The painting of Pentecost by Giovanni Battista Trotti (1555-1612) in the cathedral in Cremona, Italy. Renáta Sedmáková/AdobeStock

Living and Breathing as Spirit-Filled Priests

How Pentecost can remind us of our call as disciples and priests

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This month the Church throughout the world celebrates the solemnity of Pentecost, the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

As we observe this high holy day, it’s worth asking ourselves whether we are living a life according to the Spirit. In our ministries, are we spirit-driven priests? Of course, to answer the question fully, we have to grasp what “spirit-driven” means. What does the expression mean in terms of priestly ministry?

Well, it certainly doesn’t mean imitating a megachurch preacher. It’s not about splashy theatrics or a larger-than-life demeanor. This is not what the Holy Spirit is calling for, or really what the Church needs today. Being a spirit-driven priest isn’t thinking about ourselves at all. It’s about focusing our attention on the glory and works of God before us. Being a spirit-driven priest isn’t thinking that we can somehow reform the Church or the priesthood by our personality, talents or any of the passing things of this world.

Being a spirit-driven priest means knowing the Holy Spirit and living out our call as disciples of Jesus Christ, cooperating with the inspirations and promptings of the Spirit according to our vocation. It’s realizing that our personality, talents and all we have in this life are gifts from God, gifts that we place at the disposal of the Church as she fulfills the commands of the Lord Jesus. Being a spirit-driven priest means realizing that the only reform that will happen in the Church (or ourselves) will only occur through a vigorous pursuit of holiness, which involves a complete and heartfelt self-donation and self-oblation to the Lord Jesus.

In seeking to understand our call to be spirit-driven priests, let’s walk through each of the above points.

The Context of Pentecost

Let’s go to Pentecost. The Acts of the Apostles describes the sequence of actions on that sacred day. The apostles were gathered together in the Upper Room (the same spot where the Lord initiated his Paschal Mystery in fulfilling the Passover), when suddenly there was a great rush of wind and tongues of fire fell upon the apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary (cf. 2:1-4).

After these supernatural actions, the apostles began to speak in different languages. There were many people from all over the diaspora in the Holy City of Jerusalem at that time. After receiving the Holy Spirit, St. Peter stood in front of the crowd and began to preach. Each of the groups present understood the apostles in their native languages.

The Acts of the Apostles records: “They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God’” (2:7-12).

The Spirit came amid a strong wind, which blows wherever it wills. It cannot be contained or controlled. The Spirit appeared as tongues so that the apostles would speak and proclaim the message that was given them. And the tongues came as fire, not a fire that destroys, but a fire that purifies souls and cultures and ignites good action in the hearts of all people.

Before the coming of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were afraid and secluded themselves in the Upper Room. Separated from the rest of the world, divided from the rest of humanity and fearful of the consequences of sharing the Lord’s message, the apostles hid. Nothing was being done. Everything was on pause.

As promised by the Lord before he ascended into paradise, however, the Holy Spirit was sent. He broke through shut doors and closed hearts. He humbled the enemies of the Church and empowered the apostles to be bold preachers of the Gospel message.

When the wind blew, and the tongues of fire fell, the apostles were envigored. They left their place of fear and announced a message of salvation, peace and reconciliation. They unleashed the power of the Gospel, and they relied upon — and spoke to — what all human beings desire in their souls — namely, love and freedom, mercy and redemption. They announced the saving work of Jesus Christ and called all people to his friendship.

In their proclamation, the apostles announced the most daring message ever given the human family. It was a message of salvation in Jesus Christ. It was a message enlivened by the apostles’ zeal and the power of the Holy Spirit. Through this message, 3,000 were converted to the Gospel that day. These conversions happened through the power of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of spirit-driven priests.

This union of our wills with the divine will of the Holy Spirit is the means for great things to happen in the kingdom of God. The union of our wills with the Spirit’s is the initiation of truly living and thriving as a spirit-driven priest.

