Church: Spirit-filled communion

Holy Spirit Graphic

June 7, 2010


Throughout the history of the Church, there has, again and again, been a tension between an ordered "institutional Church" and the supposed charismatic Church or Church of the faithful. Whenever times get rocky for the bishops and pope – and when isn't it rocky? – many will proclaim that they want Church without the hierarchy.

St. Paul himself had to deal with the unruly Corinthians who put great emphasis on the charisms and gave little thought to the common good of the whole body. Part of the evangelical genius of Paul was that he would permit no split between the ordered community and the Spirit-filled individual.

There are many gifts but one Spirit. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Corinthians 12.7). In Baptism, each person receives the Holy Spirit. But Baptism is not a ticket to a "me-and-Jesus" relationship.

The freedom we receive through Baptism does not turn each person into a god independent of the community. Just the opposite. "In the one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body" (12.13).

Not only is each individual transformed by the presence of the Spirit, but in fact the whole body is Spirit-filled. With the conferring of the offices of bishop, priest and deacon comes an anointing. That anointing empowers the ordained to serve in the place of Christ, to celebrate the sacraments and to order the body to proclaim and carry out the work of the Gospel.

To some, it has seemed that these tasks – mundane in comparison with the spectacular, even miraculous charisms – can hardly be the work of the same Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus, "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3.8).

Yet, there is an ordered predictability to the life of the parish and the diocese. How can this be the fruit of the same Spirit whom Jesus described in such anarchic terms?


The "institutional Church" has at times been rife with sin and corruption. Isn't a person better off staying clear of such contamination and linking directly with the Holy Spirit?


A closer look, however, would reveal that those who go their own way have no better record of sanctity. From St. Paul to Mother Teresa, sanctity has gone hand in hand with fidelity to the Church. Those "Spirit-filled" movements that operate independently of the "institutional Church" typically flame out or fall into doctrinal chaos. If the Spirit is as anarchic as some claim, he is liable to soon blow off in another direction.

One key piece of evidence that the Catholic Church is filled with the Holy Spirit is that, after 2,000 years, it continues to survive and thrive, despite the sinfulness of its members. Theologian Henri de Lubac described the Church as "a ship full of unruly passengers who always seem to be on the point of wrecking it." Fortunately, the passengers are not in charge; God is.


The charismatic presence of the Holy Spirit can increase our yearning for the kingdom that is in the process of being realized. It can give order to a wandering life. But without a stable foundation, this presence can be a mirage that sets us wandering far from the truth.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church assures us, "The Church is, in a phrase used by the Fathers, the place 'where the Spirit flourishes'" (n. 749). The Catechism goes on to quote St. Irenaeus: "Where the Church is, there is God's Spirit; where God's Spirit is, there is the Church and every grace" (n. 797).

In the creeds and declarations of faith in the early Church, the Church and the Spirit are always linked. Theologian Yves Congar summed up the teaching of the medieval theologians on this point by saying, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, not only in himself, but as the one who makes the Church one, holy, catholic and apostolic."

When was this Church born? Was it born when God promised land to Abraham and that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the heavens (Genesis 15)? Was it born, as the Fathers of the Church said, when a soldier pierced the side of the dead Jesus and blood and water poured forth (John 19.34)? Or, was it born at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples with a rushing wind and tongues of fire (Acts 2)?

The Church, great mystery that it is, was born at all those times. In fact, the Second Vatican Council taught that its origins lie in the heart of God and that it was already present in figure from the beginning of the world. The Church cannot be reduced to the level of a man-made institution.


Truly, the Church is an ordered institution. But it is an institution co-instituted by the Holy Spirit. It is the Body of Christ in which the Spirit is the soul.

Moreover, the Church is a communion whose unity comes from and mirrors the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When we try to explain the Church in human terms, our words and concepts always fall short. We fall especially short when we attempt to create a division between the Spirit and the institution.