The work of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist


By Ella Johnson
Eucharistic Revival


Theologian Alister McGrath once identified the Holy Spirit’s role within Trinitarian theology as that of Cinderella. He said, “The other two sisters may have gone to the theological ball; but the Holy Spirit got left behind every time.”

Unfortunately, I think we tend to shortchange or even neglect the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Perhaps this is because we often depict the Holy Spirit with an image of a flame or bird, which appear to be far less relational than the images of the Father and Son. Yet the role that the Holy Spirit plays in our lives and, in particular, in the Eucharist, is extraordinarily powerful. Like all other liturgical acts, the Eucharist is undertaken, sustained and accomplished by God’s initiative, especially through the action of the Holy Spirit.

The 10th and final model of Kevin Irwin’s “Models of the Eucharist,” which this series of columns has been exploring, helps us to appreciate the role of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist. Referring to the liturgical reform after Vatican II, Irwin writes, “Theologically, perhaps the single most important accomplishment of the addition of new Eucharistic Prayers was the inclusion of explicit prayers that invoke the power and action of the Holy Spirit in the celebration of the Eucharist.” The liturgical word for this plea for the Holy Spirit is epiclesis, from the Greek meaning “invocation.”


Before the liturgical reform, the Roman Canon, referred to today as Eucharistic Prayer I, did not and does not contain an explicit epiclesis. The three Eucharistic Prayers (II-IV), added to the Roman Rite in 1968, draw from a rich history of epiclesis prayers in ancient liturgies and are very clear about invoking the Holy Spirit. The words of invocation help us to consider more fully the eucharistic mystery we believe, celebrate and live.

The epiclesis that precedes the institution narrative in Eucharistic Prayer II, for example, reads:

Make holy, therefore, these gifts we pray,

by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall,

so that they may become for us

the Body and + Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the same prayer, the words that follow the anamnesis (memorial sacrifice) make a plea to the Holy Spirit for the unity of the Church through our participation in the Eucharist:

Humbly we pray

that, by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ,

we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.

The third Eucharistic prayer is a bit fuller, emphasizing the importance of Jesus’ command at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me:”

Therefore, O Lord, we humbly implore you:

by the same Spirit graciously make holy

these gifts which we have brought to you for consecration,

that they may become the Body and + Blood

of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ

at whose command we celebrate these mysteries.

Again, following the anamnesis, the Eucharistic Prayer continues by stressing the unity of the Church, this time by referring to Ephesians 4:4 — “there is one body and one spirit:”

Grant that we, who are nourished

by the Body and Blood of your Son

and filled with his Holy Spirit,

may become one body, one spirit in Christ.

Eucharistic Prayer IV is perhaps the most complete in regard to its theology of the Holy Spirit. Just before the first epiclesis it quotes 2 Corinthians 5:15:

And that we might live no longer for ourselves

but for him who died and rose again for us,

he sent the Holy Spirit from you, Father,

as his first fruits for those who believe,

So that, bringing to perfection his work in the world,

He might sanctify creation to the full.

The prayer continues in the customary way, invoking the Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine:

Therefore, O Lord, we pray:

May this same Holy Spirit

graciously sanctify these offerings

that they may become

The Body + and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ

for the celebration of this great mystery,

which he himself left us

as an eternal covenant.

The prayer combines the reference to the transformation of the gifts with the reference to the transformation of our lives, showing how both rely on the action of the Holy Spirit.

Look, O Lord, upon the Sacrifice

which you yourself have provided for your Church,

and grant in your loving kindness

to all who partake of this one Bread and one Chalice

that, gathered into one body by the Holy Spirit,

they may truly become a living sacrifice in Christ

to the praise of your glory.

This text also underscores the importance of the Holy Spirit’s work of leading us into the covenant renewal in Jesus Christ. With a reference to  Romans 12:1 — “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” — it highlights the way Christ’s sacrifice is renewed both through the Eucharist and by our living that same sacrifice in our daily lives.

The powerful role of the Holy Spirit is clearly asserted in the lex orandi (law of prayer) in the current Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite. By praying these with meaning and intention, may the Holy Spirit influence our lex credendi (law of belief) and truly unite and renew us in our lex vivendi (law of living). In other words, may the Holy Spirit open us in ever deeper ways to the mystery which we believe, celebrate and live!

(Ella Johnson, PhD, is an associate professor in the theology department of St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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