Hearts of Prayer - Lenten Season
"There Is a Very Close Relationship
Between Conscience and the Holy Spirit"
3rd Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
March 27, 2009
"All Who Are Guided by the Spirit of God Are Sons of God" (Romans
1. A new age of the of the Holy Spirit?
"Thus, condemnation will never come to those who are in Christ
Jesus, because the law of the Spirit which gives life in Christ
Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death...anyone who
does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But when
Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin but the spirit is
alive because you have been justified; and if the Spirit of him who
raised Jesus from the dead has made his home in you, then he who
raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal
bodies through his Spirit living in you".
These are four verses about the Holy Spirit from the eighth chapter
of the Letter to the Romans. Christ's name is repeated a full six
times in the text. The same frequency is repeated throughout the
rest of the chapter, if we consider both the times he is referred to
by his name and by the word Son. This fact is fundamentally
important. It tells us that for Paul the Holy Spirit's work does not
substitute Christ's work, rather it continues it, it fulfills it,
and it actualizes it.
The fact that the recently elected president of the United States
referenced Joachim of Fiore three times during his electoral
campaign has renewed interest in medieval monk's teachings. Few of
the people who talk about him, especially on the internet, know or
care to know just what exactly this author said. Every idea of
church or world renewal is offhandedly attributed to him, even the
idea of a new Pentecost for the Church, which was invoked by John
One thing is certain: whether or not it should be attributed to
Joachim of Fiore, the idea of a third era of the Spirit that would
follow on the era of the Old Testament Father and the New Testament
Christ is false and heretical because it affects the very heart of
the Trinitarian dogma. St. Gregory Nazianzen's statement is entirely
different. He makes a distinction between three phases in the
revelation of the Trinity: in the Old Testament the Father fully
revealed himself and the Son is promised and announced; in the New
Testament the Son fully revealed himself and the Holy Spirit is
promised and announced; in the time of the Church, the Holy Spirit
is finally fully known and we rejoice in his presence.
Even I have been put on a list of Joachim of Fiore's followers just
because I cited this text of St. Gregory in one of my books. But St.
Gregory refers to the order of the manifestation of the Spirit, not
its being or acting, and in this sense his position expresses a
incontestable truth, that has been peacefully accepted by all
The so-called Joachimite thesis is ruled out by Paul and the whole
New Testament. For them, the Holy Spirit is nothing other than the
Spirit of Christ: objectively because it is the fruit of his Paschal
mystery, subjectively because he is the one who pours it out over
the Church, as Peter will say to the crowd on the very day of
Pentecost: "Now raised to the heights by God's right hand, he has
received from the Father the Holy Spirit, who was promised, and what
you see and hear is the outpouring of that Spirit." (Acts 2:33)
Therefore time of the Spirit is coextensive to the time of Christ.
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit that proceeds primarily from the
Father, which descends and "rests" in fullness on Jesus, and in him
becoming a reality and takes to living among men, as St. Irenaeus
says. And in Easter and Pentecost he is poured out over humanity by
Jesus. The proof of all this is precisely the cry of "Abba" that the
Spirit repeats in the believer (Galatians 4:6) or teaches the
believer to repeat (Romans 8:15). How can the Spirit cry out Abba to
the Father? He is not begotten by the Father, he is not his Son… He
can do it, notes Augustine, because he is the Spirit of the Son and
he continues the cry of Jesus.
2. The Spirit as a guide in the Scriptures
After this introduction, I come to the verse from the Eighth Chapter
of the Letter to the Romans that I would like to discuss today. "All
who are guided by the Spirit of God are sons of God" (Romans 8:14).
The theme of the Holy Spirit as a guide is not new in Scripture. In
Isaiah the journey of the people in the desert is attributed to the
guidance of the Spirit. "Yahweh's Spirit led them to rest." (Isaiah
63:14) Jesus himself was "led (ductus) by the Spirit into the
desert" (Matthew 4:1). The Acts of the Apostles show us a Church
that is, step by step, "led by the Spirit." Even St. Luke's design
of having the Gospel followed by the Acts of the Apostles intends to
show how the same Spirit that guided Jesus in his earthly life, now
guides the Church, as the Spirit "of Christ". Does Peter approach
Cornelius and the pagans? It is the Sprit that orders him (Cfr. Acts
10: 19, 11:12). Do the apostles make important decisions in
Jerusalem? It is the Spirit that prompted them (15:28).
The guidance of the Spirit is exercised not only in the big
decisions, but also in the small things. Paul and Timothy want to
preach the Gospel in the Province of Asia, but "the Holy Spirit
forbids them to do so"; they try to go toward Bithynia, but "the
Spirit of Jesus would not allow them" (Acts 16:6). We then
understand why he guides in such a pressing manner: the Holy Spirit
pushed the nascent Church to leave Asia and come into the world on a
new continent, Europe (Cfr. Acts 16:9).
