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A Historical Overview

VATICAN CITY, JULY 21, 2006 (Zenit) - Here is the report "Catholics and Pentecostals: A Historical Overview," by Father Juan Usma Gómez, official of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

***

An April 2005 meeting in Los Angeles, U.S.A., commemorated the first centenary of the Pentecostal Movement.

The chronicles recount that at the beginning of the 20th century, a group of believers was expelled from the Second Baptist Church of Los Angeles because of its constant insistence on the need for a spiritual revival. The search for these revivals, a practice that has been more or less widespread in Protestant milieus since the advent of Methodism in the 19th century, involved a special kind of prayer and worship which, stimulated by intense preaching and prayer meetings, often resulted in an upsurge of religious zeal.

In 1905, instead of breaking up and joining other Christian communities, this little group of the faithful began to meet in a house on Bonnie Brae Street, under the direction of William J. Seymour. There a new Pentecost was preached and they prayed for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, just like the one described in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 2:1-21) (1).

Historians tell us that news of this initiative spread rapidly across the city and that many other people joined the group. It soon became necessary for it to relocate to larger premises on Azusa Street, where the Apostolic Faith Mission was set up.

The first religious service took place on April 14, 1906. The story says that it was actually in Azusa Street that a large number of the faithful experienced the "personal Pentecost," in other words, that spiritual experience generally recognized as the beginning of Pentecostalism, which was later to be called "Baptism in the Holy Spirit."

Reactions to this event were varied and conflicting. Those who received the "anointing" spoke of it as the sovereign touch of God, whereas leaders of the Protestant and Evangelical Communities kept their distance, fearing that such an experience could not have solid spiritual and doctrinal foundations.

Especially in light of the manifestations that accompanied it, they began to doubt the "mental health" of the protagonists (2). Today, 100 years after the events on Azusa Street, there are numerous Pentecostal groups, either local or part of a real international network (3).

No organic institutional unity

Although they all describe themselves as Pentecostal, there are slight structural differences between them; while three important trends can be identified, there is no organic institutional unity among them nor a totally representative world structure.

Many claim, on the other hand, that the spiritual unity which derives from "Baptism in the Spirit" is a fundamental and sufficient bond.

In addition to the properly Pentecostal denominations (classical Pentecostals), Pentecostal groups exist within the various Churches and ecclesial communities: (denominational Pentecostals, such as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal); many others define themselves as non--denominational, neo-charismatic and independent.

To these can be added a long list of groups of a dubious ecclesial and Christian character that can hardly be called religious but that carry out activities using Pentecostal forms.

In 2005, it was calculated that there were 500 million Pentecostals.

Certain studies forecast a growth of 2.25% in comparison with the 1.23% (4) increase in the world population. It should be noted that these figures also include Christians who live Pentecostal spirituality in their own Churches and those who occasionally come into contact with the Pentecostal reality. Also, there are no statistics for those who have abandoned Pentecostalism.

During the 100 years of its existence, Pentecostalism has come into contact with almost all Christian communities, but in different ways, as we will see later.

In fact, the openness of the first groups who offered the grace of "Baptism in the Spirit" as a source of spiritual renewal was followed by a clash in the area of mission due to the rejection by the other Christian Communities: the Pentecostal certainty of salvation obtained through "Baptism in the Spirit" and the fear of being found guilty by God for failing to convert those who say they are Christians (but not Pentecostals) obviously imbues Pentecostals with missionary zeal.

Pentecostals and Catholics

With regard to Catholics, this movement, born as a reaction to a "dead orthodoxy" and a "Christian nominalism," has retained its negative attitude: the identification of Rome with Babylon, inherited from the Reformation, has not entirely disappeared.

The situation changed with the recognition of the Pentecostal experience within the Christian communities and consequently does not make a change of ecclesial affiliation necessary. Pentecostals recognize bonds of communion with charismatics: they claim, in fact, that the Holy Spirit works excellently in those believers who have received "Baptism in the Spirit" independently of the Church to which they belong. But this spiritual unity, which has given rise to certain missionary associations and alliances, does not legitimize Christian Communities as such.

