Friday, June 28, 2013

Is Charismatic Renewal for real? part 4

(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.”

Monday, June 24, 2013

Is Charismatic Renewal for real? part 3

(Letter to Kerry Zmatick continued)

Last week I ended with, “In a time when both the Church and I were forgetting the supernatural reality of the Christian life, I met people who never let me forget that to be a Christian is to live in a supernatural reality.”  I shall elucidate.

In the college seminary I was attending at the time we were given a steady diet of “Christ as....” Christ as Marxist liberator, Christ as mythic hero.... Christ as weaver of tales and teller of stories..... Never Christ as son of God and Savior.  We had a rookie professor fresh from a liberal German University who kept telling us all we really had was an empty tomb, nothing more. He used to gather us in the chapel to teach dreary songs about the empty tomb and other Biblical quandaries. We called them the Dead Sea Chanties. 

He didn’t last long. Ran off with a nun, I think. We were fed a steady diet of Christ figures that included Easy Rider, Billy Bud and Cool Hand Luke. Nobody believed that there was anything supernatural about the Gospel. Jesus was a swell moral example and nothing more. Then I had this amazing experience and met all sorts of apparently normal people who loved Jesus, talked about Him like He was really alive and had more joy than any circus train I’ve ever ridden on.  I remember going home for summer break and telling my parents that God spoke in our times, the Bible was true, God healed the sick and you could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They looked confused and said “We’ve been trying to tell you that for 18 years.” That stopped me in my tracks. I realized that all this wonderful new truth I had discovered was the same as the wonderful old truth by which my parents and most of the Catholics I knew had tried to live their lives.  The speaking in tongues and being loud in church were a little odd, but the rest was what we had always believed as Catholics. There really was no reason for me to leave the Church or the seminary. In fact, now I had a real reason to be in the seminary, having lost my purpose a few years back. It was all good....for about six months.

I went to house prayer meetings and home Masses that went till midnight. Hundreds of us would gather in a Presbyterian church for a glorious meeting where Pastor Floyd Weaver, a Methodist minister would preach and pray for the sick and those who wanted to receive the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit.”  

Then the snake arrived in the Garden. Pastor Floyd would preach about how God was forming the perfect church (us). People started getting words from the Lord that we were to leave our stuffy old denominational churches and join the perfect church that God was forming (us). At one of the beautiful home masses, an Episcopalian woman who had left her stuffy old denomination came up to me and said, “Thus says the Lord: You are not to continue studying for the Catholic priesthood, You are to leave the Catholic Church and join the perfect new church (us).” 

It was a starry night and I remember going out and lying down on the ground, looking up at the stars and saying, Lord, what do you want me to do. The still small voice inside said “Hold on.” It didn’t say to what, so I decided to hold on to the Roman Catholic Church because I believed that Jesus had founded it and would not forsake it. I left the group. They called and looked for me. In fact they kind of stalked me, but I made myself scarce. Just a side note. About a year after I got out of the perfect church (us), it was announced that no one was to prophesy or speak publicly in the meeting except the twelve apostles appointed by pastor Floyd. Then a while after, no one was to speak in the meeting except Pastor Floyd. Then Pastor Floyd announced that he would make the major decisions for the congregation. This included the buying and selling of real estate the arranging of marriages and even the purchase of furniture in the homes of members. There is now no trace of the perfect church (us). I can’t even find it on the web. I guess the west suburbs of Chicago just weren’t ready for perfection. I sure wasn’t. 

Meanwhile, St. Peter tells us that the dog returns to its vomit (2Peter2:22)  and I returned to life at Crayola University. Let the good times roll. They say if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there. There are very large hunks of the late sixties of which I have absolutely no memory. Enough said. I do remember a brief stint as a fashionable socialist, intrigued by the life and times of Leon Trotsky. A few things happened that separated me from my slide into the gutter. The peace committee of which I was a very active member had a big fight during peace week and split down the middle. The violently non-violent faction got into a heated argument with the non-violently non-violent faction. I decided the whole thing was nuts. 

