ROME, MAY 8, 2012 (Zenit.org).
A reader’s question answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university:
Q: Before the Second Vatican Council, the Third Person of the Trinity was referred to in English as the Holy Ghost. The Sign of the Cross was made in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. When priests delivered sermons they made the Sign of the Cross with these words at the beginning and end of their sermons. In current practice, the words Holy Spirit seem to have taken precedence, except in churches where the extraordinary rite of the Mass is exclusively celebrated. When the Holy Father celebrates Mass in his native tongue, he uses the word Geist (ghost). Is the current usage a result of the ICEL translations? Has it been decreed by proper liturgical authority, or is it just a linguistic change occurring over a period of time? Are we incorrect in using the term Holy Ghost in private as well as liturgical prayer? — H.M., Diamondhead, Mississippi.
A: I would say that the change reflects the evolution of the words. Both Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit were used to refer to the Third Person of the Trinity well before the 20th century, although the former was the most common in biblical and prayer texts.
The word ghost is of Germanic origin and comes from Old English gast, meaning soul, life, breath, good or bad spirit, angel or demon. Christian texts in Old English use gast to translate the Latin Spiritus from where we get Holy Ghost. The more modern sense of a disembodied dead person is first attested in the late 14th century but remained quite rare. In modern English, the word gast sneaked into the word aghast, which means “to be terrified, shocked, or rendered breathless.” The related German word Geist, which means both spirit and ghost, has occasionally found its way into English in words such as poltergeist.
Spirit comes to English from Latin through French and also means souls, courage, vigor, breath. The original uses in English are mainly translations from the Vulgate Latin Bible that translate the Greek Pneuma and Hebrew Ruah. Christians also made a distinction between soul and spirit. Spirit, in the sense of a supernatural being, is found from the 13th century.
When translating the Bible into English the scholars behind the King James Version (1611) opted to use the term Holy Ghost. This is used 90 times in the KJV, while Holy Spirit occurs seven times. The reason for the choice is not clear, as the words Ghost and Spirit translate the same Greek words.
This use of Holy Ghost had already been made in the Douay-Rheims Catholic translation, first published in 1582 and revised several times. This was the Bible chiefly used by English-speaking Catholics for several centuries.
Practically all recent translations of the Bible, both Protestant and Catholic, have preferred Holy Spirit in most instances. The reason is probably because the meaning of the word ghost has gradually shifted over the last 300 years and now predominantly refers to the vision of the specter of a deceased person or a demonic apparition.
This change in biblical texts was already standard well before it became necessary to translate the liturgical texts into English. Since liturgical and biblical texts are closely related, it was natural to follow the biblical standard in liturgical translation.
It must also be remembered that in literature the popularity of the “ghost story” had enjoyed an enormous boom from the mid-19th century on, a popularity compounded by the advent of the cinema and television.
All of this probably led translators to the conclusion that the meaning of the word Ghost had been so transformed and stereotyped that continuing to apply it to refer to the Divine Person was more likely to lead to confusion than would the alternative expression Holy Spirit.
Holy Spirit therefore is now universally used in all official texts, and over the last 50 years or so has become common usage. The expression Holy Ghost, however, when properly understood, retains its validity in the context of personal prayer for those who wish to continue using it.