A match made in heaven

by Carole Brown

Few people can be unaware of the conversations that have arisen on campus over the past few years regarding charismatic and traditional Catholicism.   Many people treat the question as if it were an either/or proposition—that a person is either charismatic or traditional. Sometimes, the question is posed exactly that bluntly: “Are you charismatic or traditional?” The two have at times been pitted against each other as though they were somehow mutually exclusive.

I’d like to argue, on the contrary, that the two belong together. Other Concourse writers have written good articles in previous issues that pointed out the potential on this campus for bringing charismatic and traditional spiritualities together. It seems to me that this matter goes beyond simply establishing a “unity in diversity” which helps people of diverse “spiritualites” to tolerate each other. As authentic Catholic Christians, we are called to embrace both these realities as indivisible dimensions of our faith.

I begin with what may seem a rather bold assertion: it is impossible to be orthodox without embracing both the charismatic and traditional dimensions of our faith. At Franciscan University, most of us are concerned about orthodoxy. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, there is a tendency to think we must create subdivisions or camps within orthodoxy, labeling them “charismatic spirituality” and “traditional spirituality”—as if they were optional alternatives. The problem with such an approach is that as quickly as one identifies with one camp and rejects the other, he is no longer in harmony with the teaching of the Church. The Church does not distinguish these things in the same way that it might distinguish a “Franciscan spirituality” from an “Ignatian Spirituality” or a “Carmelite spirituality” from a “Dominican spirituality.” When the Church speaks of its traditional and charismatic nature, it sees them both as essential dimensions of an authentically Christian life. Traditions and charisms are not optional, nor can they be marginalized as such.

Let us first identify and deal with the caricatures that have come to be identified with the terms “traditional” and “charismatic.” The so-called “traditional” Catholics are caricatured as being fond of novenas, the Blessed Mother, the Rosary, and hymns set to organ music. They wear scapulars and large collections of medals. They also like the Latin Mass and incense. They are into beauty, dignity and reverence, and regard clapping in Mass as “irreverent.” “Charismatic” Catholics, on the other hand, always have their hands in the air unless they are “resting in the Spirit.” They prefer guitars, Vineyard music, clapping, and even dancing as the Spirit moves them. They avoid fixed formulas for prayer, preferring instead to pray using spontaneous praise or in tongues.

When one of these caricatures encounters the other, it is little wonder that they appear to be irreconcilable opposites. To the charismatic, the traditional seems rigid more than reverent—more interested in rules and rubrics than “worship in spirit and truth.” To the traditional, the charismatic seems wild and obnoxious—more anxious to work up emotional highs than to contemplate the mysteries, and somehow disconnected with the Church’s past. One would not expect that a charismatic could also be contemplative, or that a traditional could praise God in tongues that were not his own.

By Webster’s definition, a caricature is an exaggeration by means of often ludicrous distortion of parts or characteristics. We can recognize the characteristics described in the caricatures, even though they are exaggerated and distorted. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon on our campus to use these caricatures as though they were accurate portrayals of what it is to be traditional and charismatic, and to dismiss one or the other on this basis.

The Church sees things quite differently. There is no indication that the Church recognizes a division between charismatic and traditional dimensions of our faith. In fact, she seems to think of both as necessary for all. In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Church points out those practices which are most frequently identified as “traditional” and ascribes them, not to some Catholics, but to the faithful.   The faithful “must frequently partake of the sacraments, chiefly of the Eucharist, and take part in the liturgy; he must constantly apply himself to prayer, self-denial, active brotherly service and the practice of all virtues.”1   While insisting on the supremacy of Christ, she encourages pious devotions to the saints2 and to the Blessed Virgin Mary in particular.   In the words of the Church, “the cult…of the Blessed Virgin [should] be generously fostered, and…the practices and exercises of devotion towards her, recommended by the teaching authority of the Church in the course of centuries be highly esteemed…”3 Paul VI speaks of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary as “an integral element of Christian worship.”4 The Rosary too is highly recommended as a “compendium of the entire Gospel…suitable for fostering contemplative prayer.”5   (It should be added here, that while encouraging the use of the Rosary as “an excellent prayer,” the Church also says that it “should not be propagated in a way that is too one-sided or exclusive…the faithful should feel serenely free in its regard. They should be drawn to its calm recitation by its intrinsic appeal.”6)

By the same token, the Second Vatican Council taught clearly that everyone is to be open to the charisms of the Holy Spirit:

It is not only through the sacraments and the ministrations of the Church that the Holy Spirit makes holy the People, leads them and enriches them with his virtues. Allotting his gifts according as he wills (cf. Cor.12:11), he also distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts he makes them fit and ready to undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the Church, as it is written, “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for profit.” Whether these charisms be very remarkable or more simple and widely diffused, they are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation since they are fitting and useful for the needs of the church…7 [emphasis mine].