Catholics and Pentecostals meet all over the world and confront each other everywhere. Aggression and diffidence have frequently been at the root of their relations: the desire to convert clouds minds and hearts. Pentecostals have difficulty in recognizing the saving value of the Catholic Church and of the sacraments, whereas many Catholics view with suspicion the proliferation of divine interventions and consider the promises of healing, prophecies and spiritual gifts as forms of proselytism.

The Catholic-Pentecostal international dialogue began in 1972. It should be remembered that 40 years ago, Catholics were in the dark about Pentecostal spirituality and missiology. Nor did the majority of Pentecostals know of the rich spirituality and missionary vitality of Catholics. Catholics and Pentecostals were diffident and wary of each other.

The contact established between them, thanks to the appearance of Catholic Charismatic Renewal together with the participation of a Pentecostal leader in the Second Vatican Council (5), made it possible to initiate a dialogue with several leaders and groups of the classical Pentecostals. This dialogue aimed at deepening their knowledge of each other and at overcoming reciprocal misunderstandings.

Today, through documents published for the International Catholic Pentecostal Dialogue, Catholics and Pentecostals (6) can recognize certain confessional traits proper to their dialogue partner and can understand the basic reasons for some of their attitudes. The process is far from easy. Indeed, their missiology and expression of spirituality are not the same, while their approach to theology is radically different.

How does one become Christian?

These differences have emerged even more clearly in the current phase of dialogue (the fifth, since the beginning of the conversations), which addressed, in the context of biblical and patristic testimony, the theme of how one becomes a Christian. Common and complementary points in faith, conversion, the following of Christ, experience and formation were identified.

On the other hand, regarding "Baptism in the Spirit," a basic experience for Pentecostals, doctrinal differences emerged within Pentecostalism itself, together with the need for a pastoral rethinking, given that not everyone has had this experience.

Many people consider Pentecostalism as the last fruit of the Reformation. Its minimal ecclesial structure, missionary zeal, doctrinal simplicity and openness to the "supernatural," as well as its cultural flexibility, strong emotional connotation and ability to give rise to religious experiences, give it a special character of its own.

The urgent need to have and to inspire the vital experience of the Holy Spirit and the certainty of salvation explain part of its fascination and success. In this regard, during the September 2005 (7) Study Seminar organized jointly in Săo Paulo by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the bishops' conference of Brazil, Cardinal Walter Kasper presented the bishops' work, saying: "A critical examination of our pastoral conscience is urgently necessary. We must ask ourselves: why are Catholics leaving our Church and moving to these groups? What is lacking in our parishes? What can we learn from the pastoral closeness of Pentecostals? What must we avoid?"

Whenever addressing Pentecostalism, it must be remembered that to Pentecostals, having and awakening religious experiences is essential. The very fact that the Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement is perceived as a new and definitive movement of divine origin, a sign of the last times, and that it presents "Baptism in the Spirit" as "an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that precedes the coming of Jesus Christ" and is obligatory as such if one desires to be a Christian, poses serious theological problems for Catholics.

It is clear to Catholics that the experience known as "Baptism in the Holy Spirit" (totally distinct from the sacrament of baptism) is neither the loftiest nor fullest form of experience of the Holy Spirit. It is one experience among others that is a feature of a certain spirituality within Christianity and demands serious and continuous spiritual and pastoral discernment on the part of the Church.

***

Notes

(1) Cf. The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, Grand Rapids, 2001.

(2) A description from the press of the time is included in J. Usma, Catholics and Pentecostals: the breath of the Spirit, in L'Osservatore Romano Italian edition, n. 20, January 26, 2005.

(3) In which, among others, the Assemblies of God, the Quadrangular Church, the Church of God, the Apostolic Faith Mission and the Open Standard Bible can be mentioned.

(4) D. Barrett, T. Johnson and P. Crossing, Missiometrics 2005: A Global Survey of World Mission, in "International Bulletin of Mission I", vol. 29, January 2005, p. 29.

(5) The leader, David du Plessis, took part as a guest of the Secretariat for Christian Unity in the third session of the Second Vatican Council.

(6) The two documents most recently published for this dialogue are Perspectives on Koinonia (1990) and Evangelization, Proselytism and Common Witness (1997).

(7) Further information on this meeting can be found in: "Study Seminar organized in Brazil," L'Osservatore Romano Italian edition, November 4, 2005, p. 4.

[Translation transmitted by the electronic archives of the Holy See]

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