Necessity of Instruction in the Catholic Faith: Part 8

Talk 8: Roman Catechism. THE MOST HOLY TRINITY

“The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 234). “The central mystery of the faith and of Christian life is the mystery of the most holy Trinity. Christians are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 44).

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity can be summarized in the following four truths: 1. In the one divine Nature, there are three Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. 2. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost is not the Father: no one of the Persons is either of the others. 3. The Father is God, the Son is God, The Holy Ghost is God. 4. There are not three Gods but one God.

We follow the explanation of Father Francis Spirago on the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity: “At the baptism of Jesus Christ all the three persons of the Blessed Trinity manifested themselves; the Father by a voice from heaven, the Son through His baptism, and the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove (Matt. iii. 16).

  1. The Blessed Trinity is one God in three persons.

The three persons are called Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

The number three is often found both in nature and in religion. There are three persons in the Holy Family; three parts in the sacraments (intention, matter, and form); Our Lord hung for three hours on the cross, and remained three days in the grave. He taught on earth for three years, and has the triple office of Prophet, Priest, and King. So in time there are past, present, and future; three kingdoms in creation, the material, the vegetable, and the animal worlds. The number four is also of frequent occurrence; there are four gospels, four cardinal virtues, four seasons of the year. The number seven is also common; there are seven days of the week, seven sacraments, seven works of mercy, seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, seven sacred orders ending in the priesthood, etc. Three is sometimes called the number of God, four the number of the world, by reason of the four continents, and seven represents the combination of the two.

  1. We cannot, with our feeble understanding, grasp the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, and it is therefore called a mystery.

We are unable to comprehend that there are three persons in God, yet only one God. He who gazes at the sun is dazzled by it; if he continues to gaze at it he loses his sight. So is it with the Blessed Trinity; he who inquires into it is dazzled. He who refuses to believe in it because he does not understand it, is like a blind man, who will not believe in the existence of the sun because he cannot see it. How many things there are in nature that we cannot understand! We cannot understand the growth of plants, trees, and animals; we cannot understand the nature of electricity and magnetism. We cannot understand how the color red is formed by the vibration of the ether at the rate of one hundred and thirty millions of vibrations in a second, or violet by double that number. To count the vibrations of the ether that take place in one second in the forming of the color violet, we should have to go on counting for more than ten thousand years without ceasing either day or night. Much less can we understand what belongs to God. Jeremias says, “Great art Thou, O Lord, in counsel, and incomprehensible in thought” (Jer. xxxii. 19). “No one understands what Thou art, O God, except Thou Thyself.” We can, however, understand something of the nature of the Blessed Trinity by comparing it with certain facts of nature which in some way correspond to and illustrate it. The flames of three candles placed together form but one flame; the white light can be divided into red, yellow, and blue rays, which, however, together form but one light. The orb of the sun, its light, and its heat, are three different things, which are at the same time really one. The soul of man contains memory, understanding, and will, which are but different manifestations of the same spiritual substance. Yet all these are but imperfect analogies, and cannot carry us very far in attempting to understand something of the in comprehensible mystery of the Blessed Trinity. Unbelievers sometimes say: “How is it possible that three can be one, and one three?” They show that they do not know what the teaching of the Church really is. “They blaspheme those things that they know not” (Jude 10) . The Church does not say there are three persons and one person, but there are three persons, and one nature or essence.

  1. The nature, the attributes, and the works of the three persons of the Blessed Trinity are common to all of them.

There are therefore not three gods, but one God.

The Father is therefore different from the Son, because He is a different person; but He has not a different being, because He has the same nature.

For this reason each of the three persons is, in exactly the same sense, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, and absolutely perfect, as are the other two.

When Our Lord spoke of His return to the Father, He said, “My Father is greater than I” (John xiv. 28). Here He was speaking of Himself as man; else He could not have spoken of His return to the Father.

Hence the creation of the world, the redemption and the sanctification of men is wrought by all the three divine persons together.

Yet we are accustomed to say: “The Father made the world, the Son redeemed it, and the Holy Ghost sanctifies it.”

