Juan de Flandes, “The Annunciation,” c. 1500
The Holy Spirit came to you fully on the day of your Confirmation, but his first gift to you was given on the day of your conception.
If I were a betting man, I’d wager that the trope you most likely heard last Sunday was some variant of “Happy birthday!” Then you were probably told that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church.
In some sense, that’s true: the Apostles who clearly had a habit of locking themselves in the Cenacle finally opened wide the doors and, let by the Spirit, rushed into the streets of Jerusalem with the same speed and power that they had moments before experienced in the Upper Room.
But I want to suggest a different idea to consider in conjunction with Pentecost.
Every Sunday, we pray the Profession of Faith. The Profession of Faith is divided into various articles, arranged around declaring my belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Every Sunday, we proclaim that “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.” I would love to hear some homilists unpack that text.
From the very first pages of the Bible, it is the “Spirit of God” that moves above the waters, bringing order out of chaos, arranging for a world full of life.
But I don’t think we appreciate that God is the giver of life – every human life – that exists.
We know, of course, that the Spirit descends on Mary, after she expresses her fiat to become the Mother of God. We know the Spirit stirs John already in his mother’s womb to greet Mary and Jesus when they come at the Visitation, a feast we celebrated just days ago.
We know the Spirit gives life. We speak of Pentecost as the “gift of the Holy Spirit” and, in a definitive way, it is. But we sometimes get caught up in too time-bound a chronology. The Spirit rushes upon the world, a new creation, as soon as Jesus dies. That’s most evident in Matthew 27:50-54. Matthew says Jesus died. He gave up “his spirit.” His “spirit” is the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. And the gift of that Spirit already begins to bring order out of the chaos of sin and death, as “the tombs were opened” and many saints were raised. Such life-giving work is, and can only be, the work of the Holy Spirit.
Likewise, when Jesus first appears to His Apostles on Easter Sunday night, His gift of “peace” is immediately followed by another: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound” (John 20:22-23). Jesus, who has “reconciled man to himself” has also “sent the Holy Spirit into the world for the forgiveness of sins.” The Spirit comes to raise men from death to life.
Our very faith depends on the Spirit: “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Whatever faith we have and whatever good we do is initiated by Him. The Holy Spirit is responsible for human life coming into the world. Not just Jesus’, but ours, too.
In his masterful book, Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyła (the future Pope St. John Paul II) speaks about sexual ethics and, concretely, the notion of “co-creatorship with the Creator.”
As Wojtyła reminds us, God’s work of creation is not over. It is continuing, and He is involved in it. And its consummate expression (just like the cap of the “week” of creation”) is the creation of the human person.
Human persons today are brought into existence by a man and a woman who, using the God-given blessing of fertility (He blessed them, saying: ‘Be fruitful and multiply …” – Genesis 1:28), bring a new life into this world. The husband and wife are thus “co-creators” with God.
But, as Wojtyła notes, only God can create a soul. Man and woman cannot.
It’s important we understand what a “soul” is. It’s not one “piece” of a person, the body being the other. You can’t having a living person without a soul. A soul—anima—is precisely what “animates” – what gives life to – a person. A body without a soul is a corpse.
So it is God who “infuses” the soul, who gives life even today. Man and woman “cooperate” with Him, “co-create” with Him. But, as Wojtyła also notes, God remains God and man remains man. The man and woman are not God’s co-equals. It is God who decides to give life, not man.
And the giving of life, as it was on the first day of creation, is the work of the Holy Spirit, the “Lord and Giver of Life.” So Pentecost is the feast of Him who gives life: spiritual and physical, in the pages of the Bible, and in your mother’s womb.
I do not offer this argument in the secular debate over abortion: I do not want to get bogged down in debates over when is a “soul” created or enters the fetus, a question the Supreme Court played with in Roe et al. v. Wade before deciding not to go there. (I am convinced that what we know of embryology points to immediate animation). But I am writing to believing Catholics, as a theologian, on a matter of lived life, and that question of the soul is worth recalling.
Three years ago, I published a translation of Wojtyla’s “Considerations on the Essence of Man,” a series of lectures the young priest delivered in the early 1950s, in defense of the existence of the soul. Wojtyła gave those talks at a time when the reigning Marxist ideology in Poland was virulently materialistic, insisting man was $3.95 worth of chemicals and a couple gallons of water. Against Communist materialism, Wojtyła insisted that the human soul, the principle of human life, made man qualitatively different from the rest of creation.
I am not sure we Catholics really appreciate what the “soul” is. It’s not some “thing” that is “stuck inside me” in this life and then gets feasted or fried for eternity. The soul is the life God—the Holy Spirit—gave me. And God’s gifts are final: He does not take back what He gives. The life, the soul that God gives, will survive into eternity.
So, during this week that follows the Solemnity of Pentecost, consider that the Holy Spirit knew you and wanted you before you were even formed in your mother’s womb (cf. Jeremiah 1:5). He gave you your soul. He gave you life. Know that in sexual intercourse, a man and a woman cooperate with that Spirit. And know that, even before you were confirmed, you had already “received the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” While he came to you fully on the day of your Confirmation, his first gift to you was given on the day of your conception.
All views expressed in this essay are exclusively those of the author.