Reclaiming the Spirit … Wholly and Unsurpassed

“The Holy Spirit is fire; whoever does not want to be burned should not  come near him.”  ∼ Pope Benedict XVI

From the earliest moments of Christian existence, organized and sustained by a Church born from the side of Christ as he hung upon the Cross, there appeared a body of catechesis containing everything we need to know about faith and life, belief and behavior. Think of it as a kind of owner’s manual, about which the Church was not prepared to compromise. Does one throw up walls about a castle of straw? Not these structures—they were meant to endure. Most especially the two bookends, between which everything else fell into place; these two overarching realities, as it were, on which our lives depend. First is the truth of God the Father, who fashioned the world out of nothing. Second is the truth of God the Son, whom he sent into the world to suffer and to die.

Blessed John Henry Newman, for example, in a widely acclaimed poem that Sir Edward Elgar would later set to music, i.e., The Dream of Gerontius, identifies these two pivotal elements in a series of stunning and lyric-strewn affirmations that harness both the mind and will of his saintly protagonist. “Firmly I believe and truly,” declares the old man, whose soul, poised on the very cusp of eternity, is about to embark with resolute confidence upon its final journey:

God is Three and God is One;
And I next acknowledge duly
Manhood taken by the Son.
And I trust and hope most fully
In that Manhood crucified…

It is a compilation both lovely and lucid, in which both truths are given pride of place in the great symphony of the Church’s faith. And on their acceptance hangs not only the salvation of Newman’s old man—who, professing them in the last moments of his life, is thus fortified by God’s mercy to walk serenely through the door of death—but Everyman. The Scriptures are very clear about this. “Now this is eternal life,” we are told in John 17:3: “that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” There is no other way to obtain salvation save through the portal that leads from the Son of God to his Father in heaven.

“You know where I am going,” Jesus tells his disciples in John 14:4, “and you know the way there.” This at once strikes not a few of them as passing strange, since they clearly haven’t a clue about the way. But let it pass. St. Thomas Aquinas, in commenting on this text, tells us that, “the entire knowledge of the faith refers to these two objects.” That is to say, both the divine and eternal Godhead, which is the place where we hope ultimately to go; and the humanity of Christ, who is the way we hope to get there. Our prayer, of course, is that the way to the Father will not prove roundabout.  Yet how can we be misled on the matter when it is Jesus himself who reveals the Father, even as he remains eternally rooted in the Father?  Just as we know nothing of Christ apart from God, who is the deepest secret of his life, so too we really cannot know anything finally important about God unless Jesus chooses to reveal it to us.

“The God-Christ is the home where we are going,” says St. Augustine in a splendid bullet point taken from one of his sermons; “the Man-Christ is the way by which we are going. We go to him, we go by him; why then do we fear that we should go astray?”

So where does that leave the Holy Spirit? Isn’t he supposed to be the Third Person of this Blessed Company?   Not any sort of Junior Partner, either, but one who equally and eternally shares the same divine substance.   It is surely heretical to suppose that, quoting the language of Nicaea, “the one who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” is somehow deficient in divinity.

Besides, wasn’t it the Holy Spirit whose blazing Pentecostal descent so inflamed the early Church that not even the powers of pagan Rome could succeed in putting out the fire Christ had come to set? When St. Paul, traveling through Ephesus as Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles (19:1-7), comes across certain disciples, he puts the question to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” And when they announce that they’d never even heard of the Holy Spirit, he at once lays hands on them, releasing the gift of prophesy and tongues, of which this heretofore unheard Spirit remains the indisputable source.

And not only back in the first century, amid those first blooms planted by the Apostolic Church. Even today, at this moment, in a Church that, for all it may appear institutionally sclerotic, has not lost a single layer of its original Pentecostal sheen. One does not need to be a Super-Catholic, armed with the most advanced charismatic credentials, to qualify for possession of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Unless, of course, one wishes to fall into “ultra-supernaturalism,” to borrow a coinage used by Msgr. Ronald Knox, which he applies with ample pejorative effect to people of highly spiritualized persuasion, for whom regular sacramental practice is never enough to slake the ethereal hungers on which their souls feed. They require far loftier gifts than the mere Body and Blood of Christ.

