Guest Columnists

Letting the Spirit Lead the Way

By Carolyn Y. Woo

RECENTLY, HOLY CROSS Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, passed away at the age of 97. During my years at Notre Dame, Father Ted, as some of us called him, became a mentor and a friend whose guidance has been imprinted on every decision I made since our first meeting in 1997.

His hallmark advice was to invoke the Holy Spirit at all times. “Just pray, ‘Come, Holy Spirit,’” he would say. In fact, Father Ted would emphasize that there are no situations in which it would be inappropriate or unnecessary to call on the Holy Spirit.

While I had learned about the Holy Spirit, I did not actively invoke the Spirit.

At Notre Dame, I developed the habit of stopping at the grotto in the morning for prayer and reflection, departing with the plea, “Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Blessed Mother: Today is a workday and we all need to go to work.”

At the office, I would bring a cup of coffee into the tiny rosary chapel down the hall – as I do now at St. Stephen’s chapel at Catholic Relief Services – take in the aroma of the brew, place my hands around the cup to feel its warmth and “talk” about the day with the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Blessed Mother.

When I am dealing with “unwinnable” situations (regular fare), I note explicitly that God does not ask us to win, just to show up, give our best, do what we think is right and most importantly, to remember that the Holy Spirit will be with us.

I sometimes leave a chair empty for the Holy Spirit, a physical reminder casting back to the sisters’ admonition at high school dances that a couple should hold each other at arms’ length, leaving room for the Holy Spirit. I am keenly aware of my shortcomings and find peace when I have asked the Holy Spirit to take over: Please possess me.

The next morning, after grappling with the unwinnable, I muse on those occasions when I did not control my emotions as I had wished, showing exasperation, frustration and even tears. I wonder whether the unintended expressions were the Spirit at work.

It is interesting that commencement season falls around Pentecost, when we celebrate the Holy Spirit. Graduates are anxious because they do not know the future. My one piece of advice is the one Father Hesburgh gave me: to invoke the Holy Spirit, be joined at the hip, to know that you do not go at it alone. Let yourself feel the excitement of being sent into the world.

I recommend Cardinal John Henry Newman’s poem, “Lead, Kindly Light,” in which he tells us that by surrendering himself to God, he recognized that he did not need to see the whole plan, just one step was enough for him.

Life’s journey does not come with a map. You get to make your own map. But it does come with a compass in God’s commands and a companion whose power exceeds any superhero that Marvel Comics could dream up.

“Lead, Kindly Light”

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path; but now,
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
— Cardinal John Henry Newman


Carolyn Y. Woo is the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *