Hispanic Catholic renewal 101

OLguadalupeIt’s interesting, whenever the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life releases a new study, to watch the ripples from that data spread out into the work of mainstream newsrooms that take religion news seriously.

Thus, since the Pew team has recently released major studies on faith in Hispanic cultures and the worldwide growth of Pentecostalism, we should continue to look for think pieces on either of these subjects — or both at the same time since they are interconnected.

Take, for example, a Washington Post story by Anthony Faiola that ran with the headline “In U.S., Hispanics Bring Catholicism to Its Feet — The Church Offers Livelier Services for a Growing Constituency of Charismatics.” It isn’t every day that you get to see a feature story that offers both a classic, stereotypical photograph of elderly hands holding a rosary with chunks of prose like this:

Sonia Rodriguez, a 60-year-old Puerto Rican, spun in the aisles as she spoke in tongues. The crowd began frantically waving white napkins in the air to symbolically purify themselves while a preacher began calling down the Holy Spirit. Moments later, one young woman began spasmodically dancing as if in a trance while group leaders rushed to her side with outstretched hands. She finally collapsed into her chair amid a chorus of “hallelujahs” from the congregation.

For some, the charismatic prayer service offered a rare chance to unload their burdens and experiences in the company of compassionate ears. Juana Jaco, a 47-year-old Salvadoran maid, took the microphone to give one of many “testimonies” of personal experiences with God.

“Until last year, I thought I was worthless; my husband beat me, and I hated myself,” said Jaco, who came to the service alone. In tears, she continued: “But then my uncle came to me. He was sick and needed a kidney. I didn’t think twice; I offered him mine. After the operation, we began to pray together, and we both felt God come down and touch us both.”

This is a good piece and, if anything, it left me wanting more — especially on the complex nature of the interaction between Pentecostal beliefs and those of the Roman Catholic Church.

Catholics are, after all, a rather orderly lot at the level of doctrine, faith and practice. The story, for example, makes references to the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the National Hispanic Committee of Catholic Charismatic Renewal. I laughed out loud when I hit both references. I would think it is rather hard to crunch the work of truly charismatic leaders down into the agenda of your typical bookish Catholic committee.

This is a hard subject to cover, because Pentecostalism is complex. Some of this may have filtered into the story, whether the reporter knew it or not.

hands raised upTake, for example, that language about the preacher “calling down the Holy Spirit.” That is pretty traditional Pentecostal language. There is another reference that doesn’t conflict with this, yet may show signs of Catholic complexity.

To be sure, not everyone in the church — from the leaders to the flock — is comfortable with that shift. Even at the 10 a.m. Mass … many parishioners in the back remained solemn as charismatics in the front pews expressed their faith with great animation. Some charismatic practices remain controversial, including a devotion known as the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The ritual, which varies greatly among charismatic groups, often starts with weeks of reviewing the gospel and culminates in a prayer to “release” the Holy Spirit from inside the soul. At that point, some participants express extreme joy and might begin to speak in tongues.

Pentecostal readers may correct me, but I have never heard charismatic or Pentecostal believers — at least not in a Protestant context — talk about prayers “to ‘release’ the Holy Spirit from inside the soul.” Most of the time, the Pentecostal people that I have known talk about the need to “receive” the Holy Spirit. However, Catholics (and other liturgical Christians) would believe that they received the gift of the Holy Spirit in their original baptisms, usually as infants. Thus, prayers to “release” the Spirit or the gifts of the Spirit?

Yes, this is picky. Also, it would be interesting to explore whether there are tensions between the lay preachers who often drive Pentecostal cell groups and services and the formally trained, committee-friendly priests who are responsible for the official Masses and other rites in these parishes. Faiola hints at this.

Face it, there may be some very tense partners in this great liturgical dance. That’s a subject worth returning to in a future story.

I would also be interested in knowing how Hispanic charismatic Catholics compare with mainstream Catholics when it comes to the practice of the faith — take Confession, for example — and support for the church’s moral and social teachings. This is the rare mainstream story in which the reporter did not try to push the political questions out front, which is to be commended. Still, those questions are important and will be asked sooner or later.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    The charismatic movement has been going on within Catholicism for quite a while now, but it’s very slow to take off and is regarded with an element of suspicion, precisely because of the Pentecostalist/Protestant roots of the movement.

