(Letter to Kerry Zmatick continued)
When I was first ordained and still knew everything, I was involved in the Frostbite Falls Evangelism and Spirit-filled Transitional Encounter in Renewal committee, or FESTER for short. It was the oversight committee for prayer groups in the diocese. It mostly argued about where to have its meetings, who got to prophesy, and whether we should have the FESTER logo on coffee cups sold at the book table at charismatic conferences.
I was eventually assigned to the parish of St. Apoplexus to serve the ex-patriot Icelandic Cod Fishing Community. It was a very poor parish in the run down harbor district of Frostbite Falls. The ex-patriot Icelandic Cod Fishing Community was very poor because they are no codfish to speak of in Lake Superior. They had been taken in by cold-hearted travel agents with tales of riches and fish. I learned their language and ate their food and did their strange folk dances that often involved pickled herrings. It was an exciting time and I was young. The parish had been dying but had been given a new lease on life through the Charismatic Renewal. A Swedish nun from the Order of Fidgettine Sisters and two Icelandic deacons started a meeting with three people. Three were soon thirty and thirty were soon three hundred. In a little while the Sunday night prayers meeting was regularly attended by a thousand people. The pastor, Fr. Eaglehaus welcomed the Icelandic Charismatics with their loud music and rambunctious children when no one else would. For this he was ostracized by the clergy of the diocese.
There was also a youth group of about 400 teens and young adults. Fr. Eaglehaus asked me to pastor it. After a few years, the movement had spread to other parishes much to the dismay of the clergy and, since Fr. Eaglehaus had died, Bishop Bergstrom made me his delegate to the growing Frostbite Falls Icelandic Cod Fishing Charismatic Community. No one could remember that, so they were simply called the “Falls Cods.” Each prayer group had its group coordinator and each coordinator met in a regular assembly which also elected a steering committee which was mostly composed of deacons.
There was one deacon in particular who ran the show, Deacon Koronatus Kreuz. Everybody just called him “Deacon Steve” and they regarded him as a saint. Deacon Steve could preach like Paul and could sing like an angel. He led his own choir called “Fylgjendur Krists”. People swooned over his Nordic good looks and angelic voice. He didn’t drink, smoke, smile or laugh. Well, that’s an exaggeration. In my many years of working with him I never saw him actually laugh, but I did see him smile twice. Thank God, only twice. It was frightening. It was a kind of a leer that one might see on a lizard before it snared a bug. He was often heard to say that Christianity was serious business, and he did mean business about which he was quite serious. He had books and records to sell.
There was another deacon, Sigmund Ortonson, who had developed a very popular television program named for a very popular Icelandic religious song “Eg Vil Lofa” (Let’s Worship). The show brought the Gospel into Icelandic homes every week. It was a very low budget program that was wonderful nonetheless. It was even nominated for southern North Minnesota’s highest journalistic prize, the Golden Loon. But Deacon Steve decided that a TV show, especially one that he didn’t run, was a waste of money. It would be better spent on a building and, since Deacon Steve was a saint, that’s what the committee, of which he was president, decided.
Goodbye Deacon Sigmund, goodbye “Eg Vil Lofa”. They began to gather money for the great “Fellur þorsk Trúarleg Miðstöð”(Falls Cods Charismatic Center). The money gathering continued and the building was always just beyond our reach. Someone suggested that, as the Bishop’s delegate, I should probably look at the books. After many community meetings and refusals, I was finally given access to the funds which were kept in a large safe in a garage down by the docks. In it were about $5.35 and a lot of I.O.U.s.
The outcry was deafening... against me. How dare I accuse the saintly deacons who didn’t drink dance or smile of wrongdoing?!? Whom, after all, did I think I was? I was most certainly not Icelandic! Needless to say Bishop Begstrom eventually came down on the committee like ugly on an ape. There were some quick trips back to Iceland by people from whom I have never heard again -- not so much as a postcard. I endured about three years of hearings, protests, public meetings, and elections and some real resistance from a Fidgettine nun, Sister Mary Sunnudagur Skór, Bishop Bergstrom’s Personal Consultant for Icelandic Issues, also a saint. In the beginning of the brouhaha, she called me to tell me to mind my own business. After all, I was a foreigner, not Icelandic. Apparently the bonds of fellowship stop at island’s shore and lutefisk is thicker than water. (Lutefisk is a traditional Scandinavian food made form codfish and lye. This is for real. The only worse smelling food is kæstur hákarl, Icelandic fermented shark, also a real thing. Supposedly it smells like ammonia and tastes like grim death.)
