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Receive the Holy Spirit

by Sara Kirtlink

Spirit seems to be desirable—if not necessarily holy. Pep rallies at school hope to boost team spirit. Families bake cookies to get in the Christmas spirit. Singing "The Star Spangled Banner" can rouse your patriotic spirit.

The Holy Spirit is more than a fleeting feeling or a seasonal celebration. Catholics preparing for Confirmation hope to receive the gifts and fruits of this Holy Spirit. This Youth Update intends to increase your awareness of that Holy Spirit, your appreciation of the Spirit's gifts.

First, who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Blessed Trinity—that is, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Basically, that's our Christian belief: There are three divine persons in one God.

When we talk about three persons, we tend to think of individuals. That makes sense to us because if someone told you that your favorite music group was appearing in person, you would visualize three or four individuals. But that's not how it is with God.

The inner life of God is nothing like our experience. We only know about it because God has told us, and even then it is so mysterious we can't fully understand it. God is timeless, all holy, uncaused, perfect and infinite in mind and will, and the three persons of God cannot be separated. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Enter Jesus

We know that God's Spirit has always been around. The very first verse in the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis, tells us that God breathed his spirit over the water to make the earth. We see the spirit a number of other times before Jesus came. For example, David was filled with the spirit when he had the courage to face Goliath, and Moses was radiant with the spirit when he received the Ten Commandments. So we hear of the Father and the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures. But was Jesus there? Didn't he come later? Wasn't he a human being like we are?

The answer to all these questions is yes. Jesus is the Word of God, so he was present all through what we now call Old Testament times. But although the people experienced the spirit mightily, they knew God as power. They thought that their best response was to try to please God by obeying the Law and the commandments, even though they didn't always understand what those laws and commandments meant.

But God spoke the word that became flesh: Jesus. He came as a fully human being who would have a life like ours, with a beginning and an end. Through his life, we learned what God really meant by the commandments. He showed us how to live and taught us about the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He dealt with all the human problems that we have, but he called on all the love of God and strength of the Holy Spirit which were within him to live a life that was completely without sin. He set a perfect example for his apostles. But his death on the cross looked like the end.

Crisis of Leadership

How can you keep following somebody's example when that person's not around anymore? Think about the greatest teacher or coach you have ever had. You were inspired while he or she was involved, right? And the next year you were still sort of high about that subject or sport because of all you learned before and the way you felt about it. But as a few years pass, your school spirit or team spirit fades. Right? Why? Most people seem to need a continued connection to keep up a relationship. This feeling sometimes is called "spirit."

Jesus understood very well what would happen to his followers once he was gone. When Peter had seen Jesus walking across the water, Jesus said, "Come on out," and Peter was willing to try because Jesus was right there to catch him. But another time when a storm came up on the sea and Jesus was asleep, Peter panicked. So there was good reason for Jesus to worry that the leaders he had trained for his Church would run away at the first sign of trouble from those who had nailed the real leader to a cross!

So Jesus told them that he would send a helper, someone they could turn to when they needed to know if they were doing the right thing. That helper is the Holy Spirit.

Here Comes the Advocate

Jesus told them that they would not be left orphans when he died. He said that he would ask the Father to send "another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it because it remains with you..." (John 14:16-17).

An advocate is a person who is always on your side. And that is the job of the Holy Spirit: to always be with us to guide and to help us. You probably don't remember your Baptism, but think back to everything you've learned about it. What are the words the priest or deacon who baptized you said? "In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." So you already have the Holy Spirit in your life.

Just like the apostles to whom Jesus spoke about it in the first place, that Holy Spirit remains in you. But, as Jesus also said, the world finds it hard to accept because we can't see the Holy Spirit. So how do we know the Spirit's there? How do we take advantage of this helper who will let us know if things are right or wrong? And—if you are preparing for Confirmation—does this imply that you will not receive the Holy Spirit until you are confirmed?

Let's take those questions one at a time. First, how do you know that the Spirit is here? Let's look at the evidence of the apostles' lives. After Jesus died, how do you think they felt? They had no leader anymore. They must have been terrified that, if anyone found out they were followers of Jesus, they would get hung on a cross, too!

It's hard for us to relate to this kind of feeling, living in a free country like ours. Try to imagine that a new law is passed that makes it illegal to belong to a youth group. Your group discusses it and, since you know there's nothing wrong with youth groups, you decide to stay together. The next week all your adult advisers are arrested because they didn't break up the youth group.