This is all bosh, of course. The rite of Baptism and Confirmation will endow the soul with quite enough holiness to conquer not only the weaknesses of the self, but the wickedness of the universe as well.   Yes, even when one is blessedly unaware of the explosion of grace taking place under the hood. Certainly that is true for us Cradle Catholics, for whom there is no recollection whatsoever of the transmutations wrought by the grace of Baptism. “We had the experience,” to quote T.S. Eliot, “but missed the meaning.”

Wasn’t it Pope Benedict who, in an arresting phrase, described the event of becoming a Christian as nothing less than “the final mutation in the evolution of the human species”? He was not being hyperbolic.   When one puts on Christ for the first time, one’s very ontology undergoes a change no greater than which can be imagined. It simply does not get any better this side of the Beatific Vision. Indeed, the grace of baptism provides the launching pad for all the promised glory to come.  So how can we possibly leave out the Holy Spirit? God knows, there are enough unholy spirits roaming about that need to be put to flight.

Nor is it possible to overdo the homage and praise we owe him. Who, as the poet Hopkins put it, “over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

But where exactly does he fit? I mean in the architecture of the Absolute?   The short answer is that he belongs to the whole mystery of spiration, whereby the Father who gives, and the Son to whom all is given, unite in their mutual love to breathe forth the Spirit, who is the Gift given.   Regarding whose movements in time, incidentally, which is the only evidence we have on which to reference the eternal processions, one can scarcely improve on these imperishable lines from Eliot.  In Four Quartets, we read:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

Here is poetry of the first intensity, designed for a size fifteen shoe while most of us are shaped more or less like pigmies. But such is the nature of that refining fire we call the Holy Spirit. Charged with purifying the hearts of men, it is he who will renew the face of the earth. So be careful. The Holy Spirit is fire and while Christ came to cast it upon the earth (“…and would that it were already kindled!” he exclaims), no one will be set on fire without giving assent. But refusal comes at a cost. “Faith is a tongue of fire that burns us and melts us,” Pope Benedict has said, “so that ever more it is true: I am no longer I…. When we yield to the burning fire of the Holy Spirit, being Christian becomes comfortable only at first glance…. Only when we do not fear the tongue of fire and storm it brings with it does the Church become the icon of the Holy Spirit. And only then does she open the world to the light of God.”

If all life is to be given away—freely and recklessly lavished upon others—here is where it starts. With the Gift of that Wholly Unsurpassed Spirit, who just keeps on giving.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from Corrado Giaquinto’s “The Holy Spirit” painted in the 1750s.

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • john

    I regret that I have but two thumbs to raise for this article. Prof. Martin evokes the Crisis Magazine of old.

  • St JD George

    As I read I could imagine today’s Gospel again with Jesus admonishing that his followers were quick to observe what it meant for the clouds rising in the west and the winds blowing from the south, but unable to recognize the son of man who was of flesh and blood in their midst. A reminder too for us all that when we stop to pray the holy spirit is with us always still today when we open our eyes, minds and hearts to see, understand and experience.

  • publiusnj

    The author’s claims that the Church has not been prepared to compromise the body of catechesis that flows from Christ’s wounds and that the Church “has not lost a single layer of its original Pentecostal sheen” are ringing hollow in this week that follows on the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod. Without rebuke from the Vatican, Kasper and Nichols are assuring the Press that the big opening to Gays and Divorced/Remarried-Communicants will go through.

    I have been a member of the Catholic Church for just four months shy of 25,000 days. I have always taken comfort in knowing that the Holy Spirit ensured the Truth of the Catholic Religion. Until now. I am coming to question the Church’s indefectibility. I no longer view the question “Is the Pope Catholic?” as merely rhetorical.

