Inside the Catholic charismatic renewal
By Kevin Birnbaum
If you’ve ever had questions, doubts or suspicions about the Catholic charismatic renewal, you’re in good company. When a reporter asked Pope Francis last summer about the movement — which is often associated with the laying on of hands, prophecy, praying in tongues and very expressive praise and worship — he answered that, a few decades ago, “I had no time for them. Once, speaking about them, I said, ‘These people confuse a liturgical celebration with samba lessons!’”
But as he learned more, Pope Francis came to regret his snarky dismissal of the Catholic charismatic renewal, which began in 1967 during a retreat for students at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University.
“Now I think that this movement does much good for the church, overall,” he said. “In Buenos Aires, I met frequently with them and once a year I celebrated a Mass with all of them in the cathedral. I have always supported them, after I was converted, after I saw the good they were doing.”
But exactly what good are they doing? It has been estimated that 10 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics identify with the charismatic renewal, yet to many the movement remains mysterious or even suspect. Is it a hotbed of superstition, wishful thinking and emotional excess, or — as Pope Francis suggests — something much more profound? What is the Catholic charismatic renewal all about?
What is ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’?
Most fundamentally, the charismatic renewal is about fostering the experience of “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” What does that mean?
“Baptism in the Spirit can most concisely be called a personal Pentecost,” said Virginia King, the recently retired executive director of the Western Washington Catholic Charismatic Renewal, a resource center established in 1977.
It’s a personal reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit, she said. Of course, Catholics have already received the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation. “But the way we’ve come to understand it is that baptism in the Spirit is a reinvigorating of those graces. The graces are given, but we’re not always receptive to them.”
Too often, the graces and gifts poured out by the Holy Spirit in the sacraments lie buried and inert, like chocolate syrup that’s sunk to the bottom of a glass of milk, said Father Jim Northrop, the spiritual director for WWCCR. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is like a spoon that stirs up the gifts, unleashing their transformative power in our lives.
Often this happens during a charismatic renewal retreat, with people laying hands on a person and praying for him or her to receive baptism in the Holy Spirit. But it can happen anywhere, at any time. The key is to be totally open to God, and simply to ask.
“You have to have an expectant faith,” said Father Northrop. “You have to believe in your heart that God really loves you and wants to pour out this grace upon you.”
A life-changing ‘heart transplant’
When the fledgling Catholic charismatic renewal hit Seattle in the late 1960s, Virginia King was a student at Holy Names Academy. Her younger sister soon started attending charismatic prayer meetings at Blessed Sacrament Church.
“But I wasn’t immediately attracted to it,” King said. “In fact, I was immediately not attracted to it.”
Even as her mother and other siblings got involved and started hosting prayer meetings in their living room, King resisted, insisting, “I’m a good Catholic. I go to church on Sunday. I don’t need all this other stuff.”
But she did need something, because she was desperately unhappy. As life went on, she did all the right things — going to college, getting married, having kids — thinking they would make her happy, but nothing worked.
“I was getting more and more miserable. And then I looked at my sister and I could see that she was really happy, that she had a joy in her that was what I was seeking … and so then I started to pay attention to what she was saying.”
King began to read some of the books her sister recommended and, at the urging of a Pentecostal Protestant neighbor, tried to develop a more personal relationship with Jesus. One day in 1976 she was brought to what she called her “moment of surrender.”
“I was really, really unhappy in my marriage … and I said to God, ‘I want out of this marriage, I want to run away, but I don’t think that’s what you want for me.’ And I said, ‘I don’t love my husband — in fact, I think I hate him — but would you give me your love for him?’ And in that moment I was filled with love for my husband, and it was definitely a life-transforming moment — I call it my heart transplant.”
It was an “immediate transformation,” she said. “Prior to that I was having a hard time just being in the same room with my husband, and after that I looked forward to seeing him and being around him.”
King points to that experience as her baptism in the Holy Spirit, and it completely changed her relationship with God.
