On the Holy Spirit's Prayer in Us: 'Abba! Father!'

"God has inscribed Himself in our hearts"

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 23, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave during the general audience held in St. Peter’s Square. Today the Holy Father continued his series of catecheses on prayer.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

Last Wednesday I showed how St. Paul says that the Holy Spirit is the great teacher of prayer and teaches us to address God with the affectionate words of children, calling Him “Abba, Father”. This is what Jesus did; even in the most dramatic moment of His earthly life, He never lost confidence in the Father and always called out to Him with the intimacy of the beloved Son. In Gethsemane, as He feels the anguish of death, His prayer is: “Abba! Father! All things are possible to Thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt” (Mark 14:36).

From the very first steps of her journey, the Church received this invocation and made it her own, especially in the prayer of the Our Father, in which we daily say: “Father … Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (cf. Matthew 6:9-10). In the Letters of St. Paul we find it twice. The Apostle, as we just heard, addresses himself to the Galatians with these words: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6). And at the heart of that hymn to the Spirit, which is Chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul affirms: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15). Christianity is not a religion of fear but of trust, and of love for the Father who loves us.

These two packed statements speak to us of the sending and receiving of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the Risen One that makes us sons in Christ -- the Only begotten Son -- and establishes us in a filial relationship with God, a relationship of profound trust, like that of children; a filial relationship analogous to Jesus’, even though its origin is different and its depth is different: Jesus is the eternal Son of God made flesh; we instead become sons in Him, in time, through faith and the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation; thanks to these two sacraments we are immersed in the Paschal Mystery of Christ.

The Holy Spirit is the precious and necessary gift that makes us children of God, that effects that filial adoption to which all human beings are called, for as the divine blessing contained in the Letter to the Ephesians states: God, in Christ, “chose us before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and immaculate in his sight in charity. He predestined us to be his adopted sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:4).

Perhaps men today do not perceive the beauty, the grandeur and the profound consolation contained in the word “father” by which we may address God in prayer, because the father figure today is often not sufficiently present; and this presence is often not adequately positive in daily life. A father’s absence, i.e. the problem of a father who is not present in the child’s life, is a great problem of our time; and therefore, it becomes difficult to understand the profound significance of what it means to say that God is a Father to us. We can learn from Jesus Himself, and from His filial relationship with God, what being a “father” truly means, and the true nature of the Father who is in heaven. Critics of religion have said that to speak of the “Father”, of God, would be a projection of our human fathers onto heavenly realities. But the opposite is true: in the Gospel, Christ shows us who a father is and what a true father is like, so that we may sense what true fatherhood is, and also learn true fatherhood. Consider Jesus’ word during the Sermon on the Mount, where he says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). It is precisely Jesus’ love -- which reaches even to the gift of himself on the Cross -- that reveals the Father’s true nature to us: He is Love, and we too, in our prayer as children, enter into this movement of love, into God’s love, which purifies our desires and our attitudes that are marked by closure, by self-sufficiency and by the egoism that characterize the old man.

We may say, then, that in God, being Father has two dimensions. First of all, God is our Father, because He is our Creator. Each one of us, every man and every woman, is a miracle of God, is wanted by Him and is known personally by Him. When, in the Book of Genesis, it says that the human being is created in the image of God (cf. 1:27), what it wishes to express is precisely this reality: God is our Father; for Him we are not anonymous, impersonal beings; rather, we have a name. And a word from the psalms always touches me when I pray it: “Your hands have made and fashioned me,” the psalmist says (Psalm 119:73). Each one of us can say, according to this beautiful image of the personal relationship with God: "Your hands have made and fashioned me. You thought of me and created me and wanted me”.

But this is still not enough. The Spirit of Christ opens us to a second dimension of God’s fatherhood, beyond creation, for Jesus is the “Son” in the fullest sense, “consubstantial with the Father,” as we profess in the Creed. In becoming a human being like us through His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection, Jesus in turn receives us into His humanity and into His own being Son; thus we too may enter into His specific belonging to God. To be sure, our being sons of God does not have the fullness of Jesus’: we must become this more and more, through the course of the whole of our Christian lives, by growing in our following of Christ, in our communion with Him, in order to enter ever more intimately into the relationship of love with God the Father, who sustains our lives. It is this fundamental reality that is disclosed to us when we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and when He causes us to turn to God saying “Abba! Father!” We have truly entered - beyond creation – into adoption; with Jesus, we are truly united in God and are children in a new way and in a new dimension.

