The Holy Spirit and the Proclamation of the Word in Evangelism

“You Will Receive Power from the Holy Spirit”

Let us begin this meditation by listening, before anything else, to a word of Jesus, indeed the last he spoke on earth before he ascended into heaven. When the apostles asked him if the time had finally come for him to restore the sovereignty of Israel, Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

In the language of the New Testament, the expressions witnessing to “Jesus” and “bearing witness” correspond exactly to what we today mean by the words evangelize and evangelization. These words of Jesus are therefore saying something very important: The Holy Spirit is the power of evangelization and the very condition of its being possible. 

We are constantly holding meetings and carrying out studies on the topic of evangelization; in them we mainly study the forms, means, techniques, and problems of evangelization, and new demands such as the promotion of human values, inculturation, and the signs of the times. Here and now, however, we shall not concentrate so much on the forms but rather on the inner reality of evangelization: its soul. 

Years ago, when we were being trained, there was a book we all found helpful; it was originally written in French by Abbe Chautard and its title was The Soul of Every Apostolate. Nowadays what was then called “soul” has recovered its proper name; it is called the Holy Spirit! The soul of any Christian proclamation is not a thing, not even a vastly important thing like prayer, but a person; it is the same Person who is the soul of the Church.

To preach Christ and the Gospel in the Holy Spirit

The fundamental rule of Christian proclamation is: “To preach Christ in the Holy Spirit” or, as we find in a passage in the First Epistle of Peter: “To preach the gospel in the Holy Spirit” (cf. 1 Peter 1:12). “Christ” or “the gospel” indicates the content of the preaching; “in the Holy Spirit” indicates the method, the way in which the preaching has to be done. In the two previous meditations I spoke about the content of Christian preaching, showing that this consists in God’s efficacious words and, most particularly, in the Word which sums up and perpetuates all God’s words to the human race: “Christ Jesus is Lord.” It therefore remains for us to speak of the method, that is, of the Holy Spirit.

1. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”

We must go back to the first evangelizer, Jesus of Nazareth. St. Luke tells us that, immediately after overcoming the temptation in the wilderness, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit and … taught in their synagogues” (Luke 4: l4f.). All Jesus’ evangelistic activity, beginning at this moment, is thus placed under the action of the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself, in any case, declares as much in his address in the synagogue at Nazareth, when he says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

The Spirit is thus conferred on Jesus primarily for the purpose of bringing the glad tidings, for evangelization. He does not give Jesus the word to be proclaimed (for Jesus is himself the Word made flesh), but gives power to his word; thus, he is the very power of Jesus’ word. The Holy Spirit makes the word of Jesus an “efficacious” word; when Jesus speaks, wonders always follow: the paralyzed man stands up, the sea grows calm, the fig tree dries out, the blind recover their sight.

Speaking of the Messiah, Isaiah says, “He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth / and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4). And just so, when Jesus speaks, Satan is struck and falls like a thunderbolt from the sky; the demons are as though “scorched” by his words and come out shouting, “You have come to destroy us!” Such is the extraordinary power operating in this Word.

Above all, the Spirit gives Jesus the strength not to become dejected (cf. lsaiah 42:3); he strengthens him more with a view to failure than to success, in as much as the former is implicit in his mission as Suffering Servant. Constancy, generosity, strength, unction, wisdom, piety: all the gifts of the Spirit, set out in the famous passage in Isaiah (11: l ff.), and an infinite number of other ones as well, shine in the evangelistic activity of the Messiah, and it is natural that this should be so, if it is true that from him flow every grace and every spiritual gift. The Spirit of the Lord hence impels Jesus to evangelize: not only as an outside force, but actually following him and helping him in the unfolding of his mission, making himself, as St. Basil says, “his inseparable companion.”1

If now, from Jesus, we pass to the Church, we observe the identical relationship with the Holy Spirit; what happened in the Head is repeated in the body. If the Church had had a voice, after Pentecost she would, like Jesus, have been able to exclaim, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor!” The entire Acts of the Apostles is summed up in this exclamation. Having received the Holy Spirit, Peter, with the other Eleven, sets out through the streets of Jerusalem to preach Christ crucified, and his word has so mysterious a power that people on hearing him speak, feel “cut to the heart,” are “convinced of sin” by the Holy Spirit, and exclaim, “What are we to do, my brothers?” (Acts 2:37).

