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Did the Church ‘Forget’ the Holy Spirit until the ’60s?

When I was growing up, I distinctly recall hearing, more than once, presumably well-meaning teachers and preachers say something like the following: “The Church kind of forgot about the Holy Spirit for a long time, and with Vatican II, we remembered Him. This is now the Age of the Spirit.”

Intriguingly, the age of the Spirit merged into the spirit of the age (Zeitgeist), until we were left with “the spirit of the Council.” This meant, in practice, that the charisms granted by the Holy Spirit to the Church throughout the ages were progressively targeted and expelled. In a parody of baptism, with a reverse exorcism, churchmen seemed intent on ridding Catholicism of its good spirit and sinking into a chthonic world rather than dying and rising with Christ.

Of course, this business about the Third Person being forgotten is just one more of the “black legends” of the post-Vatican II period. In reality, it is easy to find substantial doctrinal and devotional attention to the Holy Ghost in the preaching and prayers of all eras of the Church — and manifestly in her traditional liturgy, in which every day the priest utters those tremendous words: “Veni, Sanctificator omnipotens aeterne Deus, et bene+dic hoc sacrificium tuo sancto nomini praeparatum.” Come, O Sanctifier, Almighty and Eternal God, and bless + this sacrifice prepared for the glory of Thy holy Name.

To this day, the traditional Roman rite celebrates the coming of the Holy Ghost with a glorious Mass of Pentecost day. The High Mass is preceded by the chanting of the Veni, Creator Spiritus, with all kneeling during the first verse in humble pleading. The chanting of the Vidi aquam follows as the priest sprinkles the people with holy water and we sing of the water of grace flowing from the side of Christ, even as the Spirit proceeds from His mouth. The first of many alleluias resounds through the church. The Mass itself begins with the Spiritus Domini Introit and the ninefold Kyrie, in its Trinitarian spaciousness. The double Alleluia includes the petitions Emitte Spiritum tuum (send forth Thy Spirit) and Veni, Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Ghost), during the latter of which all kneel again (we take this invocation business seriously!). Then follows the magnificent Pentecost sequence that begins, once more, Veni, Sancte Spiritus. All this — even before the Gospel has been chanted!

There is more — much more. The Church from antiquity through the twentieth century traditionally celebrated Pentecost for an entire week (an octave), even as she does Easter and Christmas, recognizing it as a feast of topmost importance. Every day the propers trumpet forth alleluias. Every day the readings extol the sacraments of initiation, which are efficacious by the power of the Spirit. Every day, we kneel at the Veni, Sancte Spiritus before the Golden Sequence. The Preface of Pentecost links the Ascension, the sitting at the right hand of God, and the outpouring of the Spirit of adoption on the sons of God. The Roman Canon uses the special Communicantes and Hanc igitur. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the octave are Ember Days with special readings and prayers. The mid-morning office of Terce each day begins with the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus, the first stanza again said kneeling. In every way, this week is a worthy tribute and supplication to the divine Person.

Finally, every Sunday after the octave of Pentecost is denominated as a “Sunday after Pentecost,” enfolding in green vestments the long season of planting and harvesting, until we reach the Last Sunday after Pentecost and begin the cycle anew with Advent.

Almost everything I have just described was abolished in the liturgical reform of the late 1960s. So who, exactly, is guilty of “forgetting the Third Person of the Trinity”?

A traditional Church attentive to the Paraclete may also be discerned in a marvelous encyclical of Leo XIII, Divinum Illud Munus, from 1897 — incidentally, the same year as St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s death, when she would begin showering the faithful with roses from heaven, in a childlike imitation of the gift of the Spirit in tongues of fire.

In its lucid exposition of the Holy Spirit’s “place” in the Trinity and of His presence and action in Christ, in the Church, in the human soul, and in the world, Divinum Illud Munus is a true masterpiece of theological and spiritual prose. We see in its pages a demonstration of how the seemingly abstruse doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas can “come alive” in the hands of one who really understands it. Pope Leo writes with great tenderness:

Now that We are looking forward to the approach of the closing days of Our life, Our soul is deeply moved to dedicate to the Holy Ghost, who is the life-giving Love, all the work We have done during Our pontificate, that He may bring it to maturity and fruitfulness[.] … We earnestly desire that, as a result, faith may be aroused in your minds concerning the mystery of the adorable Trinity, and especially that piety may increase and be inflamed towards the Holy Ghost, to whom especially all of us owe the grace of following the paths of truth and virtue. (§2)

The pope goes through every aspect of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Here, for example, he speaks of the mystery of Pentecost as it applies to the apostles:

