Reader Question: Why Holy Ghost?

A dove perched in a hole in the wall outside the Basilica di Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura (Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls), Rome, Italy. The dove is the traditional Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)

During this period between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, I have been promoting the Novena to the Holy Ghost, which recalls the nine days that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Apostles spent in prayer after Christ's Ascension, while waiting for the promised descent of the Holy Spirit. To my surprise, especially since no one has objected in previous years, I have had some complaints about the use of the title "Holy Ghost" rather than "Holy Spirit."

One reader wrote, "How about the Novena to the Holy Spirit? Some of your information really sounds obsolescent." Another declared, "Our Milwaukee area Roman Catholic churches have not used 'Holy Ghost' since Vatican II said we should use 'Holy Spirit.' What does your CCC [Catechism of the Catholic Church] say?"

Over the years, I've heard a lot of claims about what "Vatican II said," but this was a new one for me. Did Vatican II really mandate the use of the title "Holy Spirit," and is it therefore wrong ever to use the older title "Holy Ghost"?

Like most of the claims made about Vatican II, both from those who are critical of the council and those who invoke the "spirit of Vatican II," this one is simply mistaken. It's true that the current Catechism of the Catholic Church uses "Holy Spirit" exclusively, but that in itself doesn't tell us anything about what Vatican II may or may not have said.

The "Holy Ghost" and the "Holy Spirit" are both historical names applied to the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. In English, "Holy Ghost" became the common title back in the 17th century, when the phrase was used in the two most prominent English translations of the Bible, the Authorized Version (the King James Bible) and the Douay Rheims.

At the time, there was little difference between the meanings of ghost and spirit. Today, the use of ghost to mean "spirit" or "soul" is considered archaic, so the first reader has a point. Of course, so is the use of art as the second person singular of be, hallowed for "holy," and thy for "your." Yet most of us still begin the Our Father with the words "Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name" (which, not incidentally, is still the official English translation of the Our Father for the Mass).

Vatican II made no decree on the use of "Holy Spirit" rather than "Holy Ghost." The English translation of the Novus Ordo Missae, the new Mass promulgated in 1969, uses "Holy Spirit," and that's probably where the second reader got the idea that the change had something to do with Vatican II. But the change goes back even further than that: By the early 20th century, the use of "Holy Spirit" had become quite common, though "Holy Ghost" was still used in official translations of the text of the Mass.

By mid-century, the English edition of the Raccolta, the official manual of indulgences, offered about half of the prayers to the Holy Spirit using the title "Holy Ghost" and other half using "Holy Spirit." Indeed, the beginning of the text of one of the most famous prayers to the Holy Spirit is given as this:

Come Holy Ghost, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and kindle in them the fire of Thy love.
V. Send forth Thy Spirit, and they shall be created;
R. And Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.

Throughout the 20th century, there was great fluidity in the use of the titles, and over time, the "Holy Spirit" became the more common, aided by the fact that ghost had become restricted in common use to mean the spirit of a dead person, and by the use of "Holy Spirit" in the official translations of the new Mass.

And yet Holy Ghost persists in both popular and liturgical use. On Pentecost, in many (or even most) Catholic churches in the English-speaking world, we still sing "Come Holy Ghost," and no one bats an eye or invokes the spirit of Vatican II. ("Holy Ghost" is also used in the final verses of a number of traditional hymns that include a Trinitarian doxology.)

And to my mind, that's as it should be; there's room in our liturgical and prayer life for both titles. I've never been disturbed by either title; it always seemed self-evident to me, even as a child, that the Holy Ghost was not a "ghost" in the popular sense. In preparing to write this post, I turned to my followers on Twitter and asked them what they thought, and I received a number of interesting responses, split pretty much down the middle. One said that she preferred "Holy Ghost" because it is "old style" and "sounds more reverent," while another noted that "'spirit' suggests an idea while 'ghost' suggests a concrete entity." On the other hand, those who disliked "Holy Ghost" pointed to the current connotations of the word ghost as the main reason.

So why do I refer to the Novena to the Holy Ghost? Am I deliberately attempting to sound "obsolescent," or making some sort of statement by doing so? No. I refer to the Novena to the Holy Ghost because that's how I learned it growing up—and I had a decidedly post-Vatican II childhood, being born in 1968. Because of the history and tradition of this devotion, which was once much more widespread than it is today, the use of "Holy Ghost" continued on long after "Holy Spirit" had gained the upper hand in other prayers and the English translation of the Mass.

Even so, if you go to any web page or blog post where I discuss the novena (or any other traditional prayer on the Catholicism GuideSite that uses the term "Holy Ghost," such as this prayer by St.

Catherine of Siena), you'll see that I also use the title "Holy Spirit" to refer to the Third Person of the Trinity.

If the use of "Holy Ghost" is a distraction to you, then the solution is an easy one: In praying a prayer to the Holy Spirit that uses the title, simply substitute "Holy Spirit" wherever the prayer uses "Holy Ghost."

But please don't do so when you're singing "Come Holy Ghost" on Pentecost Sunday. "Spirit" will ruin the flow of the hymn, and it's one of my favorites. If you mess up that melody, my ghost might just have to come back to haunt you.

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Your Citation
Richert, Scott P. "Reader Question: Why Holy Ghost?" ThoughtCo, Nov. 30, 2016, Richert, Scott P. (2016, November 30). Reader Question: Why Holy Ghost? Retrieved from Richert, Scott P. "Reader Question: Why Holy Ghost?" ThoughtCo. (accessed December 12, 2017).