    You’re right in that within the Catholic practice, the charismatic movement is more constrained – the type of people who might start giving out ‘prophecies’ or ‘God told me that…’ would be reined in pretty quickly (thanks to the line on private revelation) and, if they persisted, would be doing so ‘unofficially’.

    So this Hispanic Charismatic thing is interesting, and definitely worth analysing in terms of has it carried over from the Pentecostalist missions in South America or is it a new endeavour from within the Church? But yes, the language about prayers to release the Holy Spirit from within the soul sounds very odd – I’ve never heard the like. It’s strange that the one one, “release”, is in quotation marks when the rest of the sentence is not; almost as if that one word is the only direct quote and the remainder of the sentence is a paraphrase?

  • Martha

    Okay, God bless Google. Resources online from the Veritas site explaining “What is Catholic Charismatic Renewal?”


    Life in the Spirit Seminar An 8 to 10 week Life in the Spirit Seminar (LISS) is conducted each year by most prayer groups. In some parishes, prayer groups have been requested to conduct the LISS for RCIA participants and those preparing for Confirmation. The LISS prepares participants for the Baptism in the Spirit during which they are prayed over for the release of the Holy Spirit in their lives.”

    Asking for the Holy Spirit to be ‘released in your life’ (that the Spirit should be poured out upon you) is a rather different thing to ‘releasing the Holy Spirit from within your soul’. Never trust a sentence with one word only in quotes! ;-)

  • http://www.washingtontimes.com Julia Duin

    It was obvious the reporter had not a clue what the baptism in the Spirit is all about. His syntax, choice of words – everthing was all wrong. Plus, the Catholic charismatic renewal has been around since the famous “Duquesne weekend” in February 1967 near Pittsburgh. Crowds of 30,000-40,000 used to fill Univ. of Notre Dame’s stadium for their annual conferences. All the reporters needed to have done is check the archives of Christianity Today.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    The story describes this Hispanic trend as a new wave in an older Catholic charismatic movement. That part is accurate.


    I still think the “released” language is linked to baptism doctrines. Poured out “on” you is, again, more of a Protestant formula — a new experience of the Holy Spirit ENTERING a person.

  • Dan

    The article reports: “A landmark study released last week by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicated that 54 percent of Hispanic Catholics describe themselves as charismatic.”

    Maybe so but I haven’t seen any evidence of it out in the field. Over the last two years I have attended a Spanish language Mass at approximately a dozen different parishes, mostly in the East Los Angeles area, which is one of the most intensely Hispanic areas of the United States. At none of these Masses did I ever see anything like the charismatic type behavior that is described in the article.

  • http://www.lutheranzephyr.com Chris (The Lutheran Zephyr)

    However, Catholics (and other liturgical Christians) would believe that they received the gift of the Holy Spirit in their original baptisms, usually as infants. Thus, prayers to “release” the Spirit or the gifts of the Spirit?

    I’m no Catholic, but I am a liturgical Christian. I would not in any way suggest that because I am baptized I now have the Spirit boxed up inside of me! Surely the Spirit was poured down on me in baptism, and I draw strength from my baptism (I think of Luther’s instruction to shout out, “But I am baptized! I have God’s promise!” when doubt creeps). Nonetheless, I pray for God’s Spirit to pour on me everyday.

    Inasmuch as the Spirit may dwell within us when and how God chooses, the Spirit of God is inherently an external Presence. When I’m looking for God, I’ll look outward and upward, not inward. I think this is the case for many Christians.

  • Martha

    Well, I’m only an ignorant poor peasant who relies on “Veni, Creator” for prayers to the Holy Ghost ;-)

    Still, I would find language talking about “releasing” the Holy Spirit from ‘within’ or ‘inside’ or ‘within our souls’ very strange, not to say suspect. Whatever about the Protestanism of the formula, that’s how I’ve always heard it – the Spirit poured out upon you, or coming upon us as in the tongues of fire at Pentecost.

    There’s a novena to go with this – that’s how you know something is really Catholic, when there’s a novena to go with it!


    The Burning Bush Pentecost Novena
    Nothing there about releasing the Spirit from within…

  • Joseph Fox

    I think this growing constituency of Charismatics in the Catholic Church as well as the Baptist church falls in the category of evolution of religion. It is just the latest development in a long line. And it is going to put reporters in a position where they will foster strong negative responses however they cover the story.