  1. The three divine persons are divided only in their origin.

In a tree the trunk comes forth from the root, and from both comes the fruit. Such is the relation between the three divine persons.

God the Father has no origin and proceeds from no other person; God the Son proceeds from the Father; God the Holy Ghost proceeds both from the Father and from the Son.

In order to mark the order of procession, we name the Father first, the Son second, and the Holy Ghost third. But there is no succession in time; the Son proceeds from the Father from all eternity, and so does the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son. The Son is begotten of the Father before all creation. The Father produced, by an act of divine knowledge, the Son as an image like to Himself in all things, just as we, when we think, produce an intellectual image in our minds. We may illustrate this by the relation existing between fire and light. Light proceeds from fire, but is contemporaneous with it. If there were an eternal fire, there would also be an eternal light. The Son is the brightness of God’s glory (Heb. i. 3), the unspotted image of His majesty (Wisd. vii. 26). Just as one torch is kindled from another, without the first losing any of its light, so the Son is begotten of the Father, without taking anything away from Him. The Son is called the Word of the Father (John i. 1). Just as the word formed in our minds (the thought) is made manifest by the external or spoken word, so the Word of God, dwelling in the bosom of the Father, was made manifest to the world when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John i. 14). As the Son has His origin in the knowledge of God, so the Holy Ghost has His origin in the love of God. The Holy Ghost is none other than the mutual love of the Father and the Son. He is the Spirit of love, who engenders in our hearts the love of God and of each other. The word spirit is well chosen, because by it we express the attractiveness and the force of love: The Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, as warmth proceeds from the sun and its light.

On account of the difference in their origin we appropriate to the Father the works of omnipotence, to the Son the works of wisdom, and to the Holy Ghost the works of love.

These various works have a certain correspondence with the attributes of the persons, that are connected with their origin. The Father begets the Son; for this reason there is appropriated to Him the bringing of perishable things also, out of nothing, i.e., of creation. He is therefore called the almighty Father. He is also called the God of compassion, because He is ever ready to receive the sinner who comes back to Him in a true spirit of penance. The Son is the eternal wisdom of the Father. To Him therefore is appropriated the beautiful arrangement of the world. As the artist, through the working of his reflective mind designs the plan of his work, so the Father, through His Son, produced order in the world. To the Son, too, is ascribed the restoration of order, as for this end He took upon Himself the nature of man. To the Holy Ghost, as the mutual love of the Father and the Son, are ascribed all the benefits of God to man; especially the bestowal upon him of his natural life in creation (the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters), and of his spiritual life by his sanctification through grace. To Him, as the finger of God’s right hand, are ascribed all miracles, and above all the work of the Incarnation, as being of all miracles the greatest. The love of God has ever occupied itself with men, but the Incarnation of the Son of God by the operation of the Holy Ghost surpassed all other benefits wrought by Him. It brought mercy to sinners, truth to the erring, life to those who were dead, and hope and faith to the whole world.

  1. We are taught the mystery of the Blessed Trinity by Christ Himself, but it was partly known in the time of the Old Testament.

We know, from the fact of creation, the infinite power, wisdom, and goodness of God, but it does not reveal to us the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. Nor is there any proof of this doctrine to be found in nature, though we may find certain analogies to it, some of which we have given. But the mystery itself can only be made known to us by revelation. “The Father no man knoweth but the Son, and he to whom the Son shall reveal Him” (Matt. xi. 27). Our Lord revealed this mystery to His Church when He said to His apostles before His ascension, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. xxviii. 19). In the time of the Old Testament the Jewish priests, when they blessed the people, had to repeat the name of God three times (Numb. vi. 23). Isaias tells us that the seraphim in heaven cry, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts” (Is. vi. 3). Before the creation, God said, “Let us make man” (Gen. i. 26). David says, “The Lord said to My Lord, sit on My right hand.” But before the Incarnation the mystery of the Blessed Trinity was veiled in a cloud which was only dispelled under the New Law. “The Church,” says St. Hilary, “knows this mystery. The Synagogue believed it not. Philosophy understood it not.”

  1. The belief in the Blessed Trinity is expressed in the Apostles Creed, in Baptism, and in the other sacraments, in all consecrations and blessings, and in the feast of the Most Holy Trinity.

