It was a moment like any other in any Catholic Mass anywhere in the world: the sacred Host was elevated for adoration after the celebrant pronounced the words of consecration. But in place of the stillness and silence that usually follows, the worshippers’ hands lifted or extended toward the altar and a swell of voices rose through the pews – each voice uttering different sounds, not a language, yet with a strangely unified rhythm that came to an end as it had begun, simultaneously and of its own accord.
The same thing happened when the chalice was raised, and then again after the concluding doxology just before the Great Amen.
It’s a phenomenon known as “speaking in tongues” — uttering sounds with no correlation to any known language but believed to be a special charism of the Holy Spirit — and it is par for the course at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Providence. Though this took place during the parish’s Tuesday evening Spanish-language Charismatic prayer group, it occurs at every Mass, said pastor Father Jaime Garcia.
“Everybody’s in the same Spirit,” he said. “It’s easy for us as a community to pray in tongues. It’s the same thing the Apostles did at the beginning when the Spirit descended. Whichever way the Holy Spirit’s moving, we just follow it.”
Mass was followed by a healing service demonstrating more characteristics of Charismatic worship. People who came forward for prayer for themselves or others were anointed with oil blessed by Father Garcia before the Mass. As the large Bethany Choir praise band repeatedly chanted “Santo Spirito,” some who were prayed over fell down and lay on the floor for some minutes in a phenomenon known as “resting in the Spirit.”
“We just trust the Spirit,” Father Garcia said. “The Spirit moves in different ways, in different persons. God controls them. We don’t know what’s going on, we just let them rest and God is doing his job.”
The Charismatic Movement, or Charismatic Renewal, gripped the Catholic Church in the 1960s, kickstarted by Catholic professors Ralph Keifer and William Storey of Duquesne, a Catholic university in Pittsburgh. Keifer and Storey had both read the books “They Speak with Other Tongues” by John Sherill, and “The Cross and the Switchblade” by David Wilkerson with the same John Sherill and his wife Elizabeth as co-authors. The books, both written by Pentecostal Protestants, contained accounts of lives transformed through direct, personal encounter with the Holy Spirit manifested by mystical phenomena such as tongues and modern-day prophecies.
During a meeting of Duquesne’s Chi Rho Scripture Study in 1967, Keifer, intrigued by the books, prayed to receive the Holy Spirit and began “speaking in tongues” – the same kind of ecstatic speech heard at St. Charles – when others in the group prayed and laid hands on him. This is perhaps fitting, since Duquesne’s full name is Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit.
From that small beginning, a movement spread to Notre Dame and Michigan State universities through campus Newman Centers, then to parishes around the country and around the world.
Father Garcia recalled becoming attracted to the movement by attending a Life in the Spirit Seminar, a series of seven spiritual workshops designed to bring Catholics into a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit. The seminars began in the late 1960s and continue to be offered today.
The word “charismatic” comes from the Greek word “charismata,” which means “gifts” or “graces.” Charismatic worship focuses on receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the traditional seven listed in Isaiah 11:2-3: wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge and piety; but adding to these prophecy, healing and “speaking in tongues.”
Some maintain that Saint Paul himself was referring to this phenomenon when he wrote of “mysterious utterances” in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Both Protestants and Catholics who embrace forms of charismatic prayer believe that glossolalia is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence.
But Father Garcia said that other gifts, such as prophecy, also signify the outpouring of charisms. The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies both the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy as “extraordinary” charisms which are “at the service of charity which builds up the Church” (CCC no. 2003).Other characteristics of Charismatic worship include raising hands palms upward or outward in prayer and spontaneous vocal praise.
Charismatic prayer groups often have a similar structure, consisting of contemporary praise and worship music, a brief teaching by a group member, a sharing of faith testimonies and Charismatic gifts including prophecies, and intercessory prayer. Some begin with Mass or group recitation of the rosary.
The movement landed in Rhode Island at Holy Ghost Church in Providence in the late 1960s, and got a significant boost from Father John “Jake” Randall while he served as assistant pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in 1971.
“It drew hungry people together, people hungry for God,” said Barbara Wright, a trustee of St. Patrick’s who has been involved in the Charismatic Movement since Father Randall introduced it to the congregation. “It was the most beautiful thing. We developed a hunger to grow into Christ.”
Father Randall asked then-Bishop Louis E. Gelineau if the Charismatic Movement could be utilized to revitalize St. Patrick’s when construction of the overpass near the State House dislocated many parishioners. The bishop agreed, and the movement was brought to St. Patrick’s in 1971.
“The Charismatic Movement saved this parish,” said Wright, adding that “people from all over the world came to St. Patrick’s” because of it.
Father Randall became pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Providence in 1978, bringing the movement with him and leaving that legacy at both parishes to this day in the form of English- and Spanish-language Charismatic prayer groups that meet weekly throughout the year. After Father Randall’s death in 2011 at the age of 82, the English-speaking group dwindled, but the Latino community remained and increased under Father Garcia.
The movement hasn’t been universally embraced throughout the Church. Because of its Protestant roots, the Catholic movement has sometimes been referred to as “Pentecostal Catholicism.” Its critics accuse the movement of Protestantizing the Catholic faith, focusing on high-octane emotion and appearing to downplay the receiving of the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation with an implicit claim that believers must seek more of the Spirit than they received in these sacraments.
But those in the movement say the Holy Spirit is truly present and active, and that seeking an additional outpouring of the Spirit is a way of accessing the graces conferred in those sacraments, rather than replacing them.
“It was real,” said St. Patrick’s Charismatic prayer group member Walter Burke, who entered the movement in 1969. “We listened to the Spirit of God. I haven’t seen it in a long time, but there was a real power.”
Group member Jim Collard had grown up Catholic, but had drifted from the church by his early 40s. When a friend invited him to a Charismatic prayer meeting, Collard was “baptized in the Holy Spirit, and that’s when life began to change,” he said.
“It’s one thing to have it up here,” he said, pointing to his head, “and another having it down here” — pointing to his heart.
Papal acknowledgment has been given to the movement by popes Paul VI (1975) and John Paul II (1979), with Pope Benedict XVI giving it positive remarks and Pope Francis meeting personally with Charismatic leaders in 2014.
Father Garcia has only one thing to say about the movement’s detractors: “They have the right to think like that, because they haven’t experienced it.”
St. Patrick’s English-language Charismatic group meets every Thursday at 7:30 p.m., while the parish’s Spanish-language group meets on Fridays at 7 p.m. At St. Charles, the Spanish-speaking community gathers every Tuesday at 7 p.m. and the English-language group on Thursdays at 7 p.m.