Charismatic Renewal

A Short History of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal

Address given by Bill Alexander on 11-03-2007 celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Renewal

Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to all of his followers. In John 14:16-17 Jesus tells us that “I will ask the Father and he will give you another helper who will stay with you forever. He is the spirit who reveals the truth about God.”  We all know that promise was filled in the Upper Room in the book of Acts. We know what happened!

Since the very first day of Pentecost when the Church was born the Holy Spirit has been continually at work. Throughout the centuries the Lord has raised up great men and women who were filled with the Holy Spirit. You can see the work of the Holy Spirit in many movements throughout history. You can see the Holy Spirit at work in the religious orders and communities like the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Dominicans. There have always been communities of Catholic believers who have experienced the life and power of the Holy Spirit. The point is, the power of the Spirit never left the Church. When the Spirit comes he raises up a people; he unites a people, and he brings his gifts with him. Through the history of the Church the coming of the Spirit was called by different names. For example, within the last forty years or so it has been called the charismatic renewal. But it is the same Spirit poured out in the Upper Room.

In the last 100 years one of the most obvious and perhaps the most important development for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in modern times came when Pope Leo XIII published Divinum Illud Munus, an encyclical on the Spirit. He labored the fact that the Holy Spirit was little known and appreciated. This came about through the prayers and encouragement of an Italian nun, Elena Guerra. The main characteristic of her spirituality was an all-encompassing devotion to the Holy Spirit. It grieved her that most people seldom thought of and knew so little about the Holy Spirit. Inspired by a practice she had learned as a child in her parish, she would recommend that the time from Ascension to Pentecost be spent in prayer and preparation for the coming of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. Eventually she had the boldness and audacity to write to Pope Leo urging him to recommend this practice.

To the amazement of many people who had tried to dissuade her, the Pope responded promptly by a letter officially endorsing her idea. Although the Pope had not met her, he told his counselors that if she had any other such inspirations for the welfare of the Church, that they be communicated to him.

With this encouragement, Elena promptly wrote the Pope again, urging him to establish this practice throughout the whole Church. On the first day of the first year in the twentieth century, January 1, 1901, the Pope did just that!

He prescribed that every Catholic Church should prepare for the Feast of Pentecost by a novena. He issued this letter to all the bishops of the world, begging them to encourage their people to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. These prayers began to move in God’s heart in a significant way. On that same day an event took place in Topeka, Kansas, which marked the beginning of a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit which was destined to sweep the country and the world. The Pentecostal movement broke out in a little Bible school in a small town in the heart of America. It was no accident that God choose America to be the first place to do that because of the great capabilities of our country. On that day a young woman named Agnes Ozman received the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Her pastor, Charles Parham later recalled. “I had just laid my hands on her. When I scarcely began to speak the glory of God fell on her. There seemed to be a halo surrounding her head and her face began to glow. She began to speak the Chinese language which she had never learned.” This event has since gone on to become a mighty river. Few people could have imagined that this humble event would trigger the worldwide pentecostal charismatic movement. Most all historians agree that the move of the modern day outpouring of the Spirit began in Topeka.

It spread like wildfire through camp meetings and tent revivals across the Midwest reaching as far as California to a place called Azusa Street. It was led by a black pastor named William J. Seymour. Parham and Seymour are often referred to as the Fathers of Pentecostalism. From Azusa Street it spread rapidly around the world. It became a major force within Christendom as the first of God’s mighty rivers that broke forth. It is called Classical Pentecostalism.

The second mighty river of God’s Spirit began in 1957 in what is called Neo-Pentecostalism. Neo means new or recent. This group includes all the mainline churches like the Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalians, etc. It also included groups such as the Full Gospel Businessmen Fellowship. Church historians tell us that this outpouring of the Spirit in modern times is the first time in history in which God has sovereignly poured out his Spirit at the same time all over the world.

