Reviving the renewal

by Steve Kroeger

Is the “Catholic Charismatic Renewal” in the late stages of an inexorable decline toward extinction?   If so, why?

During the renewal’s first decade of explosive growth, signs and wonders, joy, evangelistic zeal and fervent praise were profusely present.   The eighties were a period of gradual decline in numbers, enthusiasm and—in my opinion—the anointing of the Holy Spirit in the “mainstream” of the renewal. This decline has continued to this day. My strong conviction is that it is not because God has chosen to bring this modern day Pentecost to a halt. Rather, I believe that the anointing of the Holy Spirit, with all the glorious benefits He brings, is even more available and powerful now than at the beginning of the Catholic charismatic renewal in the 1960s.   This precious gift of the One who loves us is of such an enormous magnitude that it might reasonably be seen as a new Great Awakening—something of which the charismatic renewal was merely a forerunner.

As a student at Franciscan University in the mid-eighties, I was profoundly blessed through the renewal. The worship there at the time was powerful, vigorous and joyful. I met Jesus in an intimate, personal way and fell head-over-heels in love with Him. I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit overwhelmingly, and was graced to share this with others through prayer for healing.

This time of great blessing was directly related to the ministry of the late (and dearly beloved) Evangelical pastor John Wimber. When he ministered, the sick were healed, demons driven out and a great number of startling manifestations of the Holy Spirit took place (including falling down, shaking, weeping, laughing, etc.). Reactions varied, but most leaders in the renewal eventually acknowledged that God was pouring out His Spirit in an even more powerful way than at first.

The leadership in Steubenville, both in the covenant community and at the University was, however, in my view, rather cool to this new “wave” of the Spirit. The attitude I saw was, “This is all well and good, but God is doing something else here,” or, “We’ve grown beyond that kind of thing now.”

I remember many conversations with older brothers and sisters in the Lord in which they talked nostalgically about the “glory days” of their initial encounters with God, as if it were a thing of the past. They spoke as if a diminishing fervor and experience of the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit went hand-in-hand with a maturing of faith. Personally, I was (and remain) convinced that normal (biblically normal, that is) Christianity includes the manifest working of the Holy Spirit as evidenced in the charismatic renewal. If my experience differed from the New Testament model, I prayed and fasted, calling out to God constantly for His mercy: “Purify my heart! Transform my mind! Heal the sick!   Set the captives free! Revive us, O God!!!” This continues to be my practice to this day, and I never intend to stop.

I believe that the revival of the mid-to-late 1980’s was an invitation from God, our merciful Father, to receive a fresh, fuller outpouring of His Spirit. Missing that grace has had a serious impact on the experience of the renewal in Steubenville, as I perceive it. Elsewhere, it is still going strong.   I had the great joy of helping out with several FUS youth conferences in the late nineties, and saw first hand the amazing work of revival taking place among the youth who attended. I have recently heard exciting news about the work of the Spirit at FUS from a new student who recently attended her first Festival of Praise. It strikes me as odd that, by contrast, the ministry of the Spirit evident there is not being experienced to a great measure by the local community surrounding the University.

What actually prompted the writing of this article was reading the charismatic/traditionalist debate, specifically Kathleen van Schaijik’s moving article, “Keeping our Worship in Step with ‘What the Spirit is Saying’ to FUS.” I understand her sentiments, while disagreeing with some of her points. Here was a perfect example of something I saw over and over in Steubenville: There is a worldwide revival of staggering proportions taking place, yet there are many who are lamenting the decline of the charismatic renewal!

I recently organized a large prayer meeting (I call it a revival meeting, but Fr. Ed Wade calls it a Festival of Praise) at the “Catholic Charismatic Center” in Houston, Texas. My hunger was great for a place to worship with abandon in spirit and in truth in an environment of expectant faith.   I have been leading worship, using primarily Vineyard music (with “flat” melodies, “trite” lyrics, and “inept” instruments as critics would say), seeking to come with humility and honesty before the One who loves us. God, in His graciousness, has been faithfully pouring out His Spirit in our midst. For example, one of my children, age 8, had been questioning the existence of God before our first prayer meeting. He was distracted (as were the other young children who came with us), and I don’t think he sang a single song. When he was prayed with, he began to shake and fell to the ground. He was unable to stand for perhaps 40 minutes. He had never seen anything like it before and was rather frightened, initially, as were numerous people in Scripture (including the Blessed Mother) when encountering the Divine (even angels seem to elicit such a response). The fruit of that experience? He no longer questions the existence of God!

This is not an isolated example. In the Catholic Church, I have seen it primarily in youth ministry “piggy-backing” on the Steubenville youth conferences. However, if you simply do a search on the internet (say, “revival,” “Holy Spirit”), you can stay busy for days reading about one example after another, along with scathing criticisms by the more conservative brethren among us.

It is appropriate here to briefly define as well as I can what I mean by “revival.” I see revival as the rekindling or intensification of the Holy Spirit’s manifest activity among God’s people. It is related to the New Testament usage of the term “Reign (or Kingdom) of God.” The reign of God is, to paraphrase Fr. Francis Martin, the environment in which the majesty and saving power of God is known and experienced. Revival is the “rekindling or intensification” of this reality in our midst. The primary manifestations of the Spirit to be sought and expected are repentance, contrition, love, reverence, joy, adoration and an abundance of spiritual gifts (the “ministry gifts,“especially healing).  