The mystery of the Blessed Trinity is the foundation of our religion. Without a knowledge of this truth we cannot understand our redemption by the Son of God. We ought frequently to make an act of faith in this mystery, especially by the repetition of the Gloria Patri We should repeat it whenever we receive any benefit from God, and also when He sends us any cross or trial.”

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the deepest and at the same time the most beatifying truth, which reasonable creatures can know. Father Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, O.C.D. presents us the following meditation on how we can live in our daily life this most sublime mystery of our Faith: «If we wish the great gift of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity to bear its full fruit of intimate friendship with the three divine Persons, we must become accustomed to living with the Trinity, since it is impossible to have a real bond of friendship with someone if, after offering him the hospitality of our home, we immediately forget him. In order to live with the Trinity, it is not necessary to feel God’s presence within us; this is a grace which He may give or withhold. It is sufficient to be grounded in the faith by which we know with certitude that the three divine Persons are dwelling within us. By relying on this reality which we cannot see, feel, or understand, but which we know with certainty because it has been revealed by God, we can direct ourselves toward a life of true union with the Blessed Trinity.

First, we should consider the three divine Persons present within us, in Their indivisible unity. We already know that everything done by the Trinity “ad extra,” that is, outside the Godhead, is the work of all three divine Persons without distinction; hence, this applies to Their action in our soul. All Three dwell equally in us. They are there simultaneously and They all produce the same effects in us. All Three diffuse grace and love in us; They enlighten us, offer us Their friendship and love us with one and the same love. Still this does not prevent each of Them from being present in our soul with the characteristics proper to His Person: the Father is there as the source and origin of the divinity and of all being; the Word is present as the splendor of the Father, as light; the Holy Spirit, as the fruit of the love of the Father and of the Son. Each divine Person, then, loves us in His own personal way and offers us His special gift. The Father offers us His most sweet paternity; the Son clothes us with His shining light; the Holy Spirit penetrates us with His ardent love. And we, insignificant creatures, should try to realize that we have such great gifts, so that we may fully profit by them.» (Divine Intimacy).

Blessed John Henry Newman gives the following explanation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity: “As the Attributes of God are many in one mode of speaking, yet all One in God; so, too, there are Three Divine Persons, yet these Three are One. When we speak of God as Wisdom, or as Love, we mean to say that He is Wisdom, and that He is Love; that He is each separately and wholly, yet not that Wisdom is the same as Love, though He is both at once. Wisdom and Love stand for ideas quite distinct from each other, and not to be confused, though they are united in Him. In all He is and all He does, He is Wisdom and He is Love; yet it is both true that He is but One, and without qualities, and withal true again that Love is not Wisdom. Again, as God is Wisdom or Love, so is Wisdom or Love in and with God, and whatever God is. Is God eternal? so is His wisdom. Is He unchangeable? so is His wisdom. Is He uncreate, infinite, almighty, all-holy? His wisdom has these characteristics also. Since God has no parts or passions, whatever is really of or from God, is all that He is. The Eternal Three are worshipped by the Catholic Church as distinct, yet One;—the Most High God being wholly the Father, and wholly the Son, and wholly the Holy Ghost; yet the Three Persons being distinct from each other, not merely in name, or by human abstraction, but in very truth, as truly as a fountain is distinct from the stream which flows from it, or the root of a tree from its branches.” (Sermon 24)

