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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Why Holy Ghost?

By May 28, 2009

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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.

(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)

May 29, 2009 at 12:48 am
(1) Philip Madsen says:

Everything about modernism usually has a Satanic reason. Jesus said it in Scripture in many places. Scott mentions “ghost” as being of a dead person.. but Ghost is of a “person”. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the trinity.

Spirit meanwhile can apply to any created thing, not a person. A tree or a dog and a human being has a living spirit. This spirit is not a person or soul. Jesus had a soul and a spirit in addition to His Divinity.

We already have people who say the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father. This opposes the Trinity.

The term Holy Ghost ensures there can be no confusion. He is the third Person of the Holy Trinity.


May 29, 2009 at 10:22 am
(2) Allen says:

Human cannot understand God. We cannot express the name of God in human language. But we should know whom we mean when we invoke the title, either “Holy Spirit” or “Holy Ghost”.

May 29, 2009 at 12:22 pm
(3) Jeffrey Mark says:

Holy Spirit is the Proper Term,Even in the Old Testament.People have the Spirit of Life From God nort Plants Trees or animals.

May 18, 2010 at 1:33 pm
(4) Father Daniel says:

I attended the consecration of a bishop recently. One of the hymns was “Come Holy Ghost.” In most of the prayers, the Third Person of the Trinity was referred to as the Holy Spirit.

I doubt anyone was confused.

May 19, 2010 at 4:57 pm
(5) Paul Fox says:

Ghost comes from Old High German Geist which means Spirit. I was born in ’42 and had 17 years of Catholic education. I have never stopped using the name Holy Ghost. From very early on to this day, I pray daily to the Holy Ghost as he was always there as a friend or “buddy” as Jesus said we had to go through the Holy Ghost until He returned. We were told that the Catholic Bishops elected, after Vatican II, to use Spirit because some thought the term Ghost was silly like “Casper the Ghost”. I didn’t and still don’t.

June 3, 2011 at 11:55 am
(6) karyn says:

I think name Holy Ghost can be confusing to some. My husband also grew up post-Vatican (born in 1968) as well. I’m a convert but have been surprised at some of the things he was taught. One of those is that the Holy Ghost is Jesus’ Ghost after the crucifixion. So maybe it’s things like that that have caused the shift towards Holy Spirit. I did notice that my children’s homeschool catechism books use both – which I think is wise.

June 4, 2011 at 10:12 pm
(7) Scott P. Richert says:

Karyn, when you say that your husband was “taught” that “the Holy Ghost is Jesus’ Ghost after the crucifixion,” do you mean that literally—i.e., that a teacher in a Catholic school or CCD actually told him that? Or do you mean that he may have absorbed that from other children, or come to the conclusion himself because of poor catechesis?

June 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm
(8) Donal Mahoney says:

I’m old enough and Tridentine in spirit enough to very much appreciated your use of the Holy Ghost. Thank you.

June 3, 2011 at 6:09 pm
(9) Diva says:

I concur.It is so wonderful to see the profound and reverent use of the term Holy Ghost.I am a Catholic convert,and feel very privledged to be a part of such a formal worship of our most High God,and his triune persons in the Mass!I have a grown son,who I brought up in the Catholic church,and watching him genuflect before the crucifix is breathtaking.I am so grateful to the CHURCH for their guidance,as I had to leave my first husband when my little boy was 2years old,and the guidance and support of the Church made all the difference in making him a drug-free,responsible,God-fearing young man!

June 4, 2011 at 5:41 pm
(10) Ashley Groome says:

The oxford English dictionary defines “ghost” as follows….

“an apparition of a dead person which is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image

Eg: the building is haunted by the ghost of a monk.

“spirit” is defined….

…the non-physical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character; the soul…

The use of the term “soul” or “spirit” is not a question theological debate, nor is is an aspect of modern animistic paganism, it is simply a question of semantics. The term Ghost is an archaic form (and often the term used when trying to explain the holy trinity to children. The term “Holy Spirit” is the more modern and descriptive term. It is also the word used in the modern Catechism and as such, I recommend its use by all.

Mr Richert’s article began as a very worthwhile piece on a Novena, and then quickly degenerated into a debate piece about “ghost or spirit.”

When discussing theological matters, it is most important not to take you eye off the ball. Nit picking about the use of the technically correct word, is about as stupid as The Lilliputians in Gulliver’s travels, going to war over whether you opened a boiled egg at the big end or the little end.

Holy Ghost – Holy Sprit, its all good – personally I would plumb for the term “Holy Spirit – its more modern, its more descriptive and it is the form used in the modern Catechism.

