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The Spirit: Another Comforter

General Audience — March 13, 1991

In his farewell discourse to the apostles during the Last Supper on the night before he died, Jesus promised: "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter to be with you always" (Jn 14:16). The word "Comforter" here translates the Greek word Parákletos , the name which Jesus gave the Holy Spirit. "Comforter" is one possible meaning of Paraclete. In his discourse in the upper room Jesus suggested this meaning because he promised his disciples the continuing presence of the Spirit as a remedy against the sadness caused by his departure (cf. Jn 16:6-8).

The Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, will be "another Comforter" sent in the name of Christ, whose messianic mission must come to a close with his departure from this world to return to the Father. This departure, which took place through his death and resurrection, was necessary so that "another Comforter" could come. Jesus clearly affirmed this when he said: "If I do not go, the Comforter will not come to you" (Jn 16:7). The Second Vatican Council's Constitution Dei Verbum presents this sending of the "Spirit of truth" as the concluding moment of the revelatory and redemptive process responding to God's eternal plan (cf. n. 4). And all of us, in the sequence of Pentecost, invoke him: "Come, of comforters the best."

In Jesus' words about the Comforter we hear an echo of the books of the Old Testament, especially the "Book of Israel's Consolation" contained in the writings gathered under the name of the prophet Isaiah: "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.... Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her servitude is at an end, her guilt is expiated" (Is 40:1-2). And later, "Sing out, O heavens and rejoice, O earth; break forth into song, you mountains, for the Lord comforts his people" (Is 49:13). For Israel the Lord is like a woman who cannot forget her child. In Isaiah the Lord says: "Even should [a mother] forget, I will never forget you" (Is 49:15).

In the objective finality of Isaiah's prophecy, besides the proclamation of Israel's return to Jerusalem following the exile, the promised "consolation" has a messianic content which the pious Israelites, faithful to the heritage of their ancestors, kept present up to the threshold of the New Testament. Thus we can explain what we read in Luke's Gospel about the aged Simeon who was "awaiting the consolation of Israel; the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord" (Lk 2:25-26).

According to Luke, who is speaking of things that took place and narrates them in the context of the mystery of the Incarnation, it is the Holy Spirit who fulfills the prophetic promise connected with the coming of the first Comforter, Christ. It is he, in fact, who brings about in Mary the conception of Jesus, the incarnate Word (cf. Lk 1:35); it is he who enlightens Simeon and leads him to the Temple at the exact time of Jesus' presentation (cf. Lk 2:27); it is in him that Christ, at the beginning of his messianic ministry, in a reference to the prophet Isaiah, declares: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free" (Lk 4:18; cf. Is 61:1 f.).

The Comforter whom Isaiah spoke of, seen from the perspective of prophecy, is the one who brings the Good News from God, confirming it with "signs," that is, with works containing the salutary good of truth, justice, love and liberation—the "consolation of Israel." And when Jesus Christ, after having accomplished his work, left this world to return to the Father, he announced "another Comforter," that is the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in his Son's name (cf. Jn 14:26).

The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, will be with the apostles; when Christ is no longer on the earth there will be long periods of affliction, lasting for centuries (cf. Jn 16:17 ff.). He will be with the Church and in the Church, especially during times of strife and persecution, as Jesus himself promised the apostles in the words contained in the Synoptic Gospels: "When they take you before synagogues and rulers and authorities, do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say" (Lk 12:11-13; cf. Mk 13:11). In fact, "It will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (Mt 10:20). These words refer to the tribulations suffered by the apostles and the Christians of the communities which they founded and presided over. But they also refer to all those who, throughout the world and in all centuries, have to suffer for Christ. In reality many people throughout the centuries, and recently too, have experienced this help of the Holy Spirit. They know and can testify to the joy of the spiritual victory which the Holy Spirit granted them. The whole Church of today knows it and testifies to it.

From her beginning in Jerusalem, the Church has never lacked opposition and persecution. However, in the Acts of the Apostles we read: "The Church throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers" (Acts 9:31). It was the Spirit-Comforter promised by Jesus who sustained the apostles and the other disciples of Christ in the first trials and sufferings, and continued to grant the Church his comfort during periods of peace and calm as well. This peace depended on him, as did the growth of individuals and communities in the Gospel truth. That is how it has always been throughout the centuries.

The conversion and baptism of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, was a great "consolation" for the primitive Church (cf. Acts 10:44-48). He was the first "pagan" to enter the Church, together with his family, baptized by Peter. From that moment the number of those who converted from paganism began to multiply, especially through the apostolic activity of Paul of Tarsus and his companions; their number reinforced the multitude of Christians. In his discourse to the assembly of the apostles and the "elders" gathered in Jerusalem, Peter recognized in that fact the working of the Spirit-Comforter: "Brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the Gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit just as he did us" (Acts 15:7-9). For the apostolic Church the "consolation" was that, in giving the Holy Spirit, as Peter says, God "made no distinction between them and us, for by faith he purified their hearts" (Acts 15:9). Another "consolation" was also the unity expressed in this regard by that meeting in Jerusalem: "It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us" (Acts 15:28). When the letter regarding the liberating decision made at Jerusalem was read to the community of Antioch, everyone was "delighted with the consolation (paraklesei) it contained" (Acts 15:31).

Another "consolation" of the Holy Spirit for the Church was the spread of the Gospel as the text of the new covenant. If the books of the Old Testament, inspired by the Holy Spirit, were already a source of consolation and comfort for the Church, as St. Paul says to the Romans (Rom 15:4), how much more so were the books which related "all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning" (Acts 1:1). Of these we can even more truly say that they were written "for our instruction, that by endurance and by the consolation of the scriptures we might have hope" (Rom 15:4).

Another consolation to be attributed to the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Pet 1:12) is the fulfillment of Jesus' preaching, that is, that "the Gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the world as a witness to all nations" (Mt 24:14). Among these nations, covering every era, there are also the people of the contemporary world, who seem so distracted and even led astray by success and the attraction of a too one-sided, material progress. To these people too, and to all of us, the work of the Spirit-Paraclete extends, who does not cease giving consolation and comfort with the Good News of salvation.