    Now, I know some people say that this will all work out in the end (as the Catholic Encyclopedia assures us, see also CCC paras. 889-96), but I don’t think Francis should treat the Synod as a theological bull session in which all things can be put on the table, and the truths incorporated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church ignored in favor of the latest “queer theory.” Even though he might have the authority to do that, he should keep any loose-lipped musings inside the bull session and not cause scandal to the faithful. Instead he allows selected leaks from the Synod (those pf the Kasperite Party) while denying the faithful the speeches by orthodox bishops that might give us some degree of comfort.

    The question of getting the Pope to understand his duty to the Tradition of the Church is the only Catholic issue worth dealing with right now. For if the Pope can just ignore the clear teaching of The Catholic Church on the issues of the objective disordered nature of homosexual acts and the continuing sinfulness of Remarriage after Divorce, the Catholic Church will be losing the faith of many of the current pew-sitters.

    • Maryg

      Do not lose faith as what we are going through has been prophesied from long ago. Look up Our Lady of Good Success in Quito Ecuador, an approved apparition and you will understand. We will be the faithful remnant if we hold fast to what we know to be true.

      • jacobhalo

        The pope and his heretical clerics are ignoring some of the teachings of the church. Is there any rule of the church that says a pope can be removed from office if he teaches heresy?

        • Catholic pilgrim

          Explain yourself. Pope Francis has not formally taught heresy. Maybe a German modernist bishop or two have already formally taught heresy, but the Patriarch of Rome, Francis, has not. Falsely accusing others is a grave sin, Jacob.

          • jacobhalo

            Pope Francis, according to what I’ve read, agreed with Kasper concerning the issues before the synod began. Pope Francis said anyone can be saved, yes, if they take Jesus Christ as their savior. He never says the 2nd part.

            • Catholic pilgrim

              Pope Francis has made some unfortunate choices in promoting certain heresy-leaning, modernist individuals (ahem, Kasper), but he has NOT used his papal teaching authority to formally endorse Kasper’s heterodox anti-Gospel views. As to the salvation statement, Pope Francis may be guilty of lacking clarity, but not heresy. Maybe the fact that Jesus is Savior is implied in the statement (which was not a papal encyclical/bull). Unclear? Yes. Heresy? Not quite. Now, if he had Explicitly denied Christ as Savior in the sentence, then, yes.

              Could Pope Francis use more clarity in his informal statements? Definitely! Has he formally pronounced/taught any heresies? No.

              • jacobhalo


          • publiusnj

            The Pope has let Kasper go and indicated that he was at a minimum intrigued by Kasper’s proposal. That is astonishingly cavalier behavior on the part of the Pope of Rome, who should be the foremost teacher of the Catholic Church. He has basically told the faithful that he is not going to worry about Christ’s very clear words on Divorce/Remarriage or at least won’t let a little thing like sin get in the way of “welcoming back” adulterers.

            So far as accusing jacobhalo of sin. shouldn’t Papa Francesco rebuke you thusly: who are you to judge?

          • jacobhalo

            We not only have cafeteria Catholics, we have cafeteria clerics.

          • jacobhalo

            Any cleric who voted for the synod proposals is a heretic. The proposals go against the teachings of the church. Surely, they know that.

    • Catholic pilgrim

      It is precisely when situations seem to be the most confusing, difficult, & full of despair (such as the whole Kasper/Synod thing or immediately after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council) that we faithful must remain full of Faith & Hope. Faith & Hope are not just meant for good times when nothing goes wrong in our lives or society. It is far greater (& efficacious) to hold on to Supernatural Hope & Faith ESPECIALLY during the most difficult, trying times (in both personal lives & society as a whole). Hang in there, & finish the good race- or you’ll miss out on eternal rewards. Faith is most especially meant for trying times. As shown in history, this is not the first time Heretics have tried the Church (remember: Gnostics, Arius, Iconoclasts, Luther, Calvin, etc.) nor will it be the last, but surprisingly the Barque will still float & never sink.
      Until His Second Coming, storms are meant to be weathered, not cruised.