  • http://www.spudlets.com Marc V

    This ties in nicely with the recent Bible Girl interview, where she said the mainstream media barely have a clue about Pentecostals. While I’m tempted to go into a long explanation, I will state that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is simply an empowerment for greater works, particularly evangelism.

    Over ten years ago my wife and I went on a missionary trip to Guatemala as representatives for a Presbyterian church. We attended meetings there that were far more “spirit-led” than a typical Presbyter sees in the US. Shortly after we returned we moved, started attending a Pentecostal church and have not looked back. I’m curious to see how much more the media will follow the influence of immigrants and their Pentecostal ways on the churches in America.

  • Martha

    Darn it, I wish we had a proper text of who said what, exactly. It’s evident this person is not familiar with Pentecostal practice and is juggling with Catholic terms – I certainly would *not* describe the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” as a devotion, not in the traditional sense of that term.

    “culminates in a prayer to “release” the Holy Spirit from inside the soul”

    No, no matter what way I look at it, I can’t reconcile that with anything I know or have ever heard of. Is this sloppy reporting? unfamiliarity leading to error? or some genuine, free-floating, wandering into pseudo-heretical waters by the celebrant and/or congregation?

    tmatt, you probably have a point linking the “released” language with Baptism and Confirmation, at least if Wikipedia is to be trusted:

    “According to the official teaching of the Catholic Church, when Catholics are confirmed they receive the “special Outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost”. That is to say, the Holy Spirit is already given to the believer in baptism and confirmation. However, a growing community of “Charismatic Renewal Catholics” (numbering over 44 million in 2000), believe that there is a further experience of Empowerment with the Holy Spirit. As stated by Rev. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, “Baptism in the Spirit is not a sacrament, but it is related to a sacrament…to the sacraments of Christian initiation. The Baptism in the Spirit makes real and in a way renews Christian initiation.” Emphasis of the event is on the release of existing spiritual gifts already given to the individual through Baptism and Confirmation.”

    Release of existing spiritual gifts = release the Holy Spirit from inside the soul? Sorry, still sounds dodgy to me. Maybe it’s just clumsiness on the reporter’s part handling unfamiliar terminology in a setting they didn’t exactly understand, but I don’t know – that particular phrase is just bugging me since it just does not sound right. I really wish we could get some clarification here, but I rather think that’s like asking for the moon on a stick.

  • Martha

    Flogging a deceased equine here, I know, but I think this is a genuine misunderstanding due to some subtle and complicated theological hypotheses. Take it away, Fr. Cantalamessa:


    We believe that the Baptism in the Spirit makes real and revitalizes our baptism. To understand how a sacrament which was received so many years ago, usually immediately after our birth, could suddenly come back to life and emanate so much energy, as often happens through the Baptism in the Spirit, it is important to look at our understanding of sacramental theology.

    Catholic theology recognizes the concept of a valid but “tied” sacrament. A sacrament is called tied if the fruit that should accompany it remains bound because of certain blocks that prevent its effectiveness. An extreme example of this is the Sacrament of Matrimony or Holy Orders received in the state of mortal sin. In such circumstances these sacraments cannot grant any grace to people until the obstacle of sin is removed through penance. Once this happens the sacrament is said to live again thanks to the indelible character and irrevocability of the gift of God: God remains faithful even if we are unfaithful because He cannot deny Himself (see Timothy 2:13).

    In the case of baptism what is it that causes the fruit of the sacrament to stay tied? The sacraments are not magical rituals that act mechanically, without the person’s knowledge or disregarding any response on his part. Their effectiveness is the fruit of a synergy or cooperation between divine omnipotence — in reality the grace of Christ or the Holy Spirit — and human freedom, because as St. Augustine said, “The one who created you without your cooperation, will not save without your cooperation.”

    …Here, then, is what I feel is the significance of the Baptism in the Spirit. It is God’s answer to this malfunctioning that has grown up in the Christian life in the Sacrament of Baptism.
    It is an accepted fact that over the last few years there has been some concern on the part of the Church, among the bishops, that the Christian sacraments, especially baptism, are being administered to people who will not make any use of them in life. As a result, it has even been suggested that baptism should not be administered unless there are some minimum guarantees that it will be cultivated and valued by the child in question. For one should not throw pearls to dogs, as Jesus said, and baptism is a pearl, because it is the fruit of the blood of Christ.

