Energy-filled Catholic Charismatic movement growing in numbers
Charismatic movement likely to surge as Hispanic population grows
By Lisa Smith
SEPTEMBER 16, 2007 (www.dailyherald.com/) - With his eyes closed and arms outstretched, Mauricio Mendoza is deep in prayer.
The Elgin resident speaks softly in an unrecognizable language. His body shakes. Shouts of "hallelujah" echo through the room.
It's a common scene at many Pentecostal churches. But Mendoza is one of about 60 Spanish-speaking Roman Catholics who gather weekly for a two-hour charismatic prayer and healing service at their local parish, St. Joseph in Elgin.
"We started praying and singing. Little by little, more people started coming together," said Francisco Fausto, a founding member of St. Joseph's charismatic prayer group.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Catholic charismatic renewal, a small spiritual movement recognized by church leaders but largely unknown to the average U.S. Catholic.
The faithful have a strong belief in God's daily intervention in human affairs through the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues, divine healing, prophesying and other "gifts of the Holy Spirit" are emphasized.
The movement has declined since peaking in the early 1970s, but experts believe a resurgence is under way, fueled by Hispanics.
As the U.S. Hispanic Catholic population grows, experts predict their distinctive form of Catholicism could begin to change the face of the nation's largest religious institution.
"There's no question that Latinos are the leading edge of the charismatic movement at this point," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, one of two Washington-based think tanks that produced a recent groundbreaking study on Hispanic religious life.
Lugo said Hispanics bring a "fiesta spirit" to Mass.
"It's a much more expressive, emotional approach to worship -- the raising of hands, the clapping, etc. …," he said. "But it's not just restricted to that. It also involves high-octane Pentecostalism -- speaking in tongues, divine healing, prophesy, exorcisms. Parts of the Pentecostal movement have found their way into the Roman Catholic Church."
Sixty-two percent of Hispanic Catholics cited in Lugo's study said they attend Masses that include raising hands, clapping, shouting or jumping. Half said the services they attend include speaking in tongues, prophesying, praying for divine healing or receiving a word of knowledge from God. A smaller percentage said they participate in small group meetings featuring those characteristics.
It's all much closer to a typical Pentecostal service than a mainline Catholic Mass, which -- although it includes singing, spoken prayer and praise, and interaction between the priest and parishioners -- is much more subtle.
Elgin prayer group founder Fausto, a Guatemalan immigrant, said he was instantly drawn to the high-spirited style of worship he discovered more than three decades ago at a charismatic gathering at the University of Notre Dame that drew thousands of Catholics from across the country.
"Before, my prayers were like when you put a cassette tape in a player," he recalled. "Nothing was spontaneous like it is now. … Now everything has a different meaning."
More than half of the Hispanic Catholics surveyed by Pew identified themselves as either charismatic or Pentecostal.
Notre Dame theology professor Timothy Matovina, an expert on Hispanic Catholicism, called the charismatic movement "probably the most understudied and important dynamic in Latino Catholicism."
He explained why it resonates among Hispanics, who constitute one-third of all U.S. Catholics.
"When you look at the Latino practice of popular religion … it's very expressive, very ornate," said Matovina, director of the university's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. "This (charismatic movement) kind of naturally resonates with their preferred cultural prayer style."
Just 12 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics describe themselves as charismatic.
Worldwide, the 500 million charismatic faithful -- both Catholic and Protestant -- constitute one-fourth of the Christian population. It is one of the fastest-growing segments of Christianity, the Pew Center reported.
The Catholic charismatic movement traces its roots to a 1967 religious retreat attended by a small group of faculty and students from Duquesne University, a Catholic school in Pittsburgh. About a dozen members of the group said they underwent a spiritual transformation later referred to as being "baptized in the Holy Spirit," according to the National Service Committee of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, a Virginia-based clearinghouse for the movement.
The belief that baptism in the Spirit can lead to speaking in tongues, healing and prophesying is rooted in the Biblical account of Jesus' disciples being filled with the Holy Spirit during the feast of Pentecost.
The charismatic movement that began four decades ago spread to other college campuses and throughout the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Now some 3 million of the 64.4 million U.S. Catholics identify themselves as charismatic. Worldwide, there are 120 million charismatic Catholics, according to the Vatican-based International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services.
Locally, more than 90 prayer groups recognized by the Archdiocese of Chicago and the dioceses of Rockford and Joliet meet regularly. Almost half the Rockford diocese's groups meet in Spanish.
Church leaders have welcomed the movement, appointing priests and laymen as liaisons to the groups.
The Rev. Paul Burak, pastor of Our Lady of the Ridge Parish in Chicago Ridge, is among them. He visits, on average, a different parish every month to officiate charismatic prayer gatherings and Masses.
At a charismatic conference in Lisle in July, Burak opened Mass by speaking in tongues. He and hundreds of people in his congregation spoke in tongues several more times during the 80-minute Mass, which also featured dancing, clapping, singing and flag twirling.
Burak was a newly ordained priest when he received the baptism of the spirit at a charismatic prayer gathering in 1976. Initially skeptical, Burak wore street clothes and stood in the back. But couldn't help but be impressed with what he observed.
"Every one of those 200 people were intimately involved in the Mass," Burak recalled. "People really enjoyed being together. I thought, 'That's what I'd like to see in my parish.' "
Though 40 years old, it still has the makings of a fringe movement. Many charismatic prayer groups meet in parish or school basements. Gatherings usually aren't publicized from the pulpit unless the parish's priest is involved.
So many Catholics have had little exposure to it.
"Most Catholics know about the church from what they hear or see on Sunday morning and for the most part, (the charismatic renewal) is a weeknight or Friday/Saturday affair," Notre Dame professor Matovina said.
It's also misunderstood. Some mainline Catholics might consider it more Pentecostal than Catholic and therefore dismiss it because it's outside their comfort zone, Matovina said.
The four-day July renewal conference featuring Burak was the first organized by the Forest Park-based Women of Worship lay group. It attracted 500 Catholics in what organizers hope will become an annual event consisting of seminars and workshops, rosary recitations, praise and worship, prayer gatherings, and physical and spiritual healing ceremonies.
Even at the conference, not everyone took part in all the activities. Attendee Joe Longo of Mount Prospect shook his head when asked if he speaks in tongues.
"Nah," the lifelong Catholic said. "You kidding? All this dancing stuff is a little bit too much for me. It took me a few years just to put up my arms."
Many conservative religious groups prefer the more typical quiet, reflective Mass.
"There's a place for festival gatherings of people but not at the celebration of Mass," said Helen Hull Hitchcock, co-founder of Adoremus Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, a traditional Catholic lay group based in St. Louis. "What we're concerned about is helping restore a sense of sacredness and beauty to liturgical celebrations."
But Hitchcock doesn't see the charismatic movement as a threat to traditional Catholicism "as long as the intention is to conform to truth of the Catholic faith."
One of the key findings in the Pew study was that Hispanic Catholics who embrace speaking in tongues and other "gifts of the spirit" remain strongly devoted to Catholic teachings.
As for the movement's future, Matovina wonders if it will ever regain its foothold among English-speaking non-immigrant Catholics. Many parishes' charismatic prayer group meetings are in Spanish, which limits opportunities for English-speaking parishioners who want to learn more about the ministry, he pointed out.
He also questions whether immigrants' children and grandchildren will embrace charismatic practices, especially as they become more Americanized.
"It'll be interesting to see what happens in a couple of generations," Matovina said.