The Spirit of Truth
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you in all truth; He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that He will take what is mine and declare it to you.” John 16:12-15
“When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you in all truth”. These words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John were in His final message to the twelve apostles at the Last Supper, just after Judas left to betray Him, and just before they went to the Garden of Gethsemane (chapters 14-17).
Jesus promised to send the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, and told his apostles that “when He comes He will convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment; of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” (John 16:7-11).
This was probably not understood by the apostles until later at Pentecost. And believing Christians today often do not really comprehend what this means, or how we are to respond.
The prevailing question in our time seems to echo Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus: “What is truth?” That so many professed Christians so many Catholics do not believe that there is any truth that transcends our personal views is one of the besetting problems in our society. We are confronted with this reality almost daily. “Conscience”, too, has lost its necessary grounding in the reality of truth, and has come to mean nothing more than our own inner feelings, unrelated to an authentic concept of good and evil.
We can see that this problem is perennial with roots going back to the beginning of human history. But every generation is required to respond to its own circumstances, and to confront the destructive power of “the ruler of this world” as manifested in the particular events of our time.
In this issue of Voices is a moving account of an intense time of trial experienced by a young priest in 1968. Cardinal James Stafford recounts his experience of the rupture within the Catholic Church that followed the events of that difficult year, and the release of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. His response in the face of conflict certainly required courage, fortitude, and fear of the Lord gifts of the “Spirit of Truth”.
This spring we saw another confrontation between the “Spirit of Truth” and the “Spirit of the Age”, when the best-known Catholic university in America, Notre Dame, gave an honorary doctorate of law to the most prominent pro-abortion politician in the country, the President of the United States a president who, in his first months in office, systematically chose for influential positions in his government Catholics who publicly reject the most fundamental moral teachings of their faith on the intrinsic value of all human life.
Weeks before the Notre Dame commencement at which President Barack Obama was to be honored, the occasion had become a media event. Public statements by an unprecedented number of American Catholic bishops criticized a Catholic institution honoring a person who has made “abortion rights” a key feature of his political actions. Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard professor of law and, until last January, the US Ambassador to the Vatican, turned down the university’s prestigious Laetare medal a powerful personal witness.
Why does it require more courage and strength to defend the Catholic faith when it is undermined from within the Church than when it is attacked from the outside? As ruptures within the Church deepen, most of us will be faced with difficult decisions about our obligation as Catholics to witness to the truth.
The Notre-Dame/Obama event was symbolic, in several ways. First, it seemed to represent the logical culmination of decades of an undercurrent of conflict between the Church’s authority and Catholic institutions of higher learning. (In his commencement address, President Obama referred approvingly to the “Land-O’Lakes” statement, by which heads of Catholic colleges and universities, led by Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame, declared their independence from Church authority.)
The event also symbolized the ever-widening divide between religion and politics the “separation of Church and State”. John F. Kennedy, in his famous campaign speech in Houston, had proclaimed that his Catholic religion would have no influence on his political decisions. Radical “separation” is now a common basis for political decisions as if one’s most deeply held convictions about what is true, about what is good and evil, can be separated from the way this belief can or should affect decisions about how one lives or governs.
President Obama, in his commencement address at Notre Dame, mentioned two Catholics as models: Father Hesburgh, and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Chicago cardinal who initiated the concept of seeking “common ground” on controversial Church teachings. The president’s passionate plea to seek “common ground” on abortion, is, ultimately, impossible just as it was impossible to find “common ground” on slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. While there are many issues that can be more clearly defined by reasoned discussion and debate, the common good depends on finding answers consistent with truth. Justice cannot be achieved if truth is compromised.
A different manifestation of the power of the Spirit of Truth is the account of the conversion of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a woman who, during an academic career centered on feminism and Marxism, became convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, and entered the Church. In this issue is Eugene Genovese’s account of his wife’s conversion, from his recent book, Miss Betsey: A Memoir of a Marriage. Her example of fidelity to truth, no matter what the consequences, drew him back to the Catholic faith he had abandoned as a youth.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his homily on Pentecost, explained that the Holy Spirit overcomes fear. “When the Holy Spirit descended on them [the apostles] on the day of Pentecost, those men went out without fear and began to proclaim the good news of Christ crucified and risen. They had no fear, because they felt that they were in the strongest hands.... When the Spirit of God enters He chases out fear and makes us know and feel that we are in the hands of an Omnipotence of love. Whatever happens, His infinite love will not abandon us”.
God’s abiding love, the Holy Father said, “is clear from the witness of the martyrs, from the courage of the confessors of the faith, the intrepid energy of missionaries, the forthrightness of preachers, and the example of all the saints, some of whom were just adolescents and children. It is clear from the very existence of the Church which, despite the limitations and sins of man, continues to sail across the ocean of history, driven by the breath of God and animated by His purifying fire”.
We may take comfort that in our troubled and perilous times the “purifying fire” of the Comforter is most certainly burning and the power of the Holy Spirit to refine our hearts and minds is not a whit less today than on the day of Pentecost. May we be worthy of this gift of love. And, guided by the Spirit of Truth, may we be strong witnesses to the Faith.
Helen Hull Hitchcock
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