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The Holy Spirit

30 November, 1999

Question: Nowadays there is quite a lot of emphasis placed on praying to the Holy Spirit. I don’t know much about him. What is his role in the world today, and is it different from that of Jesus? Paul.

On one occasion St. Paul asked a group of people if they had received the Holy Spirit. ‘We were never even told that there was such a thing as a Holy Spirit’ (Acts 19:2) was their reply. A similar mentality was still around as recently as the middle of the twentieth century, leading some theologians to describe the Holy Spirit as the ‘Forgotten Paraclete’.

Fortunately, as your question indicates, this forgetfulness is less of a problem today. The influence of the Charismatic Renewal movement, which started about forty years ago, shortly after the end of the Second Vatican Council, has heightened awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit in everyday life.

Wind and breath
I have a distinct memory of preparing for my Confirmation by learning to sing Come Holy Ghost. In English today we generally use the word ‘Spirit’. In every language the translation of the Hebrew word ruah is borrowed from the natural phenomena of wind and breath.

In spite of Miss Richmond’s best efforts I couldn’t figure out what the second verse meant: ‘Thou who art called the Paraclete, Best Gift of God above’. I didn’t know then that ‘Paraclete’ is from the Greek word for an advocate or highly skilled person who helps you when you are in difficulty with the law. It means literally ‘someone called alongside’.

However I was able to deal easily with the following verse, as I could count up to ten and was able to tell my right hand from my left: ‘Thou who art sevenfold in Thy grace, Finger of God’s right hand.’ And even the line after that posed no problem for me at all since I was all of six years of age. ‘His Promise teaching little ones to speak and understand’. Later years would teach me that, in this regard, it was not just the Junior Infants but all of us who are ‘little ones’.

Time of need
Indeed the role of the Holy Spirit in the world is closely linked to this ‘littleness’ of ours. In the things of God we are greatly in need of help. Indeed just as we cannot live without breath so we cannot live without the Breath of God.

More than that, Jesus knew that we would have to face formidable enemies after he left us. We would be like lambs among wolves, many things would be beyond our comprehension and situations would arise where we would feel completely tongue-tied.

‘When they take you before synagogues and magistrates and authorities, do not worry about how to defend yourselves or what to say, because when the time comes, the Holy Spirit will teach you what you should say’ (Lk. 12:11-12). Perhaps today the synagogues, magistrates and authorities have been replaced by hostile interviewers, anti-religious lawmakers and intrusive journalists.

Gift of God
In Christian tradition the Holy Spirit is known as the Gift of God, par excellence. In the Sacrament of Confirmation it is given in a special way. But Jesus assures us that we can never ask too often for a further outpouring of this Gift. As we all know, a Gift is not something that comes out of nowhere. There can be no gift without a giver.

The people of the Old Testament knew of a spirit that descended from God upon holy people like the Judges and Prophets. Joel, however, prophesied that one day the same spirit would be poured out on all humanity (Joel 3:1).
At Pentecost this prophecy was dramatically realized but it took some time before the Christians fully realized that this Spirit was none other than God Himself, one of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. The mutual love of the Father and Son is so great that it takes the form of a Third Person. We profess our faith in this truth every Sunday at Mass when we proclaim the Holy Spirit as the One ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’.

Role in the world
What is the role of the Spirit in the world today? Just as there would be no natural life without wind and air, there would be no supernatural life without the Spirit. Speaking of the Spirit, Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘The wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8).

Before He ended His life in this world, Jesus spoke of the wide ranging role of the coming Holy Spirit as teacher, gift, enlightener, comforter as well as advocate.  The Holy Spirit would be sent to provide support both in the daily life of each one of us but also in the Church, ‘the pillar and ground of truth’.

In the Scriptures there are no direct references, for obvious reasons, to developments of modern science like nuclear arsenals, stem cell research, in vitro fertilization or frozen embryos. Without the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit, sustaining the serious reflection that these questions require, the Church could not speak with the authority needed or give reliable guidance on the moral issues associated with them.

You wonder if the role of the Holy Spirit in the world is different from that of Jesus. It was only the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, lived as a man on earth before dying on a cross and who will remain human like us for all eternity. This is an important difference with many implications. But with St. Paul we have also to remember that the Spirit we are talking about is the Spirit of Jesus (Acts 16:7). The continual presence of the Spirit of Jesus among us is a fulfilment of his promise to be with us until the end of time.

‘Come to us, O Holy Spirit, as you came to the Apostles. Open our minds that they may be filled with the hidden things of God. Send your love into our hearts like a flame of fire that our lives may be changed by your power, O Holy Spirit, to do God’s will on earth and bring people with us to heaven.’  

This article first appeared in The Messenger (May 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.


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