Returning to his home in Nazareth after his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus solemnly applies the words of Isaiah to himself:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
It was thanks to the anointing of the Holy Spirit that Jesus preached the good news, healed the sick, comforted the afflicted, and performed all his works of mercy. St. Basil writes that the Holy Spirit was “inseparably present” with Jesus so that his “every operation was wrought with the co-operation of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit, who is love personified in the Trinity, is also the mercy of God personified. He is the very “content” of divine mercy. Without the Holy Spirit, “mercy” would be an empty word.
The name “Paraclete” clearly indicates this. In announcing his coming, Jesus says, “And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever” (John 14:16). “Another” here implies “after having given me, Jesus, to you.” The Holy Spirit is, therefore, the one through whom the risen Jesus now continues his work of “doing good and healing all” (Acts 10:38). The statement that the Paraclete “will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14) also applies to mercy: the Holy Spirit will open the treasures of Jesus’ mercy to believers in every age. He will make Jesus’ mercy not just be remembered but also experienced.
The Paraclete is active above all in the sacrament of mercy, Confession. “He is the remission of all sins,” says one of the Church’s prayers. Because of that, before giving absolution to a penitent, a confessor says, “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace.”
Some Church Fathers considered the oil the Samaritan poured on the wounds of the man who was robbed to be a symbol of the Holy Spirit. A beautiful African-American spiritual expresses this thought with the evocative image of the balm in Gilead: “There is a balm in Gilead, / to heal the sin-sick soul /. . . . / to make the wounded whole.” Gilead is a place mentioned in the Old Testament that was famous for its perfumed healing ointment (see Jeremiah 8:22). Listening to this song we could almost imagine a street vendor shouting out a list of his merchandise and their prices. The whole Church should be this “street vendor.” The balm the Church offers today is no longer the medicinal ointment of Gilead; it is the Holy Spirit.
An essential work of the Holy Spirit with respect to mercy is also that of changing the picture people have in their minds of God after they sin. One of the causes—perhaps the main one—for the alienation of people today from religion and faith is the distorted image they have of God. It is also the cause of a lifeless Christianity that has no enthusiasm or joy and is lived out more as a duty than as a gift, by constraint rather than by attraction.
People unconsciously link God’s will to everything that is unpleasant and painful, to what in one way or another is seen as destroying individual freedom and development. It is as though God were the enemy of every celebration, joy, and pleasure. People do not take into account that in the New Testament, the will of God is called “eudokia” (see Ephesians 1:9; Luke 2:14), meaning, goodwill, kindness.” When we pray, “May your will be done,” it is really like saying, “Fulfill in me, Father, your plan of love.” Mary said her fiat with that attitude, and so did Jesus.
The first thing the Holy Spirit does when he comes to dwell in us is to reveal a different face of God to us. He shows him to us as an ally, as a friend, as the one who “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). In brief, the Holy Spirit shows us a very tender Father who has given us the law not to stifle our freedom but to protect it. A filial sentiment then arises that makes us spontaneously cry, “Abba, Father.” It is like saying, “I did not know you, or I knew you only from hearing about you. Now I know you, I know who you are, and I know that you truly wish good for me and that you look upon me with favor!” A son or daughter has now replaced a servant; love has replaced fear. This is what happens on the subjective and existential level when a person is “born anew of the Spirit” (see John 3:5, 7-8).
This is a selection from The Gaze of Mercy, by Raniero Cantalamessa (The Word Among Us Press, 2011).