    But it seems that God was concerned about this situation even before the Church was, and raised up here and there in the Church movements aimed at renewing Christian initiation in adults. The Charismatic Renewal is one of these movements and in it the principle grace is, without doubt, linked to the Baptism of the Spirit and to what comes before it.

    It’s effectiveness in reactivating baptism consists in this: finally man contributes his part — namely, he makes a choice of faith, prepared in repentance that allows the work of God to set itself free and to emanate all its strength. It is as if the plug is pulled and the light is switched on. The gift of God is finally “untied” and the Spirit is allowed to flow like a fragrance in the Christian life.
    In addition to the renewal of the grace of baptism, the Baptism in the Spirit is also a confirmation of one’s own baptism, a deliberate “yes” to it, to its fruit and its commitments, and as such it is also similar to Confirmation too. Confirmation being the sacrament that develops, confirms, and brings to completion the work of baptism. From it, too, comes that desire for greater involvement in the apostolic and missionary dimension of the Church that is usually noted in those who receive the Baptism in the Spirit. They feel more inclined to cooperate with the building up of the Church, to put themselves at her service in various ministries both clerical and lay, to witness for Christ — to do all those things that recall the happening of Pentecost and which are actuated in the Sacrament of Confirmation.”

    This is one of those concepts that makes one go “Hmmm – I’ll have to go away and think about that,” because if you zig when you should have zagged, you’ll end up an Anabaptist or a Donatist or some such thing ;-)

    And it’s important to note that this is just an idea put forward, not Official Church Doctrine. Even the most fervent proponent of the ‘tied Baptism’ notion would blanch at the notion that the Holy Spirit is bottled up inside our souls until the Baptism in the Spirit ‘releases’ the Third Person of the Trinity!

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    From what I can see of the effect Hispanic Catholics are having on parishes it is all positive. Enthusiasm, traditional morality, love of images, candles, and incense. In other words they are saving us from the pseudo-Protestant iconoclasm that started infecting the church after Vatican II. This was mostly the work of Irish priests and pastors who were what we used to call “Castle Catholics.” Catholic in name. but hankering for the candleless, whitewashed, clear glass windows, unincensed air, of the churches run by their “betters”.
    The fact of the matter is that, in many ways, Hispanic Catholicism is the real Catholicism. But the media tends to portray it as an “invading” presence in Catholic parishes in the USA.

  • albion

    I was about to say something when I read Martha’s very thorough comment, with which I agree.

    In short, what we are talking about here is a process of becoming aware of the pre-existant presence of the Holy Spirit in us, then seeking to conform our wills to its prodding and counseling and responding to it in cooperation.

    For most of us, this is a slow, fitful and often imperceptible process. For some, it can come in an overwhelming burst of light. But for all of us, it is a process that continues throughout our lives.

  • James Davis

    What I noted in the Washington Post article was the reporting of hysterics during the service — spinning in the aisles, speaking in tongues, waving white napkins, spasmodic dancing — as normative Pentecostalism. That’s a double stereotype: the wild-eyed Pentecostal plus the excitable Latino. If the Post is like my newspaper, that language must have passed under the eyes of at least two editors. And I’ll bet neither of them was Latino.

  • Michael

    If the Post is like my newspaper, that language must have passed under the eyes of at least two editors. And I’ll bet neither of them was Latino.

    I believe the writer, Anthony Faiola, speaks fluent Spanish given his background as a reporter in South Florida for the Miami Herald and seven years as the Buenos Aires bureau chief for the WP. He’s written extensively about the Latino community.

  • http://www.dallasobserver.com Julie Lyons

    Re: The “release” of the Holy Spirit from the soul

    Watchman Nee, whose writings have had a significant influence on the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, wrote a wonderful book called “The Release of the Spirit.” I don’t know if the writer’s language somehow traces back to this seminal work, but it’s possible. I also don’t have it in front of me, so I am drawing from memory.

    But Nee and many other Pentecostals and Charismatics make a distinction between the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit–which all believers in Jesus Christ have–and the “baptism” or “release” of the Holy Spirit, which is an empowerment for ministry and a more godly life. Nee writes that when we surrender to Jesus Christ our self-centeredness and allow it to be “broken,” the Holy Spirit is released from within us like a beautiful fragrance. This “release” results in the fruits of the Holy Spirit being evident in our lives to a greater degree, which, in turn, enables us to be more effective in ministry.

