The Holy Spirit Is Not a Mere Custodian — He Is the Lord and Giver of Life

COMMENTARY: The task of the Church — shepherds and faithful alike — is to let the Spirit groan within us as we cooperate with his grace, pursue our universal call to holiness, and seek to bring forth the kingdom of God.

The Holy Spirit as a dove in the Annunciation by Rubens, 1628.
The Holy Spirit as a dove in the Annunciation by Rubens, 1628. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Holy Spirit is the author of holiness and the principal agent of evangelization, and we need some holiness and evangelization in the Church today. We need the Holy Spirit to nurture holiness in our hearts and in the hearts of every man, woman and child baptized in Jesus Christ. We need the Holy Spirit to spur us on to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world.

By cooperating with the Holy Spirit, we receive the graces that bring forth our salvation and growth in holiness. It is precisely the holiness of the baptized that serves as the spiritual blood — the literal life force — of the Church as she labors to accomplish the summons given her by the Lord Jesus:

“And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned’” (Mark 16:15-16).

In its dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council emphasized this exact point:

“For the Church is compelled by the Holy Spirit to do her part that God’s plan may be fully realized, whereby He has constituted Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world. By the proclamation of the Gospel she prepares her hearers to receive and profess the faith. She gives them the dispositions necessary for baptism, snatches them from the slavery of error and of idols and incorporates them in Christ so that through charity they may grow up into full maturity in Christ” (17).

The work of the Church ad extra or ad gentes, namely, “to the nations” — to those who do not yet believe, or who believe incompletely, or who believe with lukewarm hearts — relies upon the graces received from the work of the Church ad intra, “from within.” The internal holiness of the Church opens the door for the Holy Spirit to bear fruit in the Church’s external work of evangelization.

If the Church’s call to holiness, which was so echoed and emphasized by the Second Vatican Council, is accepted and lived, then the Church is strong and her witness to the world is robust and credible. If the call to holiness, however, is not heeded or fanned into flame, then the work of the Church in the midst of humanity is hindered and its evangelistic fruitfulness is diminished. 

If there’s only a little blood, then a body is weak. If there’s no abundance of grace, then the Church is weak. When the Church is weak, the Spirit cannot move and work through her as he wants to, and the Church’s efforts in evangelization are debilitated and made feeble.

The holiness of the Church’s members is lessened when there’s confusion, lack of clarity, purposeful ambiguity, needless concession, compromise, lack of accountability, corruption, scandal, and misplaced pastoral accommodation to sin and the ideologies of our fallen world.

In such a state of affairs, the Spirit cannot accomplish the primary work given to him and for which he has been sent to us. As Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium teaches us:

“When the work which the Father gave the Son to do on earth was accomplished, the Holy Spirit was sent on the day of Pentecost in order that He might continually sanctify the Church, and thus, all those who believe would have access through Christ in one Spirit to the Father. He is the Spirit of Life, a fountain of water springing up to life eternal. To men, dead in sin, the Father gives life through Him, until, in Christ, He brings to life their mortal bodies. … By the power of the Gospel [the Holy Spirit] makes the Church keep the freshness of youth” (4).

Since the Holy Spirit chooses to work through us, as fallen human beings, he is hindered from enriching and enhancing the Church with an abundance of grace and holiness as its Sanctifier when he is left with cleaning up messes, correcting error, restoring order, tying millstones around the necks of unfaithful shepherds, and healing a weakened body as some type of divine janitor. In such a state of affairs, the Holy Spirit, whom we name and worship as “the Lord and Giver of Life,” is placed within the context of being a mere maintenance supervisor within the Church rather than working in us and through us as the source of holiness and the animator of the world’s evangelization. 

As sorrowful as it is, the Holy Spirit will either spend his time correcting offenses against the Lord Jesus or nurturing our faith in him, as St. Paul tells us:

“Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).

The Holy Spirit wants to nurture faith and announce the kingdom of God to all humanity. If he must correct and discipline the hearts of wayward believers and misguided shepherds, then he cannot work through them for the conversion of the world to Jesus Christ. He cannot bring forth the Kingdom in the midst of the world.

Admittedly, there will always be problems within the Church, since we are a community made up of sinners, but when the problems become the rule of the day, or when the problems aren’t even recognized as problems, then the Holy Spirit must focus on the internal life of the Church and the external missionary effort of the Church suffers. And this is a tremendous loss.

The Church cannot give what she does not have in abundance. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter, the chief apostle, teaches us this spiritual lesson. A paralyzed man asks the first pope for money, and he responds:

“I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (3:6).

The man was healed, and he walked home. It was the first recorded miracle by the use of the Holy Name after the Lord’s ascension. It’s fitting that it was used by the chief apostle. This is the power — the signs and wonders — that the Holy Spirit wants to give to the Church in her mission ad gentes so the world can see and know the credibility of the Gospel.

In the interaction, our first pope shared some vintage spiritual wisdom: We cannot give what we do not have. We can only give what we first possess.

How can the Church give the Gospel to the nations if her own members are not living an “obedience of faith” to the Gospel? How can the Holy Spirit bring the Gospel to the nations if he must work to bring that Gospel to the hearts of those who should already believe and who should be his instruments in bringing the world to Jesus Christ?

The Holy Spirit is turned into a janitor when the Lord Jesus commands, “Repent and believe” and “Go and teach all the nations,” but the Church’s shepherds confuse the faithful with ambiguities.

The Holy Spirit would prefer not to clean up messes. He wants to build up the Church with holiness and strengthen her to fulfill her vocation to announce the Good News to all people. As St. Paul teaches us, the Holy Spirit groans in the hearts of believers as he anticipates the fulfillment of the Church’s work and the final consummation of all things in Jesus Christ:

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).

Church leadership can welcome the groaning of the Holy Spirit and nurture a life of holiness within the Body of Christ, or they can choose to “grieve the Spirit” by following a path of compromise and false deference to a fallen world and its ideologies (Ephesians 4:30).

The Holy Spirit is the divine Custodian of the truth and love. He is the author of holiness. He is the principal agent in evangelization. The Holy Spirit is not a mere custodian, left cleaning up messes caused by unrecognized — and sometimes even praised — infidelities within the Church. 

The task of the Church — shepherds and faithful alike — is to let the Spirit groan within us as we cooperate with his grace, pursue our universal call to holiness, and seek to bring forth the kingdom of God. 

Our responsibility is to open our hearts, avoid compromises to the teachings of the Lord Jesus, and so make the Church strong, allowing the Holy Spirit to be unleashed for the proclamation of the Gospel to all the nations.