Fall 1982, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 196-208.

Susan Rakoczy:
      Can We Speak of a Distinct Charismatic Spirituality?

After fifteen years, the charismatic renewal is at a critical juncture where it can become one more spirituality among others at the cost of depriving the whole church of its benefits.

Sister Rakoczy, I.H.M., has been assistant professor of religious studies at Marygrove College, Detroit, Michigan. For the last fourteen years she has been associated with the charismatic renewal in various parts of the country. In the fall of 1982 she will serve the diocese of Navrongo-Bolgatanga, Ghana, West Africa, in pastoral ministry.

THE charismatic movement entered Catholic life in early 1967. At a retreat weekend some students from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh experienced a profound conversion and new power and presence of the Spirit in their lives. Gradually they were able to name the experience in a category of classical Pentecostalism and to call it the "baptism of the Holy Spirit." Fifteen years have passed since that advent of the charismatic renewal in the Catholic community. Now is a fitting time to review and assess the movement.

Three major questions come to mind. What have been the principal elements of charismatic life in the Catholic community? What influence has the charismatic renewal had on Catholic church life generally? Finally, and crucially, is charismatic life another spirituality, a new "school of spirituality," alongside others in the church?


Newspaper photos for the last fifteen years have familiarized us with the sight of large groups of people "caught up" in praise of God, a praise so powerful that it must be expressed in expansive gestures, exuberant song, and spirit-filled dance. These "photogenic" elements are based on a theology of religious experience which affirms the presence and power of the Holy Spirit as the guiding and directing force in every person's or community's life. Awareness of the presence of the Spirit of Jesus is not the privilege only of the mystic; it is the gift of God to all the baptized who open their hearts to the power of the Spirit.

Charismatic renewal stresses elements which are central to Christian life: conversion and commitment to Christ. These are not past events of one's sacramental history, but a new gift of God to the believer, irregardless of one's past religious experience. Common in charismatic teaching is the statement that "God always has more to give you."

The expression baptism in the Spirit refers to the experience of the past gift of the Spirit passing into present power. This experience does not replace the sacramental life of the church but describes what should happen to people when they are baptised and confirmed, although it often does not happen. It can be described in the language of classical Christian spirituality as a "second conversion," when the living of one's Christian life comes alive in ways not previously thought possible.

This conviction of the immediacy of God's presence in one's life overflows into practices of piety. Charismatic prayer is characterized by the praise of God. God is worshiped for the divine goodness. Charismatic prayer is further described by its deep trust in the power of the Spirit to answer prayer. "Believe and you will receive" is the axiom of intercessory prayer.

Charismatic life is developing a practical theology of the gifts of the Spirit. Not only are persons taught that everyone is gifted by the Spirit for service in the body of Christ, but the appearance of these gifts is expected throughout the community. Also very significant is the rediscovery of what have been termed the "spiritual gifts," for example, prophecy, gifts of wisdom and knowledge, a practical use of discernment in personal and communal settings. Although much attention has been focused on the gift of tongues throughout the history of the charismatic renewal because it appears to be a very unusual type of prayer, it is but one of the gifts of the Spirit. While these gifts are very important in charismatic prayer, they are actually gifts to the whole church and should not be interpreted as only curious phenomena within charismatic prayer meetings. Even more significant in charismatic teaching is the conviction that Christians live and act in the power of the Spirit, and that this power is not abstract but concrete and definite.

Another religious element in charismatic life is love of the Scriptures. Very frequently people who receive the baptism in the Spirit find themselves almost irresistibly drawn toward the word of God. Often the impulse to be nourished by the Scriptures has veered into a fundamentalistic interpretation of the Word. Yet the desire for scriptural teaching remains. Charismatics have been described as people carrying around well-worn Bibles, begging to be taught.

No less important is the renewed love of the sacramental life of the church which often follows one's baptism in the Spirit. The faith-filled and exuberant celebrations of the Eucharist which are sometimes called "charismatic Masses" are the result of a new and intense desire to worship together in the fullest possible way, that is, in the liturgy. Some bishops who a few years ago timidly agreed to celebrate the Eucharist on Pentecost with the charismatic communities of their cities or dioceses now often remark that they experience that liturgy as the best one of the year for them. Rediscovery of the power of the sacrament of reconciliation, especially in its healing dimension, has been a continuing characteristic of charismatic religious life. In many ways, forms of the celebration of this sacrament by charismatics predate the official revisions of the rite of the sacrament.

