When Pope Francis joined 6,000 people in Rome on June 8 for the launch on Pentecost eve of a new Vatican body to serve the 115 million charismatic Catholics around the world, they made sure to perform his favorite Latin-American “praise” song, “Vive Jesús el Señor” (“The Lord Jesus lives”).
It is always a sign that Francis is relaxing among friends when he feels able to josh them. During his 10-minute address he referred to them laughingly as “spiritists” (as charismatic Catholics are often disparagingly known in Latin America) and, after asking for a minute’s silence to pray for peace, he said it was “heroic” for them to keep a minute’s silence for anything.
Francis may not pray in tongues, but no pope has ever identified as closely with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, nor been so keen to move it front and center of the church. The relationship was born in his early years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio realized the renewal was not a “samba school,” as he had disparagingly referred to it in his early Jesuit days, but rather, as he called it in his eve-of-Pentecost address, “a current of the grace of the Holy Spirit” being poured out for the renewal of the church in our time.
Francis may not pray in tongues, but no pope has ever identified as closely with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, nor been so keen to move it front and center of the church.
The link with the charismatic renewal deepened especially between 2006 and 2012, when Cardinal Bergoglio attended yearly gatherings of around 7,000 Catholics and evangelicals in Luna Park stadium in Buenos Aires, among the biggest such ecumenical praise meetings at that time anywhere. Hesitant at first, the cardinal came up to be prayed over by the church’s leading charismatic preacher, the Capuchin friar and preacher to the papal household, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, together with a handful of pentecostal pastors. He was said to have received a “baptism in the Spirit,” an experience of the pneumatic power mentioned often in the New Testament.
In Cardinal Bergoglio’s case it led to a new boldness, especially in ecumenism. He began to meet regularly to pray with evangelicals, convinced that the Spirit was at work in bringing them together. Since his election in 2013, he has continued that openness, reaching out through the renewal to evangelicals and Pentecostals, who are quick to recognize in him one of their own. Francis has invoked the Holy Spirit so often and so emphatically, constantly emphasizing the “new things” the Spirit is calling forth and the dangers of resisting it through rigidity and ideology, that he is arguably not just history’s first Jesuit pope but also the first charismatic pope.
‘Renew the renewal’
But Francis is a reformer, and he has been keen to “renew the renewal” while at the same time encouraging it. The launch of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal International Service, or Charis, is the fruit of a three-year bid not just to integrate the renewal as a “current of grace” for the whole Catholic world, as Belgian Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens famously referred to it, but also to refresh it at its sources, above all by recalling it to the vision of the so-called “Malines documents” of the 1970s, to which Charis has acquired the publication rights. “Make those documents known!” Francis urged Charis leaders at Pentecost, describing them as “the compass of the current of grace.”
Francis is constantly emphasizing the “new things” the Spirit is calling forth and the dangers of resisting it through rigidity and ideology.
The Malines documents are named after the city where, in Cardinal Suenens’s residence, theologians, bishops and renewal leaders gathered to explore the charismatic phenomenon then breaking out in the church, and to bridge the gap with the institutional church. In its statutes, Charis specifically locates the mission of the renewal in these foundational documents, stressing in particular evangelization, the call to Christian unity and service of the poor (the topic of the third paper, the fruit of a dialogue with Bishop Helder Câmara of Brazil).
Francis’ “renewal of the renewal” is also reflected in the new body itself, Charis. Back in 2015 Francis asked the two existing charismatic liaison organizations recognized by Rome, International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services and the more recently established Catholic Fraternity, to work with the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life to create a new, single “service of communion” to the renewal worldwide. In his address on June 8, Francis said Charis serves all the charismatic groups that the Spirit “has raised up in the world,” not “one office to serve some and another office to serve others” but “one office for all.”
Charis’s role will be to help forge communion among the world’s hugely disparate charismatic groups, some of which have fallen prey to the evangelical vice of authoritarian, self-enriching leaders. In his address Francis told charismatic leaders to guard against “the ambition to stand out, to lead, to make money,” warning that “corruption enters that way.” The purpose of the renewal was “service, always service”: serving the Spirit, each other and the poor. “Service is not about filling our pockets—the devil enters through the pockets,” he said, but “about giving, giving, giving of oneself.”
Charis’s role will be to help forge communion among the world’s hugely disparate charismatic groups.
Service and accountability are built into the design of Charis itself, which for now has just a handful of personnel and a small budget but, unlike its two predecessors, enjoys what canon law calls “public juridical personality.” It was erected by the Holy See and has the right, therefore, to represent the church. It also has tighter Vatican oversight: the Dicastery for Laity, for example, appoints the moderator, for now the Belgian layman Jean-Luc Moens.