For John, the guidance of the Paraclete is provided within the realm
of knowledge. He is the one who "will guide" the disciples to the
full truth (John 16:3); his anointing "teaches everything", to the
point that he who possesses him has no need for any other teacher (Cfr.
1 John 2:27). Paul introduces and important new concept. For him the
Holy Spirit is not just "the interior teacher"; he is a principle of
new life ("those who are guided by him become children of God"!); he
does not just say what should be done, rather he also gives the
capacity to do what he commands.
In this manner, the guidance of the Spirit is essentially different
from that of the Law which allows one to see the good that is to be
accomplished, but leaves the person struggling against the evil they
do not want (Cfr. Romans 7:15). Earlier in the Letter to the
Galatians the Apostle said: "But when you are led by the Spirit, you
are not under the Law" (Galatians 5:18)
Paul's vision of the Spirit's guidance, which is deeper and more
ontological (with regards to the very being of the believer) does
not exclude the more common vision of the Spirit as an interior
teacher, as a guide for the knowledge of truth and of God's will. On
this occasion, this is precisely what I would like to talk about.
This is a topic that has been significantly developed within the
tradition of the Church. The Church Fathers said that if Christ is
the "the way" (odos) that leads to the Father (John 14:6), then the
Holy Spirit is "the guide along the way" (odegos). St. Ambrose
writes "This is the Spirit, our head and our guide (ductor et
princeps), who directs our mind, affirms our affection, attracts us
where he wants and turns our steps toward heaven". The hymn Veni
creator collects this tradition in the following verse: "Ductore sic
te praevio vitemus omne noxium": with you as our guide we will avoid
all evil. The Second Vatican Council weighs in on this topic when it
describes itself as "God's people who believe they are led by the
Spirit of the Lord".
3. The Spirit guides through the conscience
Where is the Paraclete's guidance at work? The first realm, or
organ, is the conscience. There is a very close relationship between
conscience and the Holy Spirit. What is the famous "voice of
conscience" if not a sort of "long distance repeater" through which
the Holy Spirit speaks to each person? "My conscience testifies for
me in the Holy Spirit", exclaims St. Paul, speaking about his love
for his fellow Hebrews (cfr. Romans 9:1).
Through this "organ", the guidance of the Holy Spirit goes beyond
the Church, to all people. Even the pagans "can demonstrate the
effect of the Law engraved on their hearts, to which their own
conscience bears witness" (Romans 2:15). Precisely because the Holy
Spirit speaks to every rational being through their conscience, St.
Maximums the Confessor said, "we see many people, even among the
barbarians and nomads, who turn to a honorable and good life, and
scorn the wild laws that had prevailed among them from the
The conscience is also a sort of interior law, not a written law,
different and inferior to the law that exists in the believer
through grace, but not in disagreement with it, since it also comes
from the same Spirit. Those who only posses this "inferior" law, but
obey it, are closer to the Spirit than those who possess the
superior law that comes from baptism, but do not live in accordance
Among the believers this interior guide of the conscience is
strengthened and elevated by the anointing that "teaches all things,
is truthful and does not lie" (1 John 2:27), and it is therefore an
infallible guide if they listen to it. In commenting on this very
text St. Augustine formulated the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the
"interior teacher". He asks, what does it mean by "you do not need
someone to teach you"? Could it mean that a christian individual
already knows everything on his own and has no need to read, learn
and listen to anyone else? If this was the case, why would the
Apostle have written his letter? The truth is that we need to listen
to other teachers and preachers, but those who the Holy Spirit
speaks intimately to will understand and be helped by what the other
teachers say. This explains why many people can listen to the same
sermon and teaching, but not all understand it in the same way.
What a consoling reassurance we get from all of this! The word that
once rang out in the gospel: "The master is here and is calling
you!" (John 11:28), is true for every christian. The same teacher of
that time, Christ, that speaks now through his Spirit, is inside of
us and calls us. St. Cyril of Jerusalem was right to define the Holy
Spirit as "the great instructor, that is teacher, of the Church".
In this personal and intimate realm of the conscience, the Holy
Spirit instructs us with "good inspirations", or "interior lights"
that all have experienced in some way in life. We are urged to
follow the good and avoid evil, attractions and inclinations of the
heart that cannot be naturally explained, because they are often
contrary to the direction that nature would want to take.