After years of sacred strife, I finally got a new committee in place which promptly voted itself a trip to the Holy Land with a side trip to the shrine of Sts. Torwald and Thangbrand in Grindavik, the balmy Icelandic Riviera. The trip was to be paid for by the Falls Cods money. I told them that the trip they had just voted themselves was a criminal misuse of charitable funds. They promptly complained to Bishop Bergstrom’s new Personal Consultant for Icelandic Issues, Fr. Lamedagar. I explained to Fr. Lamedagar what lawyers and accountants had explained to me about the illegality of such a trip. Fr. Lamedagar expressed great alarm that the committee would even think of such a thing. I was completely correct in insisting that the trip be cancelled. Fr. Lamedagar then told me to write the committee a letter of apology for having insulted its members by implying that they were criminals.
He failed to tell me that he, too, was planning on going on the trip with them. I told Fr. Lamedagar that I most certainly would do as he had asked me. I wrote the letter asking their forgiveness and put it in the mail box with my letter of resignation to Fr. Lamedagar as Bishop Bergstrom’s delegate to the Falls Cods. That was the last time I identified with a movement calling itself Charismatic. My spirituality is Pentecostal and I believe that the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, which most people mistakenly call gifts of the Holy Spirit are a real part of the life the Church, and more than that, they are an essential part of the life of the Church. Yes, you heard me, essential, and thus should be at the disposal of the Church and subject to the discernment of competent Church guidance.
How, you may wonder, can something be both real and so disastrous at the same time? Have you not read St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians? “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now ending in the flesh?” Galatians3:3
Apparently the Galatians were. And a whole lot of us are. This sad history is couched in evasive language, but it all really happened, except for the side trip to Iceland and the herring. I watched it happen. I was part of the disaster. I encouraged the disaster. It started the moment that the spring semester ended at Notre Dame. As I was told the story, the students and faculty met somewhere not quite under Notre Dame’s golden dome, to ask what now? They were used to the idea of prayer meetings. So, they started prayer meetings, and the structure of Charismatic Renewal was fixed. The prayer meeting was exciting and enriching. There were miracles. Sunday Mass was boring. So they invented the Charismatic Mass, which was a glorious combination of a prayer meeting, Mass, and clerical neglect. There were few rubrics. The normal boring Mass provided a basic structure, but along the way a Charismatic Mass would be interrupted for prophecy, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), worship and for endless verses of some very tedious songs. Such a hybrid would last for hours.
I also attended Charismatic Rosaries. Those never really caught on. There was also an attempt at a kind of monasticism called covenant communities such as True House that actually became as sinister as cults. The covenant communities were pretty much a bust, but it was the prayer meeting that became the vehicle of Charismatic Renewal, along with Charismatic conferences and the occasional Charismatic healing Mass if one could find a Charismatic priest. A Charismatic priest was a priest involved with the renewal. Those were rare, so we made do with priests who had the sitzfleisch and bladder capacity to say a Mass that lasted for hours while everyone put in their prophetic, ecstatic two cents.
The prayer meeting was everything. A member of the “core group” (the very name sends a shiver up my spine) was responsible to go the weekly prayer meeting, plus the core meeting where we agonized over the interesting people who used the prayer meetings as a kind of therapy group These core group meetings might last until midnight. One might then go to a ministry meeting, where one prayed for the sick, or rehearsed and prayed over music with the choir or “discerned” with the “word gift ministry.” Those were people who decided they were prophets and they would figure out what was a true prophecy or what was not. In addition to all this, it was expected that one would attend another prayer meeting that was just starting up and all its constituent meetings to “help them get started.” There were meetings 9 or 10 nights a week, and they were all more important than Sunday Mass. There also was a lot of neglected children and spouses and subsequent divorces.
Next Week: “How did something so wonderful become such a train wreck?” OR “How to make fermented shark’s fin.”