The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Michael O'Carroll CSSp FAITH Magazine May-June 2003

We All Have the Gifts of the Spirit

It is not too daring to say that there is, in our time, a call, and an urgent call, for enlightened doctrine on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, universally accepted by the faithful. The faithful are, at times, under the impression that they are mostly a matter of talk; discourse, with no apparent relevance to everyday life. Any priest who doubts this assertion may ask himself how often has he spoken in public, in a homily for example, on the Gifts.

The essential question concerning the Gifts of the Spirit is this: Are the Gifts within every Christian soul after baptism? I follow St. Thomas Aquinas who holds that they are, qualifying them as habitus that is permanently inhering in the soul[1]. His disciple and commentator, John of St. Thomas puts it thus:

“The Gifts of the Holy Spirit, therefore, are given to the soul after the manner of habits, so that in a rational and voluntary way the soul may be moved to those works to which it is directed by the Spirit. Thus those who are conducted by the Spirit are moved not as slaves but as free men, willingly and voluntarily, since the principles, which move them, though derived from the Spirit, are inherent in their very souls. They are impelled to operations, which by their character and measure exceed all ordinary human standards. Hence the interior disposition of a spiritual manis is such that he is free and voluntary in the way of the Spirit.”[2]

To these words we may add those of a saintly modern prelate, Archbishop Luis M. Martinez, of Mexico:

“Let us not think that these Gifts of the Spirit are proper only to souls that have reached certain heights on the road to perfection; let us not believe that only the saints possess the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. All of us possess them. It is sufficient to have the grace of God in our souls in order to receive them. On the day of our baptism we received the Gifts of the Holy Spirit together with the virtues and graces.”[3]

The Messaianic Origin of the Gifts

The Gifts are, therefore, necessary to our salvation. They act in perfect harmony with the infused virtues. We learn of the Gifts first in the book of Isaiah: “A twig shall shoot forth from the stump of Jesse, and a Branch from his roots shall bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” This is the Hebrew version. In the Greek Septuagint translation piety is added; it has been accepted by tradition (Is 11:1-3).

The word Gift has replaced spirit, without losing the idea of inspiration. It is important to recognise that the Gifts are in the first place promised to the Messiah; we receive them through him, as they are granted to him for us. Hence the intimate relationship between Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, not only in the life of the Trinity but in the day-to-day practice and prayer of the faithful. Let us consider each of the Gifts:


It is the Gift, which comprehends all the others. St. Thomas tells us that it enables a person to judge rightly of divine things, and to judge of other things according to the divine law of charity, which is in him. Wisdom presupposes charity.

We are, therefore, thinking of the Gift, which assures us a single-minded outlook essentially turned towards the divine. Wisdom is the answer to those who embark on a spiritual course and then allow themselves to be caught by other selfish interests – self-deceit playing its part. John of St. Thomas puts it thus: “the formal nature by which wisdom knows the highest causes is an internal experience of God and divine things. It is a taste, love, delight, or internal contact, of the will with the spiritual things. By reason of its union with spiritual truths, the soul, is, as it were, made connatural to things divine. Through this tasting wisdom discerns spiritual truths from the sensible and created.

We may affirm that the Gift of Wisdom is the ultimate and totally efficacious answer to the secularism, which is widespread today: its basic principle – only the values of the world count. Wisdom enters into the soul assailed by such notions and shows that they are vain. There is a space within each believer, which only Wisdom can fill.


I quote Archbishop Martinez: “The Gift of Knowledge is not discursive, it is intuitive; it has the divine character proper to the action of the Holy Spirit; it gives an insight into the mysterious relationships between creatures and particularly into the great, the transcendental relationships that creatures have with God.”

To bring what may appear remote theory to palpable reality of life I suggest that through the Gift of Knowledge we have the solution to the question of science and faith. Some scientists do make an issue of this. But it is not the greatest who do so. The example of Louis Pasteur is well known. The greatest scientist of his age made a classic remark to a question whether his faith caused a problem. “With my present knowledge I have the faith of a Breton peasant; if I know more I may have the faith of a Breton peasant’s wife.”


This is the Gift, which gives the power to perceive the meaning of truths of the faith, especially as they are taught in Sacred Scripture. I exemplify it as follows. Two important events took place in the year 1888: one of the greatest theologians of the century, ranked with Newman as the greatest, M.J. Scheeben, died; leaving an impressive volume of published work, an exponent and defender of Vatican I. In that year a girl aged fifteen entered a Carmel in the north of France, at Lisieux. She had no theological training. Dying before her twenty fifth birthday, she had no published work. After her death papers from her were assembled, memoirs, poems, letters.