During his life on earth, Jesus had predicted that the Holy Spirit would give his apostles an “irresistible” word (cf. Luke 21:15; Matthew 10:20; Mark 13:11) and in fact when Stephen speaks about Jesus before the Sanhedrin, we read that his adversaries “could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke” (Acts 6: 10). It is moving to see all Christ’s promises concerning the Holy Spirit corning true, one after another, after Pentecost. He had for instance said, “’When the Advocate comes … he will testify to me and you too will testify” (cf. John 15:26f.), and now we hear Peter in Acts exclaiming as he addresses the crowds after speaking about Jesus, “We are witnesses of these things, as is the Holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32). Thus, from the outset, evangelization can be seen as the result of two conjoint testimonies: the human and visible testimony of the apostles and, subsequently, of the Church, and the invisible and divine testimony of the Spirit acting behind it.

The testimony of the Spirit is of course invisible in itself but makes itself visible and as it were palpable in the effects it produces and the signs that accompany it. St. Paul says, “My message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and his power” (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:4). Thus in evangelization we can distinguish two types of manifestation of the Spirit: the first is given in “signs, wonders, and miracles” (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:12) which accompany the preaching and are directed primarily at the listeners so that they may believe; the other is given in the charisms which, by contrast, are destined straight for the preacher, so that he may be equal to his task. Among those charisms particularly associated with evangelization, the Apostle often mentions the gifts of eloquence, wisdom, knowledge, teaching, and prophecy. All these things are defined as “particular manifestations of the Spirit for the common use” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:7). Therefore, they make the Spirit manifest and visible!

The texts quoted above are enough to let us grasp how the primitive Christian community regarded the Holy Spirit as the great driving force of the Word, guiding its race, in breadth, to the very ends of the earth and, in depth, into the innermost hearts of the faithful. Between the Word and the Spirit there exists the same relationship as that between the sword and the person who wields it. The Word of God is a double-edged sword “penetrating even between soul and spirit … and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12); but this sword, St. Paul makes clear, is “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6: 17), the instrument the Holy Spirit employs to change people’s hearts. An evangelization without the quickening breath of the Holy Spirit is like a sharp sword which is left aside and never brandished. It will not “cut to the heart.”

So the Spirit gives strength and vigor not only to the word proclaimed but also to the proclaimer. St. Ambrose, commenting on the verse in the Psalms that says, “The flood has raised up its roar …” (Psalm 93:3), wrote to a fellow-bishop:

There are rivers that flow from the belly of him who drinks from Christ and partakes of the Spirit of God. These rivers therefore when they redound with the grace of the Spirit, lift up their voice. There is also a stream which overflows upon his holy ones like a torrent… Whoever receives of the fullness of this stream, like John the Evangelist, like Peter and Paul, lifts up his voice. Just as the apostles with the harmony of their message spread the sound of their preaching of the gospel to all the ends of the earth, so also does he begin to tell the good tidings of the Lord Jesus. Drink, then, from Christ so that your sound, too, may go out. 2

2. The silence of the Spirit

We shall now jump from apostolic times to our own. If we look at the state of Christian proclamation, at least in modern (i.e., post-Reformation) Europe, we note one dominant characteristic. This is first to be found at the highest levels of philosophical and theological speculation, but then, as is always the case, it tends to spread out and to some degree condition all Christian proclamation. St. Paul said he had deliberately never attempted to base his preaching on “persuasive words of wisdom,” lest the faith of his listeners should be founded on human wisdom, but only on the power of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:5). Precisely what the Apostle was afraid of has come about among ourselves; preaching becomes ever more remote from “the power of the Spirit,” appealing to “human wisdom,” even though a wisdom theological in type. The difference is immense. Addresses based on human wisdom are by nature persuasive and persuade their listeners (if they persuade them of anything) to give a purely human and intellectual assent, whereas Christian preaching, though it is a demonstration (as we have said, it manifests the power of the Spirit), claims assent of a different order: the order of the Spirit, not of the flesh or of the letter. The flesh indeed, as Jesus said, “is of no avail” (cf. John 6:63); it avails to make scholars but not to make “justified” Christians.

Not wishing to generalize too much and well aware that there have been splendid exceptions, we might say that as far as Christian preaching is concerned, we in the West have witnessed a massive relapse into the letter and the flesh. The prevailing rationalism requires Christianity to present its message in dialectical form, that is, subjecting every aspect of it to discussion and research, so that it can fit into the general, philosophically acceptable picture of an effort on the part of human nature to understand itself and the universe (H. Schlier). And so the saving proclamation about the dead and risen Christ has been subjected to another purpose and ceased to try to subdue all things to itself (as is in its nature).