But this begs a pivotal question: Who is the Holy Spirit? What does he will in our lives and in our priestly ministry?

The Holy Spirit

When St. Paul first visited Ephesus and spent some time with the young Christian community there, he realized that something was lacking. He asked the Ephesians: “Did you receive the holy Spirit when you became believers?” They responded, “We have never even heard that there is a holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2). In response, St. Paul laid his hands upon them and the Holy Spirit fell upon them.

Admittedly, many people today might echo the early Christians of Ephesus in their uncertainty about who the Holy Spirit is. Many are confused about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This is true in part because the Holy Spirit does not speak of himself, as the Lord taught us: “But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming” (Jn 16:13). The Holy Spirit can be the most mysterious among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

While the Holy Spirit is a mystery, we must seek to know of his presence and power in our lives.

The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. The First Letter to the Corinthians tells us, “No one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11). And so, we need the Holy Spirit to know who God is and how we are to live as his children.

The Holy Spirit helps us to understand the revelation of God, that he exists as a communion of persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God shows us who he truly is. He unveils himself to us, that in his innermost essence he is not solitude but family. God is a family — a communion — of persons. The Father and the Son love one another, and the love between them is the Holy Spirit. God is three distinct persons, equal in dignity and majesty, who love one another.

The Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son. As we affirm in the Nicene Creed at Mass: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.”

We cannot understand any of this revelation unless the Spirit aids us through faith and conversion.

It is also the Holy Spirit who gives us life. He teaches us and reminds us of the teachings of the Lord Jesus: “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you” (Jn 14:26). The Holy Spirit moves our hearts and summons us to fellowship with the one, true God. The Holy Spirit is the one who converts us, applies the merits of the Lord’s salvation to us, and calls us to divine sonship in Jesus Christ.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes these actions of the Holy Spirit: “The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. ‘Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man’” (No. 1989).

The Holy Spirit also helps us to relive the Lord’s own Paschal Mystery in our own lives. Such a sharing in the Paschal Mystery begins at baptism. As St. Peter told the early Church, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The Catechism explains, “The Holy Spirit is the master of the interior life” (No. 1995), and further, “Through the power of the Holy Spirit we take part in Christ’s Passion by dying to sin, and in his Resurrection by being born to a new life; we are members of his Body which is the Church, branches grafted onto the vine which is himself” (No. 1988).

In his sanctifying work, the Holy Spirit moves where his divine action is needed. There is no controlling or calculating his activity among us. Christ references this movement of the Holy Spirit when he told us, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8).

As disciples of the Lord and priests of the New Covenant, we can have confidence that the Holy Spirit will always be present when he’s sought after, and that his grace will always be dispensed wherever it is needed. If we seek to be spirit-filled priests, the Spirit will always be present to us and give us his grace and power. Our task is now to examine our response to the call of the Lord Jesus, “Come after me” (Mt 4:19).

Discipleship and Ministry

There are many different dimensions to the mystery of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. While such mystery includes many supernatural and mystical elements, it also involves a very pastoral one.

While it’s a noble task to reflect upon the beauty and power of the ministerial priesthood, it does little good unless there is additional discernment of what the Lord wants us to do with it. With every gift, there is a mission. And so, in our desire to be spirit-filled priests, we need to retrieve and emphasize again our way of life as Christian disciples as the foundation of our priestly ministry.

We were only called to be ministerial priests because we were first called to be disciples of the Lord. Our discipleship is what guided our discernment and our eventual decision to accept the call and serve the Lord Jesus and his people as ministerial priests.

Of all the titles and designations that are given to the Catholic priest, we can perhaps add the title of “chief disciple.” It blends beautifully with the priest’s responsibilities as a spiritual father and shepherd in the midst of God’s people. It is a creative way of expressing what St. Augustine said of himself: I am a Christian with you, but a bishop for you.