Who would have chosen one of these two as a future Doctor of the Church? Saints and Doctors of the Church had read the words of the Master: “Unless you be converted and become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). They had no doubt seen in it the Master’s love for little ones. Therese of Lisieux, through the Gift of Understanding, saw in it a whole spiritual doctrine. That her intuition came from God was underlined by the astonishing series of miracles wrought in answer to her intercession, something she had practically foretold. Ecclesiastical approval came, with the voice of theologians, from the highest source, the Papacy in the person of Pius XI, her enthusiastic advocate and interpreter; he beatified and canonised her and proclaimed her, acontemplative nun, Patroness of the Missions. John Paul II declared a Doctor of the Church the girl who died in her early twenties.
Only the Gift of the Spirit can explain all this.


This is the Gift which enlightens us in situations where our faith is involved on what we should say, or what we should do. In the normal process of life maturity is needed to answer important questions; when we are young we have all the answers because we do not fully understand the questions. With experience, we begin to appreciate the difficulty of clear answers.

There are great decisions affecting Vocation and then the problems, which may arise, which are entailed in the fulfillment of the vocation chosen. Just as one example I quote the problem created for Catholic parents when their child abandons religious practice. What to say? What to do? Severe reprimand? It may make matters worse. Having been involved in education with, at times, two generations of the same family it is a problem on which my advice has been sought. There are no hard and fast solutions. There is the Gift of Counsel.

The Gift of Counsel certainly helps those in public life. When John Paul II proclaimed St. Thomas More patron of politicians he was applauding a man who was certainly guided by the Holy Spirit. All past history? Why, we have in our time an admirable example in Robert Schumann, rightly styled the “Father of Europe.” Knowing the border region personally he saw that the same person could be, at one time, a German called on, in time of war, to kill Frenchmen, at another a Frenchman called on to kill Germans. He saw a united Europe as the removal of this folly, happy in the support of Adenauer and De Gasperi, he is proposed for Beatification.


Here is the distinction made by theologians between the ordinary and extraordinary action of the Gifts is patent. Martyrs exemplify the extraordinary action. One speaks for all: St. Felicity, a third century Roman matron, though living in Africa with her servant, Perpetua, she was summoned to deny her faith and refused. In her last days of pregnancy they were both imprisoned. There she gave birth to her child. The prison warder, apparently humane, said to her: “I heard you groaning in childbirth. How will you face the lions tomorrow?” Her reply, which we have from Tertullian, will live forever: “Tonight Felicity suffered; tomorrow, another will suffer for Felicity, for Felicity wants to suffer for him.” Fulfilled to the letter.


Is it ever explained, even mentioned? How do we justify such silence about an immense endowment given us by Almighty God? Does God work to no avail? Do we choose only what is convenient to our mentality? Or should we change our mentality to meet the design of God? I propose this meaning of the Gift of Piety. There is no mass production of holiness. The Holy Spirit leads and strengthens each one separately along a personal path. Piety assures the fulfillment of spiritual personality. Hence the immense variety among the saints, whose perfection is guaranteed by an infallible voice. I leave it to the reader to recall and ponder examples of this variety.

Fear of the Lord

This is not fear in its common meaning. The Bible tells us two hundred and sixty times “Be not afraid.” I think we should learn from the French “le sens du sacre.” It is a question of our permanent attitude to the Almighty: an attitude of reverence, of awe, what is truly befitting to God’s creature. It in no way hinders faith or confidence; on the contrary. It’s most perfect expression is found in Mary’s Magnificat.

Mary too, did we have the time to ponder all the events of her life, enlightens us on the Gifts. On each she is enlightening. May one single out of her unique example of Counsel: “Let if be done to me according to thy word”(Lk 1:38). The angel had reminded her of the Spirit.

[1] St. Thomas dealt with the subject amply: in Scriptum super Sententiis, Book III; Ia 2ae, q.68-70. 
For full treatment of the theology of the Gifts see: Dictionnaire de Spiritualite, III, 1579-1641, several authors.
[2] John of St. Thomas, The Gifts of the Holy Ghost (London: Sheed & Ward, 1951), 28.
[3]The Sanctifier (New York: St Anthony Guild Press, 1966), 124.

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