Last weekend I preached on the Holy Spirit and prayer, working off of the second reading from St. Paul to the Romans (The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. 8:26)
I don’t think we speak enough about, or pay enough attention to, the Holy Spirit. Of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, undoubtedly the Holy Spirit is the one that most Catholics find the most distant and remote. Part of the problem is the depiction of the Holy Spirit as a dove while the Father and Son are pictured as humans. It is easier to relate to a person than to a pigeon.
Charismatics (people filled with the Spirit who pray in glossilalia, or the gift of tongues) are of course an exception to this as they are intimately acquainted with the Holy Spirit. One of my more irreverent priest friends was fond of describing charismatics as having “swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all.”
Nonetheless, the Holy Spirit, which should be more intimate to us than our own breath, praying and indeed groaning inside us, for most Catholics is the most bewildering and distant of the Trinitarian Persons.
The great Dutch theologian, Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, proposed the theory that in the Western Church (i.e. the Latin part of the old Roman empire, not Texas), much of the role and function of the Holy Spirit was appropriated by the theological image of the Blessed Virgin/Mother Mary. Instead of the Holy Spirit as the principle of prayer, interceding for us with inexpressible groaning (Romans 8:26), Mary (in popular devotion and even theology) became the principal mediator between us and Jesus/God, and the Mediatrix of all Graces. In popular Catholic thought Mary, and not the Holy Spirit, was THE conduit to God. There was not much left for the Holy Spirit to do, having been pushed aside (theologically speaking) by God’s Mother.
I saw a wonderful pictorial description of this in a medieval church in the town of Beaune, in Burgundy, France. It was a stained-glass window depicting the Holy Trinity, the Father on the right (as you view it), the Son on the left and in between them the Blessed Mother, Mary, being crowned by the Father. This did not strike me as theologically kosher (if I may import a Jewish term), and on studying the window further, way up at the top, in the little pointed area of the window, hard to see, there was the white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Spatially and pictorially it reflected the lack of importance and relevance, and literally “pushed to the margins” status that the Holy Spirit had sunk to in the popular theological mind. If you go online and look at medieval depictions of the Holy Trinity you will find the same diminution of the Holy Spirit.
This kind of exclusive or even excessive emphasis on the intercessory role of the Virgin Mary was corrected in the Vatican II document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, that placed Mary, not in a separate document of the Council as originally planned, but as a chapter within the document on the Church, in her rightful place as part of the Church. Since Vatican Council II, greater theological attention has been paid to the role of the Holy Spirit. You could say that the Holy Spirit is now back in theological fashion.
For Paulists, following the great devotion that our founder, Servant of God Isaac Thomas Hecker had for the indwelling Holy Spirit, we have always given special emphasis to the working of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in our own individual lives. It is nice to see the Church as a whole catching up with us.