Catholic Pentecoctalism

Catholic Pentecoctalism: What Is It and Where Is It Going?

CALL it revival, spiritual renewal, or whatever, something big and of unusual significance is happening in Roman Catholicism. Singing with great enthusiasm, holding hands in the air while praying, speaking and singing in tongues, tens of thou sands of Catholic Pentecostals claim a deeper prayer life, praise God for an ongoing conversion and are studying the Scriptures on a scale rarely seen in Catholic history. Written off by some as "sheer emotionalism" and feared by others as "just another divisive factor," Catholic Pentecostalism is coming of age. . .

-an associate editor of Ministry at the time this article was written

CALL it revival, spiritual renewal, or whatever, something big and of unusual significance is happening in Roman Catholicism. Singing with great enthusiasm, holding hands in the air while praying, speaking and singing in tongues, tens of thou sands of Catholic Pentecostals claim a deeper prayer life, praise God for an ongoing conversion and are studying the Scriptures on a scale rarely seen in Catholic history. Written off by some as "sheer emotionalism" and feared by others as "just another divisive factor," Catholic Pentecostalism is coming of age.

Some Catholics are completely sold on the movement. Some re main cautious, even skeptical. But for all this, bishops, an increasing number of priests and nuns, and thousands of lay people are presently taking a longer look at the pentecostals—or, as many prefer to be called, charismatics.

Catholic Involvement

Pentecostalism has traditionally been associated with Protestant churches. But in early 1967, most notably at a weekend retreat of students at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, what has become a unified pentecostal movement began within Roman Catholicism. It was preceded by mounting frustration over spiritual stagnation, prayers of concerned laymen, and the reading of Protestant David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade. News spread to Notre Dame University and the University of Michigan campuses where students and faculty enlisted local Protestants to help them launch their prayer meetings. From these two sources, in turn, but also from other independent beginnings in Los Angeles, Boston, and elsewhere, the movement spread across the United States and into Canada.

The dramatic growth of the Catholic pentecostal movement— which by no means remained confined to campuses—can be illustrated by the fact that in the late spring of 1967 some 90 people gathered at Notre Dame for the first Catholic Pentecostal Conference. The same conference attracted 150 in 1968; about 450 in 1969 (the first real national meeting); 1,400 in 1970; 4,500 in 1971; and 10,000 last year. On the first weekend of June, 1973, some 25,000 gathered for the movement's seventh Catholic Charismatic Renewal Conference in the Notre Dame stadium. There are probably more than 200,000 of them in the U.S. today, organized in more than 1,200 prayer groups, as the directory published by the movement indicates (Box 12, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556).

There is also a newsy magazine, The New Covenant (Box 102, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48107), with a circulation of 22,000, twice the number of last year. More recently the renewal has taken root in foreign countries—where it is mushrooming fast, including Hong Kong, Korea, Peru, Australia, France, Brazil, and even Rome.

Why the Success?

What explains the phenomenal growth and success of the movement? One could, of course, refer to sociological and psychological factors. It has been done. But the answer, I think, lies deeper. There is a spiritual hunger among Catholics for a more intimate, more personal religious experience—a hunger that is not being satisfied. A time of disillusionment with institutional reforms in the church has inclined many to seek experiential religion in prayerful communities. As a result, a religion that had been static and distant all of a sudden comes to life for the Spirit-filled believer in ways that pervade everyday existence. Participants feel the closeness of God, vigor and hope suffuse their lives. They experience a warm and at times overwhelming sense of divine presence that aids inner peace and interpersonal openness, something they had never known before, the existence of which they didn't even suspect. Some of them say they speak in tongues, and some say they don't. But everyone claims to be "baptized in the Spirit," to know an overwhelming sense of love, a spirit of cohesiveness not often found in other religious gatherings involving the laity.

Catholic pentecostals are an ebullient group. They take to singing and praying with relish, punctuating their speech with an all-purpose exclamation, "Praise the Lord." There is no denying that most of them received their "Pentecostal experience" through the intermediary of a non-Catholic pentecostal. As mentioned earlier, David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade was the seed from which the movement sprang up in more than one place while in many others it was through the pentecostal association known as the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International that Catholics first encountered this new trend. But in spite of this heritage Catholic pentecostalism has taken on a somewhat different tone from what it has in classical Pentecostal churches. Catholic charismatics are generally not as emotional in worship, nor do they believe that glossolalia—the gift of tongues—is the necessary universal sign of Spirit baptism. Tongues, for them, is only one of several spiritual gifts. The evidence of Spirit baptism is a transformed life.

Increasing Acceptance

The jargon of the movement, its public prayer format resembling old-fashioned Protestant revivalism, and its stress on experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit through "charisms" once made most Catholics look askance. Many still do, although one of the most striking things about the 1973 pentecostal conference at Notre Dame was that the Catholic charismatic renewal has obviously gained new respect as a force in contemporary Roman Catholicism. The movement no longer attracts merely students, but apparently also a wide variety of Catholics. There also were signs of an in creasing acceptance of it by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Thus, for instance, eight bishops, including a Belgian cardinal, an archbishop from Nova Scotia and bishops from Korea and Haiti took part in the latest gathering. The weekend closed with a Sunday afternoon mass concelebrated by more than five hundred priests!

