The Charismatic Controversy

A mysterious occurrence at a local Catholic youth retreat highlights a debate over the Holy Spirit

Andrew Starbuck isn't completely sure what he witnessed at the retreat, but he knows it was real, it was powerful, and it was good. Alas, like many things involving the Holy Spirit, he's having a hard time explaining it to believers and nonbelievers alike.

Until very recently, the 23-year-old Starbuck was a CORE member of the Life Teen youth group at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church up on Tangerine Road. He had worked hard and was pleased at the large number of teens (more than 100) who had joined Life Teen, knowing full well that participation in such groups could very easily be the kiss of death in some high school circles. He was especially proud of the 25 or so kids who went on the retreat, choosing to spend a spiritual weekend in the hills above Sierra Vista over the usual fare of movies, malls and just hanging out.

St. Mark's was something of an anomaly in the sprawling and century-old Catholic Diocese of Tucson. (It's the fifth-largest diocese in the continental United States). The parish had been hurriedly thrown together to alleviate the overcrowding at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, which, despite being the largest-capacity Catholic church in Arizona, was bursting at the seams under the stress of the burgeoning growth on the northwest side. St. Mark's was established; a modular building was thrown together; the church was off and running. In its relatively quick establishment, it was basically granted a clean slate on which to set up the workings of its parish.

It might surprise some to learn that there are (sometimes huge) differences between one Catholic parish and another, even among two that are adjacent to one another. A lot depends on the pastor; a particular course can also be determined by the lay people who are (necessarily) given a hand in running the church. Everything from the types of songs sung by the choir, the makeup of that choir, the content (and length) of the sermons delivered by the lay deacons, Mass times, the function of the Knights of Columbus, plus a thousand other little things--all of these help determine the character and personality of a parish. Accordingly, a particular church can be liberal or conservative, traditional or free form, old-school stodgy or charismatic.

St. Mark's pastor, the Rev. Liam Leahy of County Cork, Ireland, is a charismatic (defined by Merriam-Webster as "a member of a religious group or movement that stresses the seeking of direct divine inspiration and charisms"). And as it happened, his church's Life Teen group went down that path as well.

But something happened at the aforementioned retreat that prompted Leahy to temporarily disband the group and, in the process, raised some fundamental questions: Is there room under the church's umbrella for wildly varying views on the theology and dogma of Catholicism? Can a person be taught how to be moved by the Holy Spirit? And when does charismatic become a bit too charismatic?

In the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church, dating back to the birth of Jesus, the portion during which the Charismatic Renewal movement has existed is but a blip on the screen. Its roots can be traced back to the late 1960s, against a backdrop of political and social upheaval. It can be argued with equal certitude that it was either a reaction to or an extension of the overhaul of the Catholic liturgy and Mass by the Second Vatican Council. (Still others will claim that it has always been available to Catholics but had simply been ignored, and it's just a coincidence that it emerged during the tumultuous times.)

Many adherents to the charismatic movement point to the book Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Evidence From the First Eight Centuries by the Rev. Kilian McDonnell and George Montague as a reasonable starting point in attempting to understand what is being sought out. In the book, the authors argued that the early Christians (who were all Catholics) maintained a balanced reverence for all three members of the Holy Trinity--the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Over the centuries, the Holy Spirit, for a variety of reasons, was relegated to ugly stepchild status and all but ignored by many Catholics. The Protestant Reformation, built around establishing a personal relationship with Jesus, hastened things along until, for most Christians--Catholic and otherwise--the Holy Spirit was merely an afterthought.

According to the teachings of the Church, Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, rose from the dead on Easter morning and then walked the Earth for another 40 days until being taken into heaven by his Father on Ascension Thursday. During those 40 days, Jesus promised his followers that they "shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them." The Acts of the Apostles state that after the Ascension, the Virgin Mary and Jesus' apostles prayed for nine straight days (which is the origin of the term "novena").

The day after the novena ended was a Sunday, and it was on this day that the apostles were visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of flame. This allowed the apostles to speak all of the languages on Earth, thereby spreading the gospel of their lord, Jesus Christ. (The skeptical Catholic will always wonder why God would make it so that people couldn't communicate with one another after the Tower of Babel incident, and then turn around and grant a handful of people this power of universal communication. It probably has to do with that "working in mysterious ways" stuff.)

The tongues of flame appeared on the 50th day after Easter, which is known as Pentecost (from the Greek root word for "fifty"). Pentecost used to be a big deal, but it got downsized in relation to the two biggies on the Catholic calendar--Easter and Christmas. Until a couple of decades ago, the Catholic calendar basically consisted of Lent (leading up to Easter) and Advent (leading up to Christmas), and the bulk of the rest of the weeks were delineated as the Nth Sunday After Pentecost. (When I was a kid, I knew that when you started getting up into the 30s in weeks after Pentecost, Christmas was on the horizon.) Nowadays, the Catholic Church refers to that period as "The 14th Week in Ordinary Time." Not much sizzle there.

