How to Understand the Role of the Holy Spirit
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” (2 Cor 13:13)
How incredible that the Holy Trinity makes us a part of their life! The Catechism of the Catholic Church names the mystery of the Holy Trinity as “the central mystery of Christian faith and life” (#234). In the hierarchy of the truths of the faith, nothing ranks higher than the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit is the love that flows between the Father and the Son: infinite, completely self-giving, and pure. How much more does God have to do to show us His love for us, after giving to us His Son and His very life?
Catholics are sealed with the very same Third Person of the Trinity in the sacrament of confirmation. During the consecration at every Mass, the priest calls down the Holy Spirit to transubstantiate the bread and wine. On a daily level, we call upon the Holy Spirit every time we make the sign of the cross. We go to Mass on Pentecost and hear the amazing story of the tongues of fire, miraculous preaching, and equally miraculous hearing. A close reading of Scripture reveals that the Spirit is everywhere in the New Testament. Yet how many of us move past these things without even noticing the Holy Spirit? It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming the only manifestations of the Holy Spirit are those recorded in the book of Acts of the Apostles: healings, miracles, exorcisms, and dramatic preaching. Quite the contrary: the Holy Spirit is involved in the present day life of the Church; He has never stopped since the apostolic age.
The Holy Spirit guides us in the path to salvation, is involved in our spiritual life, and figures heavily in our prayer life. And regardless of our openness to the Spirit, the Father burns to send Him. Jesus implores us to ask, seek, and knock; the Father waits for us, to “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him” (Luke 11:13).
Path to Salvation
All the actions of God in our lives and all the movements of the Holy Spirit aim at a single goal: the salvation of our souls. God created humanity to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this life, and then be eternally united with Him in the next life. The trajectory of every human life starts and is meant to end with God. That trajectory begins by being baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity; in the rite, the priest or deacon prays for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Once we become a new creation, we become part of the Body of Christ. Not only are we in Christ, but Christ is in us. St. Paul reminds the Corinthians, “do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16) That is, “through the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son come to him and take up their abode” in the baptized (John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem #58).
The sacrament of confirmation seals us with the Holy Spirit, pairing with baptism to complete what Jesus told Nicodemus: “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5).
Even though baptism erases original sin, an inclination to sin remains (concupiscence). That may be a barrier to conversion on our end, but it is not on the Spirit’s end. Even if any of us sink deep into sin and bring spiritual death upon ourselves, the mark of baptism can never be blotted out. We are not outside observers but actually in the Spirit (Rom 8:9), and Jesus can raise our dead or sluggish souls to life just as He worked miracles 2,000 years ago. “In the name of the Resurrection of Christ the Church proclaims life, which manifested itself beyond the limits of death, the life which is stronger than death.” The Church and the Holy Spirit bring this divine life to the Body of Christ in a special way through the sacraments. “At the same time, she proclaims him who gives this life: the Spirit, the Giver of Life; she proclaims him and cooperates with him in giving life” (John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem #58). The Holy Spirit is the life of the Church, and the Church is also the custodian of the sacraments. That is, special channels of grace to call down the Holy Spirit onto individuals. For example, the Church sent Paul, Barnabas, Silas, & Judas to Antioch for that very purpose (Acts 15:28). The Holy Spirit descends upon the altar at every Mass—this Sunday, listen for the wording that specifically calls down the Holy Spirit.
In the path of salvation, the Holy Spirit plays a role in becoming a believer, facilitating conversion, and the sacramental life of the Church. There is one other key role of the Holy Spirit: making it possible to trust the Catholic Church.
With the innumerable religious options available, how can we know that we’re on the right path? It’s one of the key religious questions of our time. The promise of the Holy Spirit covers this as well. The Holy Spirit has both positive and preventative roles, in a sense; He at once gives life to the Church and He protects her from her own members. Jesus gave His own authority to St. Peter (Matt 16:18-19), and the Holy Spirit ensures that the deposit of faith is not tampered with. Stop for a moment and take solace in that! No matter the worthiness of the members of the Church, the Spirit protects the content of the faith—and has from generation to generation.
Similarly, we have to be on guard against tying our faith to a specific person—disappointment inevitably awaits us. Any personal view of a fellow Catholic, someone who claims to be Catholic but doesn’t “walk the walk,” a distaste for members of the clergy, religious life, or even the hierarchy should not shake our faith in the universal Church. Our adherence to the Church and her teachings needs to be founded upon the Holy Trinity—the work of the Father, sending the Son, founding the Church and entrusting the deposit of faith to her, and the enlivening action of the Holy Spirit are what give the Church its power and authority.
Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to support us in multiple capacities, far more than could be listed!
One of the promised roles of the Holy Spirit was as a guide. Now if we just listen! Jesus prayed for this at the Last Supper. “I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). Further, “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13).
Is there any question that comes up in our lives that wouldn’t benefit from the guidance of the Spirit? To arrive at a deeper relationship with the Spirit, treat Him as a trusted friend and confidant.
