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A New Pentecost? Can a New Charismatic Renewal Revive Lay Spirituality?

To prepare for Pentecost, I have been leading a study in my parish using The Wild Goose. This is a program on the FORMED parish platform. The group enjoyed the simple but profound message of Father Dave Pivonka. But the amount of theological clarification I needed to do surprised me. It wasn’t that Father Dave taught anything heretical. But he used certain terms in ways that were vague and inconsistent. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that his inconsistency came at the exact points where the original Charismatic movement intersected with Catholic doctrine.

A discussion on the “Catholic Theology Geeks” Facebook group confirmed my suspicions. We had a wild debate about Father Dave’s blog post and video (an excerpt from The Wild Goose) and about the Charismatic movement in general. I found the debate helpful for clarifying my thoughts about the Charismatic movement. In this article I’d like to share some of those thoughts, and I hope you’ll share some of yours as well!

This is a timely discussion. Many bishops are working to give the Charismatic Renewal a comeback in their dioceses. Catholics need to start asking if this is a good idea. But the focus of From the Abbey is on personal spirituality. I invite you to join me in this analysis. Then ask yourself is element of the Charismatic movement might be right for you.

What is the Charismatic Renewal?

Focus Areas of the Charismatic Movement:

  1. Baptism in the Holy Spirit
  2. Charismatic Gifts (Charisms)
  3. Enlivened Worship
  4. Personal Spirituality


The Charismatic Renewal started in the Catholic Church in the late 1960’s. It was influenced by Pentecostal spirituality. Like Pentecostals, Catholic Charismatics focused on Baptism by the Holy Spirit. Baptism in the Holy Spirit unlocked a deep intimacy with Jesus.

It also brought to life the “charisms,” specific gifts of the Holy Spirit. Praying in tongues was the main charism that most charismatic adherents sought. They considered praying in tongues proof of having true Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Lively worship was the third focus of the Charismatic movement. Prayer gatherings made use of energetic music, usually played by a guitar band. In many ways this music was the precursor to modern praise and worship music. Participants in the prayer gathering were encourage to be expressive in prayer. They would praise God out loud, pray in Tongues, and even cry or laugh “as the Spirit led.”

Finally, the Charismatic Renewal put a heavy emphasis on personal spirituality. The movement encouraged an active prayer life. Members were also taught to build trust in the will of God. Most members of the Charismatic movement also felt called to a specific mission. But these elements were not expectations in the sense of membership requirements. They were rather seen as effects of the Holy Spirit moving in your life.

Problems with the Early Charismatic Movement

Problems With the Original Movement

  1. Separation from the Sacraments
  2. Emotionalism
  3. Individualism

Many bishops and popes praised the early Charismatic movement. But the original movement was not without its problems. Father Dave Pivonka manifested these problems. He used terms that Catholic theology clearly and specifically defines in vague ways. He revealed the trouble of combining the Pentecostal experience with Catholic theology.

Problem #1: Separation from the Sacraments

“Baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Pentecostal communities don’t have Sacraments the way Catholics understand them. They do accept some sacraments. Water baptism is the one sacrament that all Protestant denominations accept. Pentecostals also see The Lord’s Supper as a “sacrament.” They accept footwashing as an equal standing. Finally, Anointed Touch is the sacrament on which Baptism in the Holy Spirit is modeled. But the Pentecostal understanding of sacrament is very different from the Catholic understanding. For Pentecostals, a sacrament is simply a specific act of worship. They are not sacred signs instituted by Christ, performed by His Church to bring grace. Acts 8:4-16 illustrates the conflict between Baptism in the Holy Spirit and the Sacrament of Confirmation.

In this passage, Philip, one of the men chosen to become a deacon in Acts 6, goes to Samaria. He preaches the Gospel of Jesus, but he also performs miracles and exorcisms. He makes many converts and Baptizes them. When the Apostles hear about what Philip did, they send Peter and John (2 Apostles) to Samaria “because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:16-17).

The Charismatic movement tended to follow the Pentecostal interpretation of this passage. Philip did a good job evangelizing. But he forgot a step. So Peter and John had to come and Baptize the Samaritans in the Holy Spirit. How do Catholics understand this passage? Philip is a deacon. He had the power to Baptize but not to Confirm. It took a bishop (Peter and John – the Apostles) to complete the initiation into the Church.

So Baptism in the Holy Spirit conflicts with the Sacrament of Confirmation. Some Charismatics came to see the Sacraments as “institutional rituals.” Baptism in the Holy Spirit in contrast was a true movement of the Holy Spirit. Other Charismatics held to the Sacraments as the primary founts of grace. For them, Baptism in the Holy Spirit became ambiguous, if not confusing. Many Charismatics would say things like, “I don’t know exactly what Baptism in the Holy Spirit is. All I know is that it changed my life.”

Problem #2: Emotionalism

Free expression of emotion was a major trait of the original Charismatic Renewal. They also borrowed this trait from the Pentecostal tradition. This trait also has roots in the older heresy of Montanism. What’s the problem with emotionalism?

