Gifts of the Holy Spirit

The revelation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is rooted in the prophecy of Isaiah about the coming Messiah: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord” (Is 11:1-3).

While the prophecy of Isaiah pertains specifically to the Messiah, the Tradition of the Church is that these gifts are extended to all of the faithful through the sacraments of Baptism and especially Confirmation (Catechism, No. 1303). St. Paul taught, “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son …” (Rom 8:29), indicating that through the grace of these sacraments a person takes on an identity with Christ and shares those gifts proper to His role as the Messiah (at least those which are communicable to us).

Confirming this belief, St. Ambrose in De mysteriis taught, “Recall then that you have received the spiritual seal, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence, the spirit of holy fear in God’s presence. Guard what you have received. God the Father has marked you with His sign; Christ the Lord has confirmed you and has placed His pledge, the Spirit, in your hearts” (7, 42).

The faithful are reminded of the bestowal of these gifts in the liturgy. In the Mass of Pentecost, when the faithful remember the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, the faithful pray the Sequence, saying, “On the faithful, who adore and confess you evermore in your sevenfold gift descend.”

In the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, the bishop prays, extending his hands over the confirmandi, “All powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy Spirit you freed your sons and daughters from sin and gave them new life. Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide. Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.” Then, the bishop confirms each candidate, making the sign of the cross with holy chrism on his forehead, and saying, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Given this basis, traditionally the seven gifts are listed as fear of the Lord, piety, knowledge, understanding, counsel, wisdom and fortitude. (Note that while the Hebrew text of Isaiah lists only six gifts with fear of the Lord being mentioned twice, the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate translations list seven, adding “piety” and eliminating the repetition of “fear of the Lord.” Moreover, in the Old Testament, seven is the number of perfection, plentitude and covenant.)

First, the term “gift” needs to be clarified. They are properly termed “gifts of the Holy Spirit” because the Holy Spirit bestows them. Therefore, they are supernatural gifts operating in a supernatural mode or manner. These are not gifts one simply invokes in times of emergency; rather, these gifts are present to the person as long as he remains in a state of sanctifying grace. As such, these gifts help a person attain sanctification and bring to perfection virtues, both the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) and the infused virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance). The idea here is that these gifts help a person to share in the very life and nature of God, now in this life and for eternal life. In this sense, as St. Thomas Aquinas asserted, they are in the fullest sense “habits,” from the Latin habitus, signifying their indwelling presence and operation. The Catechism underscores this point: The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit…. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations” (No. 1830-31).

Given this foundation, next week we will proceed to the gifts themselves.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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