Dear Father John, could you help me understand what a charismatic Catholic is? When I think of putting charisms to work in our lives, as gifts from God, I think the apostles are charismatic. But what is this ‘charismatic movement’? It appears to hold some differences from old fashioned Catholicism. And again, thank you for The Better Part; it continues to bring breadth and depth to my relationship with Jesus.
I don’t think anyone could give you a single definition for “charismatic Catholic.” But within the panoply of movements and associations that find their home inside the Catholic Church, there is a fairly new one called the Catholic Charismatic Movement. This Movement has grown and spread within the Church, and with periodic papal encouragement, since 1967. I can point you to this website for plenty more to read about its nature, history, mission, and spirituality: http://iccrs.org/en/index.php/ccr/.
From a more general perspective, though, I can make a few observations about your concern regarding the relationship between new movements, like the Charismatic Renewal (but it’s not the only one), and what you refer to as “old-fashioned Catholicism.”
An old medieval phrase describes the Church as “semper reformanda,” or “always in need of reform.” Welcoming, living and spreading the message of Jesus Christ are activities at the heart of the Church. But in this fallen world, those activities are not easy to do. In fact, a spiritual battle rages, and our spiritual enemies are tirelessly working against our growth and missionary progress. As St. Peter puts it: “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith” (1 Peter 5:8).
The Holy Spirit, as the real protagonist in the life of the Church, continually works to keep the Church young and vibrant in the face of the obstacles and challenges that this state of spiritual warfare engenders. He protects the Church’s sacramental ministry, its governing ministry, and its teaching ministry – these are the basic foundations of the life of the Church in every age.
But the Holy Spirit also breathes new inspirations into members of the Church in different periods of its history. In accordance with the needs and opportunities of the various places and times in which Christians have to live and work, new charisms (spiritual gifts given primarily for the good of the body of believers) can be poured out by the Holy Spirit.
This was the origin of the monastic movement in the early centuries of Christianity. This gave rise to the mendicant orders (like the Franciscans and the Dominicans) in the Middle Ages. Likewise, all the vast and beautiful array of religious orders, missionary and apostolic associations, and ecclesial movements that have cropped up and keep cropping up are manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s constant renewal activity. New devotions and spiritualities are also part of this activity – like Devotion to the Sacred Heart when it began a period of expansion in the 1600 and 1700s, and Devotion to the Divine Mercy, which received a powerful impulse through St. Faustina in the early 20th century. The Church is “semper reformanda,” and the Holy Spirit is the director of that ongoing reform.
Every time a new outpouring of the Spirit gives rise to something new in the Church, it also causes a kind of disruption. The monastic movement was new; it was different from “old-fashioned” Catholicism of the time. St. Francis and St. Dominic had to work hard to get their new Orders approved by the Church, because many people were suspicious that their new-fangled ideas were out of tune with ancient traditions. St. Teresa of Avila suffered terrible resistance when she was moved by the Holy Spirit to spearhead a reform of her Carmelite order (in her case, she wanted to go back to older traditions, and some of her contemporaries were against it).
And in our own day, many of the new ecclesial movements have had similar experiences: rough sailing as they find their way into the main stream of Catholic life. This is why the mere fact of something being new and different, in its forms or approaches to living out the faith, is not sufficient reason to discount it; the Holy Spirit can be extremely creative.
On the other hand, not all movements of reform and renewal are driven by the Holy Spirit. Throughout history, many heresies and schisms have plagued the Church and wounded the Body of Christ under the auspices of reform.
The clearest sign of authenticity that we can look for, if we ever have any doubts, is obedience. If members of a new movement show consistent obedience and docility to legitimate Church authority, and especially if they receive official approval from that authority, we can be fairly certain that the Holy Spirit is with them. But if they don’t, we can rightly be suspicious. This is because the Holy Spirit will never contradict himself. He guides the normal governing and teaching ministries of the Church, so he will not at the same time inspire a new charism, a movement of renewal, that stubbornly contradicts those ministries.
Of course, just because a new movement or order enjoys official ecclesiastical approval doesn’t mean that all of its members will be saints. Not all Franciscans or Carmelites have been canonized, and some of them have even been heretical or caused scandal. But those individual cases don’t negate the action of the Holy Spirit in gifting the larger charism to the Church.
I hope this answer wasn’t a complete divergence from your original question. If it was, maybe some of our readers can give you something more satisfying than I did!
PS From Dan: The best book I have read on the Charismatic movement is by the current preacher of the Papal Household and his name is Fr. Cantalamessa. His book is called Sober Intoxication of the Spirit.