Kierkegaard effectively denounced the presumptuousness of much of modern thought in trying to go beyond faith (as if there were anything beyond faith!), contrasting this attitude with that of Abraham, who was content simply to believe. This presumptuousness is still at work in that part of contemporary thought where research, and not the truth, is the absolute; where God is accepted, on condition that he ever be a God who is researched but never found, and Christ is accepted too, on condition that he be one of the revealers of God but not himself the definitive revelation of God. The absolute, it is said, kills research (Jaspers), kills conscience (Merleau-Ponty); the absolute, in short, kills humanity (Sartre).

The actual problem is more deeply hidden. Why are modern people afraid of certainty? Why instead of the truth do they hold the search for truth as the supreme good? Simply because, as long as the research phase lasts, the human individual and thinker is the protagonist who determines values and morality, whereas, faced with the truth recognized as such, we have no way out left and have to obey. Obedience is the real hub of the problem; at the bottom of everything there is always the age-old temptation to be “like God.” “It is true that the absolute kills humanity,” but only humanity as seduced by the serpent, but not true humanity.

Now, St. Paul says that “to break down fortresses, destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God and to take every thought captive in obedience to Christ,” weapons “of flesh” are not sufficient; spiritual ones are needed. So reason and human wisdom are not enough; we need “the power of the Spirit” (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; Romans 15:18-19). In other words, reason cannot subdue reason and reduce it to “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5), but this can be done by something standing above reason, which is divine truth (which, however, acts through reason, not contrary to it: not destroying it but saving it).

Unfortunately, we must admit that Christian proclaimers have often let themselves become too much conditioned by what “the world” requires and have responded with an ever “wiser,” historically and speculatively based preaching, and which is by the same token ever less kerygmatic (i.e., based on the indisputable authority of God). We are in a sense direct heirs of those Greeks who, according to Paul, sought wisdom and regarded the preaching of Christ crucified as foolishness (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23).

Parallel with this, we note that the idea has taken precedence over reality and over life. Idealism is the acute form of this malady but not the only one; all Western culture and theology these days, especially in Northern Europe, are fundamentally ideological. Thus the living God is reduced to “the idea of the living God” (which is something quite different!); similarly, the Holy Spirit, for Hegel, is an idea, the idea of the Absolute Spirit.

In environments that have remained more closely bound to the Catholic Church, idealism and rationalism, as doctrine, have less of a hold, but this is no reason for claiming that these places more clearly manifest the Spirit and its power. Here the evil is legalism and juridicism, which are another way of relapsing into the letter and the flesh.

We might compare (with all due reservations) the last two or three centuries in Europe – those characterised by the Enlightenment – with the two or three centuries preceding the coming of Christ in Israel, known as the centuries of “the silence of the Spirit and of prophecy.” Not, of course, that the Spirit had forsaken the Church (if that had happened the Church would have ceased to exist), but his activity was certainly slowed down and as it were hidden under a blanket of forgetfulness and lack of interest.

3. A new Pentecost

If we now turn our attention to the Church of our own day, with amazement and joy we recognize new factors which profoundly modify this state of “silence of the Spirit.” With our human limitations, we can only seize on a few elements of this grandiose work of the Spirit in our age, and perhaps not the profoundest, those occurring deep within souls and only manifest many years later. But even those few elements that we are able to seize on are enough to fill us with gratitude and hope.

Undoubtedly the most important thing of all has been the Second Vatican Council. In summoning it, Pope John XXIII was inspired with the boldness to pray to God for “a new Pentecost” for the Church; and the risen Lord, who hears the prayers addressed to him by his vicar on earth at crucial times in the Church’s life, answered that prayer. The Holy Spirit, having been the inspirer, has revealed himself ever more clearly with the passing of the years as the true accomplisher of the council. In his letter for the sixteenth centenary of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, John Paul II wrote: “None of the work of renewal in the Church which the Second Vatican Council has thus providentially proposed and initiated … can be accomplished except in the Holy Spirit, that is to say with the help of his light and his power.”3  In his closing address to the Pneumatological Congress, held to commemorate the same event, the Holy Father then clinched the matter, saying, “The Holy Spirit is the source and motor of renewal in Christ’s Church.”