The adherents of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement focus on the fact that "charis" means "gifts" in Greek. According to Fred Allison, longtime local TV anchorman and now communications director for the Diocese of Tucson, "Those in the charismatic movement actively seek out and welcome the gifts of the Holy Spirit. From the time we're little, we're taught to make the sign of the cross and say, 'In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.' Unfortunately, a lot of people do that by rote, and the Holy Spirit doesn't receive the same attention as the first two parts of the Trinity."

(Actually, for a long time, Catholic kids were taught to say, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Not really sure what happened. Maybe the church came to an agreement with the Poltergeist Anti-Defamation League.)

Allison says that the Charismatic Renewal movement is misunderstood in the church. "A lot of people think it's a holier-than-thou sect within the church made up of people who think they've reached some higher spiritual plane. There may indeed be people who believe that about themselves, but for most people, it's simply an attempt to deepen their spirituality by the inclusion of the Holy Spirit in their lives."

The Web site for the movement) goes by the cumbersome name of National Service Committee of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and Its Headquarters, Chariscenter USA. Its logo includes an outline of the continental United States that appears to be going up in flames. According to the site (the inner quote marks are theirs), "The Visions and Mission Statements of the NSC reflect the understanding of baptism in the Holy Spirit articulated by Frs. McDonnell and Montague in (the aforementioned book). The NSC sees itself as a body of leaders in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal who work together as 'discerners of the Spirit' to serve the Lord in 'renewing the grace of Pentecost in the life and mission of the Church.' Members are chosen for their 'pastoral and visionary gifts.'"

Some might detect a hint of elitism there, as only those who have the visionary gifts can be leaders who are named to the committee. This does not go unnoticed by some rank-and-file Catholics.

Pete, who is a member of the St. Mark's parish and asked the Weekly not to use his real name for fear of "getting stink-eye looks from people," has reservations about the movement.

"I know that we're baptized into the Holy Spirit, and we receive it again at confirmation. The Holy Spirit is part of me. But I hear people talking about going into trances and flopping around on the floor. I'm sorry; that's not the Catholic Church I know."

Pete believes that some people just don't think that they're getting enough from the traditional Catholics rites and services and feel that there is something more out there to be had. He understands the longing for a greater understanding of things, but also is concerned for people who are either terribly disappointed when they don't reach that elusive (and perhaps nonexistent) next level, or perhaps fool themselves into "experiencing" something that simply isn't there.

"I don't see what's so wrong with things being the way they've always been. I have uncles and aunts who want it to go back to being the Latin Mass. You know, like Mel Gibson. That wouldn't be so bad. It worked fine for hundreds and hundreds of years. Why change things? It reminds me of the old Steve Martin line, 'Hey, let's try this new thing!' There's nothing wrong with the old thing. Frankly, I blame that new thing mentality for what happened to the Life Teen group."

Judy Marcischak doesn't see the Charismatic Renewal as a new phenomenon at all. Rather, she sees it as a return to ways long forgotten by a church which allowed itself to be streamlined by forces from both within and without.

"Catholics always should have included the Holy Spirit in their daily lives. This is a movement toward the traditional," says Marcischak, who is a longtime member of the Our Mother of Sorrows parish on Tucson's eastside. She believes that praying through and with the Spirit makes her a better Catholic, but doesn't believe it's for everyone. Neither does she try to bring others into the charismatic fold.

"We have regular prayer meetings on Friday nights at OMOS. Sometimes at Mass on Sunday, people will ask about (the charismatic movement), and I'll give them a brief explanation. But it's not about arm-twisting or converting anybody."

Maybe not for her, but the folks at the Chariscenter USA have in their mission statement: "The mission of the National Service Committee is to stir into flame the grace of Pentecost within and beyond the Church ..."

That troubles people like Pete, who believes that people are born Catholics and die Catholics. "I know that some people want to join the Church when they become adults, and that's fine. But I've never thought of the Catholic Church as an institution that had to go out and recruit new members."

He says that he read an article stating that the Catholic Church was losing members, especially Hispanics, to other, more fundamentalist, churches. "If they're going, let them go. We shouldn't change the church to try to keep people. That would probably drive even more people away."

The Rev. Leahy is somewhat amused by the whole thing. After coming to the United States more than half his life ago, in 1970, he still speaks with a lilting Irish brogue, starting many sentences with a reassuring, "You know ..."

He will cop to the charismatic label only because he includes the Holy Spirit in all he does. "You know, I believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and they are many. A lot of Catholics know about Jesus in our heads, but the gifts help people come to know Him in our hearts.