Before, she said, “I felt that God was far off and that my duty to God was to go to Mass and to follow the precepts of the church. Whereas afterwards, God was very near, God cared about me, he cared about my marriage, he cared about my husband, he cared about my kids. There was a realization that God loved and cared for us personally, and that my response to that was to be grateful and to respond to his grace, to become more like him.”
‘The most amazing, heavenly feeling’
The experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit varies greatly from person to person. Some people are overcome by emotion. Some have vivid mystical visions. Some feel nothing.
Bill Odell, now a member of Everett’s Immaculate Conception Parish, had a Pentecostal friend at a Bible study offer to pray over him for baptism in the Holy Spirit shortly after Odell’s conversion from atheism to Christianity in 1994.
“His prayer took 30 seconds, he said amen, I said amen, and I just felt so awkward,” Odell recalled. He apologized to his friend and admitted, “I didn’t feel a thing as you prayed for me.”
But as he got in his car to drive home, Odell felt something strange — a growing pressure in the back of his throat. He opened his mouth and was stunned to hear a handful of “totally foreign” words pop out.
“With those words came this joy like a bubble that was just coming up from some place so deep in me I didn’t even know existed,” he said. “I began to pray in what the Bible tells us is the gift of tongues. I didn’t know what I was saying, but I knew I was praising God.”
Sue Gallwas, a member of Sumner’s St. Andrew Parish and now WWCCR’s executive director, was introduced to the charismatic renewal when a friend invited her to a conference in 2001. She didn’t know what to expect, but she had a heart open to God.
“So Saturday night when they were doing praise and worship, my friend just put her hand on my shoulder and I was baptized in the Holy Spirit,” she said. “And the Holy Spirit and Jesus came in and erased — I call it the holy eraser — and they erased the shame in my heart. It was the most amazing, heavenly feeling ever, like I was in a different place.”
Not all ‘spiritual warm fuzzies’
While the initial experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit can be powerful, and spiritual gifts like tongues may be dramatic, they’re not nearly as important as what ought to grow out of them — the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” to quote St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.
As a freshman at the University of Idaho in 1988, Father Jim Northrop attended a Life in the Spirit charismatic seminar. On the fifth night, people prayed over him for the release of the Holy Spirit in his life. He felt peaceful, but not much else.
But, he said, “as the weeks went on, I just noticed a number of things changing: a greater joyfulness in my life, a love for Scripture, a deeper awareness of the Mass.” His experience of the Bible and the liturgy suddenly “coming alive” is common among charismatic Catholics.
The burst of exuberant fervor following baptism in the Holy Spirit must be nurtured — it can’t be just “a one-time thing,” Father Northrop said. “We can grow cold, the flame can start going out, so we have to have ways to fan the flame,” such as spiritual reading, regular reception of the sacraments, and participation in parish-based charismatic prayer groups.
Often some settling down and growing up is necessary. “There’s not always going to be spiritual warm fuzzies.”
But the power of the Holy Spirit to transform people’s lives is very real, Father Northrop said, and it’s not just for a special subset of Catholics called “charismatics.”
“God is not a stingy God. He wants to bless everyone with this gift.”
Hispanics and the charismatic renewal
The charismatic renewal is especially important among Hispanic Catholics. More than 60 percent of the world’s 120 million charismatic Catholics live in Latin America, according to International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services.
In Western Washington, Julio Pocón, a member of Federal Way’s St. Theresa Parish and WWCCR’s Hispanic Planning Committee, estimates that 90 percent of active Catholic Hispanics have had some experience with the charismatic renewal.
“The Hispanic renewal in our archdiocese is huge,” said Virginia King. “At least half of our [parish-based charismatic] prayer groups are Spanish-speaking prayer groups, and they are large. A small Spanish-speaking prayer group would have 50 people in it. The large ones have 300 or 400 people coming every week.”
Spiritual gifts in Scripture
Skeptical about some of the more spectacular spiritual gifts associated with the Catholic charismatic renewal? Take it up with St. Paul:
“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as
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