When I asked the dicastery’s number two, Alexandre de Awi Mello, I.Sch., of Brazil, which other church bodies have a similar canonical status—that is, erected by the Holy See but independent of it—he pointed to Caritas Internationalis, the Rome-based office that coordinates the various national Caritas organizations around the world (in the United States, known as Catholic Relief Services). Giving Charis a similar place in the church, says Father Awi, “is a strong gesture by the pope that he wants to integrate the renewal, to say the renewal is church, and that baptism of the Spirit belongs to the church in the way that charity belongs to the church.” In his address to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal at the gathering in Rome, Charis’s ecclesiastical assistant, Father Cantalamessa, said “charismatic” should always be an adjective rather than a noun: one can no more speak of “charismatics” as a specific group than one can speak of “charitables,” for it is in the nature of the whole church to be charismatic, as it is to be charitable.
Because there is no membership structure, Charis excludes none of the expressions of the renewal: national or international, diocesan or parish-level, stable community or start-up prayer group. There will be no attempt to classify or define these charismatic “realities,” says Father Awi, but Charis will focus instead on assisting them with formation and guidance. Simply acknowledging them is no small feat. In Brazil alone, he says, there are around 700 “new communities” of charismatic inspiration, together with an estimated 20,000-odd charismatic prayer groups, involving at least two million people.
More than 120 million charismatic Catholics in 235 countries belong to a vast tapestry of “expressions and ministries.”
This is, in many ways, the paradox of the renewal: more than 120 million charismatic Catholics in 235 countries belong to a vast tapestry of “expressions and ministries,” as the Charis statutes describe it, which have little in common beyond an experience of baptism in the Spirit and an openness to the charismata pneumatika listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10, such as prophecy, healing and tongues. Although it is this emphasis and openness that sets the renewal off from “traditional” Catholicism, it is not one of the “new movements” within the church. It has no founder—C.C.R. leaders tend to point to the sky when you ask where it all began—nor governing structure as such. Cardinal Suenens used to liken it to the Gulf Stream that warms the coasts of northern Europe; after joining the Atlantic, it becomes indistinguishable from it. You only have to go to an ordinary parish Mass in Brazil to see that this has already happened.
But Francis wants that integration to deepen, for mainstream Catholicism to become more open to what he sees as a fresh outpouring of the Spirit in our time. At World Youth Day in Panama in January, Francis spoke of an urgent need now for “a new Pentecost for the church and for the world,” as he put it. “The Joy of the Gospel” in 2013 spelled out that vision of an outgoing, Spirit-filled church in which “missionary disciples” can speak of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and share joyful stories of the Spirit at work in their lives. “Evangelii Gaudium” dreams of an evangelizing church, open to the spontaneous, gratuitous infusion of the charismata pneumatika that in the Acts of the Apostles turned fearful fishermen into bold proclaimers of the Gospel, able to speak of the love of Christ in ways that transcended boundaries of culture and language.
What the Spirit is asking
The vital role Francis sees being played by the charismatic renewal in the missionary and pastoral conversion of the church is clear from the Latin-American bishops’ gathering at Aparecida in May 2007. Aparecida’s concluding document, which Cardinal Bergoglio was in charge of drafting, spoke in classically charismatic terms of the need for a personal encounter with Christ and the role played by the Holy Spirit (mentioned 44 times) in opening minds and hearts to God’s law. This emphasis reflected not just the pope’s discernment that this was what the Spirit was asking of the church, but also his diagnosis of modernity.
Secularization and technology were dissolving the traditional transmission belts of faith; the ethical and doctrinal edifice of Christianity would in the future be ever less sustained by the weight of law and culture. What was needed was a return to what Aparecida called the “primary encounter” (encuentro fundante) of Christianity: bold and kerygmatic, strong on grace and mercy, not dependent on law, culture or powerful institutions but on the testimony of love and the power of the Spirit. It was this discernment that Pope Francis sought to bottle in “The Joy of the Gospel,” where the Holy Spirit (mentioned 49 times) is the chief protagonist.
In “The Joy of the Gospel,” the Holy Spirit (mentioned 49 times) is the chief protagonist.
All of which explains why Francis is so keen on this family of Catholics, who are quicker than most to grasp the renewal of the church’s culture that “The Joy of the Gospel” calls for. In many meetings with the C.C.R. in Buenos Aires as cardinal and since his 2013 election as pope, he has urged them not to keep for themselves the baptism of the Spirit, for “we are all servants of this flood of grace,” as he put it at the C.C.R.’s 50th anniversary celebrations two years ago.
