Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit?

A while back, I read a post, (I wish I could remember where) in which the blogger said she preferred "Holy Ghost" to "Holy Spirit" because the former referred to a Person, while the latter could be some kind of amorphous, pantheistic force, such as "May the Force be With You!"   She recognized that some might have problems with the word "ghost" because of popular connotations of haunted houses and Casper the Friendly Ghost and so on.

Do you have any thoughts on why you might prefer one or the other?   I find I personally like the use in a liturgical setting, but I am unlikely to speak about the third Person in the Trinity as the Holy Ghost, but maybe I should rethink that.

Author: Deborah Gyapong

Deborah Gyapong is a member of the Sodality of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (www.annunciationofthebvm.org) in Ottawa, a former parish of the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada (Traditional Anglican Communion) whose members were received individually and corporately into the Roman Catholic Church on April 15, 2012 by Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast at St. Patrick’s Basilica. Under the provisions of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, the community will celebrate an approved Anglican Use liturgy and hopes to soon join with other sodalities across Canada to form the Canadian Deanery of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter under Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, Ordinary. As we wait for our priest(s) to be ordained as Catholic priests, God willing, Archbishop Prendergast will provide priests to celebrate our Sunday Eucharist according to the Anglican Use. Deborah is a journalist who covers religion and politics in Canada’s national capital, writing primarily for Roman Catholic newspapers since 2004. Her novel The Defilers, published in 2006, was not a best seller, alas. She spent 17 years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in news and current affairs, including 12 years as a television producer.

13 thoughts on “Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit?”

  1. Surely the two words are simply interchangeable. I would think that the word ghost is simply an older English use, and very suitable if you are going to use older English liturgical language; spirit of course is the literal translation of the Latin liturgical use which would commend itself therefore to some. The Canadian Book of Common Prayer uses both, so I think this issue is just setting up straw men.

  2. Surely it doesn't have to be one or the other. Those of us who, when in the Church of England, used the Book of Prayer (usually "Ghost") had no problem with "by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit" in the opening Collect for Purity. Similarly, the hymn Veni Creator opens with "Come, Holy Ghost,…" and concludes, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." A bit of variety, just like Shakespeare spelling his name in different ways!

  3. I have two excellent articles on the topic but due to length don't know if they can be posted here. Any suggestions? Catholic texts prior to the 40's generally used Holy Ghost and the also capitalized pronouns referring to members of the Trinity. With the early public emergence of Novus Ordo liturgics in the 40's this style withered.

  4. Both terms have a very traditional usage in English. Ghost, the Germanic form, is about twice as old as Spirit in English but Spirit has at least 700 years of usage. In traditional usage, Ghost is the common and perhaps the 'default' form but Spirit is used widely for useful variation. In some prayers, Spirit just works better, such as the most common Litany of the Holy Spirit. But in some of the other prayers and litanies, Ghost works as well or better in terms of euphony. In the English Veni Creator Spiritus, one can begin, Come, Holy Ghost. However, 'Send forth Thy Ghost' looks odd, whereas 'Send forth Thy Spirit' seems natural.

    So I'd say that it is best to use both but Ghost as the standard, esp. in the Signum Crucis and the Lesser Doxology.


  5. The "Ghost" in Holy Ghost is from the Germanic "gaist" which means spirit. German still has "geist" which means the same thing and has entered the English language as "poltergeist" and "zeitgiest" So the "Ghost" and "Spirit" can be interchanged really. It shouldn't be a big deal. Germans still say "Heilige Geist" in invoking the Spirit and no one in Germany mistakes Him for a spook!

    However since nuances change over the centuries, "Ghost" in English now means spook. It depends on the language of the prayers and who are you praying with. I don't think it is advisable to use "Holy Ghost" in prayers with small children for the "Ghost" can scare the hell out of them. The authors of the hilariously orthodox "Growing up Catholic" had that as an advice! If its in Traditional Language then we know Holy Ghost is the Third Person in the Blessed Trinity. Some hymns sung in church still uses "Ghost" while the more contemporary ones use "Spirit". I don't see any issue with that either.

  6. "The use of 'Holy Ghost' instead of 'Holy Spirit' is permitted according to local custom."
    (from Introduction to the new wedding and funeral rites for Ordinariates)

    Seems at least this will not be a deal-breaker 😉

  7. If you are working with children, I think the answer is a 'no-brainer'—go with Spirit if you ever expect children to have a prayerful relationship with the Holy Spirit. If you want them to be afraid of God and eventually opt out of a life of faith completely, then go with Ghost for sure!

    1. I had the opposite experiece, growing up Presbyterian in the 90s. Yeah, "ghost" sounded unusual the first time I recited the Apostle's Creed, but even at 8 or 9 years old it was pretty obvious on first reading what the connotation was. "Spirit" made me think of either ancestor worship, or some sort of holy work ethic. Rather, for me, using the word "virgin" made me blush somehow, Jesus descending into "hell" didn't seem right (the fact that *Some Churches omit this didn't clarify the situation), and I always imagined a miniature Jesus sitting in the palm of the Father's right hand.

      In the end, my vote is to keep "Holy Ghost." It's not any more difficult to understand than "spirit", and it preserves a text that has been used for generations. Why change it just to change it?

    2. Come, come. This assumes that children learn the negative sense of ghost before they learnt the positive sense. That need not be, unless they be raised on Hollywood horror films. Ghost was standard for me as a child and I simple didn't see the link to the spooks. We have words in English which sound alike but are spelt differently (e.g. peek, peak, pique) and words which are spelt and sounded alike but have different meanings, and so forth. It is no big deal. Children can handle it. How coddled they are nowadays. No spankings, no scary words, no ghost stories or tales of witches eating lost toddlers. Just boring liberal culture.


  8. The catechism has

    …and that it will please him to save and defend us in all dangers ghostly and bodily; and that he will keep us from all sin and wickedness, and from our ghostly enemy…

    No need to change it.

  9. Ghost is derived from the Anglo Saxon word Gast which of course is the German word Geist.

    Like Ghost the word Holy is of Anglo Saxon origin Halig even closer to the it's german cousin Heilig

    From Halige Gast in Anglo Saxon to Holy Ghost is an obvious progression and it has obviously been in use since that time.

    Spirit is really a latinate word and doesn't really go with Holy if we were to make it consistent then it would Saintly Spirit…

    Holy Ghost is the venerable english form – lets stick with that.


  10. Those of us raised with the Old Missals, like the St Joseph, or attending parochial schools always used the term Holy Ghost. Ghost seemed a definite person, like the third person of the Holy Trinity. Spirit was more like the Christmas spirit or the spirit of the season. the spirit of VII etc. After the council some, well meaning or misguided persons, felt that everything just needed to change for the sake of "fresh air" I prefer to keep the Holy Ghost and just let the spirits come and go with the seasons.

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