Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Holy Spirit in the Church
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
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"
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.
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