Basing themselves precisely on this ethical component of the person,
some eminent scientists and biologists today have come to see beyond
the theory that considers human beings to be chance result of the
selection of the species. If the law that governs evolution is just
the fight for the survival of the fittest, how can we explain
certain acts of pure altruism and even self sacrifice for the sake
of truth and justice?
4. The Spirit guides through the magisterium of the Church
Up to now we have dealt with the conscience, the first area in which
guidance of the Holy Spirit is exercised. There is a second area,
which is the Church. The internal witness of the Holy Spirit should
be combined with the external, visible and objective witness, which
is the apostolic magisterium. In the book of Revelation, at the end
of each of the seven letters, we hear the admonishment: "Let anyone
who can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches"
The Spirit also speaks to the churches and the communities, not just
to individuals. In the Acts of the Apostles St. Peter brings the two
testimonies of the Holy Spirit together, the interior and exterior,
the personal and the public. He has just finished speaking to the
crowd about Christ put to death and resurrected, and they feel "cut
to the heart" (Acts 2:37). He spoke the same words in front of the
heads of the Sanhedrin, and they became irate (cfr. Acts 4:8). The
same words, the same preacher, but an entirely different effect. How
could this be? The explanation is found in these words that the
Apostle said at that time: "We are witnesses to this, we and the
Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him." (Acts 5:32)
The two testimonies need to come together so that the faith can
flower: the apostle's who proclaims the word and the Holy Spirit's
that allows it to be accepted. The same idea is expressed in the
gospel of John, when, speaking about the Paraclete, Jesus says: "he
will be my witness. And you too will be witnesses" (John 15:26).
It is just as deadly to try to forego either of the two guides of
the Spirit. When the interior testimony is neglected, we easily fall
into legalism and authoritarianism; when the exterior, apostolic
testimony is neglected, we fall into subjectivism and fanaticism. In
ancient times the Gnostics refused the apostolic, official
testimony. St. Irenaeus wrote these famous words in apposition to
"For this gift of God has been entrusted to the Church, as breath
was to the first created man… of which all those are not partakers
who do not join themselves to the Church… Alienated thus from the
truth, they do deservedly wallow in all error, tossed to and fro by
it, thinking differently in regard to the same things at different
times, and never attaining to a well-grounded knowledge".
When everything is reduced to just the personal, private listening
to the Spirit, the path is opened to a unstoppable process of
division and subdivision, because everyone believe they are right.
And the very division and multiplication of denominations and sects,
often contrasting each other in their essential points, demonstrates
that the same Spirit of truth in speaking cannot be in all, because
otherwise he would be contradicting himself.
It is well known that this is the danger to which the protestant
world is most exposed, having built the "interior testimony" of the
Holy Spirit as the only criteria of truth, against every exterior,
ecclesial testimony, other than that of the written Word. Some
extreme fringes will even go as far as to separate the interior
guidance of the Spirit even from word of the Scriptures. We then
have the various movements of "enthusiasts" or "enlightened" who
have punctuated the history of the Church, whether catholic,
orthodox or protestant. The most frequent result of this tendency,
which concentrates all attention on the internal testimony of the
Spirit, is that the Spirit slowly looses the capital letter and
comes to coincide with the simple human spirit. That is what
happened with rationalism.
We should recogonize however that there is also the opposite risk:
that of making the external and public testimony of the Spirit
absolute, ignoring the internal testimony that works through the
conscience enlightened by grace. In other words, it is the risk of
reducing the guidance of the Paraclete to only the official
magisterium of the Church, thus impoverishing the variegated action
of the Holy Spirit.
In this case, the human element, organizational and institutional,
can easily prevail. The passivity of the body is fostered and the
doors are opened to the marginalization of the laity and the
excessive clericalization of the Church.
Even in this case, as always, we should rediscover the whole, the
synthesis, that is truly "catholic". It is the ideal of a healthy
harmony between listening to what the Spirit says to me, as an
individual, and what he says to the Church as a whole and through
the Church to individuals.
5. Discernment in personal life
We now come to the guidance of the Spirit in the spiritual path of
each believer. This goes by the name of discernment of spirits. The
first and fundamental discernment of spirits is that which allows us
to distinguish between "the Spirit of God" and the "spirit of the
world". (Cfr. 1 Corinthians 2:12) St. Paul provides an objective
discernment criteria, the same that Jesus had given: that of the
fruits. The "works of the flesh" reveal that a certain desire comes
from the old sinful man; the "fruits of the Spirit" reveal that it
comes from the Spirit (cfr. Galatians 5:19-22). "The desires of
self-indulgence are always in opposition to the Spirit, and the
desires of the Spirit are in opposition to self-indulgence"
Sometimes this objective criterion is not enough because the choice
is not between good and evil, but between a good and another good
and it is about seeing which one is what God wants, in a given
situation. It was primarily to respond to this demand that St.
