What is the Holy Spirit like?

Holy Spirit stained glass in St Peters Basilica Credit Alexey Gotovskyi CNA Holy Spirit stained glass in St. Peter's Basilica. | Credit: Alexey Gotovskyi/CNA

Sunday, May 19, is Pentecost Sunday, and the Mass readings — Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-31, 34; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; and John 20:19-23 present a number of symbols of the Holy Spirit: strong, driving wind; tongues of fire; races united; and breath of Jesus on the apostles.

The Holy Spirit is like a strong driving wind, because the Holy Spirit has a clear direction and wants to take everyone there with it. A wind is an unseen force that refreshes; so is the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a tongue of fire; not a wildfire that destroys, not a stationary fire that we have to huddle next to, but a fire bestowed on us, which transforms what it touches.

The Holy Spirit unites people and breaks down barriers. When St. Peter speaks after receiving the Holy Spirit, he speaks with boldness, decisiveness, but also attractiveness, drawing many to the faith. He doesn’t condemn, insult, and disperse the people because of their weakness; he challenges them and calls them to greatness, each in his or her own language.

The Holy Spirit is the breath of God in us. He breathes on his apostles and gives them the ability to forgive sins. He breathes on us, too, and we also become his representatives. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit,” as the second reading says.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 694–700) mentions other symbols of the Holy Spirit worth considering:

The Holy Spirit is like water. Water fills all things; it is gentle like dew or strong like a flood; it seeps into what will let it, bringing life, and pushes aside what will not.

The Holy Spirit is an anointing, a sacramental seal. The Spirit marks us as God’s, incorporates us into his family, and connects us with his company of saints.

The Holy Spirit is like a cloud and light. The Spirit is like a cloud because God is a mystery and like light because “mystery” means he is too brilliant for us to fully comprehend.

The Holy Spirit is like a hand or a finger. He is a hand that works, reaches out, heals, and blesses.

The Holy Spirit is like a dove. A dove can fly high or walk lightly, and its beauty is subtle and calming.

You can also hear all of these symbols echoed powerfully in the 13th-century British prayer that St. John Paul II prayed when he visited Great Britain:

Wash what is unclean.

Water what is parched.

Heal what is diseased.

Bend what is rigid.

Warm what is cold.

More in US

Straighten what is crooked.

This story was originally published in the National Catholic Register, CNA's sister news partner, on May 15, 2016, and has been updated and adapted by CNA.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.