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Tracing the Spirit

30 November, 1999

This month (February 2009) the Pope asks us to pray “that people in religious life be ever more receptive to the Holy Spirit as they teach and serve the people of God”. Dermot Lane PP explains.

When Pope John XXIII announced the holding of an ecumenical council on 25 January 1959, he expressed the wish that it would effect ‘a New Pentecost’ in the life of the Church.

Part of the reason for this wish was that the Holy Spirit had become the forgotten person of the Trinity, the Church was in need of spiritual and pastoral renewal, and the divisions among Christians were a scandal in the eyes of the world.

The Second Vatican Council had a lot to say about the Spirit in the life of the Church, especially in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. In that document the Council pointed out that ‘the Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful… guides the Church in the way of all truth… rejuvenates the Church, constantly renewing it’ (a.4).

The Council also stated that ‘the Church is driven by the Holy Spirit to play its part in bringing to completion the plan of God’ (a.17) and that the movement toward Christian unity is taking place ‘under the guidance of the Holy Spirit’ (Decree on Ecumenism, a.4).

Every generation of Christians is invited ‘to test the Spirits to see whether they are of God’ (1.Jn.4:1) and at the same time is also warned: ‘Do not stifle the Spirit’ (1 Thess.5:19). The Catholic Church in the twenty-first century is challenged to discern the unifying action and energy of the Holy Spirit in the world today.

The trouble about the action of the Holy Spirit is that it is invisible and elusive and, therefore, difficult to discern. We should remember that for Christians, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ poured out on the disciples at Pentecost. One way, therefore, of discerning the action of the Spirit in the world today, is to look back at the action of the Spirit in the life of Christ.

For example, Luke tells us that when Christ went into the synagogue in Nazareth, he read from the scroll of Isaiah where it said: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Lk.4:18-19). If and when these activities take place today, we can be sure that the Spirit of Christ is active and present.

St. Paul tells us that ‘the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit that is given to us’ (Rom.5:5). This means that if we are to discover the gift of the Spirit, we need to look within the human spirit. The human spirit is, as it were, the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit.

To be in touch with the human spirit, however, we need to slow down, to move into a place of silence, and to stand still. When we do that, we find we are standing in the presence of the Holy Spirit who is already there, summoning each one of us through the voice of conscience and the call of transcendence. It is in, and through, the human spirit that the Holy Spirit dwells in each one of us, and touches our lives.

In the light of the teaching of Vatican II, we can also say that the Spirit is calling the Church today:

  • to work for visible unity among all of the Christian Churches;
  • to enter into respectful dialogue with the other religions of the world, especially Judaism and Islam;
  • to promote peace, action for justice and reconciliation;
  • to care for the integrity of creation and to protect the environment.

Another area where we can discern the action of the Spirit in the life of Church is in the call of men and women to become involved in the mission and ministry of the Church in the world. There is a growing awareness that, through Baptism and Confirmation, all are called to exercise the one priesthood of Christ.

‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom and will to another the utterance of knowledge… to another faith by the same Spirit… to another the gift of heating by the one Spirit… All these are activated by one and the same Spirit’ (1 Cor. 12:7-11).

To be able to respond to the call of the Spirit, we need some images to describe how the Spirit acts in our lives. Of course we know that the Spirit breathes where the Spirit will, and this varies enormously from individual to individual. This diversity of action by the Spirit would include some of the following images: seeing the Spirit as the Giver of life, holding the whole of creation in existence; as the dynamism, often dormant, within the human spirit; as the ‘midwife’ giving birth to new insights in the arts, the humanities, the sciences and theology; as the pledge of life in the future.

Without careful attention to the ongoing action of the Spirit, the Church will become just another organisation, our liturgies will become empty rituals, the exercise of authority will become a form of dominion and mission an expression of propaganda.

The missing link in a lot of Christian life and pastoral practice is the dynamism of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

‘Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and you will renew the face of the earth.’ 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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