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The Work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in the World

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The subject of this article on “The Work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in the World” is an ocean. We might even say that all of Christianity is summarized in this one statement.

As we know, Pope John Paul II has recommended that 1998, the second of three years set aside in preparation for the great Jubilee of Christ’s birth, should be dedicated in a special way to the Holy Spirit and His sanctifying presence within the com munity of Christ’s followers. Notice the Pope’s stress on the “sanctifying presence” of the Holy Spirit.

Our focus will be on our duty to respond to the unique grace that the Holy Spirit conferred on us when we received the Sacrament of Con fir ma tion.

Over the centuries, this sacrament has been variously identified. It is the sacrament of spiritual strength ening. It is the sacrament of assimilation to Christ. But with resounding emphasis, it is the sac rament of martyrdom.

Christ’s Promise of the Holy Spirit

On the way to His ascension, Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit on His followers. He told the disciples not to leave Jerusalem, but to “wait there for what the Father had promised.” He reminded them: “It is what you have heard me speak about. John baptized with water, but you, not many days from now, will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Then still more clearly, He predicted what the Holy Spirit would do in their lives. “You will receive power,” Christ assured them, “when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses, not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judea and Samaria and indeed to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:4-5, 8).

In the original inspired text of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus promised the disciples that they would be “my martyrs.” If there was ever an age in Christian history when the followers of Christ would need the strength of martyrdom, it is today.

Our Lord could not have been more clear. He told us, “If you wish to be my disciples, take up your daily cross and follow me.” The source of strength to suffer for Christ comes finally from the Holy Spirit. In the language of the New Testament, this power is the same kind of power by which miracles are performed.

Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit was the assurance that we would witness to Him before the world in which we live. The essence of being a martyr is to be a witness. And we know what a witness does. He gives testimony publicly that something he saw or heard is true. He has experience of a fact or an event, and as a witness he declares that what he says or signs his name to is so. He gives evidence to others that what he testifies to should be believed. Why? Because he personally knows.

We are liable to miss the preceding adjective “my” in the clause, “You shall be my martyrs.” This prefix is crucial. Those who are martyrs are witnesses to Christ. They testify, if need be with their blood, that what they believe is true because they have known Christ. The implication is that in order to be a witness, even to martyrdom, one must have experienced Christ, in a way comparable to what Peter told the early Christians: “You did not see Him, yet you love Him. And still without seeing Him, you are already filled with joy so glorious that it cannot be described, because you believe” (1 Pet. 1:8).

So it was in the apostolic age, and so it is in ours. In order to witness to Christ we must believe in Him so strongly that we are filled with His joy. This joy which comes from the Holy Spirit is not devoid of pain.

But the joy is genuine and un mistakable. It is also profoundly com municable. In fact, one of the para doxes of martyrdom is the positive happiness that a strongly committed follower of Christ has in suffering for Christ.

This is brought out dramatically by St. Luke, the evangelist of the Holy Spirit, in describing the summons of the apostles before the Sanhedrin. They had been warned not to preach about the Savior. So the apostles were flogged and warned not to speak in the name of Jesus. As they left the jail where they had been scourged, they were “glad to have had the honor of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:40-41).

Most Catholics know that at baptism, we receive the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit. What many do not know is that these fruits are the twelve joys which the Holy Spirit gives us, already here on earth, a foretaste of the joys of heaven. Every time we cooperate with the will of God, He rewards us with a happiness of spirit in the measure that we are faithful to His grace. What an apparent contradiction! The more painful our cooperation with the divine will, the more joy we receive from the Holy Spirit.

Martyrdom of Opposition

Not all the faithful who suffer for Christ also die for Christ. Opposition to the Christian faith and way of life does not always end in violent death for the persecuted victims.

Consequently, it is well to distinguish between what may be called martyrdom of blood and martyrdom of opposition, which is bloodless indeed, but no less and sometimes more painful to endure.

Not all the victims of persecution die at the hands of a godless government. Millions more are ostensibly free to walk the streets and live in a home. Yet they are, in effect, deprived of every human liberty to practice their religion and to serve Christ according to their faith. If they teach their children catechism, the parents are prevented from enjoying such privileges as decent living quarters or any kind of skilled job. If they are seen attending church, they are first warned, then threatened, and finally penalized even to the loss of their possessions.

So the sorry tale goes on, and has been going on for years, in spite of the conspiracy of silence in our Ameri can press.

But that is not the whole picture. We need to shake ourselves into awareness that our country is going through persecution. It is no less real for being subtle, and no less painful for being perpetrated in the name of democracy.

What do I mean? I mean that any priest or religious, any married or single person in America who wishes to sincerely and fully live up to his Catholic commitment, finds countless obstacles in his way and experiences innumerable difficulties that accumulatively de mand heroic fortitude to overcome and withstand.

All we have to do is place the eight beatitudes in one column and the eight corresponding attitudes of our culture in another column, and compare the two. Where Christ advocates poverty, the world de spises the poor and canonizes the rich. Where Christ praises gentleness, the world belittles meekness and extols those who succeed by crushing anyone who stands in their way. Where Christ encourages mourning and sorrow for sin, the world revels in pleasure and the noise of empty laughter. Where Christ promised joy only to those who seek justice and holiness, the world offers satisfaction in the enjoyment of sin. Where Christ bids us forgive and show mercy to those who have offended us, the world seeks vengeance and its law courts are filled with demands for retribution. Where Christ blesses those who are pure of heart, the world scoffs at chastity and makes a god of sex. Where Christ tells the peaceful that they shall be rewarded, the world teaches just the opposite in constant rebellion and violence and massive preparation for war. And where Christ teaches the incredible doctrine of accepting persecution with patience and resignation to God’s will, the world dreads nothing more than criticism and rejection; and human respect which means acceptance by society, is the moral norm. On the bloody side, our century has had more Chris tians who were martyred for Christ than in all the centuries from Calvary to nineteen hundred in cluded. I should know because not a few of my own relatives behind the iron curtain have shed their blood for Christ rather than deny their Catholic faith.

