That Forgotten Person, the Holy Spirit

We are now on the verge of completing (November 20) the Year of Mercy. We don’t know what particular person or theme the Holy Father will pick for Catholics to focus on for next year. But it would not surprise me if he dedicated a year to the mission of the Holy Spirit, taking a leaf from his predecessor, St. John Paul II, who led up to the new millennium with years devoted to each of the three Persons of the Trinity and also wrote an encyclical on the action of the Holy Spirit (Dominum et Vivificantem).

In my view, focus on the Holy Spirit’s action in the world, the Church, and individual Catholics is very much needed, given the great difficulties humanity faces globally. The third person of the Blessed Trinity is the personification of the love and self-giving of the Father to the Son of God. Hinted at throughout the Old Testament (beginning with the opening of Genesis), in the New Testament, the Spirit gets increasing focus from Jesus, culminating in his Last Supper discourse in the Gospel of John. At the brink of his salvific death, Jesus promised to send the Spirit, identifying him as consoler and advocate, the one who will convict them of sin but also lead them into all truth.

Upon Jesus’ departure from the world, the Holy Spirit was sent by God the Father so that, in addition to Christ’s localized presence in his Church through the Holy Eucharist, Jesus would continue living and acting in the world through the Church. Although Pentecost is the occasion for the spectacular outpouring of Christ’s Spirit on the Church, it is earlier, on the evening of the Resurrection, that Jesus breathes upon his Apostles and tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “Christ’s whole work is in fact a joint mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (CCC, 727) The Catechism also clarifies that “When the Father sends his Word, he always sends his Breath. . . .To be sure, it is Christ who is seen, the visible image of the invisible God, but it is the Spirit who reveals him.” (CCC, 689)

Many people struggle with devotion to the Holy Spirit and feel they are failing in Trinitarian devotion by being unable to conjure up an image of the Spirit that doesn’t involve doves or impersonal forces like fire and wind. Our natural relationship with the Spirit, however, is to see Christ through and with and in him. Again, as the Catechism expresses it:

When Christ is finally glorified, he can, in turn, send the Spirit from his place with the Father to those who believe in him: he communicates to them his glory, that is, the Holy Spirit who glorifies him. From that time on, this joint mission will be manifested in the children adopted by the Father in the Body of his Son: the mission of the Spirit of adoption is to unite them to Christ and make them live in him. (689)

The Trinity (or The Hospitality of Abraham) by Andrei Rublev, c. 1420 [Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]
The Trinity (or The Hospitality of Abraham) by Andrei Rublev, c. 1420 [Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

The Trinitarian life is one of unity – one God in three Persons – and, therefore, one of the keynotes of the Spirit is a propelling towards unity (always based on truth, of course). By our common Baptism, Confirmation, and participation in the other grace-dispensing sacraments of the Church, the Spirit lives in us and prepares the Church to combat fallen humanity’s tendency to break away from God and from others in sin, the source of disunity.

This inevitably brings to mind the state of the world today, where large numbers of people are not only failing to live up to the Ten Commandments, they are even throwing out a number of those commandments as standards against which to measure their actions. St. John Paul reminded us that there is an enormous and dramatic struggle between good and evil taking place in society today, as it has done throughout man’s history. Hence, the importance of our conscience and how we share the truth about good and evil with others.

In this regard, as we know from Christ’s words at the Last Supper, the Holy Spirit plays a crucial role as the one who convicts the world of “sin and righteousness and judgment.” (Jn 16: 8)

What might be some suggestions for growing in knowledge of and devotion to this often-forgotten and misunderstood member of the Trinity? St. John’s gospel in particular and many passages in St. Paul’s epistles reveal much about the mystery of the Spirit. Perhaps the most extensive treatment, however, of the Holy Spirit working in the life of the Church occurs in the various places where the Spirit appears in the Acts of the Apostles.

Both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and St. John Paul’s epistle Dominum et Vivificantem (Lord and Giver of Life) provide good material for meditation. Accepted and venerable prayers, such as the Litany of the Holy Spirit, also have much to teach us. And our own prayer (since, as our current Holy Father reminds us, it is mediated and facilitated by the Holy Spirit) also assists us in growing more deeply into union with and knowledge of each Person of the Trinity.

Today, the Church and its members are in very difficult times, not only internationally but in the United States itself, particularly regarding the important choices Americans face in the upcoming elections. Let us pray to the Holy Spirit that those elections will, at every level, bring new life and freedom, so that we can once again come to live as a truly Christian country, in conformity to the teachings of the Scripture and prompted by the Holy Spirit.

Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.