“OK,” I said. “Tell me clearly. Why are you talking about the Holy Spirit as if it is a person?”
“Because he is,” my friend Michele said. “He is the Person of the Trinity that breathes life into Scripture and joy into our faith. He brings us into the family of God.”
My heart leapt. That’s exactly what I wanted! I had met Michele and her husband, Joe, in an evangelization group they were leading at our parish. Slowly, over several years before that, I had experienced a growing desire for more than Mass on Sundays. Joining this group was outside my comfort zone, but I felt a surprising urge to participate. As I got to know Michele better, she shared more about her experiences with the Holy Spirit. But that conversation in particular left me with an insatiable desire to know more.
Alan Schreck’s book A Mighty Current of Grace: The Story of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal produced a similar desire in me. It’s the story of a movement in the Church that has reached more than 100 countries and touched an estimated 150 million Catholics.
A Movement with No Founder. So who began this powerful worldwide movement? In more than one place, Schreck makes the point that unlike other movements, the Charismatic Renewal had no single founder. Where the Franciscans had St. Francis and Opus Dei had St. Josemariá Escrivá, no one person stands out as the visionary behind this movement. Rather, something new was happening across the Church. There were early clues that it was about to occur, Schreck says. The Marian apparitions in Fatima, the rise of new Catholic lay associations, a greater emphasis on ecumenism—even a corresponding movement within Protestant churches that had developed earlier. So many pieces were in place; it was as if they were all waiting for the fire of the Holy Spirit to set them ablaze.
Schreck shows us that among all these precursors, the most significant was the Second Vatican Council. In preparation for the council, Pope John XXIII called the faithful to pray for a new Pentecost. And during the council, Pope Paul VI encouraged laypeople to use their gifts to serve each other and the Church.
But the real beginning of the Charismatic Renewal took place fifty years ago at a student retreat at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in 1967. At that time, a group of Catholic students had a powerful experience of God similar to what my friend Michele had described. They felt a new closeness to the Lord, and they began to experience the gifts of the Spirit. It was the birth of the Renewal!
The Holy Spirit in My Life. The Charismatic Renewal was decades old when I encountered it in 1995. But the Holy Spirit still used it to change my life dramatically. It started with a simple prayer: “Holy Spirit, come into my life. I’m sorry for my sins, and I ask to receive your gifts. Guide and direct me.” As I prayed this prayer surrounded by a group of friends, my Catholic faith became deeply personal. I was filled with an abounding joy. I read Scripture voraciously. Most notably, I was introduced to a community of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, who had also been touched by the Holy Spirit and who had committed to support each other in their faith. A Mighty Current of Grace describes the growth of communities like the one my husband and I joined, the People of Praise.
Schreck also documents how the Renewal grew so quickly. Tens of thousands of people came together for conferences marked by exuberant Masses and songs of praise. University students across the country began to form groups that prayed together regularly. And prayer groups began to sprout up in virtually every parish.
Grace for the Whole Church. Schreck explains that the grace of this season was for the whole Church—not just people in charismatic prayer groups. “Renewal” is God’s way of making the Church new again by revitalizing elements of Catholicism that have been forgotten. He describes a moment during Vatican II when one of the Council fathers insisted that the Church had forgotten what St. Paul preached to the early Christians: that every believer possesses gifts from the Holy Spirit that are meant to build up the Christian community. From this moment on, pastors and theologians began to pay closer attention to the “charisms” of the Holy Spirit.
For those who want to know more, Schreck carefully describes spiritual gifts like discernment, teaching, and prophecy. He explains how these gifts are meant to help us in worship, ministry, and service.
Pope Francis also echoes this. In the book, Schreck shares what the pope said about charisms to members of the Charismatic Renewal:
[Pope Francis] compared the Church, and “charismatics” in particular, with a “great orchestra, where all the instruments and voices are different from one another, yet all are needed to create the harmony of music.” This analogy . . . is based on St. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12, which accentuates that each person in the Church has a particular charism or charisms, and all are important for the Church.
It may be surprising to think that each person in the Church has a special gift that the Church needs, but it’s true. This explanation has helped me reflect on my own gifts and what role they might have in the Church.
Renewal Now, Not in the Past. A Mighty Current of Grace showed me the vibrant history behind the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. I found it to be both a well-researched account and an invigorating true-life drama.
Whether you are just discovering the Holy Spirit as a “Person,” or you heard about the Renewal years ago, Schreck’s book comes highly recommended. It produced in me a welcome cause for celebrating and appreciating what God is doing in our time.
Andrea Kane lives in South Bend, Indiana.
A Mighty Current of Grace by Alan Schreck is available from The Word Among Us online at wau.org and amazon.com.