Charismatic Catholics arrive in Rome for Spirit-filled week

Charismatic Catholics arrive in Rome for Spirit-filled week

Charismatic Catholics arrive in Rome for Spirit-filled week

Pope Francis presides over an Oct. 4, 2014 prayer vigil for the Extraordinary Assembly for the Synod of Bishops on the Family. (Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA.)

Some 30,000 Charismatic Christians from 130 countries are in town for four days of high-octane praise and adoration prayers and liturgies, as well as workshops, testimonies, healings, and not a few invocations of the Holy Spirit. The events culminate in a vigil in the Circus Maximus with Pope Francis on Saturday evening, and Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday.

ROME — Streaming into Rome from the four corners of the globe this week are thousands of people with high expectations of what they call “a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit” at this weekend’s Pentecost celebration.

Normally that wouldn’t be news. But this year the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) is celebrating its fiftieth Jubilee, and therefore especially hopes for “special graces,” as one of its organizers, Michelle Moran, puts it.

Some 30,000 people from 130 countries are in town for four days of high-octane praise and adoration prayers and liturgies, as well as workshops, testimonies, healings, and not a few invocations of the Holy Spirit.

The events culminate in a vigil in the Circus Maximus with Pope Francis on Saturday evening, and Pentecost Mass in St Peter’s Square on Sunday.

The Jubilee marks 50 years since the so-called “Duquesne weekend,” when a group of professors and students from the university of Duquesne 15 miles north of Pittsburgh had a series of ecstatic experiences following a three-day retreat focussed on the Acts of the Apostles, including praying in tongues and healings.

According to New Orleans-based author and speaker Patti Gallagher Mansfield, one of those present at the Duquesne weekend, this “baptism in the Spirit” is understood as a three-fold phenomenon: A release of the graces of baptism and confirmation which lie dormant because of people’s lack of faith and “expectation”; a new coming of the Spirit to equip the Church for a new mission; and a special eschatological grace to unite Christians of different denominations.

At the request of Francis, who points to the ecumenical birth of the CCR, there will be around 5,000 evangelicals and Pentecostals who form part of CCR communities worldwide present at this week’s celebrations.

Duquesne was the moment when what had been an exclusively Pentecostal phenomenon — accepted with difficulty by Protestant churches —  began to enter the Catholic bloodstream, spreading rapidly in spite of opposition. It reached Brazil, the country which has today the strongest charismatic presence (2 million people in 20,000 prayer groups) just two years later.

The Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) today claims more than 120 million members in 235 countries, although given that the definition of a charismatic is one who has received a “baptism in the Spirit” leading to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, keeping tabs on numbers is not an exact science.

In some parts of the Church these days — above all in Brazil — charismatic worship has gone mainstream, to the point where it is indistinguishable from ordinary Catholic worship.

However you measure it, the CCR is numerically the most significant of all the so-called “new movements” — although that term can mislead. The CCR isn’t a movement in the usual sense: It has no human founder — charismatics say its founder is the Holy Spirit itself — and rather than a single entity it is a global patchwork of loosely affiliated communities and prayer groups of charismatic inspiration.

As its early advocates, above all the then Archbishop of Brussels, Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens, would insist, the Renewal wasn’t so much a movement that you joined, as a movement that joined the Church.

Given the strong opposition in the 1970s from most Catholic bishops, charismatics say the fact that the CCR is so much a part of ordinary Catholic life these days is in itself evidence of the Holy Spirit.

Among those speaking at events over the next days are some of the early pioneers such as Gallagher Mansfield and Ralph Martin who will be looking back on the road traveled, and marveling at what has been achieved.

But behind the scenes, it’s also clear that this week’s gathering is an opportunity for Francis to help the CCR to reform — to encourage what might be called a “renewal of the Renewal.” In this effort, he certainly has credentials.

Even though previous popes have also strongly supported the charismatics, no pope has ever been as close to the CCR as Francis.

Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, went from being one of the opponents of the Renewal in the 1970s — the then Argentine provincial disliked what he saw as its samba-like prayer and its spiritual elitism, and forbade the Jesuits to have anything to do with it — to strongly endorsing it as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Just a few months before the 2013 conclave, Francis was named the spiritual assistant, or chaplain, to the CCR by the Argentine bishops’ conference.

At a meeting with charismatics in June 2014, he recalled how he would celebrate Mass in the cathedral for the Argentine CCR, and would have “a few moments of adoration in tongues” following the consecration.

In response to a question from me during the press conference on board the flight back from Sweden in October last year, he described the 7,000-strong ecumenical gatherings in the Buenos Aires stadium of Luna Park organized by the Communion of Renewed Catholics and Evangelicals (CRECES) and how he arranged for joint spiritual retreats of 100 Catholic clergy with a dozen Pentecostal pastors.

The Church’s most famous charismatic, Father Raniero Cantalamessa — Preacher to the Papal Household for the last 34 years — was invited to preach at one of them, and said the Church was watching carefully what was happening in the Argentine capital.

Looking over Francis’s addresses to Renewal groups since his election (one in 2014, two in 2015) it is clear he wants to see the CCR return to the original vision of the three famous “Malines documents,” which were drawn up by Cardinal Suenens and the Brazilian bishop Helder Camera, leading exponent of a “poor Church, for the poor.”

Francis in 2014 used the titles of these documents to remind the Renewal that its path was “evangelization, spiritual ecumenism, caring for the poor and needy, and welcoming the marginalized.” To mark the latter priority, at Saturday’s Vigil, special places have been reserved for some of Rome’s homeless.

The other part of Francis’s invitation, to be at the forefront of Christian unity, will also be clear on Saturday, when Francis will share the stage with Cantalamessa and Pastor Giovanni Traettino, a Pentecostal whom the pope privately visited in 2014 in Caserta to apologize for the Catholic Church’s past mistreatment of evangelicals.

“You Charismatics have a special grace to pray and work for Christian unity, so that the current of grace may pass through all Christian Churches,” he said in his July 2015 address.

Francis insists that it is the same Holy Spirit that blows through all the Churches impacted by the Renewal, creating unity in diversity, or rather, unity through diversity. (Neither division nor uniformity, in Francis’s reading, are of the Spirit).

As Michelle Moran, British president of one of the two bodies representing the Renewal in the Vatican noted yesterday in a briefing for journalists, “We are able to say together that Jesus is Lord, and we can say that only because of the Holy Spirit.”

The choice of the Circus Maximus — where on Saturday some 300 evangelical and Pentecostal leaders will take their seats at the Vigil — reflects that priority: First because it is a neutral alternative to St. Peter’s Square, secondly because, as a historic place of martyrdom, it offers the chance for Francis to refer to the “ecumenism of blood” of today’s Christian martyrs.

But speaking of unity, one of the ironies of the CCR is that, although unity is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, there are two rival organizations representing charismatics in the Vatican: as well as the predominantly Anglo-Saxon ICCRS, there is the largely Latin-American Catholic Fraternity of groups of charismatic inspiration.

When I asked about this yesterday, both Moran and the president of the Catholic Fraternity, Brazilian Gilberto Gomes Barbosa, stressed that the two organizations were the fruit of history, and that the two organizations nowadays regularly work closely together.

Yet Francis is known to regard the division as something of a scandal, one that contradicts the idea of the Renewal as a single current of grace.

He asked the two bodies to take “co-responsibility” for the organization of the Jubilee, so that they work more closely together. And after the Jubilee is over, Moran told Crux yesterday, they will be looking at how to fuse the two organizations.

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