John Paul II takes this openness even a step farther. In his Pentecost address of 1998,8 he states unequivocally that:

the institutional and charismatic aspects are co-essential as it were to the Church’s constitution. They contribute, although differently, to the life, renewal and sanctification of God’s People. It is from this providential rediscovery of the Church’s charismatic dimension that, before and after the Council, a remarkable pattern of growth has been established… (# 4)

The Holy Father confirmed that the charismatic dimension of our faith is not an optional spirituality, and may not be marginalized as such. “The institutional and charismatic aspects are co-essential to the Church’s constitution.” We cannot do without the charismatic dimension anymore than we can do without the Pope or the Sacraments!

Some try to limit the Holy Father’s use of the word “charismatic” in this context because, while many of the people present at this address represented the charismatic renewal, there were also groups there who do not use the gifts which are commonly referred to as charismatic gifts.   Therefore, he must have meant it in a different way than we use the term in Steubenville (i.e. charismatic in the sense of gifts such as tongues, prophecy, etc.) It is true that the Holy Father used the word charismatic in a broad and inclusive sense, but there is nothing to indicate that he excluded the charisms of tongues, prophecy and so forth—in fact quite the opposite. What did the Holy Father mean when he spoke of the “providential rediscovery of the Church’s charismatic dimension”? The Church has always had preachers and teachers, apostles and evangelists; the Church has always exercised hospitality and service to the poor. The Holy Father’s use of the term “providential rediscovery” could hardly be applied to these charisms because the Church never lost them. What then could constitute a “providential rediscovery” unless it implied a discovery of something that had been, in some sense, lost?9   To what historical moment does this providential rediscovery refer—when was the original discovery? I would submit that the historical moment to which this “rediscovery” refers is Pentecost.10   In this respect, it can be said that charismatic prayer is the oldest tradition the Church has. Certainly, the Holy Father does not assign a superior value to the charisms present at Pentecost. Rather he affirms that “there is an enormous range of charisms through which the Holy Spirit shares His charity and holiness with the Church,”11 which, without dismissing other charisms, includes the gifts of tongues, prophecy, etc.

I think one of the reasons some are dismissive of the charismatic dimension is that many of us have fears and reservations about opening ourselves to it. Some of us have become cynical because of negative experiences with the charismatic movement or with certain people who identified themselves as “charismatic.” Some of us find it frightening to consider entering into any kind of prayer that is not under our direct control. I understand this fear because I, myself, was turned off by my first encounter with charismatic worship—although I loved God, this was unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me. Moreover, as I watched people resting in the spirit for the first time, I concluded that this was an instance of psychological suggestion. I developed an intellectual block that closed me to the charisms associated with the charismatic renewal for almost ten years. Mercifully, God’s providence later guided me to a charismatic healing Mass, where for the first time I experienced the power that is available in these gifts. The Lord ministered to me through a laywoman who had never met me before, giving her a word of knowledge about a difficult situation in my life.   I knew then, without a doubt, that this was much more than psychological suggestion—it was from God, and it was powerful. Not only that—it was something that I needed. Discovering the charismatic dimension of my faith has provided a richness for my prayer, indeed a means to deeper contemplative prayer, that I could not have imagined had I not experienced it.

Pope John Paul II goes on, in the same address:

Today, I would like to cry out to all of you gathered here in St. Peter’s Square and to all Christians: Open yourselves docilely to the gifts of the Spirit! Accept gratefully and obediently the charisms which the Spirit never ceases to bestow on us! Do not forget that every charism is given for the common good, that is, for the benefit of the whole Church. (5) [emphasis mine]

What this demands of all of us is a healthy openness to the charismatic gifts. It is true that no one has all the gifts, but gifts are given to everyone.   The gifts are not to be “rashly desired” but “received with thanksgiving.”12 St. Paul tells us that we should “strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts, above all that you may prophesy.” (1 Corinthians 14:1) While there may be a delicate balance between “striving eagerly” and “rashly desiring,” there is no room anywhere for the wholesale dismissal or rejection of the charismatic gifts on the basis that “I’m not into the charismatic thing.” Does not one who rejects the charisms place himself in a position of dissent?

This doesn’t mean that we must all rush out to join the nearest charismatic community, or be a “card-carrying member” of the charismatic movement. The charismatic dimension of our faith is part of our baptismal heritage. It is not contingent upon our musical preferences, nor our personal “prayer style,” i.e. whether we prefer loud singing or a quieter, more contemplative approach. Does it mean that we have to pray with our hands up or learn to play guitar? No. What it means is that we are fully open to the Holy Spirit, whatever his will for us might be. It implies that we allow ourselves to be taught concerning the charisms, and even that we seek out opportunities to learn, such as availing oneself of a Born of the Spirit Seminar, attending a prayer meeting, reading and studying. It also implies discerning the gifts that are present in us and doing what we can to mature in them.