An important element in charismatic religious life is the emphasis on healing in its physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions. The confidence among charismatics that God will answer prayer has extended beyond mundane needs to earnest belief that God continues to make people whole at all levels of their being. Healing has been part of charismatic life from its earliest days in the late 1960s. Gradually, many teachers such as Francis MacNutt and Matthew and Dennis Linn have helped to advance the understanding of the theology of healing and to aid persons in learning how to pray with confidence for the healing power of God.

Charismatic life lays stress on the importance of community life for Christian growth and development. Initiation into a prayer group or community is generally done in a systematic way, often through a series of formation instructions. The accent from the beginning is not only on personal growth but also on the importance of being part of a community.

In many communities throughout the country, the informal commitment of members has gradually been institutionalized by the development of various types of "covenant communities." The covenant, which expresses the community's own understanding of commitment, is freely entered into by the new member. In some communities, commitment is for a specific time; in others, the commitment is open-ended, remaining in force until the person or the community or both feel that it is time to change or conclude one's membership.

Much more significant than community structures is the emphasis in charismatic teaching that membership in a community is part of normal Christian life. In other words, no one lives her or his Christian life alone. Whether people assemble in a prayer group of twenty members or in a large community such as the New Jerusalem in Cincinnati or the Word of God in Ann Arbor, the stress is the same. One lives one's life in Christ with other Christians and does not pursue sanctity as a rugged individualist. Charismatic renewal has given birth to many types of communities with varying kinds of structure. Many persons live in households of nonrelated persons; others share meals, prayer, and some leisure time on a regular basis with other members of the community.


Charismatic life includes emphasis on evangelization and social action, though the force of this emphasis has been uneven. From the initial days of charismatic gatherings, there has been a stress on the need to witness to the power of the Spirit in one's life. The constant emphasis in the teaching of prominent charismatic leaders has been the Christian's mandate to preach the gospel. Many persons involved in the charismatic renewal find that, before their baptism in the Spirit, they had nothing or very little to share with others about their Christian experience. Now they feel impelled to share the good news of what God has done in their lives.

The second area, that of social action, is much more problematic in charismatic life. Although one international leader, Ralph Martin, stated publicly in September, 1979, that there is no longer any choice between evangelization and social action, the practical choice in charismatic communities is usually for evangelization at the expense of social action.

By far the most common understanding of social action is that of doing the works of mercy on an individual basis. Little concern is evidenced for changing the structures of our society which produce injustice on a massive scale.

This lacuna, and sometimes refusal, is due to two causes. First is a theology of church-world relationships which envisions a confrontation of "Christ against culture," in Niebuhrs terms. Many Catholic charismatic communities have been influenced by a Protestant evangelical emphasis that the world is corrupt and that Christians must not enter into it, lest they be contaminated. At its extreme, there has been a minor apocalyptic emphasis in charismatic teaching which presents the "end-time" as near at hand.

A second reason for the lack of interest in social justice stems from many charismatic communities' primary agenda of community-building and personal renewal. This vision sees that the change of structures cannot happen in society until people's hearts are first changed. It is a restatement of the eternal dilemma of the relation between contemplation and action. The time of fulfillment, however, when all people have been so formed in the Spirit of God and incorporated into a community of loving, supportive Christians that society is transformed and made new, is not yet here. The practice of many charismatic communities which concentrates on building up small parochial Christian community to the exclusion of all but the immediate needs of their neighbors must be challenged.

There is some evidence of change. A number of communities throughout the country, exemplified by the Community of His Kingdom in Washington, D.C., work to insure that justice, and not only the works of mercy, permeates community life. The volume by Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens and Dom Heider Camara, Charismatics and Social Action: a Dialogue, was written to urge charismatics to reflect on the necessity of working for social justice. It remains true, however, that all of charismatic life does not yet take seriously the statement of the Synod of Bishops in 1971 that justice is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel.


The charismatic renewal has had a profound effect, both directly and indirectly, in five areas of Catholic Christian life. Since the Spirit is present in the whole church, credit for these developments cannot be given only to the charismatic movement. Still, ideas and practices which are often associated with the charismatic movement and even regarded as typical of charismatic life are appearing throughout church life.

