There are signs that revival, low-key Pentecostal in style, may be on the way for the Roman Catholic Church. Tens of thousands of Catholics meet weekly in churches, homes, dorm rooms, and borrowed halls for Bible study, prayer, spirited gospel singing, and exercise of the “gifts of the Spirit”: healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues.
Indeed, the average Catholic Pentecostal meets one night with a small home group, another night with a large “prayer community.” The ranks have swelled in just four years to an estimated 50,000 American and Canadian Catholics.
Last month 5,000 registrants and about 500 gate-crashers crowded onto the Notre Dame University campus at South Bend, Indiana, for the Fifth International Conference on the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church. There were street people, straight collegians and young professionals, middle-American adults of all ages and vocations, hundreds of priests and nuns, a smattering of Protestants, a few blacks. (Registration for the 1970 conference was 1,270, with some 10,000 to 20,000 in the movement at that time.)
“Let us proclaim right from the start that Jesus Christ is our King,” declared leader James Cavnar, 25, on the first night. The crowd responded with a standing ovation, cheers, and uplifted fingers in “One Way” signs. Without cue, the people burst into a chorus, “Jesus Is Lord.” Afterward, the rather startled Cavnar mildly rebuked: “This is not a spiritual jamboree. We are an assembly of believers gathered here for worship and praise.”
Amid the songs and prayers were testimonies. Teenager Chris Jaerling told how Catholic Pentecostals at Ann Arbor, Michigan, led her from drugs to Christ and into the Spirit-filled life. “Life isn’t hopeless now,” she beamed, and the crowd applauded. She is devoting her summer to street evangelism.
Cavnar’s father, a much decorated war hero, said he submitted to “Spirit baptism” a year ago after long and bitter hostility over his son’s involvement in the movement. Because of his suspicions he once arranged for a federal investigation of the movement, he said; the investigators, reporting it was the first time they had ever met a group of young men who prayed so much, gave it a clean bill of health. The elder Cavnar organized a Dallas group that meets in a Dominican high school and now numbers nearly 300.
Loyola chaplain Harold Cohen, one of 150 who came from the New Orleans area, said that he was baptized in the Spirit in the 1969 conference and that the Loyola prayer group he subsequently organized now numbers more than 500, with satellite groups “all over Louisiana and Mississippi.”
The weekend, saturated with bubbly joy and conversation that centered on Jesus, featured scores of workshops and seminar talks on topics ranging from marriage and sexual concepts in “the charismatic renewal” to principles of Bible study. Couples lounged in the sunshine, holding hands over open Bibles and praying. Impromptu groups gathered under shade trees to sing, pray, and share their Christian experiences. New converts lugged copies of the massive Jerusalem Bible to discussions on the Christian life.
“Let’s get away from the psychology and other junk we give out in our sermons,” Cohen urged fifty parish priests. “Let’s give out Jesus.” The event concluded with a colorful folk mass presided over by San Angelo, Texas, bishop Stephen Leven and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph McKinney of Grand Rapids.
The Catholic Pentecostal movement began spontaneously on several fronts in early 1967, most notably at a weekend retreat of students at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. It was preceded, say spokesmen, by mounting frustration over spiritual stagnation, prayers of concerned laymen, and the reading of evangelist David Wilkerson’s book The Cross and The Switchblade. News spread to Notre Dame University where students and faculty members enlisted local charismatic Protestants to help launch a group. Early members included theology professor Edward O’Connor, who has emerged as the movement’s respected theologian. From Notre Dame the revival fanned out quickly to other campuses, then to lay groups in parishes.
Other fronts, independent of the Duquesne-Notre Dame beginnings, opened at about the same time. Influences of Wilkerson’s book and charismatic Protestants led to the establishment of large groups in St. Louis and the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D. C.
Disturbed, the Catholic hierarchy in 1968 instructed its Committee on Doctrine to investigate. The committee’s report in 1969 (see January 2, 1970, issue, page 41) spoke rather favorably of the movement. It noted “a strong biblical basis,” deepening of spiritual life for many, and an attraction to Bible study. But it cautioned adherents to avoid “the mistakes of classic Pentecostalism,” and warned against substitution of religious experience for doctrine. The committee recommended that the bishops involve “prudent priests” in the movement.
The bishops seem divided over the movement today. Archbishop Philip M. Hannan and black auxiliary Harold R. Perry of New Orleans have been prayed over and reportedly are favorably impressed. Canadian bishop G. Emmett Carter endorsed the movement in a pastoral letter, stating his hope that its spirit would spread and affect his diocese. McKinney joined up at a Michigan retreat for priests last year. (He says that to protect his role he has not yet publicly prayed in tongues but “could have” on numerous occasions.) He received an ovation at the South Bend mass in his call for the Holy Spirit to be the chief delegate at the Synod of Bishops in Rome this fall.
Los Angeles archbishop Timothy Manning, however, on the eve of the South Bend conference issued a pastoral letter warning against ecumenical “equation with other denominations.” (Catholic Pentecostals often attend pan-denominational charismatic meetings, and about one-fourth of those who attend the average Catholic meeting are Protestants. Some Catholics operate Teen Challenge centers under Assembly of God sponsorship.) He also warned against disengaging the Holy Spirit from the institutional church and its hierarchy “as if they were two antagonistic expressions of Christianity.”
Manning’s concern reflects growing anti-institutional inclinations among a minority of the Catholic Pentecostals (home masses, lack of interest in traditional liturgies, objections to certain doctrines). On the other hand, Cavnar, O’Connor, and other leaders strive to keep operating within the bounds of parish life. Only in this way, they say, will Pentecostalism stay intact to renew the Church.
National communications coordinator James Byrne of Notre Dame says those who leave the church are “disobedient to the Spirit and cause the charismatic renewal great damage.” Besides, says Byrne, the church needs them because it’s undergoing crises in faith and leadership and the charismatic renewal is a remedy for both.
Catholic charismatics are generally not as emotional in worship nor as narrow in viewpoint as classic Pentecostalists. Most leaders say they can be Spirit-baptized without speaking in tongues; all that is needed is a sincere desire for the Spirit’s filling and the laying on of hands. Reformed Church of America minister Robert Eggebeen of Grand Haven, Michigan, says he has found a “home” in Catholic Pentecostalism because of “this balance between shallow emotionalism and cold theological correctiveness.”
Initiates are given a six-lesson course on “Life in the Spirit” that is strongly evangelical in content. Kevin Walsh, 22, a graduate of Loyola of Chicago and a part of the 1,500-member Chicago prayer community, says he realized he was “blowing my mind trying to get into Christ when what I really needed to do was let him get into me.” Says George Keen, 23, former Society of Mary priest who is now supervisor of the Cleveland Catholic Boys Home: “The Lord has convicted me of my sins, but I’ve discovered a fantastic concept of God’s forgiveness. He holds on and doesn’t let go.”
At the same time, he—like many other Catholic charismatics—says he has new appreciation for Mary and sees deeper meanings in the sacraments.
Will the movement be able to continue its evangelical course amid the maze of institutional tradition? Canadian bishop Carter hopes so: “We had no right to doubt that God would make himself felt, but at times we felt almost abandoned. The dawn of a new spiritual era in the church may be beginning to break.”
World evangelism was the chief topic for the nearly 1,000 delegates at the twenty-eighth annual meeting of Conservative Baptists last month in Wheaton, Illinois. Of thirty-nine missionary appointees, twenty-seven are slated for foreign work. And more than 200 have applied this year for short-term service of one year or more.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more