Convincing the World: St. John Paul II's Encyclical on the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit may seem, from a human perspective, the most obscure person of the Holy Trinity. He is certainly the least “personifiable” in an anthropomorphic sense, as is easily seen in countless depictions of the Trinity in Christian art. In the course of human history He has been the most hidden of the three, revealed fully as a divine Person only in the final words and departure of Jesus. And in recent times, so far as the theological and spiritual awareness of many Catholics goes, we might even say “missing” rather than hidden.
Yet the third Person of the Trinity plays an integral part in every one of the Christian mysteries and therefore in all of Christian life. It is by the Holy Spirit that we are able to believe in Jesus in the first place. It is the Holy Spirit who we receive in Baptism. Insofar as we fail to receive the inspiration of the Spirit, our belief and our understanding of what we believe does not rise above the letter.
Since the Christian life does not consist merely of a system of rules, we need the guidance of the Spirit to know how best to please God from moment to moment. And since the Spirit of God is the Spirit of love—the love that is the law of the New Covenant—anyone who does not have the Spirit remains a slave to the carnal law, or the law of sin (Romans 7:25).
And so, to put it practically, if your spiritual wheels are spinning, it is probable that the missing “element” is the Holy Spirit.
In 1986, Pope St. John Paul II was already anticipating the new millennium, with its new challenges, as well as the new graces the Holy Spirit would bestow upon the Church as she celebrated the Jubilee beginning the third millennium of Christianity. Wishing to prepare the Church for these things by giving the people of God an increased awareness and knowledge of the Holy Spirit, he issued the encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem, “On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World,” on May 18, the Solemnity of Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit, Partner in Jesus’s Mission
A portion of Dominum et Vivificantem takes the form of a commentary on what Jesus says about the coming of the Holy Spirit in his farewell discourse (John 14-17). First of all, St. John Paul II reflects on what these promises tell us about the “partnership” between Jesus and the Holy Spirit in accomplishing the salvific mission.
Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “another Counselor” (alternately Paraclete, intercessor, or advocate) and “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17) who will be sent by the Father to remain with and in his disciples forever. He makes it clear that the Holy Spirit will continue the work that the Son came into the world to do: “he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).
The Holy Spirit will, in effect, help the disciples to reap what was sown by the Son, not only preserving but increasing in them (John 16:13, “he will guide you into all the truth”) the right understanding of Jesus’ words and actions. This is the guarantee of the Church’s fidelity to Jesus, in his message, his mission and, since the message of the Gospel is nothing less than the person of Jesus himself, in the fullness of his identity.
Christ says of the Advocate: “He will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27). Indeed, if the Apostles have been with Jesus throughout his ministry, the Spirit has been with him “from the beginning” in the most absolute sense, with the Son and the Father from all eternity. He is therefore the preeminent, the “expert witness” to the Son who leads, inspires and cooperates with every other witness.
Yet further: "He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16:14). In taking what is Jesus’, the Holy Spirit “takes over” Jesus’ mission on earth in his "absence,” yet as we have already seen, it is the Holy Spirit who guarantees the continued presence of Jesus in the fullness of the Gospel. While Jesus will speak of his departure, it is (as we will see) by his departure that he remains, fully and universally, in the coming of the Holy Spirit.
“If I Go, I Will Send Him to You”
Though Jesus first speaks of the Holy Spirit as a Counselor sent by the Father, he also connects the coming of the Spirit with his own departure: “But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
St. John Paul II emphasizes that this connection is more than a chronological one; it is also “causal”: “The Holy Spirit will come insofar as Christ will depart through the Cross: he will come not only afterwards, but because of the Redemption accomplished by Christ, through the will and action of the Father” (DV 8).
Since the Holy Spirit comes with Christ’s departure, which occurs “through the Cross,” Jesus’ prophecy that the Spirit will “take what is mine” takes on a more specific meaning: the Holy Spirit receives the complete Redemption accomplished by Jesus on the Cross, and it is by the Holy Spirit that this Redemption is accomplished in us. Identified fully with Jesus and his mission, the Holy Spirit is not just the Spirit of the Father but the Spirit of the Son also.
