Is Francis our first charismatic pope?

When Pope Francis joined 6,000 people in Rome on June 8 for the launch on Pentecost eve of a new Vatican body to serve the 115 million charismatic Cat

Jun 28, 2019

By Austen Ivereigh
When Pope Francis joined 6,000 people in Rome on June 8 for the launch on Pentecost eve of a new Vatican body to serve the 115 million charismatic Catholics around the world, they made sure to perform his favourite Latin-American “praise” song, Vive Jesús el Señor (The Lord Jesus lives).

It is always a sign that Francis is relaxing among friends when he feels able to josh them. During his 10-minute address, he referred to them laughingly as “spiritists” (as charismatic Catholics are often disparagingly known in Latin America) and, after asking for a minute’s silence to pray for peace, he said it was “heroic” for them to keep a minute’s silence for anything.

Francis may not pray in tongues, but no pope has ever identified as closely with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, nor been so keen to move it front and centre of the Church. The relationship was born in his early years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio realised the renewal was not a “samba school,” as he had disparagingly referred to it in his early Jesuit days but, rather, as he called it in his eve-of-Pentecost address, “a current of the grace of the Holy Spirit” being poured out for the renewal of the Church in our time.

The link with the charismatic renewal deepened, especially between 2006 and 2012, when Cardinal Bergoglio attended yearly gatherings of around 7,000 Catholics and evangelicals in Luna Park stadium in Buenos Aires, among the biggest such ecumenical praise meetings at that time anywhere. Hesitant at first, the cardinal came up to be prayed over by the Church’s leading charismatic preacher, the Capuchin friar and preacher to the papal household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, together with a handful of pentecostal pastors. He was said to have received a “baptism in the Spirit,” an experience of the pneumatic power mentioned often in the New Testament.

In Cardinal Bergoglio’s case, it led to a new boldness, especially in ecumenism. He began to meet regularly to pray with evangelicals, convinced that the Spirit was at work in bringing them together. Since his election in 2013, he has continued that openness, reaching out through the renewal to evangelicals and Pentecostals, who are quick to recognise in him one of their own. Francis has invoked the Holy Spirit so often and so emphatically, constantly emphasising the “new things” the Spirit is calling forth and the dangers of resisting it through rigidity and ideology, that he is, arguably, not just history’s first Jesuit pope but also the first charismatic pope.

But Francis is a reformer, and he has been keen to “renew the renewal” while, at the same time, encouraging it.

Launching of Catholic Charismatic International Service
The launch of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal International Service, or Charis, is the fruit of a three-year bid not just to integrate the renewal as a “current of grace” for the whole Catholic world, as Belgian Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens famously referred to it, but also to refresh it at its sources, above all by recalling it to the vision of the so-called “Malines documents” of the 1970s, to which Charis has acquired the publication rights. “Make those documents known!” Francis urged Charis leaders at Pentecost, describing them as “the compass of the current of grace.”

The Malines documents are named after the city where, in Cardinal Suenens’s residence, theologians, bishops and renewal leaders gathered to explore the charismatic phenomenon then breaking out in the Church, and to bridge the gap with the institutional church. In its statutes, Charis specifically locates the mission of the renewal in these foundational documents, stressing in particular evangelisation, the call to Christian unity and service of the poor (the topic of the third paper, the fruit of a dialogue with Bishop Helder Câmara of Brazil).

Francis’ “renewal of the renewal” is also reflected in the new body itself, Charis. Back in 2015, Francis’ asked the two existing charismatic liaison organisations recognised by Rome, International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services and the more recently established Catholic Fraternity, to work with the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life to create a new, single “service of communion” to the renewal worldwide. In his address on June 8, Francis said Charis serves all the charismatic groups that the Spirit “has raised up in the world,” not “one office to serve some and another office to serve others” but “one office for all.”

Charis’s role will be to help forge communion among the world’s hugely disparate charismatic groups, some of which have fallen prey to the evangelical vice of authoritarian, self-enriching leaders. In his address, Francis told charismatic leaders to guard against “the ambition to stand out, to lead, to make money,” warning that “corruption enters that way.” The purpose of the renewal was “service, always service”: serving the Spirit, each other and the poor. “Service is not about filling our pockets — the devil enters through the pockets,” he said, but “about giving, giving, giving of oneself.”
Service and accountability are built into the design of Charis itself, which for now has just a handful of personnel and a small budget but, unlike its two predecessors, enjoys what canon law calls “public juridical personality.” It was erected by the Holy See and has the right, therefore, to represent the Church. It also has tighter Vatican oversight: the Dicastery for Laity, for example, appoints the moderator, for now the Belgian layman Jean-Luc Moens.