The Church which, already conceived, came forth from the side of the second Adam in His sleep on the Cross, first showed herself before the eyes of men on the great day of Pentecost. On that day the Holy Ghost began to manifest His gifts in the mystic body of Christ, by that miraculous outpouring already foreseen by the prophet Joel (ii., 28-29), for the Paraclete “sat upon the apostles as though new spiritual crowns were placed upon their heads in tongues of fire” (S. Cyril Hier. Catech. 17). Then the apostles “descended from the mountain,” as St. John Chrysostom writes, “not bearing in their hands tables of stone like Moses, but carrying the Spirit in their mind, and pouring forth the treasure and the fountain of doctrines and graces” (In Matt. Hom. 1., 2 Cor. iii., 3). Thus was fully accomplished that last promise of Christ to His apostles of sending the Holy Ghost, who was to complete and, as it were, to seal the deposit of doctrine committed to them under His inspiration. (§5)

And again, concerning the Church:

That the Church is a divine institution is most clearly proved by the splendour and glory of those gifts and graces with which she is adorned, and whose author and giver is the Holy Ghost. Let it suffice to state that, as Christ is the Head of the Church, so is the Holy Ghost her soul. (§6)

The working of sanctification is always appropriated to the Holy Spirit:

The beginnings of this regeneration and renovation of man are by Baptism. In this sacrament, when the unclean spirit has been expelled from the soul, the Holy Ghost enters in and makes it like to Himself. “That which is born of the Spirit, is spirit” (John iii., 6). The same Spirit gives Himself more abundantly in Confirmation, strengthening and confirming Christian life; from which proceeded the victory of the martyrs and the triumph of the virgins over temptations and corruptions. (§9)

Then Pope Leo writes a passage that should make us tremble with awe and delight:

God by grace resides in the just soul as in a temple, in a most intimate and special manner. From this proceeds that union of affection by which the soul adheres most closely to God, more so than the friend is united to his most loving and beloved friend, and enjoys God in all fullness and sweetness. Now this wonderful union, which is properly called “indwelling,” differing only in degree or state from that with which God beatifies the saints in heaven, although it is most certainly produced by the presence of the whole Blessed Trinity — “We will come to Him and make our abode with Him” (John xiv. 23.) — nevertheless is attributed in a peculiar manner to the Holy Ghost. For, whilst traces of divine power and wisdom appear even in the wicked man, charity, which, as it were, is the special mark of the Holy Ghost, is shared in only by the just.

Consider carefully what the pope is teaching here. The union with God of a soul in the state of grace differs only in degree or mode from the state of the beatific vision. When God dwells in our soul by sanctifying grace and its chief virtue, charity, we enjoy the same union in this life as the saints and angels enjoy in the heavenly fatherland. The differences are accidental: that God is seen or unseen, that we possess him changeably or unchangeably. As important as those differences are, the union itself far outweighs them: He is possessed by us. That is the essence of holiness. This realization of the indwelling of God is ultimately the most effective antidote against mortal sin: we do not want to lose Him, now or for ever.

Then Pope Leo XIII expounds St. Thomas’s teaching on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Here, too, we are reminded that a thirteenth-century Doctor of the Church had not just a theological grasp, but a profound experiential knowledge. When speaking of the gifts, Saint Thomas underlines the absolute necessity of special assistance by the Holy Spirit — each and every day, throughout the day — if we are to attain the glorious end God has in store for us, because it so far exceeds our natural abilities. It exceeds, in a way, even the superadded power of the theological virtues. As we pray with the Psalmist: “Thy good spirit shall lead me into the right land” (Ps. 143:10), the Promised Land, Heaven. Only the Spirit of God can lead us to that end; our spirit, no matter how perfect(ed), is inadequate.

Going farther, St. Thomas argues that we need the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit not only for reaching the ultimate end, but also for accomplishing any of the particular ends we aim at as Christians — if, that is, we want to accomplish them as God’s children, acting by His wisdom, knowledge, fortitude, and so on. We can do the right thing, as far as natural virtue is concerned, but still not manage to do it “divinely well,” like a meal that is edible but not delicious. For this, we have to place ourselves in prayer at the disposal of the Holy Spirit in order to be guided in our activity, to be His instruments as we exercise our own faculties of judgment and choice. In this sense, there can be no truly Catholic apostolate at all without interior prayer behind it, as the Acts of the Apostles shows us emblematically.

The Holy Spirit was not, after all, the “forgotten person” of the Blessed Trinity until His rediscovery by the “charismatic movement” or the “conciliar renewal” in the twentieth century. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as anyone familiar with the lives of the saints; the history of great religious orders and of the missions; and traditional Catholic doctrine, devotions, and literature can attest; indeed, the Gift of God Most High could never be forgotten by the Church, since He is at work in every sacrament, every act of divine worship, every motion of the soul towards God, every holy person who has ever lived.

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