In preparation for the jubilee year 2000, the Roman Catholic church has set aside 1998 as a year of prayer and reflection on the Holy Spirit. It is a theological commonplace to note that the Western church has failed in important ways to articulate or appreciate the power and person of the Holy Spirit. (Spiritus is Latin for ruah, "breath" in Hebrew: "The breath of his mouth put all things in place"-Wisdom 32:6.) Too often the Spirit has simply been taken for granted, the forgotten member of the Trinity, relegated in practical theology and worship to third place in a hierarchy of divine being.
To be sure, the concept of the Holy Spirit is inherently esoteric. In this regard, Walter Kasper, the German bishop and theologian, notes that while the Son appeared in human form and we can make at least a mental image of the Father, the Spirit is not so immediately "graphic." Western art has traditionally depicted the third person of the Trinity in the form of Pentecostal fire or of a baptismal dove-images based on the New Testament that do attest to the Spirit’s power and freedom. But like all metaphors for God, these images are only approximations. The Spirit’s "real presence" is both more ubiquitous and more elusive, for the Spirit is preeminently at work in the lives of God’s people, in the communion of his church. That mysterious reality, whereby the Spirit, always understood within the unity of the Trinity, can be seen as both the object and the agent of faith-both author and engine of salvation history-is perhaps best captured in the Nicene Creed. Every Sunday Catholics profess their belief in the Holy Spirit in words that both describe his nature and his worldly manifestations: ``We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’’
In the effort to reclaim a better understanding of the Holy Spirit, there is a natural tendency to separate the three persons of the Trinity. That tendency must be resisted. As Yves Congar insisted, Jesus the Incarnate Word cannot be separated from the Spirit. Just as it is Jesus who shows us the Father, it is the Spirit who reveals Jesus to us-and vice versa-so that "it is possible to attribute the effects of grace to either one or the other." Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father precisely to send the Spirit, without whose intervention we cannot understand who Jesus is. It is the Spirit-paradigmatically present in the revelation at Pentecost-who teaches us the meaning of Jesus.
Similarly, as Paul noted in Romans, when we pray, it is the Spirit praying in us. In the liturgy, it is the power of the Spirit that transforms the bread and wine and thus the community. The Spirit actively extends the koinonia (communion) of the church, drawing in outsiders (see Acts 10). And in every age it is the saints who most graphically embody the action of the Spirit, helping us to see the trinitarian God renewing both church and world. Robert Ellsberg’s recent study, All Saints (Crossroad), eloquently shows how varied, vital, and challenging their lives are, and how God addresses us through them.
Looking toward the next millennium, we should take stock of the Holy Spirit’s presence in this otherwise most destructive of centuries. Clearly, Vatican II stands out as a striking manifestation of the Spirit at work. While the council’s documents refer to the Spirit more than 250 times, more remarkable still was the council’s tenor of openness and hope. As a consequence, the church committed itself to renewing the life of holiness: as manifest in its liturgy; in works of justice and solidarity with the poor; in the inviolability of conscience; in authority exercised as a charism of service; in redressing historic failures; and in reaching out to other churches, faiths, and people of good will. The church’s subsequent encounters with Orthodoxy, with Judaism, and with mystical traditions, East and West, as well as the rich ferment within its own house from the competing insights of traditionalists, liberationists, feminists, and charismatics, all attest to the Spirit’s presence. To live with this open-ended reality, while avoiding the temptation to retreat to previous but now inadequate securities, will be a test for both hope and inspired wit.