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Austen IvereighMay 30, 2020
Pope Francis touches a Marian icon as he leaves at the end of a vigil, ahead of Pentecost Sunday, at the Vatican June 8, 2019. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)Pope Francis touches a Marian icon as he leaves at the end of a vigil, ahead of Pentecost Sunday, at the Vatican June 8, 2019. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

Asking the world’s charismatic Catholics to take up the invitation of a little known 1970s document urging service of the poor may not seem, at first glance, a radical move. But Pope Francis’ message at tonight’s vigil organized by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal International Service, or Charis, the Vatican-based body set up by Francis last year to serve the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (C.C.R.) worldwide, breaks significant new ground in two ways. First, it poses a sharp challenge to a movement known more for personal conversion and evangelization than practical mercy. Second, it points to the pope’s discernment of where he believes the church needs to be in the coming global economic meltdown. Unless it is alongside the poor, evangelization will ring hollow.

The pope’s words are urgent. The pandemic will change the world: the only question is, for better or for worse? To build “a more just, more equitable, more Christian society, not in name, but in reality” means working to end the “pandemic of poverty” locally and across the world. Unless we accept the judgement of Matthew 25, in which Jesus reveals that those who do not feed the hungry and visit the imprisoned do not know him, “we will not come out better,” says Francis. This task is for all. But it is specifically, he says, the task for the C.C.R. “Be faithful,” he tells them, to “this call of the Holy Spirit.”

The pope’s message poses a sharp challenge to a movement known more for personal conversion and evangelization than practical mercy.

Hearing that call, he makes clear, means taking up the third of a series of theological reflections on the charismatic renewal overseen by the Archbishop of Brussels-Malines in the 1970s.

Cardinal Leo Suenens had been sent by Pope Paul VI to discern and offer guidance to the movement emerging out of dramatic experiences of the Holy Spirit in U.S. college campuses a decade earlier. The dialogues he hosted in Malines, Belgium, between charismatic leaders and theologians and church leaders that would over time be key to overcoming bishops’ suspicions of the Renewal while helping to integrate it into the wider church. Published between 1974 and 1986, the so-called Malines documents urged the Renewal to see the gifts of the Holy Spirit as at the service of Christian unity and social justice, not just evangelization and personal conversion.

Charismatic Renewal and Social Action: A Dialogue, which was published in 1979, was co-written by the bishop of Olinda-Recife in Brazil, Helder Câmara, a key figure in the Latin-American Church’s embrace of the social Gospel who is on the path to sainthood. The book’s clear aim was to overcome a false dichotomy in the church between “charismatic” and “socially committed” Catholics and to “cement what God has united: the first and the second commandments,” as they put it.

Suenens and Câmara argue there that evangelization and humanization are not separate missions but simultaneous and interdependent. The fruits of the Holy Spirit, meanwhile, are not just “what we relish”—personal experiences of spiritual rapture—but also what creatively affects society, revealing the idols of consumerism and building a better world from below with the poor. As Câmara challengingly puts it: “How dare we look at Christ, if we who wear his name as our shield and call ourselves his disciples are contributing, for our part, to the scandal of this century: a small minority enjoying vast means of existence and enrichment while the great majority of God’s sons are reduced to a subhuman existence?”

Yet, as charismatic leaders I spoke to for this article are quick to admit, the third Malines document is among the least known and discussed of the series and has had little impact on the direction of the Renewal over the past 50 years. Bishop Peter Smith, a member of the charismatic People of Praise community in South Bend, Ind., and a Charis board member, is currently serving as auxiliary bishop in Portland, Oregon. He likens what Francis is doing to “taking a dust-covered book from your bookshelf and remembering that this is a big part of who you are called to be.”

While the evangelizing commitment has been strong, he says, the commitment to Christian unity and the poor has been slow to take off. “The pope is saying, ‘these seeds were planted at the beginning of the Renewal. Some of those seeds have germinated and grown quickly. But those other seeds which have not come up as fast are equally part of the garden of what God is doing in the Renewal.’”

Although there are important exceptions to this story—People of Praise is one—the Renewal is not known for its social commitment.

As the Catholic Charismatic Renewal has developed over the past half century, it has moved through personal conversion to desire for community and fraternity, but it has in many cases been diverted from its calling into more devotional pieties and spiritualities. Hence the anomaly that many charismatic Catholics end up looking and sounding like traditionalists obsessed with doctrinal orthodoxy and apocalyptic prophecies.

Although there are important exceptions to this story—People of Praise, which has about 1,700 members in 22 cities in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean is one; LAMP ministries in the Bronx would be another—the Renewal is not known for its social commitment. Many well known charismatic proponents of the “new evangelization” in the United States are too often critics of Pope Francis’ social and other teachings. The dichotomy that the Suenens/Câmara document warned against, in other words, has largely come to pass.

In Latin America, the Renewal has been strongly associated with reactionary movements in opposition to liberation theology.

In Latin America, meanwhile, the Renewal has been strongly associated with reactionary movements in opposition to liberation theology and focused on family morality at the expense of social concern. By far the largest and richest of these, in Brazil, threw its media channels and influence behind the election of Jair Bolsonaro in December 2018, despite the nationalist-populist clashing with what he called the bishops’ leftist agenda of concern for the poor and the environment. The movement’s founder even prayed over Bolsonaro in a special broadcast, praising him as the president the country needed. For those who know the Renewal in Brazil, it was no surprise.