If the Spirit possesses and gives to us the fullness of Jesus, Jesus also came, in the first place, as the Messiah or “Anointed One” in whom the “Spirit of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2) would rest fully. Though the Old Testament did not fully reveal the Holy Spirit as a divine Person, we can see in retrospect that the coming of the Messiah was the event that would lead to that full revelation. The greatness of the Messiah is that he alone possesses the fullness of God’s Spirit; the fullness of Jesus’ accomplishment is ushering in the Age of the Holy Spirit—the Age of the Church which began on Pentecost.
Convincing the World
The same Spirit who teaches, witnesses, brings to remembrance and guides into all truth will also, in Jesus’ words, “convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). Thankfully, Jesus immediately explains what he means by these three things:
“He will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; concerning judgment, because the ruler of the world is judged.” (John 16:8-11)
The opposition between sin (the rejection of Jesus’s mission) and righteousness (Jesus’s glorification by the Father in heaven) naturally implies a judgment on the world in the sense that the Holy Spirit will convince the world of its own guilt. However, the Holy Father notes, the world is convinced of its sin not so that it may be condemned but so that it may be saved. We may find hope in that Jesus does not say that it is the world that is the proper object of judgment, but the “ruler of the world,” Satan.
Therefore, when the Holy Spirit convinces us concerning sin, he shows us more than just the existence and depravity of sin; he shows us “sin saved” (DV 28) by Jesus. When he convinces us concerning righteousness, he shows us not just Jesus justified and glorified by the Father, but the possibility of participation in that justice and glory. And when he convinces us concerning judgment, he shows us that by Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are removed from the judgment reserved from the beginning for the ruler of this world.
We see this threefold convincing manifested in many instances of Apostolic preaching recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, first of all in Peter’s speech at Pentecost. Peter immediately convicts the Jews of their sin in crucifying Christ, and testifies to his resurrection and glorification. He does so not to condemn or taunt them but to save them:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?” Peter [said] to them, “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 2:37-38)
The reason Peter tells them their sin is to awaken their conscience so that they may repent and be saved. The Holy Father writes:
Conversion requires convincing of sin; it includes the interior judgment of the conscience, and this, being a proof of the action of the Spirit of truth in man's inmost being, becomes at the same time a new beginning of the bestowal of grace and love: "Receive the Holy Spirit." Thus in this "convincing concerning sin" we discover a double gift: the gift of the truth of conscience and the gift of the certainty of redemption. (DV 31)
The convincing concerning sin is, for us just as much as for the Jews of Peter’s time, related not just to sin in general but, specifically, to the sin committed on Calvary. Yet man is “absolutely ignorant” of how his own sin relates to the killing of Jesus and thus cannot see evil in its full dimension—and thus have a conscience fully awake—without the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “It is precisely the Holy Spirit who ‘searches’ the ‘depths of God,’ and from them draws God's response to man's sin” (DV 32).
At the same time, seeing the sin of Calvary fully in connection with all the sins of human history means seeing that it is through this worst possible sin—which sums up all others—that God conquered and redeemed human sin completely.
Incidentally, though I will not dwell on it here, St. John Paul II says that the famous “sin against the Holy Spirit” consists precisely in rejecting the “convincing concerning sin” and therefore rejecting his mission as Counselor. It is, in part, the “loss of the sense of sin” which Pope Pius XII called “the sin of the century” (DV 46-47).
In focusing on St. John Paul II’s exegesis of Jesus’s promises concerning the Holy Spirit, I have covered less than half of Dominum et Vivificantem. St. John Paul II offers many more insights about (and from) the Holy Spirit: the way the Spirit guides the Church, how he teaches us to participate in divine self-gift, and most of all, how he nourishes the inner man, gives him a new life and leads him to maturity.
Since I began this article by remarking on the necessity of the guidance of the Spirit in our daily lives, perhaps the reader will feel cheated that I did not focus more on the topics I just hinted at. In truth, I feel less equipped to summarize the profound depths of the Holy Father’s thought further on in the encyclical. But I hope I have given some idea of the role of the Holy Spirit and, of course, convinced you that Dominum et Vivificantem is well worth reading in full.
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