When I asked the dicastery’s number two, Fr Alexandre de Awi Mello, I.Sch., of Brazil, which other church bodies have a similar canonical status — that is, erected by the Holy See but independent of it — he pointed to Caritas Internationalis, the Rome-based office that coordinates the various national Caritas organisations around the world. Giving Charis a similar place in the Church, says Fr Awi, “is a strong gesture by the Pope that he wants to integrate the renewal, to say, the renewal is Church, and that baptism of the Spirit belongs to the Church in the way that charity belongs to the Church.” In his address to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal at the gathering in Rome, Charis’s ecclesiastical assistant, Father Cantalamessa, said “charismatic” should always be an adjective rather than a noun: one can no more speak of “charismatics” as a specific group than one can speak of “charitables,” for it is in the nature of the whole Church to be charismatic, as it is to be charitable.

Because there is no membership structure, Charis excludes none of the expressions of the renewal: national or international, diocesan or parish-level, stable community or start-up prayer group. There will be no attempt to classify or define these charismatic “realities,” says Fr Awi, but Charis will focus instead on assisting them with formation and guidance. Simply acknowledging them is no small feat. In Brazil alone, he says, there are around 700 “new communities” of charismatic inspiration, together with an estimated 20,000-odd charismatic prayer groups, involving at least two million people.

This is, in many ways, the paradox of the Renewal: more than 120 million charismatic Catholics in 235 countries belong to a vast tapestry of “expressions and ministries,” as the Charis statutes describe it, which have little in common beyond an experience of baptism in the Spirit and an openness to the charismata pneumatika listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10, such as prophecy, healing and tongues. Although it is this emphasis and openness that sets the renewal off from “traditional” Catholicism, it is not one of the “new movements” within the Church. It has no founder — CCR leaders tend to point to the sky when you ask where it all began — nor governing structure as such. Cardinal Suenens used to liken it to the Gulf Stream that warms the coasts of northern Europe; after joining the Atlantic, it becomes indistinguishable from it. You only have to go to an ordinary parish Mass in Brazil to see that this has already happened.

Integration between the mainstream and the charismatics
But Francis wants that integration to deepen, for mainstream Catholicism to become more open to what he sees as a fresh outpouring of the Spirit in our time. At World Youth Day in Panama in January, Francis spoke of an urgent need now for “a new Pentecost for the Church and for the world,” as he put it. The Joy of the Gospel in 2013 spelled out that vision of an outgoing, Spirit-filled Church in which “missionary disciples” can speak of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and share joyful stories of the Spirit at work in their lives. Evangelii Gaudium dreams of an evangelising Church, open to the spontaneous, gratuitous infusion of the charismata pneumatika that in the Acts of the Apostles turned fearful fishermen into bold proclaimers of the Gospel, able to speak of the love of Christ in ways that transcended boundaries of culture and language.

The vital role Francis sees being played by the charismatic renewal in the missionary and pastoral conversion of the Church is clear from the Latin-American bishops’ gathering at Aparecida in May 2007. Aparecida’s concluding document, which Cardinal Bergoglio was in charge of drafting, spoke in classically charismatic terms of the need for a personal encounter with Christ and the role played by the Holy Spirit (mentioned 44 times) in opening minds and hearts to God’s law. This emphasis reflected not just the Pope’s discernment that this was what the Spirit was asking of the Church, but also his diagnosis of modernity. Secularisation and technology were dissolving the traditional transmission belts of faith; the ethical and doctrinal edifice of Christianity would, in the future, be ever less sustained by the weight of law and culture. What was needed was a return to what Aparecida called the “primary encounter” (encuentro fundante) of Christianity: bold and kerygmatic, strong on grace and mercy, not dependent on law, culture or powerful institutions but on the testimony of love and the power of the Spirit. It was this discernment that Pope Francis sought to bottle in The Joy of the Gospel, where the Holy Spirit (mentioned 49 times) is the chief protagonist.

All of which explains why Francis is so keen on this family of Catholics who are quicker than most to grasp the renewal of the Church’s culture that The Joy of the Gospel calls for. In many meetings with the CCR in Buenos Aires as cardinal, and since his 2013 election as pope, he has urged them not to keep for themselves the baptism of the Spirit, for “we are all servants of this flood of grace,” as he put it at the CCR’s 50th anniversary celebrations two years ago. -- America Magazine

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