"We receive the Holy Spirit in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, but those are one-time sacraments. The more regular sacrament, holy communion, involves the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so it's only normal that people focus on that part of the Holy Trinity. However, we pray for the Holy Spirit to come over the bread and wine, and it is through the action and power of the Holy Spirit that they are turned into the body and blood."

Leahy believes that Catholics, who tend to focus on Christmas and Easter, should include Pentecost in the mix, making a trio of religious observances to go along with the Holy Trinity.

"Pentecost is very important in the Catholic Church, but it's overlooked. You know, what is now known as the Charismatic Renewal movement used to be called Pentecostal, but it was confused with Pentecostalist churches, which are fundamentalist and are ... (more exuberant) in their form of worship."

Andrew Starbuck has been on a quest to find deeper meaning since his early teens. He knows that some people feel that one must break away from the Catholic Church to do so, but he believes that the key is to delve deeper inside his religion. He has long been interested in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the gifts of healing, tongues and interpretation. But the one with which he was especially fascinated was that of resting in the Spirit.

"It used to be called being 'slain in the Spirit,' but that sounds too intense for some people. It involves lying down and reaching a state of inner calm to where the person is either oblivious to all that is going on around him or is aware of his surrounding, but just doesn't care. You reach this state, and it allows the Holy Spirit to come to you. It's a wonderfully peaceful feeling."

(Leahy says that many religions have similar rituals and that even nonbelievers can reach that state through yoga.)

By all accounts, that's all that happened at the retreat, held at the La Purisima Retreat Center, near Our Lady of the Sierras in the mountains south of Sierra Vista. A young girl, reportedly beset by a slew of personal problems, had an intense experience. Perhaps as a release from all that was troubling her or maybe out of a need to find the inner peace that others around her claimed to have experienced, the girl slipped deeply into the resting. (This ritual can also involve the laying on of hands by other worshipers to deepen the experience for all involved.)

"It was pretty emotional," remembers Starbuck, "but it is for a lot of people. It's like skydiving for the first time. You know what's going to happen, but there's nothing like the experience of having it happen to you. But a lot of kids were going through some pretty intense spiritual things, so we didn't give it much thought. They're a great group of kids, and they take their religion and their relationship with God very seriously."

The retreat was considered a huge success, at least until they got back to Tucson. Arriving at the church, that same girl had something of a relapse and had to be watched over and attended to. It passed, and she went home. But then it happened a third time, this time at school. Rumors started flying, and fingers started pointing.

Leahy disbanded the Life Teen group (temporarily, he says). He sent home a letter to all parishioners and then found it necessary to follow it up with another letter. In the second letter, he wrote, "As some of you know, there has been a recurring phenomenon of some teens 'Resting in the Spirit/Slain in the Spirit.' Resting in the Spirit is usually associated with someone falling (resting) while being prayed over (the laying on of hands). It is a common occurrence at healing services and other prayer gatherings. However, it is NOT a common experience when one is participating is Mass or in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament."

Then he adds, inadvertently comically, "While some people close their eyes while kneeling or sitting in church, one does not usually witness people falling over while at prayer."

He goes on to explain that several kids at the retreat had experienced the resting, and at least one did so again at Mass after returning from the retreat. He doesn't mention the episode at school. He put Life Teen on hold and apprised Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the situation. He says that he will meet with Starbuck and Life Teen Director Susanna Chapman soon to resolve the situation.

(Chapman politely declined to be interviewed for this article, referring all questions to the Rev. Leahy.)

Tara Sonderman doesn't know what the big deal is. The 16-year-old junior at Ironwood Ridge High School was on the retreat and really enjoyed it. "It got kind of intense," she recalls, "but in a really good way. I'm sure that some people really want to experience something, so they kind of convince themselves that it's happening. But for most of us, it's just exploring our spirituality."

Sonderman, who recently moved here with her family, had attended Catholic schools in the Fresno, Calif., area for nine years. "I really liked Life Teen, right from the start. It wasn't pushy, and the other kids were genuine. I felt very comfortable."

She's disappointed that the Life Teen group was disbanded during the holiest time of the Catholic year, but she's confident that it will be reinstated. "How can it not be? Look how successful it has been."

At press time, Starbuck was getting ready to attend a Passion Party (not what you're thinking; rather, a group viewing of The Passion of the Christ) on the evening of Good Friday (prompting the question, "What's the matter with kids these days?"). He's deeply disappointed with what has happened, but trusts that things will all work out.

"I hate the fact that a handful of people think that we did something wrong, that kids were brainwashed or that we somehow tricked them into feeling something. I was there, and it was really great."

He's certain that Leahy will reinstate the group and that the kids will come back. But, what then?

"Are we going to have (diocese) guidelines as to what we can discuss or how we can pray? I hope not. That's not the faith I know. It's not the faith I want to know."

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