"A lay Catholic perspective"

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Spreading the Spirit

by Neil MacDonald


?VER THIRTY YEARS HAVE PASSED BY since the Holy Spirit introduced a new Pentecost to the Catholic Church. Although thirty years is a short time historically, we can by now explore some aspects of this powerful movement. Two historical approaches may be attempted: we might examine the Pentecostal experience after it began in the Catholic Church at Duquense University in 1967 or we might bring our inquiry back to the first Pentecostal movement which began in Topeka, Kansas, New Year's Day 1901. I suggest that returning to Topeka will provide a century-long and Church-wide view of the Holy Spirit's amazing work that the other perspective cannot.

Progress in the Spirit

Pope Leo XIII wrote a novena to the Holy Spirit and sent it to his bishops, encouraging them to have as many of the faithful as possible pray it as a blessing on a new century which promised so much evil. The prayer was soon answered with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on members of a congregational church in Topeka, Kansas! The extraordinary gifts of the Spirit manifested by those members challenged the congregations who were predestined to receive them. New churches were formed to give liturgical expression to these gifts (such as glossolalia and prophecy, etc.) and ways to use and regulate the gifts were gradually developed.

After World War II, some members of main-stream Protestant Churches discovered and embraced 'Pentecostalism'. They encountered great resistance to the use of the extraordinary gifts in their congregations. Where Congregationalist Churches followed their tradition of dividing into two churches when faced with a seeming insolvable problem, main stream Protestant Churches could not readily avail themselves of that option. Hence began the 'basement prayer meeting', with participants treated as fringe members in their respective churches.

Come, Holy Spirit

In 1958 Pope John XXIII repeated Pope Leo's call to the Holy Spirit to renew the Catholic Church, and called an ecumenical council which would "open a window" in the Church to his spiritual power. The Council's sessions, coupled with the excitement of the times, created a tremendous anticipation and suspense among the faithful. Lay people experimented with a 'progressive' spirituality to become alive in the Spirit. There was talk of 'community' in the Church and that she become 'relevant'. The years after 1962 were a time of fervor and ferment, but in a contained, non-revolutionary atmosphere.

A Protestant prayer group introduced two Catholic professors from Duquense University to the 'life in the Spirit'. They, in turn, were anxious to bring this experience to a group of students meeting in the Catholic college on campus. The professors chose topics relevant to receiving the gifts of the Spirit for the retreat organized by this group of students every year. During the retreat which they conducted in February of 1967, the Holy Spirit anticipated the professors' agenda with a great outpouring of his presence on some of the students in attendance.[1]

The students who received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that weekend reached a high point in the work of God in the twentieth century Church. Reasonably enough, Catholic Pentecostals (or charismatics) consider the 'Duquense Weekend' the beginning of a great work of God. I suggest that it was most of all the culmination of an extraordinary movement of God's Spirit, his answer to the pleas of the faithful through many decades.

Why does it matter?

What difference does it make that we understand the Duquense Weekend as the fundamental vision of Catholic Pentecostalism in the twentieth century? How significant can that viewpoint be to a discussion of the 'charismatic renewal'? The value of this perspective becomes evident as we examine the difficulties which afflicted the charismatic movement after 1967.

Knowledgeable members of Catholic Church will not question the great benefits that the Holy Spirit has conferred on her through the charismatic renewal. Its structure implemented much of the teaching of Vatican Council II concerning the ministry of the laity, introducing many of the faithful to the personal nature of God's love for them and involving them in the liturgy and social work of the Church. The charismatic movement contributed a great number of songs to the Church's liturgy, many drawn directly from the scriptures. Desperate souls came to the prayer meetings suffering from emotional, mental, or spiritual wounds and received healing prayers — often with amazing results.

The students and their friends who began meeting for charismatic prayer in 1967 had no idea what contribution they would eventually make to the Church's life. What did fill them with excitement was the wonderful sense of community generated by the Holy Spirit in their midst. Young people raised in congregations where community life sprang from natural sources (such as fall suppers, card parties and seasonal dances), were overwhelmed with joyful oneness in the Spirit.

