I know it's difficult to imagine, but the charismatic renewal is big stuff here in England.
Our family has just enjoyed a great week at Celebrate! — the annual Catholic charismatic renewal conference over here.
“What?” I hear you exclaim. “The English? They of the stiff upper-lip, her majesty the queen, ‘What ho, dear chap!’ and cups of china tea?” That's right. Between 2,000 and 3,000 gathered for the conference. They were there complete with praise bands, happy-clappy worship, speaking in tongues and ministry sessions where people fainted. There was real joy, laughter, applause and tears.
Not a stiff upper-lip in sight.
When I told a traditionalist friend about this phenomenon, he commented, “I'm convinced all those people are high on drugs.” Funnily enough, the same comment was made on the day of Pentecost. The apostles and their coterie were also jabbering in tongues.
They must have been staggering about and fainting as well because observers said they were drunk even though it was only nine o'clock in the morning.
Perhaps a certain drunken quality is desirable within the Christian faith. Not lying-in-the-gutter drunkenness, of course, but the kind of spiritual inebriation exhibited at Celebrate. Jesus said the Kingdom would be marked by new wine.
English religion — like the weather — tends to be cold and damp. Maybe we all ought to let down our hair a little and get happy. So many Catholics seem gloomy. You know the old joke: “You can tell the pillars of the Church because their faces look like stone.” We are often so caught up with what's wrong with the Church that we can't see what's right with it. The charismatic renewal is confident about the faith. It brings joy, power and zip into religion.
If dogmatics minister to the intellect, charismatics minister to the emotions. To be whole, we need both.
The charismatic element in worship attracts young people. Forty-four percent of the people at Celebrate this year were under age 22. Eight different streams were organized for different age groups.
A Baptist minister who attended the young adults' stream came into a room where 150 young men and women knelt in silence before the Blessed Sacrament with their arms reaching out to the altar. The Baptist minister asked what on earth was going on. When it was explained, he fell to his knees himself and said afterward in an awestruck voice, “Those kids really love Jesus! I have never in my life seen anything so beautiful and moving!”
Charles Whitehead is the Englishman who holds it all together. A married layman and father of four, Whitehead has spearheaded the movement for years. He's spent 10 years as president of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Council with offices in Rome, and he now works with Catholic Evangelization Services in England and as the chairman of an international body that advises on the use of the charismatic renewal in world evangelization.
In a recent conversation, I challenged Whitehead about the charismatic renewal. Wasn't it too Protestant? Wasn't it divisive? Whitehead admitted there were some problems but pointed out that any movement has difficulties. They simply have to be dealt with in a mature and positive way. Charismatic Catholics are able to show Pentecostals what it means to belong to the historic Church.
Charismatics work well with Protestants, but because they are largely orthodox in their beliefs and loyal to the Church's teaching, Catholic charismatics are able to explain Catholic distinctives and engage in apologetics with evangelicals effectively because they have gained their trust and admiration. It is Whitehead's conviction that the Catholic charismatic renewal has moved on. Whereas it was once shallow and broad, it is now becoming broad and deep.
The Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost not just to exhibit a display of supernatural power or to give the apostles a spiritual kick. The kick was given to empower evangelization. It is the same today. The charismatic movement began in the 1950s, and this movement of the Spirit can be seen as a precursor to the Second Vatican Council and now the New Evangelization. The charismatic gifts are given to empower evangelization, and if they are trapped within the Church and within the lives of Christians they are not being used for their true purpose.
It is no mistake, therefore, that it is Catholic charismatics who are at the forefront of the New Evangelization. In Europe there is a range of new communities that are enlivened by the charismatic movement and engaged in first-rate evangelization efforts. Here in England the Sion Community, the Pilgrims Community, the Community of the Open Door and Catholic Evangelization Services have all sprung up to engage in proactive evangelization. They publish magazines, produce the successful Cafe series of videos and are busy promoting conferences, retreats and missions.
In the new communities the life is centered on a cycle of Eucharist, liturgical prayer, adoration and contemplation as well as an exercise of the charismatic gifts and forms of worship. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said new charisms come “like a bolt of lightning from the blue, destined to illuminate a single and original point of God's will for the Church in a given time.” Whether we happen to be a charismatic Catholic or not we can learn much from this exciting movement.
At Pentecost 1998 Pope John Paul II met with 350,000 people who had gathered to celebrate the new movements in the Church. The Pope called on them, and so calls to us, with these challenging words: “Open yourselves docilely to the gifts of the Spirit! Accept gratefully and obediently the charisms that the Spirit never ceases to bestow on us.”
The charisms of the Holy Spirit are not only alive in all the new movements but also in the established works of the Church. The charismatic movement, with its powerful signs and strong witness, reminds us that every ministry has to be filled with the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit isn't there it is no more than a religious gimmick, and as such it will not be a bolt of lightning from heaven but a flash in the pan.
Dwight Longenecker is the author of seven books. His latest, Adventures in Orthodoxy, is described as “a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles' Creed.”