Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Is Charismatic Renewal for real? part 5

(Letter to Kerry Zmatick continued)

At this point people who have no interest in Charismatic Renewal or other strange religious phenomena will probably have lost all interest in these articles, but I still need to get it out of my system.

So what happened? How was this Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church derailed?  First of all, it has not been totally derailed. The vitality of the Church in many parts of the world is the direct result of the rediscovery of Pentecost that was one of the more helpful aspects of the Pentecostal/Charismatic Renewal. 

I am told that in France there is a certain blending of Traditional Catholicism and Charismatic Renewal. Though committed Catholics are fewer in France than in times past, they are dynamic and convinced.  The evidence is admittedly anecdotal, but still there is reason to believe that faith is on the rise in France. Even in the United States, the  odd marriage of traditional and Charismatic Renewal has been one  of the influences in the resurgence of a more traditional Catholicism, especially among young people. 

The resurgence, however, has been among those who don’t necessarily consider themselves part of a movement, or who may even have formally left the movement. Mother Angelica is perhaps foremost among these. She got her start in show business through the Charismatic Renewal. I know this to be true. I was there. I was on a stage with her at a Charismatic conference in Albuquerque. She was thoroughly charismatic and her humor had us rolling in the aisles. When she established the  Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), she changed the face of Catholicism in this country. I have heard the vocations coming into the church these days called Mother Angelica vocations or JP2 (John Paul the Second) vocations. The World Youth Days, the Rallies and Conferences that are currently popular were first pioneered by Charismatic Renewal, as was the renewed interest in Bible study for non-scholars, like myself.

Among priests being ordained these days it is estimated that 44 percent have attended prayer meetings or Bible studies. A period spent in the Charismatic Renewal is not uncommon for those entering the priesthood and religious life. Again, this is anecdotal, but it seems that the thought of a calling to the Catholic priesthood or sisterhood is not at all dead, and the case can be made that Charismatic prayer groups have helped create a climate in which a religious vocation is valued, because of the belief that we live in a supernatural world. Catholicism is once again an evangelistic religion, aiming at winning converts. The post Vatican II clergy were of the opinion that it was all good -- Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, it’s all good. The post-Mother Angelica crowd really seems to think there are good reasons to be Catholic Christians and these all have to do with Christ.

The movement itself, however  seems in large measure to be stuck in the 1960's among its English speaking members, and to continues to develop as a parallel Church that seems more Protestant than Catholic among its Spanish-speaking members. It seems that only in Africa is Charismatic life integrated into the wider church so much so as to be unremarkable. The amazing growth of the Church in Africa seems to take evangelism and charismatic spirituality for granted.   

Again, take all this with more than just a grain of salt, because I am, speaking from my own experience, and can’t back these statements up with hard facts. Still, the English prayer groups I know tend to be populated by older people who reminisce about what things used to be like back when the Renewal began. It seams to me that the intensity of the early Charismatic Renewal has been transferred to another amazing phenomenon that I can’t pontificate on nearly as well: Eucharistic Adoration. I theorize that the growth of Eucharistic Adoration is also a result of Charismatic Renewal, at least in part. 

The traditional belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist was certainly bolstered by Charismatic Renewal. Charismatics believe in miracles and nothing could be more miraculous that the transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood. My progressive seminary training was full of attempts to  de-mythologize and explain Transubstantiation in terms acceptable to enlightened moderns, (Transubstantiation is the belief that one substance can change into another, e.g. bread and wine can become flesh and blood. Only Traditional Christians and some physicists believe this.) 

In the seminary graduate school, we had endless discussions of trans-signification, con- substantiation. A real popular one was called trans-symbolization, the idea that when Mass was over the Eucharistic species reverted to being merely bread and wine. They had only symbolized the Body and Blood of the Lord. This was not new. Before the Vatican Council, the idea of trans- symbolization was called Protestantism, however trans-symbolization looked more Catholic. It allowed for kneeling and bowing and incense and worship, if one insisted on that sort of medieval nonsense, but that sort of thing was only allowed in the context of Mass.  Those who practiced Eucharistic Adoration outside of Mass were derided as “cookie-worshipers.” There was much laughter about the so-called “sacred crumb theory.” How small would a crumb have to be before it ceased to be divine? 

I remember the story of a faculty argument among the progressives and the more traditional faculty members about the whole matter, until one of the priest faculty took a bread basket, place his hands over it and said “This is my Body!” and handed it to one of the more traditional priests. The more traditional priest sat there and ate that whole basket of bread and every crumb he could detect. Tabernacles were moved to this side, that side. Broom closets were cleared out and called Sacrament chapels. I remember going into the seminary chapel and being unable to find the tabernacle. Over in the corner stood an arrangement of potted palms and other foliage. Behind the clump of greenery, you guessed it, I found the tabernacle. The Bible verse comes to mind “They asked (Mary Magdalene), ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don't know where they have put him.’ ” (John 20:13)

No matter what pious nonsense priests and liturgists mouthed such as “One shouldn’t have two focuses for the Eucharist". Or, "I don’t want to say Mass with my back to the tabernacle,” the real reason was a de-emphasis of the belief that the Lord was truly present in the form of bread and wine.

Meanwhile Charismatics were ignoring the clergy and sneaking off to convents where the Blessed Sacrament was worshiped. We would sneak out of the seminary through the woods to the Benedictine convent next door where they had Perpetual Adoration  and we would sneak across the street to a prayer meeting in the Carmelite monastery. The Charismatic Renewal flourished without benefit of clergy, at least ordained Catholic clergy.

Shortly after I was ordained,  no longer a student, but a member of the club, I was invited into the faculty room for a drink with a few faculty members. The conversation turned to things Charismatic, and whether or not I still participated in the prayer groups, to which the answer was and now would still be, “Of course!”   

The discussion was very heady, but one of the more progressive of the group looked squarely at me and asked “Do you pray in tongues?" 

I said “Yes, I do.” 

The conversation had ceased to be theological. It had gotten personal and one by one, the professors left the room. I don’t think they were angry or even dismissive. I suspect that they simply could not fathom that someone who seemed reasonable could be involved in something so unreasonable. They were, I think, embarrassed by me and for me and did not know where to take the conversation. I was left alone, and was quite alone in my involvement for years. 

In the seventies and early eighties, there were only five or ten priests who could be called Charismatic. In the Spanish-, I mean Icelandic-, speaking community there exactly three, two of whom had nervous breakdowns, leaving just me who, being out of my mind already, had no need of a breakdown. 

You may think that the refusal of the Catholic Presbyterate to shepherd the movement meant that the movement was out of control. Quite the opposite. There were all sorts of people who wanted to control the Charismatic Renewal and the leadership vacuum created by neglect became and opportunity for some very dangerous people. The best definition of a prayer meeting I have ever heard is this: “A prayer meeting is a gathering of the people of God for the free exercise of the gifts of God.”   

Charismatic groups as often as not were anything but free.

Next week; the Crazed leading the Blind

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