    I really don’t know why the writer described the Spirit as being released from the “soul.” One thing to be aware of is that Pentecostals focus more on putting total faith in the biblical passages they do know than examining every bit of biblical minutiae. Pentecostalism is also more of an oral culture. Consequently, Pentecostals believers’ language is often imprecise.

  • Maureen

    I’ll admit that I’ve only ever been to one charismatic Catholic Mass, and that was back in the eighties. But none of this rolling in the aisles stuff was going on, I guarantee. (Also, prophecies are generally more associated with the visionary and mysticism crowd than charismatic Catholics, that I’ve ever heard of.)

    So I think it’s quite possible that a lot of Hispanic Catholics could identify with the charismatic movement, but not be attending Masses or paraliturgies with quite this extreme a style of devotion. ‘Charismatic’ seems to have had so many definitions and so wide a spectrum of practices that it’s hard to say what’s not charismatic.

  • Mike Culbertson

    Raniero Cantalamessa, is the personal preacher to the papal household and has been so since 1980. He preaches to the pope. The above quote is quite descriptive of how many Catholics have experience the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. We have received Him in the sacraments but often that power remains “tied,” until we actively ask the Lord to unleash. This is not unlike a seed you plant in your garden but it is never watered. It’s there but won’t manifest healthy growth until it is fertilized. In this sense, all the power within that seed is released.

    On another note, Cantalamessa has written a wonderful book called “Sober Intoxication of the Spirit – Being Filled With the Utter Fulness of God” which goes into much more detail. He absolute confirms the Pentecostal understanding of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as an “outpouring” and tell us as Catholic to not overly Catholicize the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and restrict His way of working. We as Catholics have received the Holy Spirit in the sacraments but that does not rule out spontaneous outpourings apart from teh sacraments.

  • EV

    Up at Comment #4, Mattingly says, “JULIA: The story describes this Hispanic trend as a new wave in an older Catholic charismatic movement. That part is accurate.”

    Er, Julia was not so far off the mark in reaching back 40 years ago. I think the Washington Post story is more a case of the media finally getting around to recognizing a trend that has been under their nose for decades.

    It was in 1969 that Fr. Rick Thomas began charismatic prayer meetings in El Paso, Texas. These were almost entirely attended by Catholic Anglos but for the handful of Mexican American youth (yours truly included) that Fr. Thomas would bring along with him in his van. In those days the influence of Protestant pentecostalism was evident in the books we read (Cross and the Switchblade, anything by Kenneth Hagin) and the songs we sang (“When the Spirit moves you, Lo-ORD, you’ve got to move”).

    The attendance of the Anglo meetings stayed at a moderate level. However, when Fr. Thomas started a Spanish-language prayer meeting on the poor side of town around 1970, it took off right away. He then made the English-language meeting bilingual. The Anglo attendance immediately dropped to almost nil, but Latino participation readily made up for the Anglo loss. By 1971, most of us from El Paso who attended the Notre Dame charistmatic conference were of Mexican descent. By the end of 1971, we were having these AMAZING Sunday prayer sessions, almost entirely Mexican American in composition, bilingual, maybe 150 in attendance, that would last from early afternoon until nightfall. These were much more spirited than the earlier English ones. We weren’t exactly rolling in the aisles, but there was plenty of tongues, prophesying, and boisterous singing in English and Spanish.

    The demographic change allowed for the ministry to branch out across the border into Juarez, Mexico. You can read about those forays here: http://www.wau.org/current/article.asp?id=1513. If you can get your hands on the 1980 video Viva Cristo Rey, you’ll have a chance to see Catholic Mexican pentecostalism in full swing. The ministering in Mexico continues to this day as evidenced by this website: http://www.handsforchristministry.org/thechristmasmiracle.html (Sorry, I don’t know how to do tags.)

    From talking to folks here in Los Angeles, I’m under the impression that the Latino Catholic charismatic communities are of early vintage as well. I suspect that, if a reporter were to carefully investigate, he or she would discover that the charismatic movement entered Latino communities in various locales decades ago. I think we’ve just been overlooked.