At about the same time a young woman with whom I was keeping company went home from a party with someone other than me and so I figured I should make up my mind about this priesthood thing one way or another. I went on a retreat at a Trappist Monastery and there I found a bunch of monks who led a charismatic prayer group and, having softened on the issue, I sat in. Four hours later, I was again a convinced Pentecostal or whatever we were calling ourselves at the time. 

I started work at an orphanage where there two Charismatic nuns who stuck to me like white on rice. I had a car and they needed rides to prayer meetings. I would come back from the orphanage late at night and go to chapel pleading with the Lord to tell me what I was supposed to do. I kept asking “What’s my ministry Lord?” A couple of friends invited me to hear a Pentecostal Gospel singer/prophetess. She was great, an African American woman who had the requisites to really belt out a tune. After the meeting when she was praying over us, and looked at me and prophesied. She said, “Honey, you are going to be a Gospel teacher. It’s written all over your face.” 

The nuns and I had started going to a Catholic prayer meeting downtown, and when the group found out that I was in the seminary, I was immediately appointed to teach the introduction seminar explaining what all this was to visitors.  I was clueless so I did some quick research, gave the seminar and thus was born the future  Reverend Know-it-all. 

The rest is, as they say, history. I returned to the seminary and started to actually learn things. I studied History, Latin, Greek and Hebrew and became a truly fanatical Pentecostal in a liberal Catholic institution. I was the kind of fellow who glared at you if you so much as mentioned beer. I would tear the cigarette from your mouth, loudly protesting that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. I made no converts and won no friends. By the time I was in the theology graduate school, there were some professors who suspected I was not ordination material. I wish I could say that it was because I was obnoxious, because I truly was and often still am.

Subsequent developments have made me think that they understood the real danger of Pentecostalism, not that it was fanatical, but that it was actually very traditional. Pentecostals worshiped the God who works wonders. They worshiped the God who gives seminars. I was hauled on the carpet for being too “proclamational” and not “incarnational” enough. That meant I talked too much about Jesus. I was distraught at the thought that I was not to be ordained. I remember how sad I was at the First Mass of a friend who had just been ordained, but a rather frightened looking woman came up to me and said, ”I don’t know why I am doing this. I don’t really know anything about the Holy Spirit. I’ve just started going to the prayer meetings, but the Lord told me to come over here and tell you that you are going to be a priest. They will ordain you, but whatever is happening to you now will happen to you the rest of you life.” I was thunderstruck. A few days later I got the news that most of the seminary faculty had rallied around me and I was to be sent forward for ordination. It was a great lesson to me.

First, I learned that you can’t bludgeon someone into faith. You have to be Christ before you speak Christ. Second I realized that no matter what happened I really wanted to be a priest. No one conned me into it or lied to me about its difficulties. I have no illusions about weak and sinful men like myself who are given responsibility in the Church; and third, I have learned to worry only when someone is NOT complaining about me. I had letter-writing campaigns directed at me, I had people march in protest.  

I’ve had nasty letters written anonymously and have been hauled on carpet after carpet. I’ve even been vilified in the  Frostbaitske Foss Daglega Bull Tímarit” (Icelandic/ Frostbite Falls Daily News Journal). It was great. They accused me of being a Nazi. They were only the first to call me that. I know that when people are unhappy about what I’m saying, I’m saying something that they are hearing, unless of course I am being a jerk and they are unhappy with me for perfectly good reasons. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matt. 5:11)   

Still, every once in a while I say something that gets a rise out of people in a way that I hope pleases the Lord. The difficult times have been made much less difficult because the Holy Spirit has sent people into my life who really spoke for God. To me, that is the heart of Pentecostal spirituality. It is not so much about loud prayer meetings and catchy music. It is quite the opposite. It is about hearing God.

Next Week: “My ministry among the ex-patriot Icelandic Cod Fishing Community of the Frostbite Falls Harbor District.” 


“I can tell when a fish is rotten.”