The first is a more widespread emphasis on the prayer of praise. Praise and adoration of God have always been seen as the "highest" form of prayer; ironically, they also have seemed to be the least common type of prayer. One now hears in homilies, prayer services, and spontaneous prayers a greater stress on the praise of God, even from people not at all interested in "charismatic prayer." Greater appreciation of liturgical prayer as worship has helped the charismatic emphasis on praise and adoration to become more universal.

A second gift of the renewal to the church is much more obvious. That is its music. Many songs that were once first sung at prayer meetings have now entered into the standard repertoire of parishes and other communities. They have crossed the border from "charismatic song" to song that is regarded as good and reflects accurately the praise and worship of God. They reinforce the first effect of the renewal in church life.

A third area to be influenced is that of preaching. While it is comparatively easy to chart the flow of charismatic songs into the mainstream of church life, measuring the influence on the church's proclamation of the word of God is more difficult to do. Charismatic life is most probably not the main source of the change. The accent on scripturally based homilies since Vatican 11 has gradually moved the themes of the church's preaching from moralizing to proclaiming the good news of Jesus. More and more frequently those who preach exhort persons to deeper commitment to the Lord, to a more fervent openness to the Spirit, to a greater desire for prayer. The themes may sound charismatic and were very likely judged such in 1969; today they are simply basic Christian preaching.

A fourth area is healing. There are two important developments here. The first is in the manner of the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation. Three or four years before the church officially revised the rite of this sacrament, persons involved in the renewal were finding that much more was needed in order to celebrate this sacrament more fruitfully. Not only did people find that confessing and talking on a face-to-face basis were necessary, but they also intuitively felt the need to ask for healing of the roots of their sinfulness. Laying on of hands, praying together, examination of the basis of one's sinfulness -- all now parts of the official individual rite of the sacrament -- seemed to come forth spontaneously from people who desired more from this sacrament. While the numerical count of confessions has declined dramatically in the last fifteen years, it is not unusual to see very long lines of people waiting to celebrate this sacrament at charismatic conferences all over the country.

Also significant in the area of healing is prayer for actual physical, psychological, and spiritual healing. Although belief in healing has always been part of Catholic life, it has generally been relegated to shrines such as Lourdes and to the need for miracles in order to canonize a saint. In the development of charismatic life, prayer for healing was offered from the days of the earliest meetings. But only at the Notre Dame Conference in 1974 did healing "go public," so to speak, and charismatics were exhorted to pray for healing in all areas of their lives.

The language of prayer for healing has gradually ceased to be an exclusively charismatic dialect; it has once again become the common language of the church. The renewal of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, with its emphasis on praying for physical healing and not only strength to bear one's illness, gives striking testimony to this. Healing has entered into the prayer of the church in a more tangible way. It is no longer unusual to hear a person pray for healing who would never attend a prayer meeting, although generally there is a major difference in the degree of expectation that the healing will occur. Many persons involved in the charismatic renewal pray with intense expectation that God's healing gift will be evident; often people not associated with charismatic life pray for healing, believe in it, but do not profoundly expect that it will happen.

A final effect of charismatic spirituality in the mainstream of Catholic life is in the area of evangelization. The word evangelization and the practice of evangelizing are no longer the exclusive property of the Bible Belt and various evangelical groups. What was once a strange experience for Catholics -- telling the good news (and not just "making converts") -- has definitely resumed its place in the heart of the church's mission. The convergence of the action of the Spirit is shown dramatically in this reawakened understanding which forms so much of charismatic experience and the whole church's mandate to spread the gospel which was articulated again by Paul VI in 1975 in the document Evangelization in the Modern World. Bishops and pastors initiating efforts to evangelize and to implement the catechumenate in their areas frequently find that some of their best personnel resources are found in the prayer groups and communities of their diocese or parish.


Clearly the charismatic movement has been based upon essential elements of Christian and Catholic life, individual and ecclesial, and has promoted renewal of many facets of that life. Some shortcomings of the movement need to be attended to, however, to insure that flourishing charismatic groups continue to be vibrant and fruitful. The larger church is not free of these shortcomings -- far from it. But that is no reason to ignore their presence among some charismatics.