But now I would like to return to two passages from St. Paul that we are considering regarding this action of the Holy Spirit in our prayer; here too the two passages correspond to one another but contain slightly different nuances. In the Letter to the Galatians, in fact, the Apostle says that the Holy Spirit cries out in us “Abba! Father!”, the Spirit. In the Letter to the Romans it says that it is we who cry out “Abba! Father!” And St. Paul wants us to understand that Christian prayer is never, and never occurs in one direction between us and God, it is not only “our action”; rather, it is the expression of a reciprocal relationship in which God acts first: it is the Holy Spirit who cries out in us, and we are able to cry out because the impulse comes from the Holy Spirit. We would be unable to pray were the desire for God, and the desire to be God’s children, not inscribed in our hearts.  From the moment of his existence, the homo sapiens is always in search of God; he seeks to speak with God, because God has inscribed Himself in our hearts. Therefore the first initiative is God’s, and through Baptism, once again God acts in us, the Holy Spirit acts in us; He is the first initiator of prayer so that we may then truly speak with God and say “Abba” to God. Therefore, His presence opens our prayer and our lives, opens to the horizons of the Trinity and the Church.

Furthermore, we comprehend -- this is the second point -- that the prayer of the Spirit of Christ in us and ours in Him, is not merely an individual act; rather, it is an act of the entire Church. In prayer our hearts are opened, we enter into communion not only with God, but also with all of God’s children, for we are one. When we turn to the Father in our interior room, in silence and recollection, we are never alone. He who speaks with God is not alone. We are in the great prayer of the Church, we are part of a great symphony, which the Christian community scattered in every part of the world and in every time raises to God; certainly, the musicians and the instruments are varied -- and this is an enriching element -- but the melody of praise is one and harmonious. Every time, then, that we cry out and say: “Abba! Father!” it is the Church, the whole communion of people in prayer that supports our invocation and our invocation is the Church’s invocation. This is also reflected in the wealth of charisms, of ministries, of tasks, that we carry out in the community. St. Paul writes to the Christians at Corinth: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). Prayer guided by the Holy Spirit, which causes us to say “Abba! Father!” with Christ and in Christ, inserts us into one great mosaic of the family of God in which each one of us has a place and an important role, in deep unity with the whole.

A final note: we also learn to cry out “Abba! Father” with Mary, the Mother of the Son of God. The arrival of the fullness of time, of which St. Paul speaks in the Letter to the Galatians (cf. 4:4) occurs at the moment of Mary’s “yes”, of her full adherence to the Will of God: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38).

Dear brothers and sisters, let us learn in our prayer to taste the beauty of being friends, indeed, of being children of God, of being able to call upon Him with the confidence and trust that a child has in his parents who love him. Let us open our prayer to the action of the Holy Spirit that He may cry out to God in us “Abba! Father!” and that our prayer may change and constantly convert our way of thinking and acting, conforming it ever more to that of the Only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

[In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our reflection on prayer in the letters of Saint Paul, we now consider two passages in which the Apostle speaks of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to call upon God as “Abba”, our Father (cf. Gal 4:6; Rom 8:5). The word “Abba” was used by Jesus to express his loving relationship with the Father; our own use of this word is the fruit of the presence of the Spirit of Christ within us. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, we have become sons and daughters of God, sharing by adoption in the eternal sonship of Jesus. Paul teaches us that Christian prayer is not simply our own work, but primarily that of the Spirit, who cries out in us and with us to the Father. In our prayer, we enter into the love of the indwelling Trinity as living members of Christ’s Body, the Church. Our individual prayer is always part of the great symphony of the Church’s prayer. Let us open our hearts ever more fully to the working of the Spirit within us, so that our prayer may lead us to greater trust in the Father and conformity to Jesus, his Son.

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I am pleased to greet the ecumenical delegation from the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Sweden. I also welcome the group from the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas in Manila. I thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience, including those from England, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, India, the Philippines, South Korea and the United States I cordially invoke the Holy Spirit’s gifts of wisdom, joy and peace.

© Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said:]

Lastly, my thoughts go out to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. The gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost always supports the Christian community’s life of faith: dear young people, may you place the search for God and love for Him above all else; dear sick, may the Holy Spirit help and comfort you in the moment of your greatest need; and may you, dear newlyweds, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, make your union firmer and more profound.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]