In the final analysis, the charisms and traditions of the Church are about authentic conversion. John Paul II speaks of conversion in this way:

Conversion is expressed in a faith that is total and radical and which neither hinders nor limits God’s gift. At the same time, it gives rise to a dynamic and lifelong process which demands a continual turning away from ‘life according to the flesh’ to ‘life according to the Spirit’ (cf. Rom 8:3-13). Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple.13

None of us can claim that our conversion is complete—it is a lifelong process. It may be possible to say “I don’t feel ready for this gift yet,” but if we truly seek conversion it is not permissible to refuse for ourselves (or others) the traditions of the Church or the charisms of the Holy Spirit. Conversion “neither limits nor hinders God’s gift.” It doesn’t refuse certain kinds of gifts, but rather declares “I want all that you have for me.”

At Franciscan University we have allowed a division to creep up on us that could potentially be poisonous—Paul VI warned against it in Evangelization in the Modern World:

The power of evangelization will find itself considerably diminished if those who proclaim the Gospel are divided among themselves in all sorts of ways. Is this not perhaps one of the great sicknesses of evangelization today? Indeed, if the Gospel that we proclaim is seen to be rent by doctrinal disputes, ideological polarizations, or mutual condemnations among Christians, at the mercy of the latter’s differing views on Christ and the Church…how can those to whom we address our preaching fail to be disturbed, disoriented and even scandalized?14

We cannot hope to be effective in our witness to the world if we allow this division to continue. Nor can we claim to be orthodox without embracing the fullness of the Church’s teaching on the necessity of both the traditional and charismatic dimensions of our faith.   It cannot but grieve the Holy Spirit when we treat either of them with contempt. I hope that we can all respond to the Holy Father’s call to open ourselves with docility, gratefulness, and obedience to all the treasures that were entrusted to us in our Baptism—the riches of our tradition as well as the newness that the Holy Spirit brings in His charisms.

Carole Brown graduated from the MA Theology program in 1997. She now serves as Director of Evangelistic Outreach and Orientation at FUS.

  1. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) #42 ↑
  2. Ibid. #50 ↑
  3. Ibid. # 67 ↑
  4. For the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Marialis Cultus) #58 ↑
  5. Ibid.#42 ↑
  6. Ibid. #55 ↑
  7. Lumen Gentium 12 ↑
  8. L’Osservatore Romano, 3 June 1998 ↑
  9. It is important to note that the charismatic gifts of tongues, prophecy, miracles, etc. never disappeared entirely from the Church. For a good treatment of the evidence of charismatic gifts in the first eight centuries of the Church, see Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit, by George Montague and Kilian McDonnell (Liturgical Press 1991). These gifts have also been referred to in the writings of later saints—for example, St. John of the Cross (16th century) describes the value and proper ordering of these gifts in the Christian life in Book Three, Chapter 30 of his Ascent of Mount Carmel. ↑
  10. Acts 2 describes what happened at Pentecost. When Pope John XXIII convened Vatican Council II, his prayer also referred to this event: “Renew in our own days your miracles as of a second Pentecost…” ↑
  11. For a thorough catechetical treatment on the gifts of the Spirit, see The Spirit, Giver of Life and Love: A Catechesis on the Creed p.366. (Pope John Paul II) ↑
  12. Lumen Gentium 12 ↑
  13. Mission of the Redeemer, #46 ↑
  14. Evangelization in the Modern World, #77 ↑

issue cover

Related articles:

Same issue

Same topic: charismatic & traditional spirituality

II,1 Can charismatics and traditionalists peacefully coexist?, Kathleen van Schaijik II,7 Confrontation and culture at Franciscan University, David Schmiesing II,8 Traditionalists, charismatics and the liturgy, Adam Tate II,9 Why tradition in the liturgy is so important to our religious life, Alice von Hildebrand II,9 Charisms are traditional, Alicia Hernon II,9 Why ‘charismatic spirituality’ belongs at the heart of our communal life, Kathleen van Schaijik III,1 Filling out the meaning of the term ‘Charismatic’, Jim Weiner III,3 Campus Spiritualities: Responding to charismatic critics, Adam Tate III,3 Campus Spiritualities: Tongues in Scripture, Gerald E. Hatcher IV,7 The importance of engaging questions about our campus culture, Mark Fischer V,4 Bringing the masses from starvation to full strength, Kathleen van Schaijik V,4 Baptism in the Holy Spirit goes beyond the charisms, Ralph Sharafinski V,4 Latin, Gregorian Chant, and the Spirit of Vatican II, Jeff Ziegler V,4 Learning about the Eastern Rites, Michael Wrasman V,4 Complimentary opponents of modernism, Michael Houser V,4 What does ‘charismatic’ really mean?, Adam Tate V,4 The blessings of both sides: a personal testimony, Sr. Jane M. Abeln, SMIC VI,1 Reconsidering the term ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’, Scott Johnston

Same author