The first area of concern is sexism. This is often concealed in a theology of the gifts of the Spirit which affirms women's gifts but only in certain areas of ministry, and often only to other women. In some charismatic communities women are excluded a priori from leadership positions which involve authority over men. Often this sexism is justified in terms of personal discernment language, for example, "The Lord has told us," or in a "Christian pragmatism" that states: "Our community (our family) is so much more peaceful now that women are in submission to their leaders (husbands)." Sexism is pervasive throughout the church and society; it is also pervasive in charismatic communities. To give it a religious name is to call sin grace.

A second concern is the continuing lack of social concern in charismatic communities. This calls forth questions about the truth of prayer which does not extend outward in service to others. Prayer is never a private action; it is always social, whether implicitly or explicitly. It is easy to "enjoy/" a prayer meeting and go home satisfied that one has had "a good time praying." To refuse to allow prayer to extend beyond the borders of one's group, of one's personal intentions, to maintain that working on "good" relationships will eventually lead to peace and justice throughout the world is to ignore the oppression built into the political, social, economic, and cultural structures of the world. To proclaim consistent and constant loyalty to pope and bishops but to refuse to make the church's teaching on social justice a part of one's very being is to be as selective about Catholic teaching as someone who enjoys prayer but does not like the Eucharist because it disturbs his or her private prayer.

A third problem is that, for the most part, charismatic communities are led by the laity. That is both an asset and a liability. Its gift is to foster genuine development of lay leadership in the church. Its drawback is that, not infrequently, persons with very little training are made leaders of communities. Their insecurity is disguised by an authoritarianism which uses a personal discernment language ("The Lord told me that we should do this") as the norm of community direction. Effective leadership development, including sound theological and pastoral formation, needs to become a more significant part of charismatic life.

A number of other difficulties infect charismatic life. Lack of communication with other church bodies can weaken the impact of decisions made through various forms of communal discernment in charismatic communities. There can be a tyranny over the life of a group which, when expressed in religious language, using terminology of the Spirit, is as oppressive as any form of church law. Sometimes leaders in the renewal, including those with theological education, deride theological reflection and appeal to their communities in language that is strongly anti-intellectual. Nor is charismatic renewal or the church as a whole served well by those who refuse to take modern biblical scholarship seriously (because they may judge the faith of the scholars deficient) and warn charismatics away from sound scholarly understanding of the Bible towards biblical fundamentalism.


We have seen that the charismatic movement, though it manifests some flaws, has been, far more significantly, a vigorous force for renewal of Christian life. But many persons involved in charismatic communities still struggle for a recognition and legitimacy which would give their prayer and community's life a firmer basis in their parish, religious order, or diocese. There is a tendency to want to be "different" because the difference has made such a profound impact on one's life. Charismatic life is still developing, although prayer groups are growing more slowly in the last few years. Some persons in charismatic communities want to receive approbation of their life as a legitimate, alternate way of living Christian life, especially Catholic Christian life.

At the same time the church as a whole evidences a great ambivalence about charismatic life. Although today only a few bishops and priests would attack the renewal as the work of the devil, most clergy and most Catholics still see charismatic life as a particular way of being a Catholic, a way that can be observed with interest and then set aside as "just not my style of prayer."

Ultimately we are confronted with the question: Should, or should not, charismatic renewal be regarded as another spirituality alongside other spiritualities in the church?

A spirituality can be defined as an interpretation of faith experience, a way to describe the meaning of the fullness of the Christian mystery. It will include several elements: religious, social, and missionary. The religious dimension describes the way one should be related to God: virtues, prayer forms, ascetical practices -- those things which fully facilitate one's growth in relationship to the divine. The social understanding presents the interpersonal relationships which encourage spiritual development. The missionary character includes the stance towards the world and understanding of how spiritual insights are shared with others.

Many spiritualities began as protest movements within the church, calling for a return to an apostolic purity of life, teaching, and mission. Many sprang from the inspiration of a powerful personality whose life and teaching attracted disciples and followers. Sometimes these spiritualities were institutionalized in religious orders: Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit. Different spiritual climates, different countries, different ages all seemed to produce various spiritualities.

Adherence to one of these spiritualities is optional in Christian life. Franciscan spirituality may appeal to some, while Carmelite spirituality makes more of an appeal to others. None of these "schools" insists that following its particular way is essential for leading a life of holiness. Indeed most Christians do not describe their piety in terms of a particular school of spirituality. Most Christians pick and choose among gospel elements, devotional practices, various prayer forms, selecting those which are most congenial to their temperament and the guidance of the Spirit.

