not act simply "from the top." The Church's "Living Memory" is also active in the other faithful, whose role in the Church is more than simply being passive recipients of the Magisterium's teachings.

The Second Vatican Council, in its document on the Church (Lumen Gentium), states the Holy Spirit does not hesitate at times to speak to the whole Church through the body of the faithful. Thus we read: "The body of the faithful, as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. 1 Jn 2:20, 27) cannot err in matters of belief. Thanks to a supernatural sense of the faith which characterizes the people as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when, from the bishops down to the last member of the laity, it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals" (art. 12).

This article notes significant scripture references to the sense of the faithful (the sensus fidelium): "You have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge." Also quoted is verse 27 clearly addressed to the Church members: "As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him."

These texts certainly are not meant to set up a conflict between the teaching of the Magisterium and the sense of the faithful, but to establish a delicate balance. They make clear that there are times when the "Teaching Church" must become the "Listening Church," as it carries on its ministry of preserving the whole Church in the faith of the Gospel. This presence of the energizing Spirit in the whole Church reminds the Magisterium not to be aloof from the other members of the Church, but rather in touch with their thinking and reflection, as they go about the daily effort to live as disciples of Jesus. It also reminds the faithful of their responsibility to receive the teaching of the Magisterium with respect and gratitude and an eager openness to the voice of the Spirit speaking though them.

Spiritual Director

In the wonderful Latin hymn about the Holy Spirit, the Veni Creator Spiritus, there is that delightful, rather quaint description of the Spirit as dexterae Dei digitus, "the finger of God's right hand." What a moving picture this phrase evokes: unerringly the Spirit of God energizes the whole Church, pointing the way for us, clarifying the direction we should take in our life's journey. The Spirit is the spiritual director par excellence, able to do what no human director can do, that is, direct us "from the inside." It is fitting, then, that we should frequently beg the Holy Spirit to energize us, fill our hearts and enkindle in us the fire of divine love.

William H. Shannon is a priest of the diocese of Rochester, New York, and professor emeritus, Nazareth College of Rochester.


Living the Scriptures

What do you remember about the day of your Confirmation? What meaning did it have for you then? Has that meaning grown over the years? Just as the first Christian Pentecost called the early disciples of Jesus to make public their belief in Jesus and the transforming power of Jesus' Spirit, so today the Spirit calls us to bring the Gospel into the marketplace.

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