Previously, Pope Paul VI, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, had emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit in the work of evangelization:

It must be said that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization: it is he who impels each individual to proclaim the gospel and it is he who in the depths of consciences causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood. But it can equally be said that he is the goal of evangelization: he alone stirs up the new creation, the new humanity of which evangelization is to be the result, with that unity in variety which evangelization wishes to achieve within the Christian community. Through the Holy Spirit the gospel penetrates to the heart of the world, for it is he who causes people to discern the signs of the times … The Synod of Bishops of 1974, which insisted strongly on the place of the Holy Spirit in evangelization, also expressed the desire that pastors and theologians – and we would also say the faithful marked by the seal of the Spirit by baptism –should study more thoroughly the nature and manner of the Holy Spirit’s action in evangelization today. This is our desire too, and we exhort all evangelizers, whoever they may be, to pray without ceasing to the Holy Spirit with faith and fervor and to let themselves prudently be guided by him as the decisive inspirer of their plans, their initiatives and their evangelizing activity.4

4. The means: obedience, prayer, community

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed defines the Holy Spirit as “the Lord and giver of life.” And here, too, in the sphere of evangelization this is the fundamental characteristic of his activity. He not only prompts the Church to renew the content and invent new forms of evangelization, but he is also at work “giving life” to all the content and all the forms, be they old or new, whether the lowliest (the contact between person and person) or those more solemn and public (e.g., as preaching, the defence of the faith, and the very teaching of the magisterium).

To obtain this life, however, it is not enough to talk a great deal about the Holy Spirit; there is in fact a danger of creating an ideology even by talking about him. This occurs when we treat him as an idea or a theme, which we scatter here and there in our addresses as one would sugar on a pudding, and not, as we should, as the invisible force permeating all from within.

The practical problem, to which we must now turn our attention, lies precisely here: How are we to let the Spirit act in all we do? How are we to conduct an evangelization which will be truly spiritual? I shall develop three points which strike me as being important to our purpose (even though they are certainly not the only ones) and which I can sum up in three words: obedience, prayer, and community.

Obedience. By the term obedience I mean a complex of attitudes which allow us to resemble Jesus. Jesus received the fullness of the Spirit in the Jordan from the Father because in filial obedience he accepted the mission of the suffering and humiliated Messiah, the mission of the Servant, which the Father at that moment had fully revealed to him. “God,” says the Apostle Peter, “gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him” (cf. Acts 5:32).

There must be a dying to self, an allowing of one’s heart to be wounded, so as to accept in full the Father’s will, which is so utterly great and different from ours. There were many Gethsemane nights in Jesus’ life, not merely one; in them he strove with God, but not to bend God to his will (which basically was what Jacob did when he too strove with God) but to bend his own human will to God’s and say, at every new difficulty and demand, “Fiat!” After many such nights, he would preach again to the crowds and the crowds, smitten with amazement, would say, “He speaks with authority, doesn’t he! Where does he get this authority from?” He certainly spoke with authority. Indeed, he spoke with the authority of God himself, for when one surrenders oneself completely to God, then, mysteriously, God surrenders himself and entrusts one with his Spirit and his power, which he now knows will not be abused for one’s own purposes and glory. Then it happens that the words one utters will “cut to the heart.”

The power of the Spirit in the proclaimer is proportionate to the harshness of the cross that individual carries. I have already mentioned that the Bible, speaking of the Word of God, often uses the image of the scroll that has to be swallowed, the scroll that is sweet as honey on the lips but bitter as wormwood in the stomach. The Word of God is sweet for others, for those who hear it, but it is bitter for the proclaimer; so, the sweeter and more persuasive it is for others, the bitterer it has been, the more suffering it has involved, for the latter. It is bitter because the Word is a sword which first strikes and cuts the preacher’s own sinfulness, exposing inconsistency and hypocrisy; bitter, moreover, because it unites the preacher to the mystery of him who was crucified for the Word’s sake.

Prayer. The Spirit comes from the heart of Christ pierced on the cross. We need to be united to that heart in order to receive him, and what keeps us united to that heart is prayer. The Holy Spirit came upon Jesus in the Jordan while he was at prayer (cf. Luke 3:21) and upon the apostles while they “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer” (Acts 1: 14). Jesus says the Father gives the Holy Spirit “to those who ask him” (Luke 11: 13).

Thanks to prayer, we become – as, at a different level, was Christ’s human nature – “conjoint instruments”: conjoint, that is, to the Godhead. The word proclaimed is then a living word, as that water is living which gushes straight from the spring, and is not poured from bottles.