Archbishop Fulton Sheen gave the following catechesis on the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, saying: “Three in one, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; three persons in one God; one in essence, distinction of persons — such is the mystery of the Trinity, such is the inner life of God. Just as I am, I know, and I love and yet am one; just as the three angles of a triangle do not make three triangles but one; just as the heat, power, and light of the sun do not make three suns, but one; just as water, air, and steam are all manifestations of the one substance; just as the form, color, and perfume of the rose do not make three roses, but one; just as our soul, our intellect, and our will do not make three substances, but one; just as one times one times one times one, does not equal three, but one — so too in some much more mysterious way, there are three Persons in God and yet only one God. e Trinity is a revelation that, before creation, God enjoyed the amiable society of His three Persons, the infinite communion with Truth and the embrace of infinite Love, and hence had no need ever to go outside Himself in search of happiness. The greatest wonder of all, then, is, that being perfect and enjoying perfect happiness. He ever should have made a world. And if He did make a world, He could only have had one motive for making it. It could not add to His perfection; it could not add to His truth; it could not increase His happiness. He made a world only because He loved. It is the mystery of the Trinity, which gives the answer to the quest for our happiness and the meaning of Heaven. Heaven is not a place where there is the mere vocal repetition of alleluias or the monotonous fingering of harps. Heaven is a place where we find the fullness of all the fine things we enjoy on this earth. Heaven is a place where we find, in their plenitude, those things which slake the thirst of hearts, satisfy the hunger of starving minds, and give rest to unrequited love. Heaven is the communion with perfect Life, perfect Truth, and perfect Love, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, to whom be all honor and glory forever and ever.”

One of the clearest and surest syntheses of the Faith in the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, is the Creed, called the “Creed of Saint Athanasius” (Symbolum Athanasianum), which the Church uses in the Liturgy of the Divine Office (according to the more ancient Roman Rite). We quote the most relevant expressions: “This is what the Catholic faith teaches: we worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity. Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, another of the Holy Spirit. But the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have one divinity, equal glory, and coeternal majesty. What the Father is, the Son is, and the Holy Spirit is. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, and the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is boundless, the Son is boundless, and the Holy Spirit is boundless. The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, and the Holy Spirit is eternal. Nevertheless, there are not three eternal beings, but one eternal being. So there are not three uncreated beings, nor three boundless beings, but one uncreated being and one boundless being. Likewise, the Father is omnipotent, the Son is omnipotent, the Holy Spirit is omnipotent. Yet there are not three omnipotent beings, but one omnipotent being. Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. However, there are not three gods, but one God. The Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, and the Holy Spirit is Lord. However, there as not three lords, but one Lord. For as we are obliged by Christian truth to acknowledge every Person singly to be God and Lord, so too are we forbidden by the Catholic religion to say that there are three Gods or Lords. The Father was not made, nor created, nor generated by anyone. The Son is not made, nor created, but begotten by the Father alone. The Holy Spirit is not made, nor created, nor generated, but proceeds from the Father and the Son.  There is, then, one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits. In this Trinity, there is nothing before or after, nothing greater or less. The entire three Persons are coeternal and coequal with one another. So that in all things, as is has been said above, the Unity is to be worshipped in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity. He, therefore, who wishes to be saved, must believe thus about the Trinity.”

We conclude with the prayer of Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity: “O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to become utterly forgetful of myself so that I may establish myself in you, as changeless and calm as though my soul were already in eternity. Let nothing disturb my peace nor draw me forth f from you, O my unchanging God, but at every moment may I penetrate more deeply into the depths of your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it your heaven, your cherished dwelling-place and the place of your repose. Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there, wholly attentive, wholly alert in my faith, wholly adoring and fully given up to your creative action.  O my beloved Christ, crucified for love, I long to be the bride of your heart. I long to cover you with glory, to love you even unto death! Yet I sense my powerless and beg you to clothe me with yourself. Identify my soul with all the movements of your soul, submerge me, overwhelm me, substitute yourself for me, so that my life may become a reflection of your life. Come into me as Adorer, as Redeemer and as Saviour.  O Eternal Word, utterance of my God, I want to spend my life listening to you, to become totally teachable so that I might learn all from you. Through all darkness, all emptiness, all powerlessness, I want to keep my eyes fixed on you and to remain under your great light. O my Beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may never be able to leave your radiance. O Consuming Fire, Spirit of Love, overshadow me so that the Word may be, as it were incarnate again in my soul. May I be for him a new humanity in which he can renew all his mystery. And you, O Father, bend down towards your poor little creature. Cover her with your shadow, see in her only your beloved son in who you are well pleased. O my `Three’, my All, my Beatitude, infinite Solitude, Immensity in which I lose myself, I surrender myself to you as your prey. Immerse yourself in me so that I may be immersed in you until I go to contemplate in your light the abyss of your splendour!”