Assessing Prophecy and Charismatic Renewal Today

What follows is a brief history and assessment of the Catholic charismatic renewal. I will review charismatic renewal in the Catholic church because it is within that tradition that I have the most experience. In many respects, the points made could apply equally to the experience of the charismatic renewal in mainline Protestant churches, especially those with a liturgical and sacramental dimension. In that sense, the assessment what follows should be helpful to Christians of all backgrounds in assessing the fruit of the charismatic renewal.

In 1967 a handful of Roman Catholics were “baptized in the Holy Spirit” at a retreat held at Dusquesne University. That small gathering was the beginning of what today we know as the “Catholic charismatic renewal,” a movement which has touched nearly every corner of the Catholic church and involved millions of people. Those who gathered for that weekend were seeking a renewal of their Confirmation, and indeed it was a powerful new experience of the presence and action of the Spirit which they experienced in those days.

What they experienced was apparently contagious, because soon many others were being “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” Conferences were organized, magazines and books were published, and before long the burgeoning movement caught the attention of the Catholic hierarchy. The early assessments of the movement were cautious but on the whole favorable,1 and the movement was allowed to grow. Over time the charismatic renewal began to assume different forms – prayer groups, days of renewal, communities, renewal centers – loosely organized and loosely united through their common experience of being “baptized in the Holy Spirit” and their exercise of “charismatic gifts.”

The charismatic renewal was new and unexpected in the Catholic church; its appearance and rapid growth required some explanation. Perhaps it was a reaction to the secularism and rationalism of twentieth-century Western Christianity. Perhaps it was a response to what a new generation oriented to “creativity” and spontaneity regarded as the excessive formalism of the religion with which they had grown up. Or perhaps it was an intervention of God in the life of the Catholic church.

The immediate antecedents of the Catholic charismatic renewal were a bit puzzling. Some of those who prayed together in those days at Dusquesne had been in contact with people from “Pentecostal” churches, and knew a bit about “baptism in the Holy Spirit” from those sources. But the Pentecostal movement and the churches which it generated tended to draw their membership from the lower middle classes or rural populations; whereas the Catholic renewal spread at first largely among university students from affluent backgrounds. Furthermore, the Pentecostal tradition was, in general, strongly opposed to formalized worship and the “traditional” churches, while the Catholics professed a renewed appreciation of the sacraments, the liturgy, and the church as an institution.

Those involved in the Catholic charismatic renewal began early on to speak of the movement as a fulfillment of the prayer of Pope John XXIII for a “new Pentecost.” His prayer, they believed, had been answered in a direct and dramatic fashion; God indeed was pouring out his Holy Spirit “as in a new Pentecost.” There were earlier prayers as well by pioneers of classic Pentecostalism, begging God for a revival among his people.2 There were “prophetic revelations” which spoke about the renewal and God’s purpose for it. Perhaps most dramatically, the prophecies given in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome at the dosing Eucharist of the 1975 international conference spoke of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in this renewal as a response to the challenges faced by the church in these days, an equipping of the church for the task which lies before it at the end of the twentieth century. More recently, some within the renewal have spoken about the central reality of it as a restoration of important elements of the process of Christian initiation.3The core of charismatic renewal, in other words, is not the property or specialty of a particular movement, but something that belongs to the church as a whole.

These views of the charismatic renewal are not necessarily incompatible with one another.  A sociological observation about the charismatic renewal as a social phenomenon can have real validity without denying the truth of its spiritual origin and nature. A genuinely spiritual movement will take a human shape, and useful observations can be made about the human shape of that movement. The recognition that the core truths around which the movement is formed are universal does not invalidate the claim that the movement is the result of a special intervention of God.

I believe that the Catholic charismatic renewal should be viewed on four different levels, and distinctions should be made between those levels in order to see the renewal clearly.

First of all, the charismatic renewal is an organized movement within the church which has various forms and activities.

Second, the charismatic renewal is a movement of popular piety, which focuses on the fostering of expectant faith and communal prayer.

Third, the charismatic renewal is a renewal of central elements of Christian initiation, and an appreciation of that renewal can help the church to strengthen and deepen its work of conversion and catechesis.

Fourth, the charismatic renewal is an action of God to strengthen and equip the church for the enormous challenges facing it at this time in its history.

The Charismatic Renewal: A mixed blessing

It is critical to make these distinctions if one is to receive appreciatively the gift God is giving the church through the renewal, and at the same time recognize the faults, abuses, mistakes, and excesses which characterize any movement within the church.

The evidence that charismatic renewal is a grace of God for the church is overwhelming. Literally millions of men and women have been converted or profoundly renewed in their love for God. Throughout the world – in every continent – there are groups and individuals serving the church in a dedicated and courageous fashion because of their encounter with God through the charismatic renewal. Recently while visiting a nearby parish, I encountered a permanent deacon who had only a few years previously been an irresponsible, heavy-drinking man with no Christian faith. His marriage was nearly destroyed and his life was a mess. He encountered some charismatic Christians, was converted and baptized in the Holy Spirit, and became, not only a happy and responsible husband and father, but a dedicated servant of the church who is now a key figure in his parish. His story is one of many, many thousands in the charismatic renewal.

Charismatic renewal has also seen some scandalous excesses and abuses. A woman once arrived at the office of the community which I belonged to saying that God had sent her. She had left her husband and children, taken the money from their bank account, and come to us in order to be with people who were “really spiritual.” Her story has also been repeated many times in the charismatic renewal. It goes without saying that scandal and abuse are not the product of God’s action. But it also goes without saying that the presence of scandal and abuse do not invalidate the movements or institutions in which they occur.

