An important portion of the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass is the calling down of the Holy Spirit to transform the basic elements of unleavened bread and grape wine into the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This solemn prayer is known among scholars as the “epicletus,” a Greek term that means calling down or invoking. The brief second canon heard most often at daily Mass neatly summarizes the action: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body + and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” The third Eucharistic Prayer conveys the same petition a bit more formally: “Therefore, O Lord, we humbly implore you: by the same Spirit graciously make holy these gifts we have brought to you for consecration, that they may become the Body and + Blood of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ at whose command we celebrate these mysteries.” And the fourth Canon follows suit, “Therefore, O Lord, we pray: may this same Holy Spirit graciously sanctify these offerings, that they may become the Body + and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ for the celebration of this great mystery, which he himself left us as an eternal covenant.”
It is indeed ironic that the current first Eucharistic Prayer and its venerable predecessor, the Tridentine rite, have no verbal epicletus. In fact, the Holy Spirit is not mentioned in the old rite until the final phrase of great doxology: “Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours…” Defenders of the old rite will plead for an implicit “epicletus,” arguing that the imposition of the celebrant’s outstretched hands over the basic elements connotes graphically if not orally a summoning of the Holy Spirit from heaven to perform his transforming work.
The action of the Holy Spirit is vocally beseeched in all seven sacraments. Catechumens and infants are baptized in the name “of the Holy Spirit” along with the Father and the Son. Penitents receive absolution through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit. “God the Father of our Lord has sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins…,” the confessor prays as he remits offenses. During the ordination of a priest, the ordaining prelate prays, “Hear us, we beseech you, Lord our God, and pour out on these servants of yours the blessing of the Holy Spirit and the power of priestly grace that those whom in the sight of your mercy we offer to be consecrated may be surrounded by your rich and unfailing gifts.” The rite of the anointing of the sick does not overlook the activity of the Spirit of God: “Praise to you God, the Holy Spirit, the Consoler. Your unfailing power gives us strength in our bodily weakness.” Nor does the sacrament of matrimony fail to call upon the Holy Spirit for his favor: “Send down on them the grace of the Holy Spirit and pour your love into their hearts, that they may remain faithful in the marriage covenant.” And, as might be expected, the sacrament of Confirmation clearly implores the strength of the Holy Spirit be shared with the maturing Christians: “Let us pray to our Father that he will pour out the Holy Spirit to strengthen his sons and daughters with his gifts and anoint them to be more like Christ the Son of God.”
As the universal Church prepares for the solemnity of Pentecost, the Sunday readings include more and more references to the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. The early Christian community was convinced that the power and authority of the Holy Spirit coalesced with the ministries and duties of the Church. St. Luke recalls the words of the Apostolic college: ‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…” The Apostolic church sensed the closeness of the Spirit in its decisions, activities, and accomplishments. Jesus himself promised that the Holy Spirit would continue endlessly to strengthen the Church to carry out the teachings entrusted to the apostles by Jesus during his lifetime. St. John remembers the promise of Jesus, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.”
It is truly the Spirit that is doing the work of Jesus Christ now in the present age. Now more than ever, the Christian community needs to ponder deeply the place of the Spirit in the believer’s everyday life as well as in the life of the universal Church. Pope St. John XXIII added the phrase “Blessed be the Holy Spirit” to the Divine Praises and of course that Pontiff evoked the Second Vatican Council, the greatest manifestation of the Holy Spirit in recent memory. Believers should follow good Pope John’s example, trusting and discerning the role of the Spirit in the soul and in society.