The Holy Spirit: Helping us to Live Out our Faith
Though Pentecost is still two weeks away, in our readings this week, the Holy Spirit is front and center. So, how does the Spirit guide both us and the Church? We invoke the Holy Spirit often in the Sign of the Cross, but I think sometimes having an understanding of what the Holy Spirit does can be a bit lost on us.
In the Gospel, Jesus says: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (John 14:26). Jesus is preparing to leave the world, and while He was with the apostles and taught them much, He knows they will need more. So there is this promise of the Spirit to help them. We see what happens when the Apostles receive the Spirit; they begin proclaiming Jesus boldly before all people, and are spurred on to being people of action, and the chains of fear are broken. What we go through on our Confirmation might not be as dramatic, but we receive the Spirit too in a special way. It’s easy to lose sight of that, and think that Confirmation is just a photo-op, or a rite of passage into being an “adult Catholic.” Confirmation is not just our assent to the faith that our parents professed on our behalf on our baptism, it’s also a receiving of the Spirit in a special way. We believe that the Holy Spirit helps us through the virtues and gifts.
With respect to virtues, we are given special virtues at our baptism. Namely, these are faith, hope and love. Faith is not just belief in God; rather the virtue presupposes that. Faith, the catechism says, is “the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us and that the Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself…the disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it…” This means we try to grow in our understanding of what the Church teaches, and if there are things we struggle with, we pray about and think about them, much like the apostles do in the second reading. Hope is where “we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness,” and by having the desire for heaven, we set about trying to make the world a better place; think of it as looking to the future while transforming the now. It’s an important virtue because without it, we can just focus on ourselves and become self-centered, forgetting what matters most. It’s clearly then related to love, the virtue where we go above and beyond in loving others through actions. It manifests itself in the kindness we show to family and giving our time to them, in how we help serve others in need, and of how we are good stewards sharing our time, talent and treasure.
Helping us to live these virtues are what we call the gifts of the Spirit. These are seen as fear of the Lord, piety, knowledge, understanding, counsel, wisdom and fortitude.
Fear of the Lord is not to be understood as being terrified of upsetting God, but rather a reverential fear. Because we love the Lord, we want to serve Him, just like growing up at first we might fear getting in trouble or grounded, but as we age want to serve our families because we love them, not out of fear of a negative consequence. The Spirit helps us with this gift to see God as loving, and to respond to that with love in return. It also helps us with temperance, which helps us to avoid indulging in things to excess too much.
Piety is where we grow in our love of God through worship. As our youth go through Confirmation formation, they learn the teachings of the faith. But they also are called to incorporate them into their heart, and need to have a personal relationship with Christ. Through the Spirit, we challenge ourselves to pray daily for ourselves and others, and make Mass a priority.
Knowledge is the gift where we grow in learning morality and what to do in life. With knowledge, we are better able to make correct judgments about specific situations and how to lead our lives. The Spirit for instance guides us to know the faith more, but also ourselves. With this gift, we can see what we are doing well and where we need to grow. We can also discern our vocation in life; I truly believe it was the promptings of the Spirit that helped me find the way to seminary after college when other instincts in me were fearful of the decision.
Counsel is a gift where we receive the guidance of God. This gift is so important because sometimes we can feel like it’s up to us alone to make decisions. But with counsel, we pray and consult. This can entail decisions about work, school, finances, health, or many other issues. With humility, we can recognize that many decisions require prayer and discernment, and discussion with others who may be better experts. It also helps us make better moral decisions too, as through prayer and advice we can avoid situations that could cause us moral harm.
Finally, the gift of wisdom helps us to grow in union with God. We use this gift through study of the faith, through prayer, and through talking about the faith with others to grow in it.
All of these gifts are not to be thought of as super-powers that we can call on in a moment’s notice. Rather, they are given to us & we are called to use them over a lifetime by growing in them.
That growing part is especially evident in the Church. For, as the Spirit guides us with gifts, the Spirit also guides the Church.
One more important thing to consider with the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit prompts us to change. In our first reading this weekend, we have the story of the Council of Jerusalem. This was the first Council in the Church. The background of the story is that as the Church is growing, new people are joining, and some of these people are not Jewish. The Apostles are all Jewish, and this identity is still very important to them. Part of that includes circumcision, and other dietary laws. Paul though argues that these burdens are too great on people. The apostles gather, and then announce that “it is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.” Paul’s argument that we are saved by faith in Christ, not through ritual purity laws, wins the day. One could look at this and say the so-called “liberal” position won at the time, just as one could look at another council such as Trent, which was the response to the Reformation, and say the so-called “conservative” position won the day, which was to re-affirm Church teachings in light of the arguments of the reformers. But to say Councils are about liberals or conservatives misses the point entirely. Councils come about because of the promptings of the Spirit. That’s why we need to trust the Spirit’s guidance and have some trust in our Church. People have always fought about issues in the Church in Biblical times just like today, but despite all the disagreements, here we still are after all these years. As I’ve quoted before, we need to remember the words of Cardinal John Henry Neumann, who said: “Trust the Church of God implicitly even when your natural judgement would take a different course from hers and would induce you to question her prudence or correctness. Recollect what a hard task she has; how she is sure to be criticized and spoken against, whatever she does; recollect, too, how long is the experience gained in 1800 years; and what a right she has to claim your assent to principles which have had so extended and triumphal a trial. Thank her that she has kept the faith safe for so many generations and do your part in helping her to transmit it to generations after you.” Those are the words that hang in my office on a plaque that was given to each of the members of our class by Bishop Pates a few days before we were ordained. I think they would be great in our home, because sometimes we have a hard time doing that. Changes happen in our parishes, and our universal Church, and that is a good thing. But, so too, does change need to happen in our lives. A person can’t discern seminary for 20 years, or put off proposing marriage forever, or leaving home, or a career change. Prudence is a virtue; brooding forever is not. So we need to make time for prayer, talk to others for advice, and listen to what the Spirit is calling us to do, for in our lives new chapters are always waiting to be written.
Truly the Holy Spirit is much more than a dove or something that came upon the Apostles only at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit continually influences us and guides us, and hopefully we remember that at our Baptism and Confirmation these gifts were given to us to use and grow in. Using them correctly requires effort and an openness to learning, and hopefully with the right trust in God and His Church that’s something we do every day of our lives in our daily call to grow in holiness.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love!
God bless, ~Fr. Paul
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