At the Charismatic Pentecost vigil, I realised what unity truly means

Pope Francis and Patti Gallagher Mansfield, a participant in the 1967 Pittsburgh retreat that marked the beginning of the Charismatic renewal, pray during a Pentecost vigil marking the 50th anniversary of the Catholic charismatic renewal at the Circus Maximus in Rome (CNS photo)

Just like at the first Pentecost, there was a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages at Circus Maximus in Rome last weekend (3rd June 2017) for the special Pentecost vigil service in the presence of Pope Francis.

The ancient ruined stadium, where chariots were once raced and early Christians martyred, was packed with Catholic Charismatics from all corners of the globe, who had come at the invitation of Pope Francis to celebrate their Golden Jubilee and this great Church feast with him. As I looked around, as far as the eye could see, there were flags and peoples. About 30,000 people from 127 nations, had registered formally, including 50 bishops and more than 800 priests. They had been arriving in Rome for the celebration events all week and by the Saturday Pentecost vigil, the numbers had grown to 50,000, swelled by local Italians, who just came for the day.

I was struck by the sense of unity in diversity as the different cultures jostled together. The Africans smiling and swaying with their amazing acapella harmonies, while the group from La Paz in Bolivia in front of me, with their Indian ancestry sat, silent and patient, in the sweltering heat, while an enthusiastic young French man waved a huge blue flag with his community’s name on it.

We had all travelled to Rome to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. This current of grace, which has stimulated the use of the charisms of the Holy Spirit (healing, prophecy, tongues etc) in the Catholic Church. These were common in apostolic times, but had a fresh impetus in 1967 when a group of young students from Duquesne university, experienced a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Key to what had happened was input from Christians from other traditions touched by this Pentecostal grace. The small Catholic student retreat went on to become a catalyst for a world-wide movement that today has about 120 million adherents, and has transformed the lives of many individuals and sparked many new ministries and communities in the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Francis, while he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, although he was initially sceptical of CCR, came to appreciate its importance and to identify himself with it, as he saw its positive fruits.

“We wish to be a reconciled diversity”, he said at the Circus Maximus as he spoke about how the Church should relate to other denominations. Referring to the origins of the CCR he said, “It was born ecumenical because it is the Holy Spirit that creates unity and the same Holy Spirit that gave the inspiration for it to be thus.” He spoke of the bond brought about by contemporary Christian martyrs saying that their persecutors didn’t ask what denomination they came from. He referred to this as “the ecumenism of blood.”

It was Pope Francis who had asked that the vigil be held at the Circus Maximus, rather than St Peter’s Square. This was because he wanted to underline our common roots in the witness of the early Christian martyrs. As well as a talk from papal preacher, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa OFM Cap, there were also major inputs from Pastor Giovanni Traettino, an Italian evangelical, who has worked for Christian unity for 25 years, and Rev.Vinson Synon, an American Pentecostal, who has been building bridges between his tradition and Roman Catholics since 1972 when he first encountered Roman Catholics speaking in tongues. Unity, Pope Francis emphasised however, was not for its own sake but for evangelisation. “Unity for the mission: not to be static, no! for the mission, to proclaim that Jesus is the Lord,” he said.

Pope Francis, as he has done before underlined that “This current of grace is for all the Church, not just for some”. He called on the Catholic Charismatic Renewal to “Share with all in the Church the Baptism in the Holy Spirit”, “to remind the Church of the power of prayer and praise” and “to walk together with Christians of different Churches and Communities in prayer and in action for those most in need. Serve the poorest and the sick, this is what the Church and the Pope expect of you.”