Here we touch on the inescapable and confounding mystery of God’s action in the church: any spiritual movement is a cooperation between God on one side and men and women on the other. God entrusts his gifts to the hands of feeble human beings who often misuse them. One has a threefold choice: we can focus on the human failings and abuses and allow their presence to rob us of faith that God is at work; we can focus on the action of God and ignore the human contribution; or we can recognize that the action of God taking place among men and women will always have aspects both of grace and of folly.

Let us look, for example, at the Franciscan movement of the thirteenth century. From our vantage point of seven hundred years later, we can see and appreciate the great work of renewal which God brought about through Francis and his followers. But at the time the matter was not so clear. Francis’ followers included both the humble and saintly and trouble making interlopers. Enough havoc and confusion was created at the time that many thought the Franciscans a bane rather than a blessing. From very early on there was strife among the brothers and even among the leaders of the movement. The early Franciscans brought a great renewal to the Western church, and taken as a whole they were a far greater blessing than a problem, but they gave some cause for scandal at the same time.

The charismatic renewal as a movement of popular piety has been an enormous success in many ways. Millions have been positively affected by it, and overall it has strengthened the church. Yet the charismatic renewal on this level has also been the scene of many excesses and abuses, and it is here more than anywhere else that the reputation for fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism, and simplistic credulity has been earned. When one believes that one is in direct and immediate contact with God, restraint, wisdom, and prudence can be thrown to the wind. I have seen what seemed to me to be people “losing their minds” after getting involved in the charismatic renewal. I do not think that anything pathological happened to them, but they do seem, in fact, to have misplaced their minds, or perhaps to have left them behind in their pursuit of God. Any popular movement when taken all together will appear to be simplistic; that is normal and unavoidable. Condemnation of any movement on the basis of such apparent simplicity is evidence of a lack of sophistication in the one who condemns. But my concern is that the charismatic renewal has often positively earned the bad elements of its reputation through genuine abuse.

The charismatic renewal as an organized movement within the church will have its strengths and weaknesses. Some forms of organization, some channels of communication and ministry, will be helpful and fruitful, and others will not. Much of what has happened on the level of organization and activity in the renewal has been helpful. Yet there have been many lacks and weaknesses as well. Perhaps the greatest failing of the charismatic renewal as an organized movement is the failure to provide solid instruction for its members. Charismatic renewal organizations on the whole have been far more concerned with growth than with development. Consequently, the organized movement bears some responsibility for the abuses and excesses of the popular movement.

I believe the case for the charismatic renewal as a restoration of important aspects of Christian initiation to be compelling. From the very beginning of renewal, those of us involved recognized that “this is what should happen for every Christian as they enter (or grow in) the life of the church.” We believed, and continue to believe, that there was and is something in what we have experienced of immediate relationship with God and the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives that should be normative.

We believed and continue to believe the same to be true for charismatic gifts. I observed earlier (chapter one) that prophecy reappears in church history when other charismatic gifts reappear, and that charismatic gifts reappear when there is an environment of expectant faith. In each of the cases I cited in church history – the early church, the monastic movement, the Cistercian reform, the mendicant movement – an evident action of God elicited expectant faith, and charismatic manifestations were seen. One could conclude from this pattern in history that charismatic gifts are exceptional – that they appear only when there is some special movement of God. But I think that would be a faulty conclusion. Rather we should say that charismatic gifts appear when there is an environment of expectant faith, and that while God’s people often fall away from a life of expectant faith, it should be normative.

Finally, the charismatic renewal is an action of God to strengthen the church for the enormous challenges it faces today. That I believe to be true because of prophetic revelation. If one accepts that a distinction can be made between the action of God inspiring a renewal movement and the actual manifestations of that renewal movement then the scandals and abuses do not have to be an obstacle to believing that God is at work in the movement. I believe that the evidence of millions of conversions or re-conversions, the spectacular and unexpected growth of the movement, and the acceptance (albeit sometimes cool) that the movement has received in the church all point to the origin of the charismatic renewal in the action of God. But to go further and claim that this action of God has a definite purpose, and that that purpose is preparation of the church for the new challenges it faces today, requires revelation

Through many years of the charismatic renewal, through the many gatherings and conferences held in those years, longtime Catholics, including myself, have had ample time to hear the prophetic message which I believe God is addressing to his people today This is a time of unprecedented challenge, a time of extraordinary opportunity.   God has begun to pour out his Holy Spirit, and will continue to pour out his Holy Spirit, to prepare and equip the church for the struggle – and triumph – of the days and years to come. My belief is that those touched by the grace of God in the charismatic renewal have a responsibility to testify to that grace, and to do so credibly, so that expectant faith is aroused in those who hear our testimony.Therefore, I believe that the gift of prophecy must be exercised, and exercised well. It must be exercised so that the message of God for the church today which is tied up with the reality of charismatic renewal can be heard. It must be exercised well so that the message is not obscured by the abuses and excesses to which prophetic gifts are so prone.

1.      For a thorough review of hierarchical pronouncements and documents see Killian McDonnell, O.S.B., Presence, Power, Praise: Documents on Charismatic Renewal (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1980).

2.      See Patti Mansfield, “Send Forth Your Spirit,” New Covenant, vol. 21, no.7 (February 1992), 29.

3.      See Killian McDonnell, O.S.B., and George Montague, S.M., Fanning the Flame: What Does Baptism in the Holy Spirit Have to Do with Christian Initiation? (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1991)

This article is excerpted from Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Spirit in the Church Today, Chapter 2, by Bruce Yocum, © 1976, 1993 The Servants of the Word. Revised edition published in 1993 by Servant Publications.

Top image credit: Holy Spirit depicted as a dove, illustration from, © by Yaalan, stock photo ID: 341511409.

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