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Does the Holy Spirit work with those outside of the Church?

July 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Holy Spirit

HolySpirit-with-TrinityDear Father John, I thought I understood, more or less, how the Holy Spirit works in our lives. But in a recent faith sharing group, a question came up that made me wonder. Someone asked if the Holy Spirit would or would not be with un-baptized persons if they ask Holy Spirit to dwell in them or to give them fortitude in a difficult situation. This came up while we were discussing how God's grace can touch the lives of those who have never even heard of Jesus. I was hoping you could shed some light on this for me.

I am glad you asked this question. It reminds us that the vast treasure of theological reflection that our Church has accumulated through the centuries isn’t just irrelevant abstraction. It has grown up organically, in order to help us understand better and better how God works, so that we can cooperate with him more and more effectively.

In the first place, remember that God is not limited to working through the sacraments. Therefore, he can make saints without them if he so pleases; he can pour his grace into souls however and whenever he sees fit. At the same time, however, he himself established the sacraments as the normal, ordinary way to communicate his grace. For us to belittle them or treat them as optional, therefore, is presumptuous. He established them because in his wisdom he knows that human nature always experiences and expresses spiritual realities through material realities. And so, something real changes in our souls at baptism: God comes to dwell in us, adopts us, and actually alters (elevates) our souls at a deep, ontological level. In other words, it is not indifferent whether or not someone gets baptized.

“Types” of Baptism

The Church has long pointed out, however, that this grace of baptism can come in three ways: through the validly administered sacrament of baptism; through baptism by blood; and baptism of desire.

  • Baptism of blood refers to the martyrdom of someone who dies for the Christian faith before actually receiving the sacrament of baptism. In this case, the effects of martyrdom include some of the effects of baptism: the complete remission of sin and the privilege of immediate entrance into heaven. This concept of baptism of blood came into focus during the first centuries of the Church’s existence. During the many waves of Roman persecution, men and women who were still only catechumens (receiving instruction in the faith and preparing for baptism), and pagans who suddenly converted to the faith (for example, upon seeing the heroic courage of a martyr) were often executed along with baptized Christians.
  • Baptism of desire is a bit different, a bit more mysterious. It too is the equivalent of sacramental baptism, and therefore sufficient for obtaining the state of grace and the promise of salvation. Yet the circumstances by which it comes to pass or known only to God. Here’s how the Second Vatican Council explained it: “Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictate of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Constitution on the Church, I, 16).

As you can see, we simply cannot fathom all the wonderful ways in which God works in the souls of us sinners. God's action is so rich!

The “Types” of Grace

As regards your specific question, about someone who is not baptized asking for help from the Holy Spirit, it may be useful to recall the different types of grace.

  • There is sanctifying grace (the state of being in friendship with Christ, of being an adopted child of God, of having been redeemed from original sin). This is introduced into our lives at baptism, and it is increased, or deepened, through prayer, fidelity to God's will, and the other sacraments.
  • There is also sacramental grace, a specific strengthening or benefit unique to each sacrament. For example, the sacramental grace of confession is the forgiveness of personal sins and the strengthening of our will towards future fidelity. The sacramental grace of marriage is the marriage bond which helps both spouses grow in communion with God through living their communion with each other, etc.
  • Then there is what is commonly referred to as actual grace. This is a boost of supernatural help that comes to assist us in a specific situation. When we talk about “graces,” this is usually what we mean – a light from the Holy Spirit, an added dose of patience when I really needed it… These actual graces are distinct from sanctifying grace. So, when non-baptized persons, who probably don’t have sanctifying grace, ask for help from the Holy Spirit, they are asking for this kind of grace, actual grace. And God is always ready to give actual graces, even when we don't ask, to draw us closer to him.

These distinctions may seem persnickety. But let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees. Reflecting on the many ways in which God reaches out to us and stays involved in our lives reminds of the most important thing: that he is our Father, passionately interested in the smallest details of our little, limited world.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Claire

    Thank you Father for this explanation! It has really helped me to understand my faith at a deeper level by understanding how God’s grace works!

  • memtrain

    What a wonderful way of explaining the Holy Spirit! I hope you have the opportunity to discuss how powerful the Holy Spirit is without our lives of faith in future postings. We so often “forget” Him in our thoughts and prayers instead of inviting Him in and relying upon Him.

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