There is one city in Latin America, however, where Francis’ call to the world’s tens of millions of charismatic Catholics to get behind the Suenens/Câmara document will be heard not as a challenge but as a familiar refrain. Pino Scafuro, who until last year headed the Renewal in Buenos Aires and sits on the board of Charis, recalls how Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s engagement with charismatic Catholics after 2004 served to reshape them on precisely those lines.

Before then, they had largely considered social action the province of Caritas, and stood apart from Cardinal Bergoglio’s mobilization of the church in Buenos Aires in response to the economic collapse of 2001-2. But Bergoglio taught them, says Scafuro, that conversion means attending to the needs of the “whole person,” that material and psychological and spiritual needs are all wrapped up with each other, and that openness to the Spirit meansserving Christ in the poor.

“What he asked of the Renewal was that it ceases to be a service for its members and becomes a service to the world,” he recalls. Above all, starting in 2008-9, communities of the Renewal began serving in the villas miseria of Buenos Aires and responded to Bergoglio’s call to open up the garages of their houses to serve people’s needs. The Renewal also invited a Korean charismatic community serving the poor, Kkottongnae, to set up in Buenos Aires. As pope, Francis would visit its base in Seoul in 2014.

Turning the Charismatic Renewal outward in service of the poor went hand in hand with work for Christian unity.

Turning the Charismatic Renewal outward in service of the poor went hand in hand with work for Christian unity. Under Bergoglio, the charismatics in Buenos Aires became famous for some of the largest Catholic-evangelical prayer gatherings anywhere in the world.

Since his election, Francis has been leading a similar “renewal of the Renewal” worldwide, beginning with the creation of a single office in Rome to replace the two existing, competing bodies. Each year, at Pentecost, he has been guiding the Renewal as he did in Buenos Aires, warning against the temptation to turn a gift to the universal church into a private possession, and referring to it as did Suenens, as a “current of grace” of which no one was the master and all were called to serve.

Since his election, Francis has been leading a “renewal of the Renewal” worldwide.

“Spiritual ecumenism is praying and proclaiming together that Jesus is Lord, and coming together to help the poor in all their poverty,” the pope said in 2014. At the Renewal’s 50th birthday in 2017, he said baptism in the Holy Spirit, joyful praise and social action were all “inseparably linked.”

At the same Pentecost vigil he told the Renewal that at 50, wrinkles begin to appear “and we begin to forget things.” Urging them to “remember your origins” and open afresh to the Holy Spirit, he reminded them, again, of the Malines documents, of the need to evangelize by working for Christian unity and by encountering Jesus in the poor.

Set against those exhortations, this year’s message is less surprising. Yet its urgency and starkness is a sign that Francis sees the devastation of the post-pandemic world as demanding a clear choice for the poor. As he put it in a recent address to the Pontifical Mission Societies: “for the church, a preference for the poor is not optional.”


How the Renewal worldwide will receive this message is not clear. But in South Bend, the communications director for the People of Praise will get it at once. At the heart of the Renewal, says Sean Connolly, is a personal encounter with Christ. As he has learned from seeing Matthew 25 put into practice, Christ is encountered in the poor.

Back in 2002, as a young member of the movement freshly graduated from the University of Notre Dame, Connolly set out with two other members on a “discernment, Holy Spirit road trip” in search of a community they could serve. He hadn’t heard of the Suenens/Câmara document but was fired by the model of the Jesuit reductions of Paraguay. In Shreveport, La., they found the door open. They set up house there, with no big program in mind, just “wanting to get to know people and if we could make life better for some of them.” They knocked on doors, organized barbecues, helped out. Sean stayed for three years.

“There’s a grace for the Renewal in this, in going out to the neighbor, in going out to the poor.”

“We experienced Christ in our neighbours in ways that were very surprising,” he says. It was a place where there was no shortage of drugs, prostitution, shots at night and fragile roofs that fell in, but the African-American community “were blessing us long before we were doing anything for them.” These days, there are many other fruits and works in Shreveport, above all a school, and similar examples of People of Praise’s “relational evangelism” in two places in Indiana.

The real blessing, says Connolly, is relationship. In Evansville these days, the People of Praise missionaries can check on single moms forced to quit their jobs during the pandemic to look after their children and be received as neighbors. They know how to put together a box of food that people actually need and want to eat.

“There’s a grace for the Renewal in this, in going out to the neighbor, in going out to the poor,” says Connolly. “Our sense of where Jesus is, who he is, and where he can be found, is so much richer than it would have been in these places, where we were strangers but are no longer.” 

Is this why Francis is so keen that the Renewal learns to go out of its doors, to the poor—because on the cusp of the biggest world recession in decades, the church will not be credible if it is not, literally, a neighbor to those who will pay the biggest price?

Bishop Smith thinks it is an astute call. With 110 million active participants worldwide, in terms of numbers and reach. “there’s no movement in the church that comes close to the Renewal,” he says. “With all these networks and ministries and communities and fraternities in place, if you can mobilize them to start doing these things at a grassroots level, you’re going to impact the lives of a tremendous number of people.”

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