Before considering subsequent events it would be well to "take a snapshot" of the first exciting months of renewal in 1967. Those involved in the first meetings experienced a sense of community which society had been seeking through the previous decades of the twentieth century. People afterward took for granted that the joyous sense of community created by the Holy Spirit during that very early time was a typical "honeymoon" experience, a "high" that lifted up many new adherents when they first received a further release of the Spirit.

The excitement of those first months was much more than that, however. Prayer meeting members discovered a oneness in heart and mind that the Church had sought for seventy years. For a little while, a few members of the Church were given a glimpse of the third millennium; they had been given a taste of the Lord's future promise for all Christians, whether ordained or lay. For a short time these privileged few were closely united in heart and mind, all aware that they were participating in a single mission. How they truly loved one another!

As long as what they called "the life in the Spirit" was spontaneously spread by word of mouth, and the sense of community and mission was maintained without a great amount of leadership or discipline, the original members could live the vision of a mature Church. Charismatic meetings continued to be exciting and exhilarating, if not quite so ecstatic. Participants gradually recognized that the prayer meetings needed some order and structure. For example, not everyone could endure two or more hours of praise and prophecy, with no clear idea when the meeting might end, while others enjoyed the sense of spontaneity that such an unstructured environment provided. Prayer meeting leaders provided the meetings with order without sacrificing the Holy Spirit's freedom to lead every meeting in the direction he wanted.

Leaders co-ordinated the ministries of the fledgling communities as they arose, and provided structure in the meetings themselves. The leaders often met separately in "core groups" to pray for their new communities and to refine their understanding of the Holy Spirit's direction for the different ministries. Families in the renewal invited single members to live with them, thereby providing singles with moral security, fellowship, and discipleship.

Community life

With the provision of competent leaders, the prayer meetings continued to flourish and attract new members. The members who desired to maintain the unity and fervour of a deeper community life realized that the prayer communities lacked sufficient maturity to realize that vision completely. This insight in most cases should have been met with an understanding that a mature community life was at that time out of reach, considering the lifestyles of almost all American and Canadian people. Each prayer meeting needed to evolve as its membership allowed and as the Holy Spirit required. Some smaller prayer meetings needed to merge with other meetings, and most prayer meetings never felt the call to an organized community life.[2] The Lord permitted a glimpse of lay community life in the future Church to encourage and strengthen the 'charismatics' of 1967 who would soon live in less than exciting service to each other and the Church, and who would suffer small persecutions and rejections by other Catholics.[3]

Mature Christian communities are built on three pillars:

  1. Ever deeper commitment to community life requires a new commitment to prayer — a resolve that the Lord must provide;
  2. The preservation of freedom for each member is the first consideration of the leaders;
  3. Each member carries the cross faithfully following the Lord's plan each day, not through some artificial impositions from human authorities.

Lack of experience shows

With the best intentions leaders in many cities attempted to preserve the more deeply committed community element in two artificial ways. First, they requested that all members sign a covenant acknowledging, after a short probationary period, the permanence of their commitment to the community. Second, they created a discipleship structure somewhat resembling the structures in some evangelical churches. Ten families placed themselves under the direction of a leader who, with nine other leaders, received direction from a leader above him.

Some might posit that insight into these mistakes was gained by observing thirty years of suffering and errors, and that in 1967 such a perspective was impossible. At the conscious level of human discernment their criticism has merit, but at the most important level, at the level of the spirit, a much more reliable guide is at hand. Any attempt to organize permanent communities so quickly would have offended the sense of peace and freedom that should mark every child of God. The peace of Christ remains the fundamental criterion of his will in community life and all other matters.

The sincere efforts of these new communities did serve the fledgling charismatic renewal. The Word Of God Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan published a magazine called New Covenant to teach and guide the charismatic movement and to coordinate its national activities. The community in South Bend, Indiana, sponsored annual national conferences which motivated many other prayer communities to sponsor their own conferences across the world.[4] Communities around the United States produced music for prayer groups, with many of the songs based directly on passages from scripture. These songs grew in popularity in the Church at large. The Word Of God Community set up a publishing house called Servant Books to distribute books aimed at both the specialized needs of the charismatic renewal and the needs of the Church in general.

