“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit …”
This is perhaps the most common phrase in the Catholic faith, used to begin and end countless prayers and rituals, privately and in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Two elements of the Trinity, the Father and Son, are easily identified. The Holy Spirit, for many, is harder to grasp.
Exactly what does it mean? Is the Holy Spirit a person? A symbol used to describe God’s supernatural power manifesting in the world, among his creation?
Seeking an understanding of the Spirit is the key to a new way of practicing and understanding the faith, according to scholars, clergy and lay people.
Most importantly, they say, the Holy Spirit is a vital, living, divine person who is alive in the world and in the hearts of those who profess the Gospel.
“I like to emphasize that the Spirit is a person,” said Alan Schreck, a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and author of books on the Catholic understanding of the Spirit.
“I think many Catholics look upon the Spirit as an impersonal force,” he said, “but the Holy Spirit is God, and the Holy Spirit is a person. Many images of the Spirit in Scripture are of wind, fire, living water, a dove; but these are not personal images. The Spirit doesn’t have a face like we can imagine with the figures of the Father and Son, but he is a person.”
Schreck likes to begin discussion of the topic with a quote from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Spirit comes with the tenderness of a true friend and protector to save, to heal, to teach, to heal, to counsel and console.”
What the church teaches
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers numerous descriptions of the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of the church itself and in the lives of believers.
It establishes the Spirit’s presence in all creation: “The Word of God and his Breath are at the origin of the being and life of every creature … It belongs to the Holy Spirit to rule, sanctify and animate creation, for he is God … Power over life pertains to the Spirit, for being God he preserves creation in the Father through the Son.”
The Catechism also describes the Spirit’s key role in awakening faith; enabling communication with Christ; revealing the Trinity; as the master and source of prayer; and the “principal author” of Holy Scripture.
Church teaching stresses the Holy Spirit’s vital role not only in the formation of individual believers, but in the existence of the church itself.
The Spirit, according to the Catechism, is also the essence of what brings believers together in the church. It names the Holy Spirit as the source of all holiness in the world, bringing holiness not only to each person but to the church itself.
Father Richard McAlear, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, said that without the presence of the Holy Spirit, any form of worship, liturgy or prayer is empty ritual.
Father McAlear has been active with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, a movement centered around the Spirit, since 1972.
“The Spirit is the Lord and the giver of life, and if you don’t have him, you don’t have life … you are simply going through the motions, filling an obligation” he said. “Whether it’s the Mass, a regular prayer, a novena, all of it just becomes words without the presence of the Holy Spirit. I always say if I don’t have the Spirit present, the vestments and the ritual become the essence of what I’m doing.”
Seven gifts and 12 fruits
Church teaching also tells us that we have many benefits to gain from knowledge of the Holy Spirit, including gifts and talents that can help the faithful live fuller lives and share the Gospel message with others.
According to the Catechism, the Spirit’s gifts sustain the moral life of Christians and make them receptive to hear and follow the will of God.
The seven gifts are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
The Catechism also outlines 12 fruits of the Spirit, which develop through knowledge of God and openness to the gifts of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control and chastity.
Building a relationship
The Holy Spirit can become a vital and living part of an individual Catholic’s faith journey simply through prayer, reading Scripture, meditation and welcoming the Spirit’s presence.
“It’s important to say you can have a relationship with the Holy Spirit, a personal one like you can with Jesus and the Father,” Schreck said. “The Holy Spirit is given to us to be the friend closest to our heart, the person of God actually dwelling within us … you can pray to the Holy Spirit and speak to the Spirit as a person.”
Schreck and Father McAlear suggest the traditional Catholic prayer which begins, “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love …” as a good beginning. Father McAlear also suggests exploring the longer prayer, Veni Creator, used traditionally on the Feast of Pentecost.
An understanding of the Spirit’s role in the Trinity is a good foundation for learning how to pray, said Trappist Abbot Stanislaus Gumula of Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner.
“We should look at the unity of God, and always pray in the Spirit, through the Son and to the Father,” he said. “St. Paul says that when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit prays within us … We can surrender to the Spirit of God that is with us and within us.”
Columbia resident Ross Gamble has been active in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal since the 1980s.
“I see the Holy Spirit as love,” Gamble said. “The Spirit is the love that exists between God the Father and the Son, and they want to share that love with us.”
He suggests exploring the Spirit’s role as described in Scripture, especially the passages in 2 Corinthians 12 and 14, which describe the gifts of the Spirit.
Understanding the Holy Spirit might be challenging, but the spiritual rewards are worth it, Schreck said.
“Developing a relationship with the Holy Spirit is like pursuing a relationship with someone you don’t know,” he said. “If it’s worth pursuing the relationship, you have to work at it a little bit. If you make one little step, the Spirit is going to be right there, because he wants you to know who he is. He is your advocate.”