ROME — Rome this weekend is eerily bereft of Romans and traffic. A four-day weekend, and a hot one to boot, offer compelling reasons to make for the beaches.

Call it the calm before the fire. The roads have been cleared for huge numbers of singing, clapping pilgrims in bright red baseball caps here to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR).

The big event is the Pentecost vigil tonight in the Circus Maximus, when Pope Francis will pray with some 30,000 pilgrims from 230 countries, offering them guidance and, of course, invoking a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Among them will be hundreds of Pentecostal and evangelical leaders who form part of CCR communities.

Meanwhile, it’s been a time for looking back and taking stock of the significance of a movement that began — like the Church itself — from a small group of people swept up by an intense experience of the Holy Spirit: Not, this time, in Jerusalem, but on a campus near Pittsburgh in 1967.

From that so-called “Duquesne weekend” the Renewal spread rapidly, as people were baptised in the Spirit, and new groups and movements appeared across the Church, touching millions. Charismatics speak of the greatest spiritual awakening since the early Church, an “outpouring of grace” for all Catholics.

On Thursday morning at the Vatican’s Urbaniana university, some of the CCR’s leading minds were taking stock of the road traveled so far and thinking about what it has meant for the Church.

To describe this as a symposium doesn’t quite capture it. There was “praise” — including singing in tongues — beforehand, and quite a few of the speakers couldn’t resist kerygmatic outbursts that elicited from the audience outbursts of “Alleluia” and “Praise the Lord!”

When the preacher of the papal household, Franciscan friar Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, happened to mention ‘Amazing Grace’ halfway through his talk, he couldn’t resist getting us all to sing the first verse.

And when the Pentecostal speaker, Vinson Synan, gave a powerful testimony of the fruits of the outpouring of the Spirit in the Catholic Church, the audience rose up to clap and give praise. He sat back in his chair, arms outstretched, shaking his head and giving thanks — smitten in the Spirit.

But as unusual as this may be in an academic hall in Rome, it’s increasingly the new normal in the Church across the world, a sign of how far this extraordinary movement has come in a matter of decades.

The main takeaway for me was that in the Francis pontificate the two currents of renewal in the modern Church — the “conciliar” and the “charismatic” — are meeting in an exciting new moment that many described as a kairos, or “time of special graces.”

Despite all the talk of the Second Vatican Council as a new Pentecost, and its acknowledgement of the charismatic dimension alongside the institutional, the Holy Spirit didn’t occupy a central role in the documents themselves. According to Cantalamessa, the flourishing of what the Protestant theologian Karl Barth called “third-article” — that is, of the Creed — theology came afterwards, and has been the major innovation in theology since then.

More than one speaker recalled how the Renewal was accepted with remarkable speed in the Catholic Church, especially compared with the way the Pentecostal revival had been rejected by mainstream Protestantism. (Synan had a very funny description of arriving in Rome in 1972 alongside a nun who turned out to be baptized in the Spirit.)

The acceptance was modeled by the popes, beginning with Paul VI in 1975, although most bishops were a lot slower to embrace the new outpouring.

One area which Rome for a long time did not recognize was the charismatic work for Christian unity, according to Fr. Peter Hocken, an English priest long involved in the CCR.

The Renewal was born ecumenical — the fruit of Catholics being prayed over by Pentecostals — and from the start went beyond the conventional theological dialogue model that came out of the Second Vatican Council.

Hocken calls this extra element “charismatic ecumenism,” because it involves discerning the action of the Holy Spirit in — and recognizing the gifts poured out by the Spirit on — other denominations. One of its “striking hallmarks,” he says, is “the radical equality of all those baptized in the Holy Spirit,” one that “requires a new formulation of our convictions.”

Despite the embraces of Karl Rahner and Yves Congar, theologians in the 1980s and 1990s were suspicious that charismatic ecumenism was insufficiently ecclesial and too “emotional,” a fear that only began to disappear after St. John Paul II’s 1999 Ut Unum Sint. 

Now, says Hocken, Pope Francis in both word and action “is bringing to an end the lack of connection between official ecumenism and charismatic ecumenism. This is very significant.”

Francis’s outreach to Pentecostals and evangelicals has been marked his insistence that the “current of Grace” represented by the Renewal is fruit of the one Holy Spirit calling the Christian Churches into unity, not through proselytism or purely intellectual dialogue but in revealing their oneness in diversity.

Under Francis, the conciliar and the charismatic renewals are being brought together, Hocken says, in a “Kairos moment of great opportunity.”

Long before he became pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was practising this “ecumenical ecumenism” in Buenos Aires, giving his support to huge joint Catholic-evangelical meetings in Luna Park stadium.

Two of them were attended by Cantalamessa, who was deeply impressed by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires’s extraordinary openness to the current of Grace. “I’ve never seen a bishop in front of an interconfessional audience declare, ‘this is the Church’,” he told me during a break on Thursday.

In his talk, the preacher to the papal household noted how the longstanding western cultural perception of Christianity as gloomy rather than joyful was the result of a practical reduction of the role of Grace. In effect, western Christianity — less so in the east — over time came to focus almost exclusively on the power of Grace to free from sin, rather than on the new life in Christ it brought.

One of the effects of the the current of grace enabled by the Renewal (and the Pentecostal revival before it), has been to bring back that balance, “allowing us to restore to Christian salvation the rich and inspiring content consisting of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the new life in Christ.”

This what what Paul VI meant, said Cantalamessa, when he spoke in 1975 of the Renewal as a “chance for the Church and the world.”

What Cantalamessa called “a joyous, contagious Christianity in the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit without the gloom Neitzsche reproached Christianity for” is captured, of course, in the titles of Francis’s two exhortations, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ and ‘The Joy of Love.’

In Francis, says Hocken, there is a “new emphasis on the creativity of the Holy Spirit,” reminding people that while some things may stay the same, nothing is ever merely repeated, and that God is constantly doing new things.

That can often be missed, he says, by Catholics anxious to find a precedent for everything in past tradition — yet tradition is precisely made up of the new things God has done for His Church.

But maybe it takes the Holy Spirit to see that.