Infuser of Gifts, Fruits, & Virtues
Between the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, and adding to growth in virtues, the Holy Spirit moves our entire person: body, soul, and intellect (Luis Martinez, The Sanctifier, p. 18). Both the gifts (Is 11:1-3) and the fruits (Gal 5:22-23) of the Holy Spirit attend to the entire person. Taking a holistic approach prevents us from falling into the trap of minimizing one of those three. It’s not biblical to think that our body doesn’t matter, that we don’t have to learn the faith and form our mind, or that good works are the sole concern of our spiritual lives.
A good starting point for the holistic approach is asking the Spirit for a deepening of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Faith takes the leap and “initiates our intimacy with the Holy Spirit” (Martinez, p. 65). And the Holy Spirit gives us the courage to hope: “he is not only light and fire, he is also strength… the Gift of the omnipotent right hand of the Father” (Martinez p. 69). “Charity is the intimate fire that burns the soul” and the Holy Spirit “is both the cause of that fire and its glorious end” (Martinez, p. 89). To get anywhere in the spiritual life, the theological virtues must be woven deep within.
Weapon Against Sin
Although it doesn’t sound like a divine attribute, the Holy Trinity does hate one thing: sin. When we sin, we put up a wall between us and God. Every person has sins or vices to overcome, and it is impossible to overcome them with our own strength. God doesn’t leave us to fend for ourselves—He sent the Spirit as a weapon against sin: “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:17). In your own struggle against sin, bring in praying to the Holy Spirit as well as regular reading of the Word of God.
The earliest Christians were often arrested, brought up on trial, and martyred. Every apostle, save St. John, faced martyrdom. St. Paul, St. Peter, and the other figures in the Acts of the Apostles were arrested, brought up on bogus charges, beaten, flogged, shipwrecked, and often forced to flee for their lives. That didn’t stop their preaching! The Holy Spirit gave Peter and John the strength and the words to stand before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4 – 5:40). Their witness earned them a flogging.
A holy boldness is necessary for any missionary—which is part of the vocation of every Christian. In a secular culture getting more and more anti-Christian, we need the audacity of the Spirit! Relying on our own strength will doom our efforts. Speaking in the Spirit will not only stand against societal evils, but it will also bring the hope of the gospel to a world that desperately needs it.
An integral part of the spiritual life is prayer. As the love that flows between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, His existence is an eternal, self-giving prayer between the Father and the Son.
The apostle Jude reminds us to make every prayer in the Holy Spirit (1:20); ask that He be showered upon you. “Therefore, the Holy Spirit not only enables us to pray, but guides us ‘from within’ in prayer: he is present in our prayer and gives it a divine dimension” (JPII, Dominum #65). This includes the good times when prayer is easy, and the times of trial when life is exhausting. During times of suffering, sometimes a mono-syllabic “uuuugh” is as much of a prayer as we can manage. When life or anything takes the mind away from prayer, the Holy Spirit is there. That should not be an excuse not to pray, for the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26-27).
Jesus tells us that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). An earlier account of St. John’s Gospel proves this. In St. John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple (2:13-22), the evangelist includes a parenthetical note: “after [Jesus] was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” Remembering the body, mind, and soul that comprise every human: learning about our faith is a part of every single vocation. No one is excused! The purpose of this learning is not so that everyone becomes a theologian, but that we come to a deeper encounter with Christ by knowing Him better. Everything we learn from the Spirit needs to funnel back into prayer. That is, it has to travel from the head to the heart. Pope Benedict wisely noted that “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est #1).
To know the person of Jesus better, ask to see with the eyes of the Spirit. “The Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus and reveal all his beauty” (Martinez p. 99).
Being a Good Neighbor
Part of being a member of the Body of Christ is praying for fellow members. The Holy Spirit reminds us of this, as does St. Paul: “pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints” (Eph 6:18). St. Timothy asks us to pray for everyone, including our leaders, in order that all might “lead a quiet, peaceable life” (2 Tim 2:1). Elsewhere in the New Testament, praying for others is mentioned in James, 1 Tim, Philippians, Colossians, Hebrews, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, and in the gospels as well. In brief, Scripture is insistent that we pray for each other. This is a key part of Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors.
The Holy Spirit is everywhere in Scripture. The Spirit has accompanied the Church from the beginning, bringing the fire of the divine love to humanity. If He is not everywhere in your life, resolve to change that this Pentecost. “Man turns to him, as to the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth and of love, man who lives by truth and by love, and who without the source of truth and of love cannot live. To him turns the Church, which is the heart of humanity, to implore for all and dispense to all those gifts of the love which through him ‘has been poured into our hearts’” (JPII, Dominum #67). Celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, remembering the mighty works the Holy Spirit has accomplished in the Church and through the Church. It is our heritage, our story, and each of us will to add to the story until the second coming of Jesus. Until then, intensify the role of the Holy Spirit in your life!