“All you need to do,” said the Mormon missionary at the door, “Is to pray to the Holy Spirit before you sit down to read the Book of Mormon. Say, ‘Open my eyes, my mind, my heart, and if what I read is true, make me realize it in my heart of hearts.'” Then guess what? The new convert says, “I prayed that prayer and as I read my eyes really were opened and I realized that the whole thing was true!!” Gawrsh! Amazing!!
Of course, this is only a short hop from “If you close your eyes and wish hard enough your wish will come true.” or “If you believe in fairies clap your hands and Tinkerbell will come back to life…” Nevertheless I have heard this same argument used by Catholics, Evangelicals and other Christians of all stripes. “If you simply pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance” says Brian, my Baptist preacher friend, “and then read the Bible with an open heart you will see that the Catholic Church is in error and my religion is right.” Uh huh. My reply was, “Brian–that is exactly what I have been doing for the last twenty years and the Holy Spirit led me to become Catholic.”
We have a very individualistic understanding of the Holy Spirit in our individualistic age. It amounts to individual, unique divine inspiration. Each person, filled with the Holy Spirit will “just know” what is true. Hogwash. Every Christian operates within a theological framework. We all select and interpret the Scripture within a particular theological and denominational tradition. We view Scripture through a lens. The Scriptures are filtered and interpreted to us through the extra-Biblical sources that we access–the preaching we hear, the Bible studies we attend, the books on the faith we read, the radio and TV we listen to, the influence of family and friends, the course we take, the conversations we have, the cultural assumptions with which we live. For the non-Catholic this web of ‘interpretative authorities’ are unacknowledged and even denied. They want to believe that they really do “read the Bible on it’s own with an open and sincere heart as led by the Holy Spirit” and that all their views come from this simple, straightforward reading of Scripture. Because they deny the extra-Biblical sources of interpretative authority these sources are even more powerful in their lives.
This is why the Catholic Church insists that an acknowledged, extra-Biblical interpretative authority is necessary. You’re going to have such an authority whether you know it or acknowledge it or not. Might as well have one that you know, that you acknowledge; an authority that transcends your own limited time and place and culture, and authority bigger and wiser and smarter and older than you, and one that claims to be directed and guided by the Holy Spirit.
Catholics certainly believe in the individual’s infilling with the Holy Spirit, but we hold this in balance with the equally important truth that the Church herself is inspired and filled and guided by the Holy Spirit. The Church is the Body of Christ on earth, and as such is a living, moving, breathing, Spirit filled organism–against which the gates of hell will never prevail. It is this Spirit filled Church which provides the balance and ballast for our own individual experience of the infilling of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit-filled Church which provides the correction and qualification of our claims. It is the Spirit-filled Church which validates God’s guidance in our lives and it is the Spirit filled lives of the saints, the teaching of the Church and the liturgy of the Church which deepen, broaden, complete and sacramentally seal the personal infilling of the Holy Spirit.
This is why the illustration of Pentecost above is so vivid and real. It shows the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the tongues of flame do indeed touch each individual, but this experience takes place in the context of a temple, the apostolic church gathered together around the Mother of God–and it is only in this fellowship that the individual experience of the Holy Spirit can be objectively validated and confirmed.
The rest is sentimentality.