They got spirit: Charismatic Catholics still gathering for worship 50 years after movement began

COVINGTON, Ky. -- Fifty years ago in February, a group of Roman Catholic students at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh prayed to experience the gifts of God's Holy Spirit they had read about in the Bible.

Those prayers were apparently answered -- so the story goes -- because they soon began praying in unknown languages and delivering messages from God, just as Jesus' original disciples are said to have done.

Their movement spread throughout the church and prayer groups where Catholics could practice these gifts, or "charisms," sprung up in dioceses everywhere, including the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Covington.

In 1993, the Vatican even created International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services to help promote the worldwide Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Some Catholics saw the renewal as an answer to the prayer of Pope John XXIII, who asked the Holy Spirit to come in power on Catholics "as in a new Pentecost."

Members of the Mustard Seed Community of charismatic Catholics worship and sing during a recent service. Kevin Eigelbach | WCPO contributor

In the Diocese of Covington, charismatic groups are coordinated through the Mustard Seed Community, which holds a monthly worship service at 7 p.m. every third Tuesday at the St. Joseph Heights Provincial Center in Park Hills.

Anywhere from 20-40 people typically attend for prayer, teaching and a lot of contemporary praise and worship music, said Deacon Jerry Franzen, the liaison from the community to Bishop Roger Foys.

At the March meeting, a three-person band with three singers and two guitars opened with the song, "If We're Honest," by contemporary Christian music superstar Francesca Battistelli. Many in the audience held their hands up, open to heaven, and closed their eyes as they sang.

When one song finished, the guitar players kept strumming, as one singer repeated, "Yes, Lord, we praise you … we honor you," as another sang, "We lift up your holy name, Lord," to an apparently improvised melody. Then the first singer began singing words not comprehensible as English.

The band then sang "Sanctuary," a classic praise song often heard in Protestant churches. But then -- a reminder that this was a Catholic group -- everyone recited the prayer "Hail Mary, full of grace."

After the music, longtime member Carol Hodge invited the group to be still and listen for what God might have to say. After a few minutes of silence, people came to the podium to speak.

Kevin Hooker said that as he listened to the choir, he felt Christ was telling him that the world needs his love more than ever and needed this community to be a harbinger of his love.

Brenda Dalton said the Holy Spirit wanted her to urge everyone to live for today and for what the Lord has planned for them today.

"I heard this message, and I think it was meant for someone here … 'Don't look back,'" she said, to several "amens" from the worshippers.

The monthly meeting normally includes some teaching, Franzen said, but since it was Lent, the group reconvened in the chapel upstairs to retell the story of the Stations of the Cross -- 14 events that according to tradition, happened as Jesus carried his cross to be crucified.

Carol Hodge, longtime member of the Mustard Seed Community of charismatic Catholics, shares a testimony during a recent worship service. Kevin Eigelbach | WCPO contributor

Even this had a charismatic element, though. Hodge talked about how through praying in tongues she was healed of a knee injury.

A cradle Catholic, Hodge said she never had a personal relationship with Jesus until she began attending the Mustard Seed Community's prayer meeting in the '70s, which was then held at St. John the Evangelist parish in Covington.

She later went to a "Life in the Spirit" seminar, and on March 25, 1978, prayed to receive a full release of the Holy Spirit's gifts in her life -- a day she'll never forget.

The community began in 1968, after Father Charles Rooks, a former priest at St. John's, became a charismatic and his life was changed for the better, Hodge said. At one time, the community's prayer meetings were attracting about 150 people every month.

But the leaders at the time thought it would be good for the community to divide up and start smaller groups at each member's parish, Hodge said.

That seemed to sap some critical mass out of the movement, she said, as most of those groups are gone, and many of the rest no longer have a charismatic element, but have simply become Bible studies or prayer groups.

It's something that's happened throughout the United States, she said, not just in the Diocese of Covington. Just as is the case with many Protestant churches, charismatic Catholics are dying off, and younger people are not replacing them.

In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, there are about 16 charismatic prayer groups, most of which range from three to 30 members, said Sister Christine Edwards, one of the founders of the Lighthouse Renewal Center in Price Hill, which coordinates one of the largest groups, the Lighthouse Community.

It has about 100 members, she said, which is about as many as it had in 1978, when it was created through the merger of prayer groups at St. Therese Little Flower and St. Lawrence parishes. Members tend to be older than 50, she said, but there are some younger ones as well.

In this secular and busy age, Edwards said, it's harder to get Catholics interested in a deeper experience with God, but it happens.

The Mustard Seed Community hopes to recruit more members when it hosts a "Life in the Spirit" seminar on April 22 at St. Pius X parish in Edgewood, Franzen said. Previous seminars have lasted several weeks, but this one has been trimmed to one day to make it more attractive.

The charismatic movement in the Roman Catholic church is important, Franzen said, because it highlights the forgotten member of the Trinity -- the Holy Spirit. Catholics learn about God the father from their earliest days, and they hear all about Jesus at Christmas, he said, but they don't celebrate Pentecost, when God gave His spirit to the church, as they do at Christmas.

"People need to recognize that through the power of the spirit, they can improve their lives … and be more like that son that (God) sent for us," Franzen said.

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