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“Ask a Priest: Who Is the Holy Spirit?”
Q: I really don’t understand the Holy Spirit. Would you please discuss that? -S.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Your question touches on the Trinity, the core mystery of the Christian faith. The glossary of the Catechism defines “Trinity” like this:
“The mystery of one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The revealed truth of the Holy Trinity is at the very root of the Church’s living faith as expressed in the Creed. The mystery of the Trinity in itself is inaccessible to the human mind and is the object of faith only because it was revealed by Jesus Christ, the divine Son of the eternal Father.”
That reference to “three Persons” can confuse us. As humans, we hear “three Persons” and might be tempted to think of three people crammed into a phone booth. It is not like that with the Trinity; no one is “crammed together” into one God.
When we speak of a “Person” in God we mean, in technical language, a subsistent relation. Each Person in the Trinity is a real relation, distinct from one another, and each Person is God. Make sense? Don’t worry if it doesn’t – it is a mystery beyond our comprehension.
So what about the Holy Spirit in particular? The glossary of the Catechism gives this definition of “Holy Spirit”:
“The third divine Person of the Blessed Trinity, the personal love of Father and Son for each other. Also called the Paraclete (Advocate) and Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit is at work with the Father and the Son from the beginning to the completion of the divine plan for our salvation.”
The Holy Spirit is especially mysterious. Scripture speaks of him “descending like a dove” (Matthew 3:16) at Jesus’ baptism. At Pentecost the presence of the Spirit is expressed by a “strong driving wind” and “tongues as of fire” (see Acts 2:2-3).
A dove, wind, tongues as of fire – those are images that are not easy to attach to a divine Person. Indeed, they seem to accentuate his mysteriousness.
Let’s try to think of God like this. God is pure intellect. What does an intellect do? It thinks a thought. What does God think about? He thinks about himself. And God’s thought is so perfect that it is a divine Person: the Son. The Son “looks” at his Father (the first Person of the Trinity) and the Father looks at the Son, and the love between them is so perfect that it too is a Person: the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and the Son.
The Father begets the Son, but the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (“filioque,” in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed).
To add one more level of mystery, this dynamic among the three Persons doesn’t happen “in time.” Rather, it occurs from all eternity. There was never a moment when the Father was alone, or when the Father and the Son were alone together. The three divine Persons exist from all eternity. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God.
Now, let’s shift to us. That love of God, the Spirit, is the one who inspires us, moves us, sanctifies us. He comes to us at baptism and confirmation in a special way. For more reading, see the Catechism, Nos. 687-701, or this article at Catholic Answers.
Or, if you are a visual learner, you might enjoy watching these video meditations about the Holy Spirit made by my friend and colleague, Father John Bartunek, LC: “Unleashing the Power of Pentecost: A Retreat Guide on the Holy Spirit”.
This attempt at an answer is only the tip of an infinitely deep subject. Rest assured, though, that when you feel inspired to pray or do works of charity, that it is the Holy Spirit at work in you. He is that close … and that mysterious. I hope this helps. God bless.