– by Fady Noun
A “current of grace” for the whole church
The Golden Jubilee of the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church just held in Rome (31 May-4 June 2017) has been described by many as “an ecumenical Pentecost,” with Pope Francis being the foremost to insist on the “ecumenical character” of this renewal from its inception.
Historically, the 1960s saw an extraordinary convergence of two currents of grace that led to the charismatic renewal of the Catholic Church – an extraordinary spiritual heritage that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, with a depth in the church that is both Catholic and Evangelical. There is Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), who on the advice of a nun, Elena Guerra, consecrated the 20th century to the Holy Spirit. And there is also a small Protestant evangelical congregation established in Topeka, Kansas USA.
Sister Elena Guerra is the founder of the Congregation of the Oblates of the Holy Spirit in Luca, Italy. At the age of 50, she wrote to Pope Leo XIII under special inspiration and, encouraged by her spiritual director, urged Pope Leo to ardently call on the Holy Spirit for the renewal of the Catholic Church. Elena Guerra’s correspondence with the Pope also resulted in a religious ceremony led by Leo XIII on 1 January 1901, the first day of the first year of the 20th century, in which he invoked the Holy Spirit and in the name of the whole church sang the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come Creator Spirit).
On that same day, another key event took place at about 11 pm, thousands of miles away in the town of Topeka, Kansas USA. The Reverend Charles Fox Parham had set up the Bethel Bible College and in it a chain of uninterrupted prayer had been going on to invoke the Holy Spirit. And a student asked Rev Parham to lay his hands on her and pray. She was then baptised into the Holy Spirit and began to pray in tongues. In the days that followed Rev Parham and others had the same experience. This event is generally considered the starting point of Pentecostalism in the Protestant churches.
Christ, in order to renew his church, he who had made Peter a fisherman of men, threw his nets among humble black people and white people in a nation that was to become the world’s super power. He did so far from the established churches of a sleepy Reformation – churches that ended up persecuting the emerging “Pentecostalism” and forced it to become a tradition on its own. Such is the story of this historical and mystical link that binds the Catholic Church to the Pentecostal movement, a link confirmed by subsequent developments.
It is worth noting that Elena Guerra was the first woman to be beatified by Pope John XXIII, the pope who also summoned the Second Vatican Council and asked the church to pray to the Holy Spirit to renew his wonders “as in a new Pentecost.” It is thanks to the faithfulness of the Pentecostal churches through many persecutions that the buds of a new spring came to flower in American Catholic academic circles at the University of Pittsburgh in 1967, two years after the Vatican Council ended. From there, a spiritual renewal spread like wildfire throughout the world, to the point that the “members” of prayer groups and communities claiming to be part of the Charismatic Renewal now numbered 150 million.
It is the very fact that those Catholics who were baptised in the Holy Spirit refused to leave the Catholic Church, and that the Catholic Church took an inclusive approach to this renewal, which made possible the Charismatic Renewal as we know it.
In welcoming the “charismatics” in Rome at Pentecost in 1975, Pope Paul VI said that in view of its fruits, “How could one not believe that this renewal is an opportunity for the whole church?” Thus Paul VI issued a warning to bishops not to reject the renewal, since bishops in the early days had mistrusted it. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis have confirmed this prudent and courageous judgement of Paul VI.
With the Golden Jubilee just held in Rome, Francis completed the task and officially accredited the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church as “a current of grace” for the whole church and the experience of baptism in the Spirit as a rule in the life of every Christian.
During a symposium held at the Pontifical Urbaniana University during the Jubilee in Rome, four significant authors and theologians of the charismatic renewal – Raniero Cantalamessa, Ralph Martin, Peter Hocken and Vinson Synan – made some informative statements that developed what Pope Francis had said.
In his warm voice, Fr. Cantalamessa, the Preacher of the Papal Household, said that the charismatic renewal is, since Vatican II, “the most remarkable sign of the awakening of the Catholic Church to the action of the Holy Spirit and to its charisms.” He also spoke about the contribution of the charismatic renewal to the renewal of theology in the Western Catholic Church and in the Protestant churches.
Fr. Cantalamessa, quoting St. Augustine – and Nietzsche as a counterpoint – as well as Protestant theologian Karl Barth and Saint Basil of Caesarea, spoke of a “theology of the third article” of the Creed (I believe in the Holy Spirit) – a theology that has renewed the spirituality of the Western church by “restoring to the doctrine of salvation its positive content, namely the constant and inward presence (indwelling) of the Holy Spirit and the new life in Christ” in contrast to the negative, repressive and guilty content.
This is why, Fr. Cantalamessa insisted, the “charismatic renewal” must not be reduced to a pious devotion or belonging to a group or movement, but must be understood as “personal openness to the Holy Spirit” or as a “current of grace flowing in different forms” throughout the church.
Fr Peter Hocken and Vinson Synan both insisted on the “radical equality” of all those who receive the baptism in the Spirit. Fr. Hocken also spoke of a “charismatic ecumenism” that brings together all those who have experienced baptism in the Spirit, as opposed to the theological ecumenism in the institutional church.
For his part, Ralph Martin shed new light on the sacrament of confirmation, considering that the experience of the inward presence (infilling) of the Spirit can be regularly renewed, that it is not “given once and for all times.” For him, there will be no “new evangelisation” without “a new Pentecost.”
What is happening in various forms in the Catholic Church is good. In it, the “baptism in the Spirit” is spread by a thousand ways through the body of the institutional church, well beyond the visible boundaries of charismatic groups, communities or fraternities with their more permanent or less permanent structures.
