Culture at the Crossroads
I Believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life
The motto for Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where I did my doctoral work, is spiritus est qui vivificat or "it is the spirit that gives life." The text comes from John 6:63 and 2 Corinthians 3:6. The members of the Spiritan order who founded the school chose this theme, no doubt, as a reflection of their missionary charism. Like many orders, the Spiritans (or, more properly, the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, whose initials are C.S.Sp for its Latin rendering) aim at transforming the world by reaching out to the most needy, in the imitation of Christ.
A recent document exploring the spirituality of the Congregation identifies a formative text from Luke's gospel: namely, the story of Jesus speaking in the synagogue before the elders, opening the scroll of Isaiah, and reading the following text:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me, to bring the Good News to the afflicted.... (Lk. 4.18)
The document goes on to explore themes that are foundational in the Spiritan order, themes which are at the heart of all Christian life. When we pray the words of the Nicene Creed and affirm belief in the Holy Spirit as the Lord, the giver of life, we affirm first of all—in the words of the Spiritan document—that "if God has no place, if his love no longer nourishes the love of the missionary for his contemporaries, he becomes a mere 'clanging cymbal'" (1 Cor. 13:1).
The problem that I see on so many college campuses, in so many social services, in so many efforts to aid the poor, is that God has no place. To say it a little differently, what I see are the efforts of people who have good intentions but no sense of the big picture -- no sense of their local efforts aiming at a truly transcendent good. Paul's image in 1 Corinthians above is apt: clanging cymbals can often be perfect accompaniments to an orchestral piece, but when they operate with no understanding of a composer, a conductor, and the rest of an orchestra, they are likely to be a massive distraction.
Paul's image comes in the midst of a long exposition on the metaphor of the body of Christ -- the extension of Christ's work in the world through the ministry of the church, the people of God. The Holy Spirit, he says, gives gifts to the many who comprise the body.
Following Paul, the creed affirms that belief in the Holy Spirit is belief that Christ's work of redeeming the world did not stop with his crucifixion and resurrection. Quite the contrary: those events were the launching pad, the beginning of a ministry that reaches its resolution only when the whole world is redeemed. But in order for that to happen, there must be an overarching plan, much like a blueprint designed by an architect for the construction of a house. Failing to consult the blueprint will at least mean creating weird additions that are out of place, and at worst it will mean actually hampering or forestalling the construction of a sound structure.
In Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Church is clarified:
The Church, which the Spirit guides in way of all truth and which He unified in communion and in works of ministry, He both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with His fruits. By the power of the Gospel He makes the Church keep the freshness of youth. (4)
The Holy Spirit is the giver of life to the Church and to those who minister in its name. What's more, in giving life the Spirit makes the Church keep the "freshness of youth." In considering this line I cannot help but think of the millions present at World Youth Days—most recently, in Rio this past August—who testify to this freshness.
I live in a part of the United States where the Catholic Church sometimes feels tired. The Northeast—the old guard of the Church in the U.S.—is a center of intellectual life and money and power. And sometimes I wonder whether it isn't precisely those things that have led our church into a kind of slumber, a kind of self-focus. I've experienced the Church in other parts of the country and the world where there is a freshness; I think of many stories of faith where the Holy Spirit is alive and well, transforming individuals and communities with this freshness. What is common to the stories is that they make manifest the "hierarchical and charismatic gifts"; that is, the gifts of bishops and priests, religious men and women, lay men and women, all cooperating for the sake of the greater glory of God and the well-being of the human family. Often it seems to me that the Spirit works best when our egos don't get in the way.