The third mighty river broke out on Saturday evening Feb 18, 1967, among a group of college students and professors at Duquesne University at the Ark and Dove Retreat House in Pittsburgh. This retreat has come to be known around the world as the Duquesne Weekend. It is interesting to note that the full name of the university is Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit; the motto is “It is the Spirit who gives life,” and the university is administered by the Holy Ghost Fathers, a missionary order. This is the place that is generally accepted as the beginning of the charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church. I believe it is not an accident. God planned it that way!

The account of what happened is documented in “As by a New Pentecost” by Patti Gallagher Mansfield. During the late 1950s and early 1960s and even earlier, there were developments going on in the Church that helped to usher in this new move of the Spirit. Some of these developments helped to prepare the way for the renewal. One was the biblical movement which had been gaining ground among Catholics since the 1940s. Catholics were digging into the Scripture on a scale never seen in modern times. Catholic lay persons were being encouraged to read the Bible, a characteristic of the renewal.

After the renewal hit there was a rush to understand the Baptism in the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit.  There was also a move in the church, a new emphasis on the role of laymen in the church.  The ecumenical movement was also a contributing factor in the development of the Charismatic Renewal.  It is interesting to note that all these things were part of and subject matter in Vatican Council II.

One of the most significant and most important developments was the election of Angelo Roncalli as Pope John the XXIII. Late in 1959 Pope John threw open the windows of his office and called for the Spirit to send in a new wind of Pentecost which later resulted in Vatican Council II. At the opening of Vatican II he spoke in part this prayer: “Renew your wonders in our time as though for a new Pentecost.” This prayer was prayed all over the world for one year. Many see it as an answer to prayer. What did Pope John have in mind when he prayed that prayer? What was he longing for? Where did that longing come from? He was well aware and knew that the lived experience of Pentecost was possible. He had seen it first hand. There is a little known story about Fr. Angelo Roncalli in Patti Gallagher’s book “As by a New Pentecost”:

While he was still Bishop Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII used to visit a tiny Czechoslovakian village of approximately three hundred people where a dear friend of mine, Mrs. AnnaMariea Schmidt, was living. For many centuries all the Catholics in this village had experienced the full spectrum of charismatic gifts as recorded in 1 Corinthians 12-14. It was part of normal Christian life for them . . . Pentecost was a daily reality.

AnnaMariea related to me the circumstances surrounding the first manifestation of charismatic gifts in the eleventh century. When the villagers were in danger of starvation due to the severe cold which ruined their crops, they prayed for God’s help. A beautiful lady, who did not identify herself, appeared on the mountain and taught them how to implore the Holy Spirit. As they followed her instructions, they were all filled with the Spirit and received charismatic gifts, such as discernment of spirits, prophecy and the gift of tongues. They also experienced a growth in the sanctifying gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially love. The bread which they baked that winter was blessed, and their supply lasted miraculously until the next harvest.

Each successive generation of villagers manifested the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They did not realize that their charismatic experience was unique, since their village was fairly isolated. AnnaMariea describes how the power of prayer and the presence of God’s love were so strong that they needed no jails or hospitals. When someone was sick, the entire village united in prayer, expecting God’s healing. Children were welcomed into families; there was no divorce. Peace and love reigned. Sunday Mass was a glorious celebration of Jesus in their midst and was followed by a sharing of food and fellowship. Scripture was read in the homes and children were instructed to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It was into this charismatic environment that Bishop Roncalli came for visits in the 1930s. He was joyfully received as a spiritual father. AnnaMariea, who was a child at the time, remembers him as a priest imbued with God’s love. She delighted to sit at his feet and listen to him speak about Jesus. He seemed perfectly at home amidst the manifestations of the charismatic gifts as he prayed with her family and the other villagers.

When I asked AnnaMariea if she thought that Pope John XXIII’s prayer for a new Pentecost was inspired by his visits to her village, she said that she thought it would be presumptuous to draw such a conclusion. AnnaMariea believes that this desire for a new Pentecost was born in his heart long before he visited them. It seemed to her as though he knew full well what was possible when people turned to God with repentant, humble hearts and implored the Holy Spirit to act in their midst.