      • publiusnj

        Papa Francesco has wasted so much of his Papacy on rather meaningless gestures like the bag carrying and Domus Sanctae Marthae. I could have lived with that, but the “relatio post disceptationem” prepared by his chosen editorial committee has really alarmed me. The Pope had been the guarantor of Catholic Orthodoxy until now. We need to let him know that he cannot take the Church down the path he seems to have chosen without destroying the Faith of so many Christians–the ones who are already practicing the Christian Religion, not the homosexual actors and Remarried Adulterers who want the Church just to join the 21st Century and give up on what they view as its silliness about sexual morality.

    • John O’Neill

      The reason we have hope as Benedict XVI wrote in his spe salvi is that we must believe that our institution is divine and that a mere mortal cannot destroy it. In the past especially the medieval period we had many sinful and some evil popes who did their best to destroy the church but failed. My favorite story from a professor of Church History is the one about Napoleon and the Church, accordingly Napoleon ordered the pope to ally his army with the French or else he would “destroy the church” and the pope answered but Monsieur we priests have been trying to do that for almost two thousand years.

      • publiusnj

        I have some familiarity with the Church’s History and realize some other popes have sinned in very public and scandalous ways. Nevertheless, I have never had a bigger challenge to my belief in the truth of the Catholic Church than I did on the morrow of Oct. 13, 2014 when Papa Francesco’s picked editorial committee came out with the interim relatio. The problem with that relatio is that it could be a prelude to what might be claimed to be an ex cathedra statement by this Pope endorsing Kasper’s proposal.. That is an alarming possibility that would test my faith in the Church.

        Simply put, Papa Alexander VI Borgia’s siring of several children may have been scandalous but it was NOT a purported ex cathedra statement about faith or morals. (BTW, there are better views of Alexander VI’s Papacy even regarding whether he sired Cesare, Lucrezia and their siblings. See, G. Meyers’s The Borgias but I digress). Infallibility/indefectibility is the big enchilada and I am very concerned that this Pope may toss out 2000 years of Traditional Catholic Teaching by such people as the canonized Pope who appointed Francis a bishop, an archbishop and a cardinal.

  • grzybowskib

    Love Eliot’s 4 Quartets! Was introduced to it in college and fell in love with it from the get-go. 🙂

    • St JD George

      Funny this darn small world we live in. I hardly ever run across another Fred and yet there were 3 commenting the other day creating momentary confusion for me. Beyond that, I am married to a Grzyb which is quite another rarity. They swear that there never was an “oski” appendage, but I’m still suspect (ha).

      • grzybowskib

        I am half Polish. 🙂

        • St JD George

          Me too, but that would be my better half (ha) – the other half is all American (double ha).

        • jacobhalo

          That is not your fault (lol)

          • grzybowskib

            Not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m proud of my heritage. 🙂

            • jacobhalo

              You should be proud of your heritage. I was only joking. I was born and raised in Philly very close to a Polish neighborhood. I found them to be wonderful people. I still go there where they have many, young immigrants from Poland. I buy my Kabasi and other Polish products, even though I am of Italian heritage.

              • grzybowskib


  • St JD George

    Thanks Regis, I re-read and enjoyed even more the 2nd time. When I read the news it’s easy to become full of despair, both in the world and particularly here at home. I can’t help but look at the ineptitude and malice our leader(s) and wonder if God is punishing us. I am also keen enough to know that our temporal circumstances are unique but the human drama is hardly extraordinary. When I read your article it helped me to refocus on what matters, and lifts me up.

  • Catholic pilgrim

    Awesome article. “Glory be to the Father, & to the Son, & to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the Beginning, Is now, & Forever shall be, forever & ever!” The Holy Spirit enters us into the Eternal, loving Life of the Blessed Trinity. I wish we Catholics would prominently put up “Rublev’s Holy Trinity Icon” at every parish church.


    It is always good to be there when someone with the gift of words decides to wax lyrical about our Faith.

    Thank you Mr. Martin

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