Imagine what would happen. Some of you might want to picket or fight for your rights, but others would deny they ever belonged to a youth group. Some parents would hire lawyers to get the advisers out of jail, but others would say that their children couldn't have anything to do with youth groups any more. So there you'd be, with no adult leadership and none of your members agreeing on what to do.

That's just about what happened to the apostles. Luke describes the situation in the Book of Acts. The Twelve stayed together in a safe place, tried to pray and make decisions about the future. They kept reviewing the stories about what Jesus did when he was with them in hopes that this would help them figure out what they should do next. They waited nervously in the hope that the advocate—the helper—that Jesus promised would come.

Then, the Acts of the Apostles tells us: The apostles were in the room and "suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim" (Acts 2:2-4).

Can you imagine what the apostles did after they received the Holy Spirit? They left the safety of that room and began to tell the stories of Jesus to other people. They were no longer afraid. This transformation from fear to courage, from silence to an inspired message, proved to many in Jerusalem at the time that a new Spirit, a Holy Spirit, had transformed the apostles. In that same chapter of Acts, Peter promises that same Holy Spirit to all who are baptized. The same kind of transformation can result in your life.

Little Pentecosts

How do we take advantage of this helper who was sent to give us courage and power, and the wonderful security of knowing that what we are doing is right? I guess the first thing we need to understand is that the Holy Spirit doesn't always come as dramatically as that day of wind and fire in the apostles' little room.

You have already received the Holy Spirit during your Baptism. When your parents show the old Baptism pictures and talk about how cute you were, they probably don't mention a wind sweeping through the church, or tongues of fire, I suspect. Yet we know, through faith, that the Spirit is present. What we need to figure out is how to tap into all the help available.

1. Ask for it. Last year a young friend of mine named Laura was trying to choose which college she would attend. Her grades were only average, so she felt as if her choices were limited. But worse than that, her parents absolutely wanted her to go to a certain school. She was dead set against it, both because she thought she'd be turned down and, mostly, because they were so dead set for it!

Laura talked to a few people about her feelings and our assistant pastor suggested that she should pray to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Well, she did pray about it and she visited several colleges, her own first choice as well as her parents' choice and even a few more. She liked more than one but she told me that the one she felt most comfortable at was the one that her folks wanted her to attend.

She told me, "It was weird. I absolutely didn't want to be there, but I felt like I belonged. It was like being home." So she decided to go along with her feeling and she was not only accepted, she did well her first year and in her sophomore year was elected to a student board that very rarely chooses underclassmen. While she lacked total confidence in her decision, many signs now demonstrate its wisdom. She really believes that the Holy Spirit guided her choice, and it's not hard to tell if you use the next step.

2. Check out the result. Not everything that happens is from the Spirit. But usually if it is there will be some signs. First of all, you'll be happy. Laura felt as if she belonged at her school even when she was really fighting being there. She couldn't imagine that she could be happy there, but she was. Often, you'll feel at peace. Now, that doesn't mean that nothing will go wrong. There have been lots of times when exams have made Laura a wreck, and not all the grades she got left her feeling calm and peaceful. But overall, she is comfortable with herself and who she is becoming.

Another good sign is that you'll care about other people. What you want will become only one among many things that matter. Laura was able to accept the fact that her parents had gotten their wish. And on campus she has become a member of a small faith-sharing community that offers support and makes being away from home easier. That support system leads to the next step.

3. Get all the help you can. You need not be isolated. Even as we begin to reach out to others, people will reach back in love. Be selective about the people you look up to. Parents are usually good choices. They gave you your first values. Maybe you have other relatives you can trust. How about your pastor or another person in your parish with religious values? Friends who share your principles and priorities can be helpful. When you want to talk about a situation, talk to those kinds of people. One way the Spirit works is through other people. Finally—

4. Trust God. There are times when no one can understand why things happen, good or bad. But we have a wonderful gift in our faith. I don't know if my young friend would have been as happy if she had continued to fight her parents and had settled for a different school. But I do know that she turned her decision over to God and she is a very happy person today.

Expressing Your Belief Is Your Call

Sending the Holy Spirit, and letting us know that this powerful advocate would be at work in our lives, was one of the most wonderful things Jesus did. The Holy Spirit brings us the unconditional love of God and offers us access to an amazing gift. Having the strength and love of God to call on whenever we need guidance is what has enabled the Church to survive for 2,000 years, through periods of persecution, great leadership, poor leadership, radical change and incredible growth.