1. Emotionalism means that emotions rather than truth lead our faith. Emotionalists may say things like, “We don’t need pie in the sky theology. We have a real experience of God through the Holy Spirit.” In other words, emotionalism is the other extreme of intellectualism (academia). Intellectualism reduces faith to an academic pursuit. It forgets that the faith is a relationship. But emotionalism over-corrects and measures one’s faith based on subjective emotional experience.

2. Emotionalism appeals to our desire for novelty and newness. The primary purpose of emotions is to guide us to the physical goods that our senses identify. By their very nature emotions focus on the here-and-now. We can train our emotions to respond to deeper spiritual goods. But emotion never quite loses its primary function to identify currently present goods. Emotions get us excited about experiences that are new. They get us excited about experiences that stimulate our senses. Emotionalism undermines patience, perseverance, and quiet. These are things we need if we want to cultivate a deep relationship with God.

3. This desire for novelty also led to a focus on the more “flashy” charisms. Praying in tongues was almost a required charism for Baptism in the Holy Spirit. It is both physically perceptible and novel (to some, downright weird). I do believe that praying in tongues is a true gift for some people. But the early Charismatic Renewal overemphasized it. Many people who didn’t have that particular gift prayed in tongues so they wouldn’t feel left out. Faking it allowed them to participate in the emotional experience of Charismatic worship. That emotional experience may have even convinced them that the gift was real.

It’s interesting that Saint Paul dealt with this exact problem in 1 Corinthians 14:12-19:

So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Other flashy charisms were also overemphasized: prophecy, healing, and discernment of spirits. Sometimes people would fake these too. Again, these are real charismatic graces. The history of the Church bears that out. Many saints had these gifts. But the history of the Church also shows these “extraordinary” or “miraculous” gifts to be rare. The “ordinary” gifts such as teaching, intercessory prayer, hospitality, or generosity are much more common. But these gifts aren’t as exciting. They don’t gratify immediately. So they weren’t emphasized in the early Charismatic movement.

4. The effects of emotionalism also affected the Holy Mass. Charismatic Masses are emotionally charged. Praise and worship music can be beautiful, but it appeals first to emotions. Public expression of emotion and “dynamic” preaching also appeal to the emotion. Charismatic worship is attractive to some people. But it sometimes operates on the level of entertainment. It satisfies our senses. But we can become addicted to the fun of entertainment. We’re also good at deceiving ourselves into substituting spiritual fulfillment with emotional excitement. As a result, many in the Charismatic movement became dissatisfied with a “normal” Mass. They consider it “stale” and “lifeless” – which may be code words for “boring.”

Emotions should never lead Faith. Of course, spiritual lives shouldn’t be completely emotionless, either. But emotion should always follow the intellect and the will. We should train our emotion to follow truth and the choice of faith.

Problem #3: Individualism

Members of the Charismatic renewal might argue against the first two problems. They would definitely argue against this one. Ostensibly, the Charismatic movement is a community movement. It gives rise to prayer groups, Bible studies, and even a greater sense of community at Mass. And these are all good things.

But there’s another effect of emotionalism and the emphasis on extraordinary spiritual gifts. Much of the inauthentic, dramatic expression of worship stemmed from attention seeking. Many Charismatic leaders took on celebrity status.

I went to one celebrity “healer” who was so full of himself as to be completely uncharitable. The “night of healing” resulted in a lot of emotional expression. In fact, a few people tried hard to outdo everyone else in the gathering. After we prayed the Rosary, the “healing priest” asked if anyone smelled roses. When nobody volunteered that they did, he said, “Well, I know that some of you did. Somebody always smells roses when we pray this Rosary.” Then we moved on to the healing ceremony. No real healing took place. The priest encouraged one confused old lady to get out of her wheelchair and walk. The congregation went nuts at the healing miracle. But the lady was not wheelchair bound. She had difficulty walking and the wheelchair was easier. As she pushed her wheelchair up the aisle, she leaned heavily on it and limped the entire way. This was a great example of forcing expectations, bordering on a pagan attempt to force God’s hand.

There is one other way that Charismatic spirituality led to individualism. Saint Paul warns that we should use charismatic graces to build up the Church. Many in the movement saw charismatic graces as a sign of personal spirituality. They came to expectations obvious manifestations of the Spirit. This led to a “what’s in it for me” spirituality.

The Charismatic renewal was a community-oriented movement. But it also led to a selfish, individualistic spirituality for many.

Hope for the Movement

These problems have led some Catholics to completely reject Charismatic spirituality. Catholics who are more “traditional” are much more likely to be critical of the movement. Their criticisms have a lot of merit. But does that means we need to get rid of the entire movement? These errors are not inevitable. Once they’re corrected the Charismatic movement has a lot to offer.

In the next article we’ll explore how Charismatic spirituality has matured since the late 1960’s. We’ll also see how it might become a viable, faithful and beautiful spiritual movement.

Click Here to Read Part 2

Photo Credit: Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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jeff@fromtheabbey.com

I am a husband, father and Catholic adult faith formation expert. My mission as an educator is to help Catholic adults rediscover the JOY of learning and living their faith so they can grow in intimacy with God.

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