Prophecy is a very important gift for the evangelizer. The Book of Revelation says without qualification, “Witness to Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19: 10), as much as to say: the soul of evangelization (“witness to Jesus” means evangelization!) is prophecy. Now, the charism of prophecy, when spoken of with reference to evangelization, consists in the ability to convey, as though from the living source, God’s judgement or present will to the listener; it consists in putting the listener into the presence of God, coram Deo, and sometimes making bold to say, “thus says the Lord.” When we speak with this spirit of prophecy, St. Paul says, and it happens that there are non-believers present, they will feel themselves to be under God’s judgement, the secrets of their hearts will be laid bare, and they will not be able to help exclaiming: “God is truly in your midst!” (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:24f.).

For this speaking in the spirit of prophecy to be possible, we have, as it were, to annul ourselves, to makeourselves empty and disposable for God. We are not engaged in the spirit of prophecy in this sense if we first sit down at our desk and choose our topic or what we mean to say, drawing on our own insights or our own culture, and then for good measure get down on our knees and pray God to give Life to our words and endue them with his own authority. What we ought to do is the very opposite. First of all, in prayer and on our knees, we should ask God to reveal to us the word he has selected and stored in his heart for a particular situation and people, and after this, at our desk, we should put all our culture and experience at the service of this word.

Community. A third point that I regard as most important is living contact with a praying community, in which the gifts of the Spirit, received in baptism, are lived and exercised. I have often observed how the Word and the power of the Spirit are more willingly given by God to a community at prayer than to an individual. 

God, it might be said, loves collegiality, because this safeguards humility. We find a significant example of this in the Acts of the Apostles. After the healing of the cripple, Peter and John are led before the Sanhedrin, questioned, and then sent away with the strict order not to preach any more in the name of Jesus. On regaining their freedom, the apostles go to the brethren and tell them what has happened. The situation was critical and has often recurred in the course of the centuries. 

What was to be done? Go on preaching as before and risk provoking a brutal reaction on the part of the authorities, which might finish everything forever, or keep quiet and so risk betraying Christ’s mandate? On their own, the two apostles cannot resolve the dilemma; but now the community falls to prayer and powerful charisms are manifested in their midst. One member reads a passage from Scripture (“Why did the Gentiles rage …”); another with prophetic insight applies this text to the present moment (“Indeed they gathered in this city against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed – Herod and Pontius Pilate together with the Gentiles!”); instantly the situation is illuminated by the Word of God and under its control. This generates the gift of charismatic faith, thanks to which the community makes bold to ask God to work “healings and signs and wonders in the name of Jesus,” knowing that God will do so. 

“As they prayed,” the account goes on, “’the place where they were gathered shook and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and went on boldly proclaiming the word of God” (cf. Acts 4:18-31). “Boldly”: here again we find the well-known term parrhesia, which means free speaking, apostolic boldness. And so it was the community at prayer, with its many charisms, that made it possible for the Christian proclamation to pursue its victorious race.

I think it is a great blessing for proclaimers of the Word and pastors to have access to communities with whom they can pray in that unique humility brought about when Jesus makes himself present in the midst of “’two or three gathered together in his name,” and when by his mere presence he reduces human and ministerial differences to due proportion, causing all to humble themselves “’under the mighty hand of God.” In the upper room, the apostles, Mary, and holy women are mentioned together without apparent distinction of status; it is when they come out of the upper room, each to their individual ministry, that their diverse callings become clear and Peter stands apart, together with the other Eleven, while Mary and the women remain in the upper room, silent and hidden.

All together we thank Jesus for showing that he wills, in our own day, through us, once more to fulfill his promise: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”


  1. St. Basil, De Spiritu Sancto 16 (PG 32, 140).
  2. St. Ambrose, Epistula 2.2 [36.2] (PL 16, 917f.).
  3. In Acta Apostolicae Sedis 73 (1981), p. 521.
  4. Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi 75.

This article is excerpted from The Mystery of God’s Word, chapter 6, by Raniero Cantalamessa. It was first published in Italian under the title “Ci ha parlato nel Figlio.” Il mistero della di Deo by Editrice Ancora in Milan, Italy, 1994. The English edition was published by The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA, 1994. English translation is by Alan Neame.

Top image credit: background illustration of Christians with hands raised in praise and worship together, image from, © by paul shuang, stock photo ID: 251603902. Used with permission.

1 thought on “The Holy Spirit and the Proclamation of the Word in Evangelism”

  1. wonderful paper on the H.Sp and the Evangelization. Thanks for the article, especially for the supportive documents. Inspiring. Keep it up.

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