AnnaMariea’s description of Bishop Angelo Roncalli is confirmed by many other people. Certainly, Pope John XXIII is widely regarded as one of the most charismatic figures of the twentieth century. He has been called by Cardinal Suenens, “a man completely docile to the Holy Spirit, a man who, completely free from himself, followed the path of the Holy Spirit.”

It was prophesied in the 1930s that a severe testing would come upon AnnaMariea’s village to empty it, but that there would be joy as the villagers stood firm through the trial. This prophecy was fulfilled when Nazi troops came in 1938 and killed almost every villager. The power of the Holy Spirit sustained them, and not one person renounced his faith. I am grateful to God for sparing the life of Mrs. AnnaMariea Schmidt, who survived both Nazi and Russian concentration camps, and who has allowed me to share this portion of her amazing testimony.

Remember who it was who inspired Pope Leo XIII? One of the first persons to be beatified by the good Pope John was a woman religious named Sr. Elena Guerra. Pope John XIII may also have been influenced, as was Pope Leo, to pray for a new Pentecost thanks to the efforts of Elena Guerra. Pope John referred to her as “the Apostle of the Holy Spirit.”

Another movement starting in the late 1940s that influenced the charismatic renewal was the Cursillo movement. Many of the leaders of the early renewal were touched by God in and through it, including many members of our own Community. Through the early 1960s many friendships were built through involvement in Cursillo. These friendships were retained between both students and faculty members at both Duquesne and Notre Dame. So when the Spirit broke forth there were many contacts in place which helped to spread the Baptism in the Spirit.

Two faculty members at Duquesne whom God had touched through a Cursillo were instrumental in the move of the Spirit. They were both hungry for God and were searching for a deeper relationship. By God’s providence they were invited to attend a prayer meeting. They came with two other people, one with his wife, the other with a colleague from the University. They all received the Baptism in the Spirit. This prayer meeting was the forerunner of the Duquesne Weekend. For those four Catholics who attended that first meeting, it was significant because it took place on Jan 13, the Octave day of the Epiphany which is set aside in our Catholic Liturgy to celebrate the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. These two men helped to bring about the retreat of Feb 17-19, 1967, a month or so later.

Some of the early leaders of the renewal had received the Baptism in the Spirit in Ray Bullard’s basement. He was the president of the Full Gospel Businessmen Fellowship in South Bend, Indiana. There have been many of our Protestant brothers and sisters who were instrumental in the beginning. One such sister was Flo Dodge, whom Patti talks about in her book. It was in Flo’s home that the four Catholics were baptized in the Spirit. It was known back then as the Chapel Hill Prayer Group. Looking back, Flo said the Lord was preparing the Chapel Hill Prayer group for the role they would play in bringing the Baptism in the Spirit to Catholics at the Duquesne Weekend. God clearly had a plan in mind. Although they didn’t realize it at the time, there was a passage of Scripture that was especially meaningful to the Chapel Hill Prayer group: Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God had prepared beforehand so that we should walk in them.”

There were also two books that were widely read which were influential and instrumental in spreading the renewal. Once you started reading them you just couldn’t put them down they were such powerful witnesses to God’s Spirit. They were “The Cross and the Switchblade” by David Wilkerson and “They Speak with Other Tongues” by John Sherrill, both Protestants. So our Protestant brothers and sisters played a major part in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

The charismatic renewal started with these humble beginnings and now 40 years later has spread around the world to more than 238 nations, with millions of participants! Amen.

(© 2007 Catholic Charismatic Services of Dallas)

Additional resources on the Charismatic Renewal

Exploring the Roots of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal

Celebrating 50 years of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal 1967-2017

NCR National Service Committee

Pentecost Today

Catholic Fraternity International

Catholic Charismatic Renewal Documents

Renewal Articles