February 8, 2010

The Holy Spirit, according to the Second Vatican Council, is the source of the ongoing renewal that must take place in the Church.

The council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) describes the Church as “ceaselessly renewing herself through the action of the Holy Spirit” (n. 9).

Another major council document describes the proper Church response to contemporary atheism not in terms of condemnation and rational arguments, but rather “chiefly by the witness of a living and mature faith.” This mature faith can develop through the Church “ceaselessly renewing and purifying herself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, 21).
Vatican II did not discover the Holy Spirit. But the council did give renewed emphasis to the role of the Spirit in the Church and in the lives of the faithful.

One of the council’s driving forces was the need for renewal in the Church. That renewal was not an accommodation to secularizing forces. It did include an updating of Church practices and liturgy to meet the needs of modern men and women. More basically, however, renewal surely included an openness to the power of the Holy Spirit who draws us into deeper communion with Jesus and his Church.


With the advantage of hindsight, it is no surprise that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we call the Catholic charismatic renewal began only two years after the end of Vatican II. Nor is it surprising that when the Church opened itself up to the Holy Spirit, it became more ecumenical. The Holy Spirit loves unity and shuns division.

The liturgical reform during and after Vatican II placed a greater emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit. The new Eucharistic Prayers, indeed the rites for all the sacraments, now include an epiclesis – a calling on the Holy Spirit to make the sacramental action real.

Popes Benedict, John Paul II and Paul VI have repeatedly called for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the People of God. Pope John Paul said the Holy Spirit will bring a new springtime to the Church. In his 1988 encyclical on the Spirit, John Paul II said faith in the Holy Spirit “needs to be constantly reawakened and deepened in the consciousness of the People of God.”

Twenty-five years earlier, in a major document on the Virgin Mary, Paul VI urged priests and theologians “to meditate more deeply on the working of the Holy Spirit in the history of salvation” (Marialus Cultus, 26).

Despite all this encouragement, we often remain timid about the Holy Spirit. We are hesitant to speak about the Spirit and to call on the Spirit to shower us with divine life. We may feel that while we know a lot about the Son and something about the Father, the Holy Spirit remains a question mark.

I hope to encourage greater knowledge of and openness to the Spirit with a series of articles that will stretch over the next several months. In this series, we will examine some of the many images of the Holy Spirit such as breath, water, fire and wind. But the Spirit is more than a force; he is a person and we will try to get to know that elusive person.

We will see the Spirit in action in Jesus’ life and the Spirit in action leading us to Jesus. We will examine the gifts of the Spirit, the fruits of the Spirit and the charisms of the Spirit. We will see the Spirit in action in the Church, ensuring its fidelity and strengthening its unity.


I will draw on many sources, including Pope John Paul and Yves Congar, one of the great theologians of Vatican II who wrote a monumental three-volume work, I Believe in the Holy Spirit.

But we will also hear from a German Lutheran, an American feminist and a Catholic sister in India who converted from Hinduism. We will touch on 20th century Pentecostalism as well as the efforts of the World Council of Churches to come to grips with the Holy Spirit. No discussion of the Holy Spirit would be complete without striving to understand the insights of at least some Eastern Orthodox writers and saints.

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household for the past 30 years, has reflected deeply on the Holy Spirit. Cantalamessa’s studies have led him to conclude that the fourth century was the golden era of the Church. Fathers of the Church such as Sts. Augustine, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa and others all wrote and spoke about the action of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian.

Today, says Cantalamessa, we need a new golden age of the Holy Spirit. “We need the sober intoxication of the Spirit even more than the Fathers did. The world has become so rebellious to the Gospel, so sure of itself, so proud, that only the ‘strong wine’ of the Spirit can win over its unbelief.”

The recent popes would agree. So, I will make my own little contribution in the hope that it will help increase the outpouring in the lives of our readers and in the life of the local Church. It is all one person can do; it is something to which we are all called to contribute.