Opening the Word: On the Holy Spirit

In May 1897, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Divinum Illud Munus, on the Holy Spirit. It is a wonderful exposition on the third Person of the Holy Trinity, and it serves well as a commentary on today’s readings. Pope Leo begins by explaining that the saving work of Jesus Christ was carried out on behalf of his Father and “had for its final object to put men in possession of the eternal life of glory … .” But, having received his office and completed his earthly mission, the Son returned to the Father so he could send the Holy Spirit to carry on the work of salvation on earth. 

Pope Leo wrote: “It is consoling to recall those assurances which Christ gave to the body of his disciples a little before he left the earth: ‘It is expedient to you that I go: for if I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you: but if I go, I will send him to you’” (Jn 16:7). The Holy Spirit is, of course, truly God, equal to the Father and the Son. Yet, just as the Son was willing to be sent by the Father, so the Holy Spirit was willing to be sent by the Father and the Son, that “he would complete, in his office of Intercessor, Consoler, and Teacher, the work which Christ himself had begun in his mortal life” (No. 1). 

Creation, states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “is the common work of the Holy Trinity” (Nos. 291-2), which refers both to the creation of the world and to the new creation of those born again with supernatural life. Just as the “Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” at the moment of Creation (Gn 1:2; RSV-CE), the Holy Spirit filled the Upper Room on Pentecost. This fulfilled the promise given to the apostles by Christ, “ ... for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). Before his Passion and Resurrection, Jesus had told the disciples of the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift, he told them, is called Parákletos, which is translated Counselor, Advocate, Helper. It means “one called alongside of” to aid, exhort and encourage. 

This work of exhortation would take various forms, as the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything and remind you,” said Jesus, “of all that I told you.” The work of the Holy Spirit is both mystical and practical, both cosmic and concrete. This is evident in the Acts of the Apostles, which could well be titled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit, the apostles, and the Church pursue the same mission: to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and bring mankind into communion with the Father. This is why the apostles were given definite authority from Jesus, including the authority to teach, to govern, and to forgive sins in his name and by his power (see Jn 20:22-23). 

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a perfect example of this authority. Acts 15 describes the Council at Jerusalem, which consisted of “the apostles and the elders” who had gathered together to look into the dispute over the necessity of circumcision for Gentile converts and come to a solution regarding the growing tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers. 

The apostles, having arrived at their decision, said, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and us … .” The Paraclete grants peace and communicates truth “to his Church, guarding her by his all-powerful help from ever falling into error,” wrote Pope Leo, “and aiding her to foster daily more and more the germs of divine doctrine and to make them fruitful for the welfare of the peoples.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.

Newsletter Subscriptions
If you liked this article, you can sign up to receive free weekly newsletters.