The Church Needs the Holy Spirit!


St. Peter Preaching to the Crowd on Pentecost

It is notable—important—that the preaching of John the Baptist, in his crucial preparation of the coming of the Messiah, and the preaching of Christ Jesus Himself, both began with the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt 3:2; 4:17) That is, before the good new things of God would be revealed, first, repent.

This call to repentance was acknowledged to be primary and necessary also in this passage where Jesus spoke of John, and Luke thus testified of the crucial role of John, and his baptism of repentance:

This is the one about whom scripture says: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, he will prepare your way before you.” I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet, the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. (All the people who listened, including the tax collectors, and who were baptized with the baptism of John, acknowledged the righteousness of God; but the Pharisees and scholars of the law, who were not baptized by him, rejected the plan of God for themselves) (Lk 7:27-30).

This is enough—although more could be written—to establish the necessity of repentance on the path of salvation. Those who reject the baptism of repentance, reject the purpose and the way of God. First, we must turn from the old, then we can turn to the new. If we see no need to turn from the old—if the old is good, or good enough—then, we are content with ourselves as we are, and we have no hunger for the Good, for the abundant life that Jesus came to give us.

I use the words “we” and “us” intentionally in that conditional statement, because the words “we” and “us” are so often used carelessly among Catholics in speaking of Catholic things, and the Catholic faith. I say “carelessly” because the presumption is so often made, for example in homilies, that “we Catholics” are all faithful to the teachings of the Church, that “we Catholics” all know the teachings of the Church, that “we Catholics” all receive the sacraments with right disposition, and thus, that “we Catholics” personally all receive the holy grace of the sacraments efficaciously, fruitfully. Most Catholics, if they were to think about these presumptions carefully, would right away acknowledge that the presumption is false. Most might say that using the plural pronouns so presumptuously is not exactly false, so much as merely a rhetorical device. The more thoughtful among us might think that it certainly ought to be true for all of “us Catholics,” that we do all these things, and so to be told that “we Catholics” do as God wills is merely being polite. No harm done.

But harm is done. The purpose and point of a homily is not politeness, it is truth—saving truth. The purpose of preaching and teaching is not to make friends, preserve comfort, and keep parishioners content with the status quo. The measure of Christian ministry is not consumer satisfaction, but obedience to the One who sent us into his vineyard, for the work of in-gathering.

Does the world need a washing of heart-felt repentance today? Do we, members of his Church, need a washing of heart-deep repentance today? Oh, yes.

The Kerygma
St. Peter, newly filled with the Holy Spirit in power and truth, demonstrated the model very well in his post-Pentecost sermon to the people of Jerusalem. Following that sermon, in the concluding passage (Acts 2:36-40), we see the model: “You have sinned!” His hearers were “cut to the heart,” and cried out to know what they should do. Peter answered their cry: “Repent, and be baptized … Save yourselves!” And the result, the fruit: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:41)

When, I ask, is the last time “we Catholics” have heard such a sermon? When is the last time “we Catholics” have preached such a sermon? Do we need such preaching, today?

I say we do need such preaching. So many parishes, having such a dearth of full-hearted and full-throated adult formation, receive adult formation in the Catholic faith, and in the Catholic moral life, only in the 10- or 12-minute homily, once a week. So many homilies are safely distant from any uniquely Catholic beliefs, or challenging, or threatening Catholic moral teachings. So many Catholic homilies are platitude-rich, safely short, and as if carefully crafted not to make disciples, but to leave the congregational thermometer to within half a degree of where it was before. Neither hotter nor colder: where it was; tepid, lukewarm, safe. We need the Holy Spirit!

Do we not all have the Holy Spirit already? We all are, after all, baptized and sacramentalized, are we not? Well, there is a problem: the holy grace and divine Presence given us at Baptism, and in the other sacraments, can be weakened (or, indeed, lost completely) by sin, leaving us tepid, lukewarm, “institutional-only” Catholics—in profound and dire need of repentance, restoration, and renewal!

Consider the fundamental cell of our Catholic culture—the Catholic family. Suppose first, a normative, well-formed Catholic marriage, bringing forth children as the fruit of their love. By Baptism at infancy, they insure that their children receive an infusion of God, the Holy Trinity, into their little souls, with holy sanctifying grace as infants, so that these much-loved children can be nurtured, fed, and can receive divine truths, in age-appropriate ways, all through their childhood years. Thus, they can grow in grace and faith through their whole lives, as is pleasing to God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

Education in the faith by the parents should begin in the child’s earliest years. This already happens when family members help one another to grow in faith by the witness of a Christian life in keeping with the Gospel. Family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith. Parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray, and to discover, their vocation as children of God. The parish is the Eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Christian families; it is a privileged place for the catechesis of children and parents (CCC §2226).

So, why does the Church need the Holy Spirit so much in our time? After all, “every” Catholic family already has the Holy Spirit—indeed, the whole Holy Trinity—by definition from Baptism. So what is the problem?

