What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit?

Q: I received the sacrament of confirmation as an adult this past Easter Vigil Mass in my parish. Although I know that I received the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, we never really discussed them in the RCIA class. Could you please explain them? - (Alexandria)

A: As a pastor, I fear that many people, no matter their ages, who have received the sacrament of confirmation know that they have received the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but never really appreciate them, or we could say, enact them. In the administration of the sacrament of confirmation, the bishop (or his delegate) 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, while saying, "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit." This prayer reflects the importance of confirmation: "It must be explained to the faithful that the reception of confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace. For 'by the sacrament of confirmation, (the baptized) are more perfectly bound to the church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed'" (Catechism, No.1285).

The revelation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is rooted in the prophecy of Isaiah: "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). 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.

While the prophecy of Isaiah pertains specifically to the coming Messiah, the tradition of the church is that these gifts were poured forth abundantly upon the apostles at Pentecost. Our Lord had promised that He would ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit, whom He identified as the advocate and the spirit of truth. (Cf. Jn 15-16.) Empowered by these gifts, the apostles carried on the mission of the Lord: to preach the Gospel, to make disciples of all the nations, to baptize, and to teach everything He had commanded (Cf. Mt 28:18-20).

These gifts are extended to all of the faithful through the sacraments of baptism and especially confirmation (catechism, No.1303). For example, 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 Mass of Pentecost. In the Sequence, we pray, "On the faithful, who adore and confess You evermore in Your sevenfold gift descend; give them virtue's sure reward; give them Your salvation, Lord; give them joys that never end."

We use the term "gifts of the Holy Spirit" because the Holy Spirit graciously 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 cardinal 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).

Therefore, as we prepare to celebrate Pentecost, and in light of the new evangelization called for by both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, and locally by our own Bishop Paul S. Loverde, we must pray for a reigniting of these gifts. As Pope Paul VI taught, "The oxygen-rich breath of the Spirit came to arouse drowsy energies in the church, to awaken charisms which were asleep, to infuse that sense of vitality and joy which is at all times the mark of the church being young and up-to-date, ready, and happy to re-announce her eternal message to the new times." Yes, we must pray that the Holy Spirit will set our hearts on fire with the love of the Holy Trinity so that each of us, who has been baptized and confirmed, can fully live the Gospel message and carry on the mission of the church in accord with our particular vocation.

The next article will focus on the gift fear of the Lord.

Questions may be sent to Fr. Saunders, pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, at straightanswers@ourladyofhope.net or Our Lady of Hope Church, 46639 Algonkian Pkwy., Potomac Falls, VA 20165.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014