The Holy Ghost Print
By James Schall   
Saturday, 30 May 2009
Editor’s Note: Our colleague Father Schall wrote this column for Pentecost, which we bring you this weekend in addition to our regular publication schedule.

Sermon Nineteen of the second volume of Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons is for Pentecost - Whitsunday - fifty days after the Resurrection, ten days after the Ascension. The sermon begins: “God the Son has graciously vouchsafed to reveal the Father to His creatures from without; God the Holy Ghost, by inward communications.”

That verb “vouchsafe” needs noting. It is a word from the 1400s. It means to grant or give graciously. This is how we receive the highest things, as graciously given. Our knowledge of His Father is granted “graciously” to us by the Son. Newman specifies that this knowledge is from “without.” That is, the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. He was in fact encountered in the world by witnesses who saw and heard Him.

The Holy Ghost, the Third Person of the Trinity, also “vouchsafes” to grant us graciously knowledge of the same Father. Newman calls it by “inward communications.” That is, this knowledge, its truth, is seen by us in that illumination of grace whereby we understand what is revealed about the Father. The Spirit breathes where it wills. This knowledge of the Father from the Holy Ghost does not bypass the Son, Who told us that no one knows the Father except through the Son. He told us that He would send the Spirit. This is what Pentecost commemorates, this presence of the Holy Ghost, first among the Apostles.

I have never much liked giving up the term “Ghost.” As a boy, I learned: “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” The change affronts the mind, something like making us “fishers of persons.” At the time of the great switchover, the reason given was that the word “ghost” implied spooks. The word “spirit” was used instead. Well, “spirits” has its own connotations, the abuse of which has its own sorry record that we do not want to attribute to the Holy Ghost.

For a religion that prides itself on intellect, too many Catholics seem to think that the human mind is a dull instrument that cannot distinguish multiple meanings in the same word. They figure that we cannot use the word “man” to mean an abstract idea of what is human and also a male of the human species. So we must create a bastard language to avoid saying what any average mind can understand with the greatest of ease.

Clearly, I was glad to see that Newman called Him the “Holy Ghost.” It is difficult to improve on Newman. In the history of doctrine, the separation of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost into differing compartments unrelated to each other has spawned many heresies. The famous Joachim of Flora wanted to designate the modern era as the Age of the Spirit. This meant a time in which all limiting dogmas and practices yield to wherever the Spirit might move. That turned out to be a revolutionary principle. Most voluntarism has its roots in this sort of background. Any thing goes in the name of the Spirit.

Trinitarian theology is careful not to make the Holy Ghost another “son” of God. The early councils say that the Word is generated but the Holy Ghost is “spirated,” an admittedly awkward word. The great genius of Christian theology is not to make the human family to be the model of the Trinity, even though our understanding of what is Father and what is Son and what is Spirit comes from the relationships within the Godhead. The Trinitarian documents never tire of stating that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, Spirit is neither the Father not the Son, three Persons, one God.

When we come to Pentecost Sunday in the liturgical year, we have once again gone through those central teachings of our faith. We take the forty days of Lent and the fifty days after Easter to sort out the essential drama of Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Ghost. The rest of the year we turn our attention more to what we do in the Spirit while we are here: “Go forth.” “Sin no more.” “Do unto others.”

“The indwelling of the Holy Ghost,” Newman adds, “raises the soul, not only to the thought of God, but of Christ also.” Thoughts of God are related to each other, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This is the God Who need not create but graciously “vouchsafes” to send His Son, Who in turn sends the Holy Ghost that we all may return to the Father.

The antiphon for the Mass of Pentecost is from the book of Wisdom: “The Spirit of the Lord fills the whole world. It holds all things together and knows every word spoken by man.” And adds: “Alleluia.”

James Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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