Ignatius of Loyola developed his doctrine on discernment. He invites
us to look at one thing above all: our own interior dispositions,
the intentions (the "spirits") that are behind a decision.
St. Ignatius suggested practical means to apply these criteria.
One is this: when we are faced with two possible choices, it is
useful to first consider one of them, as if we must follow it, and
to stay in that state for a day or more; then we should evaluate how
our heart reacts to that choice: is there peace, harmony with the
rest of our own decisions; is there something inside of you that
encourages you in that direction, or on the contrary has it left a
haze of restlessness… Then repeat the process with the second
hypothesis. All this should be done in an atmosphere of prayer,
abandonment to God's will, and openness to the Holy Spirit.
The most favorable condition for making a good discernment is the
habitual interior disposition to do God's will in every situation.
Jesus said "My judgment is just, because I do not see my will, but
the will of he who sent me" (John 5:30).
The danger, among some modern people who intend to practice
discernment, is to emphasize the psychological aspects to such an
extent that we forget the primary agent of all discernment which is
the Holy Spirit. There is a deep theological reason for this. The
Holy Spirit is himself the substantial will of God and when he
enters a soul "he manifests himself as the very will of God for
those in whom he is found".
The concrete fruit of this meditation could be a renewed decision to
trust ourselves in everything and for everything to the guidance of
the Holy Spirit, as a sort of "spiritual direction". It is written
that "whenever the cloud rose from the Dwelling, the Israelites
would resume their march. If the cloud did not rise, they would not
resume their march" (Exodus 40:36-37). Even we should not undertake
anything if it is not the Holy Spirit, that according to tradition
is prefigured by the cloud, who moves us and without having
consulted him first in every action.
We have the most luminous example in the very life of Jesus. He
never undertook anything without the Holy Spirit. With the Holy
Spirit he walked in the desert; with the power of the Holy Spirit he
returned and began his preaching; "In the Holy Spirit" he chose his
apostles (cfr. Acts 1:2); in the Spirit he prayed and offered
himself to the Father (cfr. Hebrews 9:14).
St. Thomas speaks about this interior guidance of the Spirit as a
sort of "instinct the just have": "Just as in corporal life the body
is not moved if not by the spirit that gives it life, so also in the
spiritual world all of our movements should come from the Holy
Spirit". This is how the "law of the Spirit" works; this is what
the Apostle calls "letting oneself be guided by the Spirit"
We should abandon ourselves to the Holy Spirit as the chords of the
harp abandon themselves to the fingers of the musician that moves
them. Like talented actors, we should tend our ear toward the voice
of the prompter that is hidden, so we can faithfully recite our part
in the scene of life. It is easier than we think, because our
prompter speaks to us from the inside, he teaches us all things, he
instructs us in everything. It is enough to just give an interior
glance, a movement of our heart, a prayer. We read this eulogy about
a holy bishop of the second century, Melito of Sardes, that I wish
could be said of each of us after our death: "In his life he did
everything the Holy Spirit moved him to do".
[Translation by Thomas Daly]
* * *
 Cfr. St. Gregory Nazianzen,
Orations, XXXI, 26 (PG 36, 161 s.).
 St. Gregory Nazienzen, On Faith (PG 45, 1241C): cfr. Ps.-Atanasio,
Dialogue against the Macedonians, 1, 12 (PG 28, 1308C)
 St. Ambrose, In Defence of David, 15, 73 (CSEL 32,2, p. 348).
St. Maximus the Confessor, Various chapters, I, 72 (PG 90, 1208D).
 Gaudium et spes, 11.
 St. Maximus the Confessor, Various chapters, I, 72 (PG 90,
 Cfr. St. Augustine, On the first Letter of John, 3,13; 4,1 (PL
35, 2004 s.).
 S. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesi, XVI, 19.
 Cf. F. Collins, The Language of God
 St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, 24, 1-2.
 Crf. J.-L. Witte, Esprit-Saint et Eglises séparées, in
Dict.Spir. 4, 1318-1325.
 Cf. S. Ignazio di Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, IV Week (ed. BAC,
Madrid 1963, pp. 262 ss).
 Cfr. Guglielmo di St. Thierry, Lo specchio della fede, 61 (SCh
301, p. 128).
 St. Thomas, On the Letter to the Galatians, ch.V, lesson.5,
n.318; lesson. 7, n. 340.
 Eusebio di Cesarea, Ecclesiastical History, V, 24, 5.
© Innovative Media, Inc.
Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan
Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno,
Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958.
Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature.
In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II
Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he
still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent
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