What about the cycles of renewal and decline throughout salvation history, including Church history, as noted by Mrs. van Schaijik in the aforementioned article? Do they point to the inevitable extinction of those realities and practices common to the Charismatic Renewal?

No one can deny the downward trend that has been seen since the renewal peaked in the 1970’s. The Catholic experience of the Charismatic Renewal became institutionalized in various forms, primarily prayer groups and covenant communities. The initial zeal was tempered both by growth in true wisdom and by fear of repeated rejection. Also, there has been the fact of, at times, quite poor theological explanation of what was happening in the renewal. This was theology as it functioned among the earliest Christians: seeking to explain, in the light of Scripture and Tradition, a present experience of God’s work in our midst. Suddenly, experiences read about in Scripture were coming alive in ways not predictable ten years prior to the renewal. Prior to the renewal, people read about tongues and their eyes glazed over. What on earth was Paul talking about? The only framework for explaining these experiences initially available to Catholics in the renewal was provided by classical Pentecostalism. Those more sensitive to Catholic theological tradition rightly objected to many of the formulations supplied by the early charismatics. Theologians, after experiencing what has continued to be called (unfortunately, in my opinion) “baptism in the Spirit,” gradually came to a more mature theological understanding of this experience.

In any case, the renewal’s undeniable decline was interpreted by too many as divinely-intended: God never meant for His manifest presence and power to remain among us; the gifts of the renewal were a sort of bait He used to attract large numbers of people to Himself. Once they came to Him, the bait was no longer necessary. Now is the time for “maturity.” I think there is a different explanation.

In my opinion, the decline was indeed partially due to a predictable loss of enthusiasm. Emotional enthusiasm, though precious while it lasts, is not a lasting foundation for a movement. It was also partly due to sociological factors. The young college-age leaders within the renewal got married, began having children and seeking to build community with like-minded peers. Friends congregated with friends for support and common prayer, forming tightly-knit groups of different sorts. When efforts became less “outward-directed” (evangelistic) and more “inward-directed” (community building), one of the key growth elements of the movement virtually disappeared. Growth was eventually achieved almost exclusively by institutionalized means such as “Life in the Spirit Seminars,” as well as centers of renewal, such as Franciscan University, which sponsored increasingly effective conferences.

In the lives of individual participants in the renewal, there is always the normal experience of undulation. We experience times of great intimacy with the Lord and other times when we are uncertain that He even exists! We grow discouraged by the real or apparent ineffectiveness of our faith and practices. For example, a person will only pray with expectant faith over a limited number of people for healing without results before the expectant faith deteriorates into frustration and cynicism. Praise and worship are difficult at times—perhaps for long, dry periods of time. In addition, there is the simple fact that we often must move away (i.e., for a job) from a place or group that has bolstered our faith in an exceptional way. Whatever the cause, the fact is that many of us will either experience a reawakening or we will effectively “drop out” of the renewal.

All these factors contribute to the decline we have witnessed. But I don’t think that God will leave it at that. In fact, I believe that we are actually at the very earliest stages of a tremendous revival! Much wisdom has been gained in the 33 years since the “Duquesne Weekend.” Just as many parishes have been blessed by vibrant prayer groups, many have also benefited from the collapse of their “charismatic” prayer groups. Spiritually gifted, faith-filled people began to get heavily involved in their parishes, revitalizing portions of their parishes in the process. (This is certainly true of our parish in Houston!) Nonetheless, the “former charismatics” are increasingly hungry for a rekindling of the old fire. They love the Church, receive life in the sacraments, love Mary and the Saints and revere the Magisterium of the Church. But in their hearts there remains a sense of loss. Though they do not necessarily use the term, they thirst for revival! They yearn to praise and worship the Holy One whole-heartedly in the midst of other grateful worshippers and to drink deeply of the Lord’s manifest presence (the “glory of the Lord” referred to in Scripture).

I do not wish to oversimplify the internal development of the Catholic charismatic renewal by implying that the above has occurred in all cases.   The Church is strewn with those who have been wounded through a heavy-handed resistance to the renewal on the part of pastors and other parish leaders. Thriving prayer groups have at times been effectively “squashed,” or have perished through pastoral neglect. The passing of such precious works of God is truly tragic, though He can even receive glory in the midst of such evils.

Those who thirst must now come before the Lord in repentance and seek Him with all their hearts. Instead of seeing the Spirit as an “optional extra” (a “spirituality”), they must acknowledge their desperation and cry out to the Father for a renewed, fuller anointing of the Spirit. They must join together with others who similarly hunger and worship Jesus—with great humility and gratitude—crying out with one voice for revival. He who spared not His own Son, but gave Him up for us all will graciously hear our prayers.

Steve Kroeger graduated from the FUS MA Theology Program in 1988. He now lives in Houston with his wife, Maureen (Ferguson, ‘87) and their 4 children.