Charismatics gifted by the Holy Spirit for 40 years

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  • October 5, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - “Holy Spirit rain down, rain down. Let your power fall,” sang 25 members of Our Lady of Lourdes parish charismatic prayer group in downtown Toronto on a recent rainy Friday evening.

A jingling tambourine accompanied an acoustic guitar as participants raised their arms in an “I surrender” position at the first in a series of Life in the Spirit seminars, a series designed to help people connect with the Holy Spirit.  

For the past 40 years charismatic prayer groups like this one have met in homes, churches and halls to worship together.

Sabine St. Marie drives across the city twice weekly to attend the Holy Rosary prayer group on Thursday evenings and on Fridays she comes to Lourdes with her 11-year-old daughter Francillia.

“As you come closer to God more trials come your way.... You need that strength to get through your trials,” said the 42-year-old mother, explaining why she’s devoutly attended prayer meetings since her daughter was born.  

{sidebar id=1}The charismatic movement is a diverse collection of individuals, prayer groups, communities and activities that try to foster an ongoing personal conversion to Christ through the presence and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In 2003 on the 35th anniversary of the charismatic movement in Canada, the Canadian bishops released a pastoral letter stating: “One million Catholic Canadians have been touched or in some way influenced by the charismatic renewal in Canada.”

This letter signaled a change in attitude since the bishops' first pastoral letter in 1975 that warned against the movement being  too emotional, with an inward looking focus and a lack of proper leadership, said Richard Dunstan, 58, a member of the movement since 1982. The first “one’s dealing with a new phenomenon and the other is dealing with something people know about and where it’s gotten us.”

Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services of Canada commissioned Dunstan, a former journalist from Nanaimo, B.C., to write Fire in the North, the first book to give a historical account of the Catholic movement in light of its 40th anniversary.

The movement developed from the grassroots without any one founder.

“It’s ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit and not a human initiative,” said Dunstan. “It’s a movement that hit in a lot of different places, close together, but not connected together because it’s divine initiative.”

The charismatic renewal can be traced back to the Pentecostal movement at the turn of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1967 when Catholic students and professors held a retreat at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh where they received an “outpouring of the Holy Spirit,” marking the beginning of the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church.

The closest thing to an official start in Canada was in 1968 at Madonna House in Combermere, Ont. The first recorded Canadian Catholic charismatic prayer meeting took place there after Madonna House foundress Catherine de Hueck Doherty invited one of the earliest covenant communities teams, The Word of God from Michigan, to give talks and show the lay community how to pray.

In the 1970s the movement grew quickly with some prayer groups reaching into the thousands, said Peter Thompson, the Canadian International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services representative to the Vatican.  

Perhaps the largest charismatic conference ever held in Canada drew 50,000 francophones to Montreal in 1977.

“There was a great enthusiasm, but a distinct lack of maturity, which did cause problems,” said Thompson in a telephone interview from Calgary. “Problems of misunderstandings between the hierarchy and those involved. Some were disillusioned and left the church for Pentecostalism. (There was) a move toward covenant communities with sometimes an imbalance of control.”  

The movement is characterized by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including: speaking in tongues, prophesy, healing as described in The Book of Acts. This has and continues to draw controversy.

“In the early days when the gifts broke out, there was a tendency to rate people among the gifts they had; so it’s that kind of thing that led people to be very suspicious of gifts and the validity of gifts,” said Gerrard MacDonald, the Atlantic Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services of Canada representative.   

Atlantic Canada avoided some of the initial pitfalls because of the early and ongoing support of the then Fr. Faber MacDonald (later bishop) and Fr. Gerrard Tingley whose presence brought the movement legitimacy and stability.      

“Bishop Faber was very strong into church structure and theology. He gave it a good base in theology.... It didn’t get off in emotionalism,” said MacDonald.   

“In other regions people tended to go looking in other churches to be fed and left, but here where the priests where involved in it, they tended to stay and be faithful to their church.”

But not all church leaders were eager to support it. Fr. Jim Hanrahan, C.S.B., remembers the dilemma he faced as a recently elected superior general of the Congregation of St. Basil who had been touched by the Holy Spirit early on in the movement.

“The charismatic renewal was a controversial thing in the early days, particularly. The ’60s and ’70s were a controversial period in the church and people were suspicious of new movements,” he said.

“I was worried if I became too identified with the movement it might cause division in the community; they would be embarrassed by it.”

Hanrahan kept his experience of the Holy Spirit secret for a few years until he realized in prayer he couldn’t live in fear and God was calling him to go public.

His order received Hanrahan’s news well. He went on to write one of the few existing scholarly articles about the movement’s origins and he joined the Holy Rosary prayer group in Toronto, which the retired 81-year-old still attends.

Today misconceptions about the movement still abound, said Fr. Bob Bedard, the Ottawa-based founder of the charismatic religious community Companions of the Cross.

“People are not used to it. People are still the same,” said Bedard, who first experienced what he calls a “spiritual awakening” in 1975.

“If (people) are not familiar, they don’t like it. I for one felt that too, but my conclusion was maybe this was somehow the Holy Spirit, so I better take a look at this.... That is what we have to recommend that people do rather then come to conclusions about it.”

Bedard said part of understanding the charismatic movement is distinguishing it from a charismatic renewal.  

“Grace is what produces the renewal, it’s a spiritual awakening, which means you become aware of things you believed, but never really experienced. The grace can move belief into experience and that’s what makes the difference in people’s lives.

“The charismatic movement took hold of the grace and organized it — that was prayer groups and covenant communities and various applications: healing, counselling, gifts of the spirit.”

Today the number of active members has declined, but many people who became renewed through the Holy Spirit are now active members of their parish, said Thompson.

Various groups, programs, conferences serving a new generation that have developed out of the charismatic movement even though they may not identify themselves as charismatic include the John Paul II Bible School in Radway, Alta., the Catholic School of Evangelization in St. Malo, Man., Net Ministries Canada and the university evangelization movement Catholic Christian Outreach. And on the east coast Raising Up An Army is a biannual conference in Amherst, N.S., organized by the Atlantic charismatic service committee that draws 100 youth.     

Bedard said the movement may not be what it once was in the early days, but the Holy Spirit remains constant.

“The grace is still the same. The grace overtakes one person at a time, and the grace is available to one person at a time.”

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