PITTSBURGH—When a group of Catholic college students gathered here in 1967 for a retreat on the person and work of the Holy Spirit, they never imagined they were on the threshold of a new movement in the Church.

The 25 Duquesne University students and faculty, who sang “Veni Creator Spiritus” before each of their talks, experienced the “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” a phenomenon they had learned about from Protestant Pentecostals, but believed was available to them as Catholics.

What happened at “the Duquesne Weekend” forged the beginnings of the Catholic charismatic renewal, a movement that, according to researchers David Barrett and Todd Johnson, embraced more than 119 million Catholics in 235 countries in the year 2000.

Thirty-five years later, the charismatic renewal continues to impact Church life both in places like Brazil and Italy, where it is flourishing, and in the United States, where its numbers have diminished in recent years, except among certain ethnic groups like Hispanics.

The Italian bishops' conference now officially recognizes the statutes of Renewal in the Spirit, which in Italy has more than 200,000 members in 1,800 communities or prayer groups, Zenit reported May 3.

According to Bishop Giuseppe Betori, secretary of the Italian bishops' conference, this recognition has transformed Italy's charismatic renewal from a “current of grace” into an “ecclesial movement.”

The movement is most visible in its style of worship, marked by hands lifted in praise to God and spontaneous prayer, often in tongues, the prayer language referred to in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. But traces of its influence can be found nearly everywhere in the Church from liturgical music and parish healing services to various renewal ministries and institutions like the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

Leaders also cite its impact in the larger Church in a greater openness to evangelism, a renewed awareness of the existence of spiritual warfare, more freedom and joy in liturgical celebrations and in the language ordinary Catholics use to describe their relationship to God.

In addition, many people who have experienced personal conversion as a result of the charismatic renewal are now serving in parishes, dioceses and schools as priests, deacons, catechists and lay evangelists or working in ministries that may or may not be directly tied to the movement.

Although the charismatic renewal, whose members were first called Catholic Pentecostals, started at the fringes of the Church, its leaders say that over the last 15 years it has inserted itself into the main of ecclesial life, enjoying the support of both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II.

“We went to Rome in 1975 and said we wanted to be at the heart of the Church and we now are,” said Fther Michael Scanlan, chancellor of the Franciscan University of Steubenville and a former chairman of the renewal's National Service Committee.

Father Scanlan said Pope John Paul II's recent comments to a group of charismatics on the 30th anniversary of the renewal in Italy are an indication that the movement has achieved a place in Church life.

“Born in the Church and for the Church,” the Pope said in the March 14 address, “in your movement one experiences in the light of the Gospel the living encounter with Jesus, the faithfulness of God in personal and community prayer, confident listening to the Word, the vital discovery of the sacraments, as well as courage in trials and hope in tribulations.”

Pentecost 1998

Renewal leaders also point to the Holy Father's speech on Pentecost of 1998 as evidence that the Holy Father considers the charismatic dimension essential to the life of the Church.

In an address to more than 500,000 representatives of church renewal groups, including Cursillo, Focolare and Regnum Christi, Pope John Paul said, “Today, I would like to cry out to all of you gathered here in St. Peter's Square and to all Christians: Open yourselves docilely, to the gifts of the Spirit! Accept gratefully and obediently the charisms which the Spirit never ceases to bestow on us!”

Ralph Martin, an early leader in the charismatic renewal in Ann Arbor, Mich., and a lay evangelist with Renewal Ministries, said the Pope wasn't suggesting that everybody join the charismatic movement, but rather that Catholic life should be open to the charismatic while remaining firmly rooted in the institution.

An effort to better ground the renewal in the Church began in the 1980s when leaders began to relate the charismatic experience to aspects of Catholic life like the sacraments, said Walter Matthews, director of CharisCenter USA, the national office of the renewal in the United States.

Before then, Matthews said, many Catholics who had come into the charismatic movement suffered a “psychic divide” between the week-night prayer meeting and Sunday Mass because they had not been taught, for example, about the richness of the Eucharist. As a result, some left to join Protestant Pentecostal churches.

Similarly, an early weakness of the movement was an emphasis on the emotional experience of the baptism in the Spirit at the expense of knowledge of Church teaching. The Pope referred to this in his 1998 address on Pentecost when he said, “Love of the Church and adherence to its Magisterium, in a way of ecclesial maturation supported by a permanent solid formation, are the eloquent signs of your commitment to avoid the risk of remaining, unwittingly, in a merely emotional experience of the divine.”

Spiritual Maturity

Martin said an unbalanced, immature response to spiritual experience is always a problem when people encounter God and bring along their own maturity or lack of it.

“It was such a new thing for a lot of people to feel God's love, to find joy in faith and a relationship with other people, they tended to want to hold on to the experience of that and not go through the deepening, maturing process that, once the feeling went away, felt like it wasn't real.”

Patti Gallagher Mansfield, who was at “the Duquesne Weekend” and now works in the charismatic renewal office of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said the movement has struggled because of its loose structure and lack of a clearly defined body of principles. She said the movement also has suffered from tension between the broader renewal, which was seen in parish prayer meetings and diocesan conferences, and covenant communities in which members made a deeper commitment to the renewal, the church and each other.

“To be involved in charismatic renewal is to not necessarily sign on the dotted line,” said Mansfield. “We haven't always had the inner unity that some other movements have. Because we did not have a founder, a program, we're like other movements in some ways, but in others so very different. There is no one personality around whom everyone else would gather … We're kind of out there in the Church.”

Bruce Yocum, a presiding elder in Servants of the Word, an ecumenical group of consecrated, celibate men that grew out of the Word of God charismatic community in Ann Arbor, said the movement's greatest weakness has been a naÔve acceptance that has provided a platform for “a lot of flukey stuff,” such as phony healing and crazy prophecy. Along with that have been some liturgical and doctrinal distortions.

In the area of healing, for example, the Vatican recently moved to correct some abuses that had occurred and to restore order to the ministry of healing. This was handled at a colloquium held in November by the Pontifical Council for Laity, the charismatic movement, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Yocum said that despite such weaknesses, he remains convinced that what happened in the charismatic renewal is significant and that God intends to influence the entire Church with it to a greater extent than has happened so far.

Yocum, who lives in Monterrey, Mexico, said that the movement in the western world may need to take into account changing circumstances by adopting strategies that are better suited to the times. “The vehicles look too much like they did 30 years ago for a situation that has changed so much.”

For example, he said, when he received the baptism in the Holy Spirit in 1968, he knew the tenets of his faith and was thus prepared for an experience that built on his knowledge. “Today, younger kids are not well catechized, but are more used to a Church where a lot of exciting things are happening. They are not looking as much for experience. They get excited when they begin to understand why the liturgy is like this. It gives them an understanding of the world, a way of dealing with people, an identity. So they are much less interested in the baptism in the Holy Spirit.”

Something to Give

Yocum said he thinks the charismatic renewal still has something to give the larger Church. “But if we are exaggerating it, trying to make it be everything, it's not going to make the contribution it should make,” he said.

CharisCenter's Matthews said when he first became involved in the renewal in 1972, the mentality was that everybody would eventually become charismatic. Cooler heads, he said, held that the renewal would fade into the life of the Church when the Lord had done with it what He wanted to do.

“It still has some work to be done from our perspective,” Matthews acknowledged. “I believe the Baptism in the Spirit has something that's related to this moment that the Holy Father has been talking about—this new springtime of Christianity. We have something to continue to contribute to that flowering of that springtime.”