Monday, June 17, 2013

Is Charismatic Renewal for real? part 2

(Letter to Kerry Zmatick continued)

In the 1950's and 60's, after the end of the Second World War, Christians in America and Europe faced a crisis that had been brewing since the end of the First World War. Traditional Protestantism and Catholicism had a hard time making sense of the post war, cold war materialist “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” world in which they found themselves. All of the truths that humanity had counted on seemed shaken and unsure. The materialism of both communism and capitalism gripped humanity as never before. The intellectualized religion of liberal Protestantism that also infected Catholicism in the 1950's just didn’t satisfy the baby boomer post war generation in the same way that a shiny new car and a house in the suburbs did. Those were days during which man’s search for meaning went only as far as his neighbor’s picket fence. Needless to say, there were some who didn’t find meaning in the sleek shiny world of the fabulous fifties and the groovy sixties.  Among them were one dissatisfied Lutheran/Calvinist minister, one dissatisfied Anglican priest, one dissatisfied (Pentecostal ) Assemblies of God minister,  and one dissatisfied Anglican layman.

The Lutheran was Rev. Harald Bredesen who had been Baptized in the Holy Spirit in 1946. Up to that point, if someone from a mainline protestant church claimed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit and to speak in tongues he generally left his mainline protestant denomination. If he didn’t leave, he would probably be thrown out. Bredesen saw no reason why he couldn’t be a Lutheran minister and speak in tongues. As far as anybody knows, Bredesen was the first ordained clergyman from a mainline denomination to openly claim Baptism in the Holy Spirit while retaining his credentials in a mainline denomination. It was Bredesen who first used the term “Charismatic Renewal” in an article in Eternity Magazine in 1963. He objected to the term “Neo Pentecostal” and preferred the term “Charismatic”. I am not sure what the fuss was about. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet and a platypus by any other name would seem as strange.

Rev. Dennis Bennet, an American Episcopal Priest publicly admitted to having received the so-called Baptism in the Holy Spirit beginning Easter of  1960. His parish, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, in Van Nuys, California, dropped him like a bad habit. Newsweek and Time Magazine zeroed in on the story and once again, Pentecostalism, this time among Episcopalians was making headlines. He was hired by St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington, a parish on the skids, and when the parish stopped shrinking and started expanding, this too made headlines. Fr. Bennet eventually collaborated with another dissatisfied Episcopalian, John Sherrill in a book about his experiences called “Nine O’clock in the Morning.”  

 Sherrill is know to very few people, but I suspect he has had more influence on Christianity than any one since St. Thomas Aquinas. In addition to “Nine O’clock,” he wrote two very important books, “They Speak with Other Tongues” and “the Cross and the Switchblade.”  “Cross and the Switchblade” was written by John Sherrill and Rev. David Wilkerson about an Assemblies of God minister. Wilkerson who was tired of preaching to second and third generation Pentecostals, pastored small churches in Scottdale and Philipsburg, in rural Pennsylvania, until 1958 when the Holy Spirit moved him to preach the Gospel to New York street gangs and heroin addicts. 

These books are not what most people would call great literature or profound theology. They are closer to mystery stories than theological texts. I have heard them called theological bon-bons. Still, I maintain they have changed the world. Their very simplicity explained Pentecostalism and its ability to reach the heart of a church that was dying, a casualty of the materialism and the horrors of the twentieth century. Through these two books Pentecostalism leaked into Catholicism renewing its evangelistic vitality in way that no one could have predicted. How did these books and the experience they claimed find their way into Catholic hands? Catholics weren’t going to pal around with snake healers and ecstatic hillbillies. They would occasionally speak to a Presbyterian, Lutheran or Episcopalian, in the new ecumenical spirit of the post Vatican II Church. And that is precisely what happened.