June 4, 2011 at 10:09 pm
(11) Scott P. Richert says:

Ashley, I’m not quite sure how my article could have “quickly degenerated into a debate piece about ‘ghost or spirit,’” unless your comment did as well, since the point of the article was the same as your point. The richness of language is an asset; I really dislike seeing old, familiar prayers and hymns rewritten just because of, as you put it, “nitpicking.” My children, ranging from age 3 to age 16, have no trouble understanding that the Holy Ghost and the Holy Spirit both refer to the Third Person of the Trinity; I’m surprised that others seem to have such trouble.

March 7, 2012 at 10:10 am
(12) Peter says:

I remember being in Catholic school in the early 60s. Prayers always began “In the Name of the Father….. and the Holy Ghost. If you look at the President Kennedy funeral, the officiant intones “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” as well. This would date the use of Holy Ghost as late as 1963.

Shortly thereafter we were instructed to say “… and the Holy Spirit” in our daily school prayer.

If I recall history correctly many forms of prayer and the Mass itself were changed as a result of Vatican II.

May 19, 2012 at 8:26 am
(13) Christopher Michael says:

Philip Madsen made a false statement, “A tree or a dog and a human being has a living spirit.” Therefore, I am compelled to state the truth for the benefit of readers who might otherwise believe the lie. A tree and a dog and a human do not have in common a similar thing called living spirit. The key is word is “spirit” which is as known as soul; or even ghost, as in this blog. However, a tree and a dog and a human can all be alive as in our earthly realm, together at the same time; but being alive and having a spirit are not the same thing. I think Phiip would have been wise to use the phrase “life force” which invokes the truth that life is a form of energy (because it opposes entropy). But a tree and a dog do not have a spirit, soul, or ghost. Furthermore, a tree is an inanimate object, and a dog is a creature, not made in the “image and likeness of God” as a human being is (see Genesis 1:23-30. God’s Word tells us that we look like God because we are made in His Image; and that we are like God in another way because we are made in His Likeness; namely, we have an eternal life which is manifest as a soul, spirit, and sometimes appears to others in the form of a ghost.

May 20, 2012 at 6:12 am
(14) Phil, OFS (Secular Franciscan Order) says:

My Franciscan mentor Father Conrad, OFM taught me this: always capitalize the following words in the prayers you write and pray: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit, also He and Him. He often would capitalize an entire word, for example FATHER, to show that we weren’t praying to just any father. Father Conrad was concerned that our hearts always recognize WHO we were praising, Glory be to the FATHER, and to the SON, and to the HOLY SPIRIT as it was in the beginning …. In the name of the FATHER, and of the SON, and of the HOLY GHOST, Amen. A final point: I attended a Catholic college during and immediately after Vat II and have been very active in the Church ever since reading and teaching the documents of the Council and later documents that flowed from it and have never come across an any official instruction of the use of either term. As you pointed out the official translation of the prayer to the HOLY GHOST recites: Come HOLY GHOST fill … Send forth YOUR SPIRIT and HE shall renew … Peace and all good!!!

May 22, 2012 at 6:40 am
(15) verserver says:

Everyone is entitled to his opinion. Having said that, what’s crucial is ‘opinion on what?’ Here we are talking about God the Third Person. May I please make 2 suggestions:

1 May I ask everyone to back up a little and just remind ourselves that who’s important is not so much us, the ones who are praying! Who’s important is the ONE we’re praying to.

2 My humble opinion is that HE will be be comfortable with whichever name, Spirit or Ghost, an individual praying to HIM is comfortable with, because that’ll will help the one praying get into a state comfortable enough to be with HIM, without getting distracted about the words to use.

Incidentally, my view is, for me that is, you may not agree: flexibility is better than inflexibility so that I can join in hymns and prayers using both Spirit or Ghost and still be with HIM in love, in HIS love.


May 31, 2012 at 1:18 pm
(16) Mauro says:

Hi Scott, it just occurred to me that I could use Google’s ngrams to see the trending of the use of Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit in english language between 1800 and 2000. I think it is aligned with your writing, so I thought I’d share it with you.


To learn more about Google Labs’ NGram Viewer you can watch this short TED talk http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5l4cA8zSreQ

May 31, 2012 at 3:53 pm
(17) Scott P. Richert says:

Thanks, Mauro! That’s very interesting. It appears that Holy Ghost had the upper hand throughout the 19th century, but it’s interesting to see how closely the two terms track even then. Holy Spirit takes the definitive lead earlier than I would have thought, and the timing is very interesting: immediately after World War II. That makes me wonder if there might be a broader cultural shift here, perhaps even something stemming from the war.

September 3, 2012 at 10:17 pm
(18) Ferdinand Gajewski says:

Down with “Spirit”! Down with Newchurchspeak!

May 10, 2013 at 1:15 pm
(19) Otto Mazzilli says:

I too am a convert, post vat II in 1966, by virture of the Wanderer when the Remant was part of them. I learned from one of the few triditional Priest that I met that the Holy Ghost is the love between the God the Father and God the Son that is sent forth.

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