Don’t be surprised if you hear in the coming days that a few hundred thousand people are making their way to Rome. They’ve all headed there to mark the 50th anniversary of the charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church, a phenomenon that is estimated to have impacted the lives of more than 120 million Catholics in over 200 countries.
The Catholic Charismatic Renewal traces its origins to a weekend retreat for college students at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in February 1967. At the retreat, the participants had a powerful encounter with God, one that came about after they had spent a considerable time in prayer, asking God to allow them to experience the grace of both Baptism and Confirmation. Word of this unique and transformative event spread quickly throughout the United States and abroad. Many people all over the world who began to pray for a similar experience of the Holy Spirit had the same encounter further fueling the growth of this movement.
To me at least, it’s hard to see it as a coincidence that the Catholic Charismatic Renewal began just a few years after Pope John XXIII famously prayed for “a new Pentecost” in preparation for the Second Vatican Council. And since its inception, the Church has been very affirming of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Pope John Paul II called it “one of the many fruits of the Second Vatican Council”, because of the way it was touching the lives of countless people and helping them to rediscover their faith, the joy of prayer, the power and beauty of the Word of God, and subsequently moving them to serve the Church in different ways. Pope Paul VI, who was the Pontiff at the time the movement began, said “nothing is more necessary to such an increasingly secularized world as the testimony of this ‘spiritual renewal,’ which we see the Holy Spirit bringing forth today in the most diverse regions and environments.”
Fifty years after the now-famous ‘Duquesne weekend’, the Church is marking the golden jubilee in style. The main celebrations are planned in locations across Rome from May 31 to Pentecost Sunday, June 4. The highlights of the program in Rome will be the Pentecost Vigil on the evening of June 3 and the Pentecost Mass on June 4, both being led by Pope Francis.
It’s interesting that these events are being led by Pope Francis, given his own past misgivings about the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. By his own admission, he said he previously didn’t care too much for charismatics because they reminded him of a “samba school”. Yet, as the years passed, he came to embrace this movement. Today, he believes that the Catholic Charismatic Renewal has reminded the Church of the need and importance of the prayer of praise, because it is through praise that we recognize the Lordship of God over us and over all creation.
To be sure, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal has its fair share of critics. The movement isn’t one single organization, rather, it is a loose collection of individuals, associations, covenant communities, and so on. As such, a few misguided groups have sometimes given the overall movement a bad reputation because they introduced certain practices that distracted from, or in extreme cases, even departed from authentic Church teachings and traditions. In particular, the emphasis on creating an emotional and heart-warming worship experience contributed to some Catholics even opting for these events over attending Mass.
This is undoubtedly unfortunate because the Catholic Charismatic Renewal is not of human origin, but is the work of the Holy Spirit, pouring new life into the Church to renew it. Leaders in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal have consistently expressed their fidelity to the Catholic Church and have echoed the words of Pope John Paul II, who said that the institutional and charismatic aspects are co-essential to the Church, because they together contribute to the life, renewal and sanctification of the People of God. Anyone who calls themselves ‘charismatic,’ should be open to the ways, gifts and promptings of the Holy Spirit. But these are all granted to us to draw us deeper into the fullness of the love, power and presence of Christ, which is most tangibly present, in this world at least, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist.
What’s more, is that the Catholic Charismatic Renewal has opened doors to further ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and other Protestant groups. The style of prayer used by charismatics, often called ‘praise and worship’, is similar to the worship services of many other Christian communities. Many Pentecostal and Evangelical communities are also often founded on a desire to be led by the Holy Spirit, which is similar to the vision of many Catholic charismatic organizations. Thus, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal is helping many of our Christian brethren see how there is a lot more that unites us, rather than divides us.
Following the lead of the Holy Spirit, as well as both ministering and praying in a way that uses the gifts and charisms of the Holy Spirit is not something that belongs in the domain of Protestants. It is wholly Catholic! We see evidence of Spirit-led prayer and ministry in numerous passages in the Acts of the Apostles that proves that the early building blocks of the Catholic Church were laid by people who, in our day and age, we would call ‘charismatic’. As Fr. Michael Scanlan, the former president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, once wrote, “The Charismatic Renewal does not purport to offer the Church anything new; it contends only that God is calling attention to what was in the center of the life of the Church for centuries, but which has been overlooked or greatly undervalued in the modern church.”
Yet, it’s amazing how some people within the Catholic Church still dismiss the Renewal movement, despite every recent Pope backing it. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us of how any action of the Holy Spirit is not a historical event of the past, but is a reality that’s always alive: “At a moment of weariness in the Church, at a time when we were hearing about ‘the winter of the Church’, the Holy Spirit (is) creating a new springtime, awakening in young people and adults alike the joy of being Christian, of living in the Church.”
Thus, the golden jubilee of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal is hugely significant. We should be thankful that though we live in an age often considered to be filled with darkness, we are starting to see glimmers of hope because of movements like the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which is playing a vital role in the new evangelization efforts of our Church.
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