This was a far cry from the situation of six years ago when "baptism in the Spirit" was viewed with suspicion by most members of the hierarchy. Some signs were particularly significant, such as the powerful support provided by Leo-Jozef Cardinal Suenens, the primate of Belgium and one of the most progressive voices of the church's hierarchy. A staunch champion of co-responsibility of the bishops with the pope, Suenens emphasized that the structural reforms introduced by Vatican II must be accompanied by spiritual renewal. "The gifts of the Spirit are given especially to build up the Christian community," he told the stadium crowd. "After Vatican II we had to make a series of reforms, and we must continue to do so. But it is not enough to change the body. We need to change the soul, to renew the church and the face of the earth."

The American Hierarchy

In its 1969 "wait and see" statement, the American Roman Catholic hierarchy urged bishops to exercise "caution" and "proper supervision" in guiding Catholic charismatics. Stressing the involvement of "prudent priests," the re port concluded that "the movement should at this point not be inhibited but allowed to develop." Four years later the U.S. bishops seem satisfied with the growth and conduct of charismatic renewal groups in their dioceses. "A few are enthusiastic, and some others would like to know more," affirmed Auxiliary Bishop Joseph C. McKinney, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who is episcopal moderator for the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

Many bishops, in fact, have noted the positive elements of the movement—deeper prayer life, personal holiness, and the new sources of spiritual energy its members have spread around. They think the charismatic renewal is a good thing for the Catholic Church. But others are skeptical, and among Catholics not involved in the movement there is a special wariness. The claim of speaking in tongues, the alleged anti-intellectualism, the language often borrowed from mainline Protestant terminology and the impression given by some of being specially chosen, leave many Catholics uneasy about a movement that seems outside the traditional Catholic experience.

Some concerns reflect growing anti - institutional tendencies among a minority of Catholic Pentecostals—home masses, lack of interest in traditional liturgies, objections to certain doctrines.

Doctrine, for instance, can be something of a problem for the Catholic pentecostal who, in the light of the discovery that personal faith in Christ is what really counts, wonders where the value of infant baptism does lie. More generally, however, Catholic charismatics say that being baptized in the Spirit has given them a new appreciation for the doctrines of the church and has deepened the meaning of the sacraments. "Now," I have heard it affirmed many times, "I can see the meaning behind the structure, behind the ritual. I have found the source in Jesus Christ, something I had missed all along."

"Let me share with you one secret, how to receive the Holy Spirit in the best way" suggested Cardinal Suenens to the crowd gathered at the Notre Dame stadium. "The secret of our unity with the Holy Spirit is our unity with Mary, the Mother of Cod." At these words the entire 25,000 rose to their feet for a long period of applause and praise, indicative of their concern for and dedication to Catholic doctrine.

The same is true of their relationship to the hierarchy. Unlike other champions of spiritual renewals, Catholic pentecostals generally do not influence people to leave the church. On the contrary, bishops have thus far found them most obedient and docile when corrected, a strange phenomenon in this age of intransigence.

"You Are the Successor of Peter"

At the recent Notre Dame meeting speakers emphasized again the necessity for Catholic charismatics to work in obedience to their bishops and asked the bishops to guide them. Jesuit Father Cohen, of New Orleans, student chaplain at Loyola University and head of the pastoral team for the charismatic community there, urged the prayer groups to have direct contact with their local bishop "to assure him you aren't an underground group. And the bishop will be glad to know there is a group of people who specifically want to be obedient to him." Addressing the hierarchy, Cohen called on the church's bishops to find out what is happening in the movement. "Where in the Church today," he asked, "do you have such growing numbers of people crying out for your support and guidance?"

Then, addressing his words to Pope Paul VI, he implored him to offer his discernment to the movement and to "make a judgment about the true nature and proper use of [charismatic] gifts." "You are the vicar on earth of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. You are the successor of Peter. On this rock Jesus built His Church. We are founded on this rock and on this rock we stand," he concluded. With this pledge, once again the crowd exploded into applause and songs of alleluia, giving a long standing ovation to the pledge of loyalty to the Pope.

A New Challenge

Roman Catholic pentecostalism is too new a phenomenon to be adequately assessed by anybody. Time will be the biggest test of its worth and effectiveness. But one thing remains sure. In our attempt as Seventh-day Adventist ministers to carry the "everlasting gospel" to 45 million Roman Catholics in the U.S. alone we ought to recognize that we are faced with the development of a most important movement in contemporary Roman Catholicism. As it impinges upon Catholicism it has the effect of not doing away with any doctrines or practices, nor of erecting new ones, nor new churches, but rather of awakening in people a deeper appreciation of the Catholic Church and of the Catholic traditions. Its adherents speak comfortably and constantly about Jesus, and are interested in bringing people to a personal encounter with God through a study of the Scriptures.

How much of this is pure, unvarnished emotionalism and how much is a true and genuine turning to Christ is open to question. I think, however, that it offers us a new and probably unparalleled opportunity to open the Word of God to Roman Catholics who take doctrines seriously; a new chance to proclaim the gospel fully, with out any muffling or alteration of the message God has given us, a message made more appealing, more beautiful because centered on Jesus Christ. How relevant the remark of the inspired pen that "of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world."— Gospel Workers, p. 156.

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-an associate editor of Ministry at the time this article was written

March 1974

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