Those celebrations in 2017 showed the need for a new leadership structures. Francis had given clear instructions a year earlier that he wanted the anniversary not to be self-congratulatory and inwardly focused but ecumenical and missionary, as at Luna Park. But he had faced pushback from C.C.R. leaders wanting to affirm the renewal’s identity as a movement, and in the end the vigil was divided awkwardly into two halves. In the first, the only people on stage were the C.C.R. leaders, who led the worship and gave testimonies against a backdrop of the jubilee logo and the words “Veni, Creator Spiritus” (the Latin was itself a kind of identity affirmation); while the second part, hosted by Pope Francis, included the evangelicals and Pentecostals under the banner “Jesus is Lord.” The first felt tired and self-referential, while the second was joyful and energetic.
The Charis launch at Pentecost this year marked the triumph of the second over the first. The Rev. Wilfred Brieven, who was Cardinal Suenens’s secretary for 12 years and was involved in the renewal from 1973, told me outside the Paul VI Audience Hall in Rome that “the cardinal is in joy in heaven that this is happening,” that Francis’ “bold step in establishing Charis” was “a new direction bringing unity where it was badly needed” and “a moment of kairós not just for the renewal but for the church.”
In Latin America, the renewal has often been set against so-called social justice Catholics, producing a tragic cleavage.
Charis’s statutes ensure that the renewal faces firmly outward by making clear the three Malines priorities of evangelization, Christian unity and service of the poor. The last is especially important in Latin America, where the renewal has often been set against so-called social justice Catholics, producing a tragic cleavage. “The Spirit takes us to the poor,” says Father Awi. “That is an essential part of the renewal, which perhaps many lost along the way.”
Francis has often referred to the third Malines document, in which Archbishop Helder Câmara of Brazil sees the renewal as a service to the dispossessed of society. “We will be judged, not on our praise but on what we have done for Jesus,” Francis told the C.C.R. in 2017, quoting Matthew 25, in which Jesus appears in the guise of the hungry and the imprisoned who are asking to be fed and set free. “We are in a new season now,” Mr. Moens, the moderator of Charis, told me last weekend. There could no longer be a separation between prayer and service of the poor. “You will have people praying and serving the poor together, like Mother Teresa: adoring the Lord in prayer and sacraments, and then adoring the Lord in his wounded people,” he said.
The second mission, Christian unity, is also key: Francis sees the charismatic renewal as the church’s bridge with the fast-growing Pentecostal world, the place where the Spirit is forging a “reconciled diversity” out of churches separated by history. As the late Rev. Peter Hocken—one of the best theologians of the renewal—described him, Francis is a committed “charismatic ecumenist,” meaning that he sees unity as firstly the work of the Spirit rather than an achievement of theological or institutional dialogue.
In Chapters 10 and 11 of the Acts of the Apostles, Christ’s Jewish disciples are astonished to see the Spirit bestow the same charismatic gifts on the gentiles. The disciples grasp that they are all one. In the same way, unity comes about when people gather in prayer and friendship and see how the Spirit is working in the other. The renewal was born in this way, outside the Catholic church, via Pentecostalism, when in January 1967 Catholics from Duquesne University attended an interdenominational charismatic prayer meeting, and a few weeks later received a dramatic outpouring of charismatic gifts before the Blessed Sacrament during what came to be known as the the “Duquesne weekend.”
Francis’ example has inspired a U.S. Pentecostal pastor from Newark, Joseph Tosini, to create the John 17 movement bringing together Catholics and evangelicals in friendship, involving a number of U.S. Catholic bishops. Pastor Tosini regularly takes dozens of pastors to Rome to meet Francis and has collected their testimonies in a new book, John 17: The Heart of God. The pope has a letter at in the front of the book praising their “ecumenism based on the unity of the Spirit.”
Over lunch on Pentecost Sunday, Pastor Tosini described to me the many fruits of this movement, the way Catholics and Evangelicals were being given a new insight into the Spirit’s work of unity in our time. That unity is happening, he says, “at the speed of relationship.” The Holy Spirit had shown Francis that in this era of mistrust of institutions, “if it’s not personal, it’s not real,” he said. And that was why the charismatic world—Catholic and evangelical—was looking to Francis as one anointed to channel this inspiration. “People know if you love them or not,” he added. “Pope Francis is genuine. He moves people by his presence and by his kindness.”
Correction, June 27: This article originally misstated the context of the "Duquesne weekend" of 1967. Pentecostal pastors did not lay their hands on Catholics; those in attendance report that the gifts of the Spirit came in a Eucharistic context, before the Blessed Sacrament.