Difficulties surfaced in the larger communities relatively early. Stephen Clark wrote a book called Christian Community (Servant, 1972) which held up the new communities as 'bulwarks' — defenses within the Church against attacks on orthodox teaching. Commendably, the leaders of the communities did insist on orthodoxy among their disciples, but they demonstrated considerable immaturity in promoting the charismatic communities as defenders (one had the impression of almost solitary defenders) of truth in the Catholic Church.

New Covenant reported a gradual change in ecclesial orientation in at least one prominent and influential community: in the mistaken search of a more 'equal', less partisan and "Catholic dominated" community, the leaders oriented the group toward an interdenominational perspective. They were no longer an 'ecumenical' Catholic group open to worshiping with Christians of other denominations and forming community relationships with them,[5] but an interdenominational group seeking the lowest common denominator of beliefs to form a community consensus.

Another problem: the Holy Spirit continued to put many people across the United States and Canada on fire — very often receiving the same taste of community that the first members had enjoyed. People (some with large families) often moved long distances to join the more prominent communities. Having given up so much to follow the Lord, many must have hoped for more oneness of heart and mind than they found. In a way, this was not the fault of the host communities — they could not grow instantly into the fully mature bodies originally promised by the Holy Spirit for the third millennium. On the other hand, the communities had tended to present themselves as oases of maturity in a desert of apostasy.

Rumours of divisions between the leaderships of the larger communities surfaced at times. The contenders held meetings through the 1980s to establish a harmonious primacy among the communities. Since the leaders had already decided that a 'hierarchical' structure was necessary to create and maintain community discipline within the communities, they assumed that the structure must extend to the groups of communities also. Negotiations between the two major groups fell through and, consequently, one writer resigned her column in New Covenant.

New Covenant moved its offices to Steubenville, Ohio from Ann Arbor. Its proximity to the determinedly Catholic community there promised well for the future of the magazine.

But these efforts proved too little, too late. People began leaving the communities regardless of their written covenants; they protested against the discipling structures which they considered an invasion of privacy and stifling to the spirit. These complaints reached the ears of the communities' diocesan bishops who demanded resignations and destructuring to restore peace and harmony.

For its financial survival New Covenant was sold to the publishers of Our Sunday Visitor who oriented the magazine to a more general subscriber base with an editor who had only a brief contact with the charismatic renewal ten years before. New Covenant no longer directly represented the renewal but aspired to teach the lay Church as a whole. It's advertising presented it as "designed to help committed Catholic Christians explore and deepen their faith. Every month New Covenant comes into your life with solid advice on how to pray, grow in virtue, live the sacraments, and read deeply in the Scriptures — in short, to live in the Spirit, with the peace that only Jesus Christ can give."[6] This prompted another resignation by a columnist who hailed from the very beginnings of the Catholic charismatic renewal. The renewal was no longer supported by an international publication addressed entirely to its own concerns.

Meanwhile, most prayer groups have remained exactly that — people meeting weekly in groups of various sizes, served by a core group of leaders, with each person following the Lord as his disciple, each sharing his or her gift as much as their faith told them.[7] While "covenant communities" still enjoyed a certain limelight, Ralph Martin publicly apologized for the general neglect of small groups, noting that prayer groups deserved full credit for serving God faithfully as they were called. As events proved, the many prayer groups who lived the Gospel faithfully and witnessed the crucified Christ to one another each day emerged from the last thirty years as truly maturing communities.

Victory is the Lord's

The Lord is calling his Church to a true oneness in heart and mind. For two millennia he has removed the primary effects of original sin — restoring through his cross the original innocence and community lost by the sin of Adam and Eve. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in 1967 — and the glimpse of lay community — was God's promise that he would continue his work.

[1] Patsy (Gallagher) Mansfield wrote a book describing the events of this marvelous weekend.

[2] Some Communities advanced rapidly in a healthy way as they organized themselves under the Lord's direction, such as the community which publishes Word Among Us.

[3] In the same way, the Lord underwent the Transfiguration to encourage and strengthen Peter, James, and John through the scandal of the cross.

[4] The largest Catholic "ecumenical" conference at Notre Dame University (1976) concluded on Sunday with 36,000 people in attendance.

[5] Sometime during the ecumenical period the community formed itself into four fellowships, three representing a particular denomination, and one "evangelical" fellowship representing a number of churches.

[6] From an advertisement in Our Sunday Visitor July 25, 1999.

[7] Rm 12:6 amended.