To this day, innumerable Catholics are dying for their faith at the hands of Muslims who are told by the Koran to either convert Christians from their idolatry of adoring the man Jesus as though He were God, or put them to death.

But my focus here is on our country. Call it an unbloody martyrdom. But have no doubt that to live an authentic Catholic life in America today is to live a martyr’s life. That is why the sacrament of confirmation cannot be more clearly identified than to call it the sacrament of martyrdom. Only the Holy Spirit whom we received on our Pentecost Sunday can sustain us in our witness to Jesus Christ.

After fifty years in the priesthood, I can testify to every syllable of the following sentence: Only heroic bishops and heroic priests, heroic religious, heroic fathers and mothers, heroic faithful, will survive the massive persecution of the Catholic Church in our country to day. We call ourselves the Land of Liberty. But the only liberty that is given freedom is the liberty to do your own will. Pro-choice is not just a clever phrase. It is the hallmark of a culture in which millions have chosen to do what they want and make life humanly impossible for those who choose to do what God wants.

Martyrdom of Witness

We still have one more type of martyrdom to reflect on, and it is, in a way, the most pervasive of all be cause no follower of Christ can escape it. This is the martyrdom of witness.

What do we mean by martyrdom of witness? Here the firm believer in the Church’s teaching authority; the devoted servant of the papacy; the convinced pastor who insists on sound doctrine to his flock; the teenagers who want to preserve their chastity; the firm parents who are concerned about the moral training of their children such persons will not be spared active criticism and open opposition. But they must especially be ready to live in an atmosphere of coldness to their deepest beliefs.

Sometimes they would almost wish the opposition were more overt and even persecution would be a welcome change. It is the studied indifference of people whom they know and love, of persons in their own natural or religious family, of men and women whose intelligence they respect and whose respect they cherish.

This kind of apathy can be demoralizing and, un less it finds relief from the Holy Spirit, can be devastating.

To continue living a Christ-like life in this kind of environment is to practice the martyrdom of witness. Why witness? Because it means giving testimony to our deep religious convictions although all around us others are giving their own example to the contrary.

It means giving witness twice over: once on our own behalf as the outward expression of what we internally believe and once again on behalf of others whose conduct is not only different from ours, but contradicts it.

Wherein lies the martyrdom? It lies in the deprivation of good example to us on the part of our contemporaries, and in the practice of Christian virtue in loneliness, because those who witness what we do are in the majority. We witness to them, indeed, but they are not pleased to witness who we are, what we stand for, what we say, or what we do.

Notwithstanding all of this, how ever, it behooves us to look at the positive side of the picture. We must remind ourselves that this witness of ours is not so sterile as we may suppose. Quite the contrary. Al though we may be, or at least feel, often quite alone, we are not alone at all. Not infrequently our severest critics can become our strongest admirers. In any case, witness that we give by living up to the conviction of our faith is surely demanding on human nature. That is why we call it martyrdom. But it is a witness to the truth, and the grace of the Holy Spirit is always active in the hearts of everyone whose life we touch.

If we would know the power of this martyrdom of witness, we have only to read the annals of the early Church. The handful of be lievers who received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday, were as a drop in the immense culture surrounding the Mediter ranean Sea. Yet see what happened. This small group of convinced faithful were able, in less than three hundred years, to turn the tide of paganism in the Roman Empire. For a long time they were deprived even of the basic civil rights accorded to other citizens. They were often hunted like animals, and the catacombs tell us that they had to hide when celebrating the liturgy and hide the tombs of their re vered dead.

But their patience and meekness finally prevailed. Yes, but only because it was supported by unbounded courage, born not of their own strength, but of the power of the Holy Spirit that Christ pro mised to give those who would witness to His name. This promise is just as true today. All that we need is to trust in the Spirit whom we possess, and never grow weary in giving testimony to the grace we re ceived.

This is what Christ was talking about when He told us not to hide our virtues but allow them to be seen like a city on a mountaintop. We should not be afraid that by such evidence of our good works we shall be seduced by the evil spirit into pride and vainglory. The Good Spirit will protect us by the humiliation that witnessing to a holy life always brings. There will have to be enough death to self and enough ignoring of human respect to keep us from getting proud in our well-doing. We must be willing to pay the price of suffering in doing good, which is another name for being a living martyr, that is, a courageous witness to the life of Christ in the world today.

On the day of our confirmation, we received a special outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I would like to close with a prayer for an increase of these gifts, as we come near the close of the twentieth century.


O Lord Jesus Christ, who before ascending into heaven, you promised to send the Holy Spirit to finish your work in the souls of your apostles and disciples, deign to grant the same Holy Spirit to me that He may perfect in my soul the work of your grace and love. Grant me the spirit of wisdom that I may despise the perishable things of this world and aspire only after those which are eternal, the spirit of understanding to enlighten my mind with the light of your divine truth, the spirit of counsel that I may ever choose the surest way of pleasing God and gaining heaven, the spirit of fortitude that I may bear my cross with you and overcome with courage all the obstacles that oppose my salvation, the spirit of knowledge that I may know God and myself and grow perfect in the science of the saints, the spirit of piety that I may find the service of God sweet and amiable, the spirit of fear that I may be filled with a loving reverence toward God and dread in any way to displease Him. Mark me, dear Lord, with the sign of your true disciples and animate me in all things with your spirit. Amen.

Father Hardon is the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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