The future of chrarismatic renewal, a prophetic breath
What is the future of the charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church? Speaking on 1st June in St John Lateran Basilica on behalf of Christian Renewal communities, Bruce Yocum, who was there at the beginning of the Renewal among the thousands of students at the University of Michigan, began by telling the crowded basilica that the Psalms are entrusted with “the task of sacred memory”, that of remembrance and the “repetition of all the wonders of God” from “generation to generation.” Afterwards, he thanked Patti Mansfield Gallagher for the fervour and fidelity with which she described in her book As by a new Pentecost the famous “weekend in Duquesne” in 1967, when the charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church was born.
Witness to the sudden process with which charismatic renewal went beyond the geographical and ecclesial (denominational) boundaries towards a basic ecumenism, Bruce Yocum also gave thanks for “the hundreds of currents” (neocatechumenals, focolarini, Sant’Egidio, Communion and Liberation, Cursillo, etc.] that the Holy Spirit brought forth within the Catholic Church in the 20th century, along with the charismatic renewal. Looking into the future, Bruce suggested that this renewal appears to be the early stages of an unprecedented evangelisation in the context of the world’s deep spiritual darkness.
Ralph Martin and then Bruce Yocum had announced this ambiguous “time” on Pentecost Monday in 1975 at the height of Pope Paul VI’s pontificate. That year, he welcomed the “expanding” charismatic renewal to the Vatican, including some 10,000 of its members – a multiform but still united current of grace that had come to Rome. On that Pentecost Monday, the Pope had celebrated a special Mass for the “Renewal.” After he had left the altar, there was a problem with the other microphones during the time for prophetic utterance, and only one was working, the one at the high altar, that had been used by the pontiff.
Moved by a sense of prophetic urgency, first Ralph Martin and then Bruce Yocum took to that microphone to speak the prophetic words in St Peter’s. “Because I love you,” said Ralph Martin’s prophecy, “I want to show you what I am doing in the world today. I want to prepare you for what is to come. Days of darkness are coming on the world, days of tribulation….Buildings that are now standing will not be standing….A time of darkness is coming on the world, but a time of glory is coming for my church….I will prepare you for a time of evangelism that the world has never seen….And when you have nothing but me, you will have everything….Be ready.”
The year 1975 was already at some distance from the prayer with which John XXIII opened the Council (1962), the first gust of wind into the sails of Peter’s boat moving it away from the rocks of the Sea of Tiberias and making it regain the deep waters where a new miraculous catch was awaiting. Pope John XXIII, who had called the Second Vatican Council had prayed, “Renew your wonders, as by a new Pentecost,” not knowing what the future of the Catholic Church would be like. But we know a bit better today. The oil of renewal is conquering the Catholic world, in parallel with the devastation of secularism that is gradually emptying the churches of Europe and causing a new, massive exodus of Christians from the East that was Christ’s birthplace.
An Orient emptied of its Christians
The echo of the prophecies had not yet stopped resonating amongset the marble and colonnades of St Peter’s when some buildings began to crumble in Lebanon. Without going too far into the analysis of the pros and cons of what happened, it is clear that the war that broke out in Lebanon on 13 April 1975 was the turning point in a spiral of violence that during the next 40 years would empty the Middle East of much of its Christian population – something that is still ongoing.
Along with other religious minorities, Christians were among the first victims of the mortal rivalry that broke out in the 1970s and 1980s between two Islams: the militant Islam of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and a Salafist revival that aimed at conquering the world – a rivalry that has its effects, from mosques in Europe to the Nineveh plain in Iraq.
Speaking privately about the “darkness” announced in 1975, Bruce Yocum answered with surprising depth. For him, the word darkness is to be understood above all in a spiritual sense, and the darkness that has appeared, he said, is not comparable with the one that is yet to come. Author of a reference work on the conditions and the exercise of the charism of prophecy in charismatic renewal, Bruce Yocum said in essence: “Listening to Ralph Martin [in St. Peter’s], the faithful were astonished. We looked at each other, and then looked around us, thinking first of all about Saint Peter’s. The war in Lebanon broke out soon after. The twin towers came later (2001).”
“In my view, the prophecy of 1975 has not yet been fully realised. I think the difficult times we talk about are more of a spiritual nature. In fact, in the draft of a book I’m writing, I make a clear distinction between prophecy and prediction. This is a general principle. Prophecy does not tell you what’s going to happen. It points to it; it indicates a direction. Only when it is fulfilled can we say: Ah, that’s what it was all about! The best examples are the Old Testament prophecies. The most important prophecies of the time pointed to Christ and the New Covenant. But no one could have predicted the Incarnation.”
What matters in these prophecies, Bruce Yocum said, is that the foretold “darkness” is also associated with a time of “unprecedented evangelisation”. Lebanon’s experience is prophetic in this sense, because the charismatic renewal and its various outreaches in Lebanon and the Arab world have flourished even in times of war. “Of course, those were dark times, everything was hard, but at the bottom of all this,” he added, “something very positive happened at the spiritual level.”
An appeal to the faithful
In conclusion, what can we say? The future of the charismatic renewal is the same as that of the whole church and the world. For a believer, the celebrations in the Circus Maximus could simply be a “Christian Woodstock.” But the future of humanity is at stake as well, namely the “final battle” of the Lord against “the spirit of darkness in action in the world.” To win this battle, unity is indispensable, as the network of communities that came to Rome to the jubilee seem to have understood.
Bruce Yocum’s final advice is simple: keep an open mind and stay true to your calling. Do not be surprised at the abundance of movements and say that we are only part of a larger whole. Finally, be open to the charisms and live your life in the Holy Spirit, always remembering that the Lord’s faithfulness is “forever and forever” and that “it is renewed every morning.”
Fady Noun is a long-time member of the People of God community in Beirut, Lebanon and a contributor to the main French-speaking newspaper in Lebanon, “L’Orient le Jour“. Photos by Maria Paula Arce, used with permission.