On a retreat in late February 1967 a few faculty members and students from Duquesne (Catholic) University in Pittsburgh claimed to have been Baptized in the Holy Spirit. The three or four faculty members sponsoring the retreat had already experienced the Baptism in the Spirit in January at an interdenominational Charismatic prayer meeting, the Chapel Hill meeting, in the home of Miss Florence Dodge, a Presbyterian. In preparation for the retreat, the faculty members suggested reading The Cross and the Switchblade, and the Acts of the Apostles. On February 17, twenty or thirty students and a few faculty gathered at the Ark and The Dove Retreat Center. On Saturday, a member of the Chapel Hill Prayer Group spoke to the group about Acts, chapter 2. As a result it was suggested that the retreat close with a renewal of the sacrament of Confirmation. On Saturday night, the students began spontaneously to wander into the chapel and just started   laughing, crying and praying in strange words and so began the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

People who had experienced this phenomenon at the Dusquesne retreat told friends at Notre Dame and Michigan State University. Similar things happened. The phenomenon spread to Benet Lake Monastery in Antioch Illinois, and that is where I come in.

It was 1967. I was a freshman in a college seminary that was in the process of losing its identify. I was in the process of losing my identity. I, like a number of my fellow seminarians had become enchanted with Hinduism and Buddhism, because after all, in the spirit of the times weren’t all religions really the same? I belonged to an ecumenical committee and was assigned to investigate this new Pentecostal movement that had started earlier that year at Notre Dame University. It sounded very ecumenical, all those  Protestants and Catholics praying together. I got the number of one of the Catholics who went to the Benet Lake Prayer Meeting and to a large inter-faith prayer meeting led by a Methodist minister in a Presbyterian church in a Chicago suburb. If that wasn’t ecumenical what was? 

The person whose number I’d been given was a full time mother and homemaker who went on and on about what the Lord was doing in her life, in the church and in the world.  After about an hour, being a college freshman who knew all things, I asked where she had learned all this. 

She laughed and said “ Oh that’s not me talking. That’s the Lord.” 

I looked at the phone and rolled my eyes.  Being an exceptionally lazy student, I asked her what was all this business about speaking in tongues.

She laughed again and said, “Oh speaking in tongues is easy. You could do it right now if you wanted.” 

I said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” 

I would call her back if I needed any more information for my committee report. When I hung up the phone it seemed like the room I was in was filled with a light that I could feel but couldn’t see. I remember smiling and singing hymns and feeling like an idiot. I went to my room and knelt down by my bedside to pray, a practice I had long ago abandoned, and only gibberish came out of my mouth. I calmed down, decided I had lost my mind and went to sleep. I was never again the same. 

This was January of 1968, I think the 24th. The subsequent 45 years of my life have been indescribable. Baptism is a Greek word that simply means immersion, and that is exactly what I experienced, an Immersion in God’s Holy Spirit. The theological adventure books mostly seem written in the happily ever after style of literature. I’m not sure this is honest. True, my Immersion in the Holy Spirit has been a source of great joy, and since experiencing it, I have never doubted the nearness and reality of God, but for me, the Immersion in the Holy Spirit has also been challenging, even fearful. 

There is a very strange passage in the book of Exodus. Read Exodus 4:24,25. “At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah (Moses’ wife) took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it. ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,’ she said.”  

People are mystified by this passage, but since being Immersed in the Holy Spirit, this passage of Scripture has never seemed odd to me. “The Lord your God who is among you is a jealous God, and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land.” (Deut. 6:115) It is a dangerous thing to play with fire, and an infinitely more dangerous thing to play with the Fire of the Holy Spirit. 

These 45 years have been an unremitting struggle with my own weakness and sinfulness as well as a struggle with those who misuse this outpouring of grace. Some of them were simply foolish. Some of them were inconsistent. I have had friends who put their hand to the plow and then looked back. (Luke 9:62)  Their lives became meaningless and bitter. I have met some people who though involved in  spiritual ministry have simply been evil. I have also met real prophets and amazing saints along the way. In a time when both the Church and I were forgetting the supernatural reality of the Christian life, I met people who never let me forget that to be a Christian is to live in a supernatural reality.

Next: the problems of Pentecostal/Charismatic Renewal

Friday, June 7, 2013

Is Charismatic Renewal for real?

Author’s note: A lot of people will find this even more tedious and pointless than many of my other efforts, and some will find it irritating. I am writing about a phenomenon that has caused much of the unprecedented growth of Christianity in our times and continues to do so. I am not writing to convince anyone to join a movement. I personally don’t like movements. They involve too many meetings.

