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“Come, Holy Spirit”: The Vulnerable Bravery of Fr. Hesburgh’s Favorite Prayer

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The late Fr. Ted Hesburgh, C.S.C., beloved former president of the University of Notre Dame, stated again and again in homilies and interviews that his favorite prayer was “Come, Holy Spirit.” He said:

The Holy Spirit is the light and strength of my life, for which I am eternally grateful. My best daily prayer, apart from the Mass and breviary, continues to be simply, “Come, Holy Spirit.” No better prayer, no better results: much light and much strength.

As the Church prepares to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, it strikes me that it might be worthwhile to think about what we’re asking when we pray “Come, Holy Spirit.” Such a short prayer seems to suggest an almost innocuous invocation—after all, the Holy Spirit is often shown in artwork as a kind and gentle dove. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, the Advocate, the Paraclete, and surely praying “Come, Holy Spirit” is a way to bring peace to the troubled heart.

Yes, but.

The Holy Spirit is also called “the finger of God”: the Holy Spirit hovered over the chaotic waters at the dawn of creation; the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary so that the Son of God might be conceived in her virginal womb; the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles in wind and tongues of fire, enkindling their hearts with the love of God and inspiring them to preach the Good News with an uncompromising boldness that ultimately cost most of them their lives.

It seems to me that there are two ways to pray “Come, Holy Spirit.” The first way consists of asking the Holy Spirit to come to us as we are, to comfort us in times of sadness or to guide us in times of confusion, but ultimately, to leave us essentially as we were without demanding too much of us in return. In this manner of prayer, we already have in mind what we want the Holy Spirit to do for us; we are filled with our own preconceived notions of what we need, and are perhaps unwilling to make room for the graces that God truly wants to give us by the gift of his Holy Spirit poured into our hearts.

The second, braver, more vulnerable way to pray “Come, Holy Spirit” consists of emptying oneself, to literally ‘leave room for the Holy Spirit’ in our hearts by acknowledging that God knows what we need better than we do, and cultivating a profound awareness that the Holy Spirit isn’t the type of Person to leave human beings in essentially the same condition as he finds them. Again, just think of Mary and Elizabeth and Simeon and the Apostles and all those who were “filled with the Holy Spirit.” This is not a prayer for the faint of heart. This is not a prayer for those who think they already know what they need or that they already know what God wants of them. This is a prayer for those who have “put on the mind of Christ” and have “emptied themselves” so that they might be filled with the grace of the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead (cf. Phil 2:5–11 and Rom 8:11). The Holy Spirit means business, and if we’re going to pray “Come, Holy Spirit,” we had best be ready for all that this Spirit might ask of us. Perhaps that’s why Fr. Hesburgh was able to accomplish so many extraordinary things—because he was not only quick to pray to the Holy Spirit for comfort and guidance, for “much light and much strength,” but he was also willing to be led by the Spirit whom he invoked. When we pray “Come, Holy Spirit,” we should pray in the next breath that we might be willing to follow wherever that Spirit might lead.

Featured Image: Jean Il Restout (1692–1768), Pentecost (1732); courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the associate director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music.