As we have seen from our review of the charismatic movement, it has assumed several characteristics of a distinct spirituality. It calls for reform, for a return to gospel faith and practice. It includes interpretation of the religious, social, and missionary aspects of Christian life. It is semi-institutionalized in communities and groups.

My conviction is that this tendency is wrong and dangerous. If charismatic renewal becomes simply an alternate way of living the gospel, the church at large will dismiss not only its style of prayer but the whole of the movement as "not my kind of thing." The heart of the charismatic renewal, however, is not a style of prayer nor a certain spiritual gift, or even prayer itself. The heart of charismatic spirituality is the heart of Christian spirituality, that is, deeper conversion to Christ Jesus, continual openness to the power of the Spirit, and spread of the good news to all people. None of these is an optional interpretation or emphasis in Christian life.

Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens has stated often that the goal of charismatic renewal is to help revitalize the church and then to disappear as a formal movement of renewal. That is already beginning to happen in personal ways as individuals who have been profoundly influenced by charismatic life slowly move from specific charismatic activities to work and serve in other ecclesial settings, especially the local parish.

After fifteen years the prayer meeting as a form of communal prayer has proven its worth and most probably will continue to have some influence in contemporary Christian piety. The prayer meeting, however, is not the totality of charismatic life but only one form of its expression.


There are four factors of the charismatic movement which in a very special way must not be lost to the church as a whole, for they are at the center of the Christian mystery and Christian life. The first is the emphasis on faith and personal commitment to Christ. This is the essential basis of Christianity. Charismatics have discovered, or rediscovered, the necessity of a lively, personal commitment to Christ as the foundation of Christian life. The processes of formation in charismatic communities are essentially processes of conversion, leading one to repentance and new life in Christ. The implementation of the new Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults can serve to insure that this conversion process is more widely recognized as basic to Christian life. Members of charismatic groups can be helpful, moreover, in implementing the new rites of Christian initiation.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit and the praise of God are also essential to Christian life. Praising God is a Christian act, not a charismatic specialty. Whether or not one's style of prayer includes raising hands in the air, the charismatic renewal's great emphasis cannot be ignored or categorized as a marginal prayer style preferred by some people. Christians are all called to praise God, as the liturgy bears witness. The charismatic renewal is reteaching the church that truth.

Thirdly, charismatic renewal, standing within a larger movement in the church, calls everyone back to community life as an environment for Christian growth and development. In this it is certainly not unique, for one of the major themes of Christian life in these last twenty years has been the call for deeper community life. Charismatic renewal, in all its diversity, is developing a multitude of forms of community life -- formal and informal, structured and loosely organized. Some demand long-term commitment, but most are suitable for adaptation to ordinary parish life.

Fourthly, the renewal has taught the church the meaning of "grass-roots ecumenism" and how Christian unity is happening. Although formal dialogues and theological discussions are very important, they will never bear fruit unless ordinary people have learned that, in Christ Jesus, there are no barriers too big that cannot be broken through by the power of the Spirit. Learning to pray together, share Scripture (even argue about it), live community life -- and bear the pain of the disunity shown by the lack of one Eucharist -- are all preparing the soil and allowing the seeds of the full unity of all Christians to grow.

Charismatic renewal as a movement is at a critical stage of its growth and evolution. The wild-fire stage of incredible enthusiasm and spectacular growth in numbers is over. It has won a great measure of respectability in the church, although there are still many people who react with a shiver to the news that a person is a "charismatic."

The challenge to charismatic life is twofold: first, not to settle for an exclusivity of language, life-style, and prayer which makes it difficult for its gifts to be recognized and shared; second, to resist the temptation to be content with "having a good time praying" and to begin serious consideration of how its primary agenda of community-building can be translated into effective social action.

But there is a twofold challenge to the whole church also. First, the church must consistently and constantly refuse to marginalize the movement as a renewal force and to see it only as an alternate spirituality. Continuation of this tendency to regard charismatics as simply experts in exuberant prayer will truly impoverish the church. Second, it must refuse to settle for less than the full power, presence, and gifts of the Spirit, active and operative in the whole of church life, its religious, social, and mission dimensions. The Spirit, whose presence urges the believer to be good news and to spread this good news, is a Spirit of unending generosity. The believing community must not refuse to ask for all that can be given.