Oftentimes, as priests, we can become caught up in the affairs and maintenance of the Church, so much so that we begin to be removed from the basic call of discipleship. It’s shocking to think that we can be very attentive priests but lousy disciples of the Lord. If we reach such a state, there is no “spirit-filled” to our priesthood, since there is no room in our hearts for the Spirit to fill.

Pope Francis has emphasized this disturbing principle throughout his pontificate, as he has insisted that it’s possible to be a member of the clergy — a cardinal, bishop, priest — and not be a Christian.

Our priesthood makes the most sense within Christian discipleship, especially when it is actively lived within a community of other Christians. The call to the priesthood has always been grounded upon our first call to discipleship. If the two are separated, then we end up having churchmen who have no faith. We run the risk of having consecrated men who serve the Church of a God whom they no longer know. They administer the things of God but are no longer filled or follow his Spirit.

The priesthood relies upon what John the Evangelist calls the “love you had at first” (cf. Rv 2:4). Every priest is called back to the initial “yes” they first gave to the Lord. It’s that sacred moment when all the grace of the sacraments were fanned into a flame and we chose in the depths of our hearts to follow the Lord, to die to ourselves and seek friendship with Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one. Such a radical personal decision is the basis of our priesthood and of everything we do in this life.

Pope St. John Paul II speaks of this moment in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio (“Mission of the Redeemer”): “From the outset, conversion is expressed in faith which is total and radical, and which neither limits nor hinders God’s gift. At the same time, it gives rise to a dynamic and lifelong process which demands a continual turning away from ‘life according to the flesh’ to ‘life according to the Spirit’ (cf. Rom 8:3-13). Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple” (No. 46).

The priest is the chief disciple only because he bears the responsibility of living out his own discipleship while modeling it for other believers and teaching them to be faithful disciples themselves. He is the first “work in progress,” and concurrently serves as an instrument for the Lord, to make progress in the hearts of others.

As we cooperate with the grace of the Holy Spirit according to our discipleship and our specific vocation, we will be able to live the Pentecost event in our priestly ministry. We will be able to receive the tongues of fire and therefore preach and teach through the Spirit, celebrate the sacraments in the Spirit and pastorally shepherd God’s people with the Spirit. In conclusion, we can then live, breathe and faithfully serve as spirit-filled priests.

FATHER JEFFREY KIRBY, STD, is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Indian Land, South Carolina. He is the author of the book “Lord, Teach Us to Pray: A Guide to the Spiritual Life and Christian Discipleship” (Saint Benedict Press, $11.95).


Holy Spirit as Love and Gift

Pope John Paul, in his 1986 encyclical of the Holy Spirit, Dominum Et Vivificantem (On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World), wrote: “The Holy Spirit as Love and Gift comes down, in a certain sense, into the very heart of the sacrifice which is offered on the cross. Referring here to the biblical tradition, we can say: He consumes this sacrifice with the fire of the love which unites the Son with the Father in the Trinitarian communion. And since the sacrifice of the Cross is an act proper to Christ, also in this sacrifice he ‘receives’ the Holy Spirit. He receives the Holy Spirit in such a way that afterwards — and he alone with God the Father — can ‘give him’ to the Apostles, to the Church, to humanity. He alone ‘sends’ the Spirit from the Father. He alone presents himself before the apostles in the Upper Room, ‘breathes upon them’ and says: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit; if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven,’ as John the Baptist had foretold: ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ With those words of Jesus, the holy Spirit is revealed and at the same time made present as the Love that works in the depths of the Paschal Mystery, as the source of the salvific power of the Cross of Christ, and as the gift of new and eternal life.

“This truth about the Holy Spirit finds daily expression in the Roman liturgy, when before Communion the priest pronounces those significant words; ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit your death brought life to the world. …’ And in the third Eucharistic prayer, referring to the same salvific plan, the priest asks God that the Holy Spirit may ‘make us an everlasting gift to you.’” — No. 41.


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