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

What is all this nonsense about Charismatic Renewal? Is it for real?

Kerry Zmatick

Dear Kerry,

Short answer: Some of the Charismatic Renewal is for real and some of it isn’t. 

Long answer: What is generally called Charismatic Renewal was formerly called the Pentecostal movement. It has it’s most recent roots in 1900, when Rev. Charles Fox Parham rented an old mansion called Stone’s Folly as a site for his Bethel Bible College. He used the run down old mansion as a gathering place for Bible studies and prayer meetings. He and his students were part of an outgrowth of Methodism the Holiness movement, which taught divine healing and sanctification, or how to arrive at a sinless life.   

As the year 1900 drew to a close, Parham and his students were focused on the Bible phrase “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) For us Catholics that’s a no-brainer. It’s what happens before the big party after a long boring Confirmation ceremony. A bunch of Methodist Bible students had to admit that they weren’t quite sure what it meant. Parham and his students decided that if the Holy Spirit  descended on you, you would have to speak in tongues, because that’s what happened in the Bible, and this gift of tongues would prove that you had received the Holy Spirit. On New Year's Eve 1900, Parham and his students spent the night in prayer asking to receive the Holy Spirit. As the clock ticked over into 1901, one of his students, Agnes Ozman, (no relation to Donny or Marie) asked Rev. Parham to pray for her with the laying on of hands that she might receive the Holy Spirit, because that’s what they did in the Bible. He did and she started babbling in unintelligible phrases. And the Christianity of the 20th century changed irrevocably. 

As I heard the story in my youth; the next evening, Parham’s students were praying at their mission in downtown Topeka and Agnes Ozman’s babbling was understood by a Bohemian who happened to be there. This was huge! Understand that classical Protestantism does not believe in modern miracles. The Protestant founders taught that “When the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.” (1Cor. 13:10) They interpreted this to mean that Scripture, being perfect, ends any need for other kinds of revelation. Sure, God may heal a sick person now and then, but the age of prophecy and miracles ended when the last word of Scripture was set down on paper and the last of the disciples either keeled over or provided a snack for a lion in a Roman arena. 

Bishop Butler (Church of England b. 1692) told John Wesley (Anglican founder of Methodism, a forerunner of Pentecostalism), “Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.” This was essentially the attitude of Parham’s Protestant neighbors at Stone’s Folly, and so the lease was not renewed. The place was sold to Harry Croft, a bootlegger, who turned it into a bar. The old mansion burned to the ground on December 6, 1901 and is today the site of Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church. The wonder of it all! From  birth place of Pentecostalism, to gin mill, to Catholic Church. I think this means something, but I’m not sure what.

In 1899, there were no Pentecostals. Now there are about 300 million members of Pentecostal churches and untold hundreds of millions of Charismatics, so called, in traditional churches. It is easy to make the case that the explosive growth of Christianity in the world’s southern hemisphere, particularly Africa, as well as in parts of Asia is due to a Pentecostal style of worship and evangelism. The case can also be made, and I will make it eventually, that the resurgence of traditional Catholicism is in large part a consequence of Charismatic Renewal within the Catholic Church. What happened?

The closing of Bethel Bible College/Stone’s Folly had the effect of throwing water on a grease fire. Charles Parham moved on to El Dorado Springs, Missouri, where in 1903 he set up shop again and started healing the sick at the local hot springs.  Mary Arthur invited him to Galena, Kansas, after he had prayed for her healing. He went preaching in Galena, Kansas and Joplin, Missouri where  1,000 claimed to have been had been healed and 800 had claimed to be converted. This sort of thing tends to get noticed. Parham sent out “bands” to preach the “apostolic faith” spreading the movement in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

Parham opened a Bible school in Houston in 1906 where African-Americans were welcome including William J. Seymour. Seymour left Houston to serve in a black holiness mission in Los Angeles, California. When the Baptist congregation that had hired Seymour found out that he was one of those new “Pentecostals” they rescinded their offer, so Seymour set up shop down the street in a church that had been converted into a livery stable which now got a second chance at being a church. Why not? Jesus was born in a barn. 