Infant Baptism fits beautifully within a faith-filled Catholic family, the fruit of a faith-filled, and holy Catholic marriage. The problem is, such families, and such marriages, are the exception, and not the rule. More common is infant Baptism in a family for which presence at Mass is better described as “most Sundays,” by “attendance at” rather than “participation in” the Mass, and for parents whose marriage was celebrated “in the Church” more for their relatives than for the grace of the Sacrament. The formation in the Catholic Faith of the parents typically stopped with Confirmation preparation at 8th grade or so; preparation as adults for the Sacrament of Matrimony typically was a few required hours, endured so that the all-important thing—the wedding—could happen in the Church building. Into such marriages, into such Catholic families, a newly baptized infant is entrusted for his or her gradual initiation into, and catechesis in, the Catholic Faith.

The inevitable result of generations after generations of such poor formation is a Church that is ripe and easy pickings, for the thief of souls the evil one. When such Catholic families are immersed in a secular, godless, materialistic culture of death—modern America—the result only worsens: the Church cannot evangelize the culture—she hardly knows her left hand from her right. No, the secular world evangelizes the Church, and she adapts and embraces the loves and ambitions of the world.

In this way, the Church has grown weak, lukewarm, more ceremonial than liturgical, more institutional than life-filled in Christ’s Body. The Church in our time needs the Holy Spirit, that he might do what only he is sent to do: bring Life!

Dominum et vivificantem
John Paul II’s rich and powerful encyclical, Dominum et vivificantem, is an instruction on the Holy Spirit that he knew, in 1986, was needed by the Church now! The “now!” continues. He carefully unpacked John’s Gospel on this crucially important promise, the Advocate, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit who would be sent, and who would come, after the departure of Jesus. First, the ministry of the Son; then the ministry of the Spirit. Jesus taught, in his final discourse before the Cross:

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. And when he comes he will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation: sin, because they do not believe in me; righteousness, because I am going to the Father, and you will no longer see me; condemnation, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. (Jn 16:7-11)

The Church needs the Holy Spirit in her preaching, because this list of what the Spirit is sent to do, is exactly what the Church is in need of. The Church needs to be convinced—convicted—that the world is very much with her, and in her, and she is very much in and with the world. This Church, with the world abiding in her, must be convinced—convicted:

  • Concerning sin: there is a paucity of vibrant, life-transforming faith in her. She has sinned, and she takes it lightly. She has sinned, and she does not tremble before the altar of the Lord!
  • Concerning righteousness: The Righteous One has ascended to the Father, and unless the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, be a living Presence in her—God in her—she is empty.
  • Concerning judgment: Satan himself, the evil one in whom abides only lies and deceit and death—he is the ruler of this world—he is forever judged and condemned by the Lord. His work, his bitter fruit, is judged and condemned. Sin is judged. Sin is condemned. Sin is death.

Church, look within your heart! Church, look at your life, what you have done, and what you have failed to do! Look at your prayer life! Look at your moral life! Look at your sacramental life! Look at your faith, and weigh it on the scales of God’s intention for you! Call the Holy Spirit to probe every dark corner, and every place of shadows in you, and unmask you to yourself, that you might repent, and believe, and be saved!

First repentance, then life-receiving faith! Those who “have no need” for humbling repentance, have no place in their hearts to receive faith, and thus his life. To preach and teach our need for real, authentic holiness, is not easy—it often does not garner the praise and approval of men. To preach and teach our need for on-going, earnest repentance of our sins is not easy. It is not easy to talk about specific sins so common in our secular culture today that—when allowed into the Catholic heart—erode and can destroy saving grace in the soul. And thus, sin is so rarely addressed from the pulpit (the only source for catechesis for most Catholics today); and thus, so many Catholics have become desensitized to sin, and numbed to the call to holiness.

We need the Holy Spirit. We need Spirit-driven preachers, teachers, and pastors, leaders and learners, adults, and children. We need revival, renewal, restoration, and return. We need to be convicted, and judged by the Holy Spirit, that we can be brought to life in him. Business as usual is not an option; a radical, zealous return to him is needed. Standing before God on Judgment Day, we will not be able to think of one decent excuse for our disobedience, because there are none to be found. He has called, and is calling us to holiness, and all that we need in order to respond is awaiting us, in the Holy Spirit, now!

R. Thomas Richard, PhD About R. Thomas Richard, PhD

R. Thomas Richard, PhD, together with his wife, currently offers parish presentations and adult formation opportunities. He has served as religious formation director for parishes, director of lay ministry and deacon formation at the diocesan level, and retreat director. A former teacher, engineer, Protestant minister, and missionary, he has earned graduate degrees in Catholic theology and ministry, Protestant ministry, and physics. He is the author of several books in Catholic spirituality, which are described on his website,


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