While we surpass the boundaries of earth into outer space, we still face terrible pressures of extreme wealth and extreme poverty on this planet. But through it all we have the calm reassurance that when we ask, the Holy Spirit is present to help us.

As a Catholic Christian, you are heir to this fabulous gift. Take some time over the next couple of weeks to notice how many things seem to happen almost without any reason. Some people call these things coincidences, but could they be the Holy Spirit at work? Try in your own life to ask for guidance and be very conscious of the result. Remember, we don't usually get tongues of fire and gusts of wind, so sometimes you don't know until later that the Holy Spirit is present!

Today's world offers many choices. So many people are trying to tell you things they say will make you happy and successful. Everybody has something to sell, and you continually have to decide what to buy. Sometimes it gets very expensive and you just can't be sure it's worth the price. Isn't it fantastic that we have been given the completely reliable, and always available free gift of the Holy Spirit?

On to Confirmation

You have had the gifts of the Holy Spirit all your life, but you were so young when you received them that you were really not aware of the number of times you would need to call on this helper. Such an awareness is the first call to Confirmation. Now you are old enough to begin to understand. Now you can call the Holy Spirit by name. Jesus said, "Ask and it will be given to you" (Matthew 7:7). There's not a gang or a group, a pill or a program in this world that comes with that kind of a guarantee!

Sara A. Kirtlink is director of religious education at St. Francis De Sales Parish in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. She has prepared students to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, and this Youth Update evolved from her teaching as well as from her graduate studies in religious education at Providence College.

This issue of Youth Update was read with great care by Raquel Davis, 15; Kamira Jones, 15; Shannon Lanier, 14; and Shawn Lanier, 16. All four are members of St. Agnes Youth Group in Cincinnati, Ohio. St. Agnes's entire youth group is planning to participate in the August pilgrimage to Denver for World Youth Day.


Images of the Holy Spirit

The study of the Holy Spirit is called pneumatology, from the Greek word pneuma which means breath.

This image of the Holy Spirit as breath is suggested by several passages in the Old Testament. Check these passages to consider the ways in which the Holy Spirit is like breath: Genesis 1:1-2; Genesis 2:7; Ezekiel 37:1-14. (In some translations, breath has become wind; try substituting breath in those places to see if it feels right or helpful.)

Is breath the image you have of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps you are more familiar with the image of a dove or of tongues of fire. These scriptural passages may be the origins of those images. Matthew 3:13-17; Acts 2:1-4.

Could you suggest other helpful images?



I can imagine the Spirit as a friend and a helper, but I'm not sure where the idea of advocate comes from.


According to Webster, advocate comes from the Latin word vocare, which means to call. It is defined as "one who speaks for or supports something." But the Scriptures weren't written in Latin, and Harpers' Bible Dictionary says that the original Greek was paraclete, which would be better translated "called to the side of." You could say, then, that an advocate is someone called to take the side of a person or an issue and speak for that person or issue. Someone has to call the attention of the advocate to the need. The advocate then calls for action. You've probably heard of a child advocate being appointed by a court in an abuse case. The child, or some responsible person, alerts the authorities to the problem; then the advocate takes the child's side to make sure the abuse is corrected.


Are the Holy Ghost and the Holy Spirit the same?


Yes. Before Vatican II, the common term was Holy Ghost. But the Bible has always used the word Spirit, and one of the big changes of the council was the emphasis on the Word of God. We are now encouraged to read the Bible regularly, and many rites and rituals in the Church are celebrated more as they were in the beginning. So if there is a choice of words, we will always favor those used earlier or as stated in the Bible. We're not talking about Jesus haunting us, but about his work being continued in the world through the Holy Spirit.


In the Bible, the coming of the Holy Spirit enabled the people to "speak in tongues." Why doesn't that happen now?


Actually, it does. But it is more like the speaking in tongues mentioned in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. He says that speaking in tongues is the least of the gifts of the Spirit, and that it isn't too helpful unless someone else has the gift of interpreting what has been said. That is quite different from the unique experience the apostles had on Pentecost, when they spoke in their own language but each listener heard the words in his or her own. That day the apostles were freed from the fear that had kept them from telling the world all about Jesus. Many prayer groups in the Church today are called charismatic because of their special devotion to the Holy Spirit. Many of these people speak in tongues after they have received the Spirit.


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