This church/stable/church blossomed into the Azusa Street Revival, which went on for nine years, 1906 -1915. Evangelicals came from the world over to see what was happening and whole denominations, like the Church of God and the Methodist Church of Chile were pentecostal-ized. The years of the Azusa Street Revival were the catalyst that started the world wide Pentecostal/Charismatic phenomenon. The old building is no more. The site is now occupied by a parking lot to which I, being a traditional Catholic, once made a pilgrimage.  Seymour and Parham soon parted company over the Azusa Street church because Parham was critical of the emotional style of worship at Asuza Street and hesitated over whites and blacks praying in the same services during the time of the Jim Crowe racial laws.

In April 1914, 300 preachers and laymen from the US and a few other countries met in Hot Springs, Arkansas to figure out where God was leading. Pentecostalism, being at odds with Protestant orthodoxy, was rejected by most churches and Pentecostals were simply not welcome. There were objections to the claim of resurgent miracles and prophecies. The emotionalism of the participants was disapproved of  and there were questions about racial familiarities in the new movement.

There were also  theological questions to be answered.  Could one be truly saved if one did not speak in tongues? After all, if the Bible says  “ one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit”,(1Cor. 12:3)  and if one did not speak in tongues, could one say that he truly had the Holy Spirit, and if he wasn’t sure that he had the Holy Spirit, could he be sure that he was really capable of saying that Jesus is Lord? And if one cannot say that Jesus is Lord is he truly saved? So, the big question: Can one be saved if one does not speak in tongues? 

Already we see theological wackiness setting in. The movement has been plagued by theological wackiness ever since its beginning.  There were other issues, such as can one lose one’s salvation? Is prayer that is not emotional really prayer? (They call it agonizing in prayer.) These pressing issues caused splits among the delegates and again, as I heard the story, there were those who believed that God was calling them to form the perfect, full-Gospel, Bible-believing, New Testament Church. That faction formed the Assemblies of God. There were those who insisted that God did not want to form a new Church. They formed the Independent Assemblies of God. And the wackiness went on and on and on until today there are innumerable Pentecostal denominations in the grand tradition of Protestant Reformation Unity. 

It is great fun to drive down to the west side of Frostbite falls and read the church names. I remember one that read “Fire Baptized Church of God With Signs and Wonders Following,  Inc.” The sign continued, “Rev. Jones, Bishop, Apostle, Prophet, Healer and Pastor.” This guy didn’t need a church. He was a church.  Even today, the proliferation of churches goes on unabated as do the scandals from Aimee Semple McPherson, in the 1920s-1940s to Jimmy Swaggart, Marvin Gorman and Jim and Tammy Bakker in the 1980's.   

The snake handlers of Appalachia are among the most delightful variations of  Pentecostalism. 
In 1910, George Hensley started snake handling  in the recently pentecostal-ized Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee. He later resigned his ministry and started the first holiness movement church to require snake handling as evidence of salvation. In other words, if you’ve never danced around with poisonous snakes, you’re clearly not going to heaven. At least that’s what they think it says in the Bible.

“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (Mark 16:17-18)

If you’re going to prove you’re a believer who is saved, you are going to speak in tongues, heal the sick, right? ....Right.  Well, what about drinking poison and handling snakes? Shouldn’t you have to do these things to prove you are filled with the Holy Spirit, and thus saved? Oh, they drink poison, too. And they often drop dead. If they die from poison or snake bites it’s obvious they didn’t have enough faith and weren’t saved. Don’t you just love this stuff?

The Pentecostal/Charismatic phenomenon, and it most certainly is a phenomenon, not a movement, chugged merrily along blissfully creating church after church and dubious evangelist after dubious evangelist along with a few dead snake handlers for the next 60 years. How can something like this be one of the major forces in Christianity today? How can anyone think that a movement that encourages drinking poison, waltzing with rattlesnakes and babbling in Babylonian can make any sense at all.  Sorry I’ve run out of time, and you’ll just have to wait until next week.

Rev. Know-it-all