It’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.
Take, 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.