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The Holy Spirit Is the Vital Principle of Faith

General Audience — May 8, 1991

Faith is the fundamental gift given by the Holy Spirit for the supernatural life. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts much emphasis on this gift as he writes to Christians suffering persecution: "Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence [or conviction] of things not seen" (Heb 11:1). One knows that this text from the Letter to the Hebrews can be read as a sort of theological definition of faith. As St. Thomas explains in citing the passage, faith does not have for its object realities grasped by the intellect or experienced with the senses, but the transcendent truth of God (Veritas Prima), proposed to us in revelation [1] .

To encourage Christians, the author of the Letter offers the example of Old Testament believers, summarizing the hagiography of the book of Sirach (cf. ch. 44-50), when he says that they all were moved toward the Invisible One because they were supported by faith. There are seventeen examples cited in the letter: "By faith Abel...by faith Noah...by faith Abraham...by faith Moses...." And we can add: by faith Mary...by faith Joseph...by faith Simeon and Anna...by faith the apostles, the martyrs, the confessors, the virgins and the bishops, priests, religious and lay people of all the Christian centuries.... By faith the Church has journeyed through the centuries and journeys today toward the Invisible One, under the breath and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The supernatural virtue of faith can assume a charismatic form, as an extraordinary gift reserved only for certain individuals (cf. 1 Cor 12:9). But in itself it is a virtue which the Spirit offers everyone. As such, therefore, it is not a charism, one of the special gifts which the Spirit "distributes to each person as he wishes" (1 Cor 12:11; cf. Rom 12:6). It is one of the spiritual gifts necessary for all Christians, among which the greatest is charity: "So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:13).

It is certain that faith, according to the teaching of St. Paul, although a virtue, is first of all a gift: "For to you has been granted...to believe in Christ" (Phil 1:29). It is inspired in the soul by the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12:3). It is a virtue inasmuch as it is a "spiritual" gift, a gift of the Holy Spirit, which enables a person to believe. It is a gift from its very beginning, as the Council of Orange (529) defined: "Even the beginning of faith, in fact, the very disposition to believe...is present in us as the result of a gift of grace, i.e., from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who brings our will from disbelief to faith" (can. 5: DS 375). This gift has a definitive value, as St. Paul says, "it remains." And it is intended to influence a person's entire life, until the time of death, when faith finds its fulfillment as it gives way to the beatific vision.

The attribution of faith to the Holy Spirit is stated by St. Paul in the letter he wrote to the Corinthians. He reminded them that their introduction to the Gospel took place through preaching in which the Spirit was at work: "My message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and power" (1 Cor 2:4). The Apostle is not only referring to the miracles which accompanied his preaching (cf. 2 Cor 12:12), but also to the other outpourings and demonstrations of the Holy Spirit which Jesus promised before the ascension (cf. Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit granted St. Paul, particularly in his preaching, to know nothing while he was with the Corinthians "except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). The Holy Spirit compelled St. Paul to present Christ as the essential object of faith, according to the principle enunciated by Jesus as he spoke in the upper room: "He will glorify me" (Jn 16:14). The Holy Spirit is thus the one who inspired the apostolic preaching. St. Peter says this clearly in his letter: the apostles "preached the Good News to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven" (1 Pet 1:12).

The Holy Spirit is also the one who confirmed this preaching, as the Acts of the Apostles states concerning Peter's preaching to Cornelius and his companions: "The Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word" (Acts 10:44). And Peter appealed to this confirmation for approval of his act of admitting non-Israelites into the Church. The Spirit himself inspired these pagans to accept Peter's preaching and introduced them to the faith of the Christian community. And again it is the Spirit—as in Paul, so in Peter—who makes Jesus Christ the center of preaching. Peter declared in summary fashion: "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power...we are witnesses of all that he did..." (Acts 10:38-39). Jesus Christ is presented as the one who, consecrated in the Spirit, demands faith.

The Holy Spirit gives life to the profession of faith in Christ. According to St. Paul, the act of faith stands before and above all particular "charisms." About this act he says: "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 12:3). Recognizing Christ, following him and witnessing on his behalf are the work of the Holy Spirit. This doctrine is found in the Council of Orange, cited above, and Vatican Council I (1869-1870), according to which no one can hold to the apostolic preaching "without the enlightenment and inspiration of the Holy Spirit who gives everyone docility in assenting to and believing in the truth" [2] .

Citing the Council of Orange, St. Thomas explains that from its very beginning faith is a gift of God (cf. Eph 2:8-9). This is because "man, in assenting to the truth of faith, is raised above the level of his nature...and that can only occur through a supernatural principle which acts from within, i.e., God. Therefore, faith comes from God who works interiorly by means of his grace" [3] .

After the beginning of faith, all of its succeeding development occurs under the action of the Holy Spirit. The ongoing deepening of faith which brings one to a greater knowledge of the truths believed is especially the work of the Holy Spirit, who gives the soul an ever new keenness in penetrating the mystery [4] . St. Paul writes about the "wisdom which does not belong to this world," which is granted to those who journey in a way conformed to the demands of the Gospel. Citing some texts of the Old Testament (cf. Is 64:3; Jer 3:16; Sir 1:8), he demonstrates that the revelation accepted by him and by the Corinthians surpasses even the highest human aspirations: "What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God" (1 Cor 2:9-10). "We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God" (1 Cor 2:12). Therefore, as ones who are mature in the faith, "we speak a wisdom" (1 Cor 2:6) under the action of the Holy Spirit which brings an ever new discovery of the truths contained in the mystery of God.

Faith demands a life in conformity with the truth which is recognized and professed. According to St. Paul, "faith works through love" (Gal 5:6). Referring to this Pauline text, St. Thomas explains that "charity is the form of faith" (II-II, q. 4, a. 3): that is, the vital principle which gives it life and energy. The result of this is that faith is a virtue (II-II, q. 4, a. 5) and that it continues in an increasing attachment to God and has implications for conduct and human relations, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Vatican Council II reminds us of this when it says: "That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority.... Through it, the People of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life" (LG 12). One thus understands the exhortation of St. Paul: "Live by the Spirit" (Gal 5:16). One understands the necessity of prayer to the Holy Spirit so that he will give us the grace of knowledge, but also that of conforming our life to the truth that is known. And so we ask him in the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus:

"Through you may we the Father know,

through you the eternal Son...";

but we also pray as well:

"O guide our minds with your blest light,

With love our hearts inflame;

And with your strength which ne'er decays

Confirm our mortal frame.

Far from us drive our deadly foe;

True peace unto us bring;

And from all perils lead us safe

Beneath your sacred wing."

And in the sequence of Pentecost we profess:

"Where you are not, man has naught,

Nothing good in deed or thought."

Then we ask him: "Heal our wounds, our strength renew;

On our dryness pour your dew;

Wash the stains of guilt away.

Bend the stubborn heart and will;

Melt the frozen, warm the chill;

Guide the steps that go astray."

In faith we put our whole life under the active power of the Holy Spirit.

[1]   cf. Summa Theol., II-II, q. 1, a. 4; and a. 1

[2]   Const. Dei Filius, c. 3: DS 3010

[3]   Summa Theol., II-II, q. 6, a. 1

[4]   cf. Summa Theol., II-II, q. 8, aa. 1, 5