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16 - 19 May 1975
Rome Congress receives extensive press coverage
If press coverage is any indication of the significance of an event in history, then the 1975 International Congress on the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church was certainly an historic event for both the Charismatic Renewal and the Church. Over 125 reporters from around the world, including representatives of some of the most important and widely read publications, were present at the congress. Their reactions, which often succeeded in combining objectivity and their unique perspective of what is happening in the Church and the world at large, reflect in part the general response to the congress and its implications for the Church. A quick glance at the numerous reports that were published on the congress reveal many interesting details and impressions.
The reports that appeared in the press were generally positive in tone and emphasized the spiritual nature of the gathering. Invariably comments were made both on the fervor of the congress pilgrims and the joy they brought with them to Rome.
“The thread from the time of the martyrs, be they popes or the laity of another day, ties these modern pilgrims by the working of the same Spirit of Faith and Love with Christ’s Vicar today“, noted the Boston archdiocesan newspaper The Pilot.
Royal L. Peck of the evangelical Protestant magazine Christianity Today reported that: “Italian Catholics and Protestants alike were caught off guard by what took place in Rome when the Catholic Pentecostals hit town last month for their four-day congress on the “Charismatic Renewal” in the Catholic Church. Not since Francis of Assisi sang and marched happily through the streets of Eternal City with his brothers the Friars Minor has Rome beheld such expressive Christian joy. “The atmosphere…was absolutely untypical of any great gathering of Catholics that has ever gathered in Italy, whether of traditionalists, or of moderates, or of the progressives”, commented the Catholic-Protestant dissident weekly Com-Nuovi Tempi”.
Needless to say, most of the reporters covering the congress in Rome focused their attention on the celebrations that took place in St. Peter’s Basilica. Although the Catholic charismatics were only one of several groups present at Pope Paul’s Pentecost Sunday Mass, many correspondents noticed the subtle charismatic presence in the celebration, especially the quiet murmur of praying in tongues following the consecration and the uplifted hands that accompanied many of the responsorial hymns. On the sideline, other things were happening. Vinson Synan reported in Christianity Today that: “While the Pope continued the Mass, hands were raised in praise and at one point, a priest fell to his knees and asked to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Several persons laid hands on him and prayed quietly.”.
Most participants in the 1975 International Congress were unaware of the many precedents that were set during the closing Eucharist of the conference in St. Peter’s Basilica. However they did not miss the perspicacious eyes of two Protestant observers, Dr. J. Rodman Williams, president of Melodyland School of Theology in Anaheim, California, and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, administrator of the new charismatic school. In an article written by Russel Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Williams and Rev. Sheldon pointed to “four major historic precedents” at the Rome conference:
Representatives of Protestant publications who were at the conference were often deeply impressed by the spirit of the Catholic charismatics who were gathered in St. Peter’s – a spirit in which they were comfortably able to enter. “St. peter’s Basilica will never be the same for any Protestant witnessing the moving scene just prior to the Pope’s arrival to speak to the participants”, Royal L. Peck wrote in Christianity Today. “The vast church was filled with the majestic strains of ten thousands voices singing “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh me”, ”Jesus is Lord, Jesus is Lord” resounded again and again throughout the building. Charismatic Catholics may be determined to do obeisance to the vicar of Rome and to the doctrine of the Roman Church, comments a Protestant observer, but the reality of the living faith of many of those at the congress cannot be doubted”.
Writing in Logos Journal, David du Plessis, a noted evangelist who has carried the message of Pentecostal renewal to nations around the world for decades, recalled a prophecy in his early ministry which he relates to the events that took place in Rome during the 1975 International Congress:
As for me, the events of these days served to crystallize in my memory once again a most significant day in my life nearly forty years ago. Very early that day, before office hours, the door of my office in Johannesburg, South Africa, suddenly opened and before me stood Smith Wigglesworth, the evangelist from England. He had been conducting evangelistic meetings there. But that morning, he was a prophet. He commanded me to come to him. He placed his hands on my shoulders and began to prophesy and tell of visions that he had seen of great multitudes in great churches all over the world. He declared that God was going to bring a spiritual revival to humanity through “the old-line denominations”. Finally, he assured me that the Lord had sent him to tell me that I would have an important part in this worldwide awakening and that, if I remained faithful and humble, I would see sights and hear sounds that would eclipse anything in ecclesiastical history. The awakening, he said, would be “Pentecostal” in nature, but would be far more powerful and effective than the well-known “Pentecostal Movement” outside the churches. He solemnly prayed for me as if it would happen very shortly. He then left, but returned later to discuss the matter further. He said the revival would not begin in his lifetime, but would begin soon after his death. He assured me the Lord would at that time speak to me directly and pleaded with me not to fear but to be faithful and humbly obey, no matter what men might say. Once more he emphasized that “the old-line denominations” would become the channels through which the Holy Spirit would work. He further explained that it would be as at the beginning when, according to Acts 6:7, “the number of disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith”. Contrary to what we had seen in the twentieth century up to that time, the new movement would begin primarily as renewal among clergy.
My dearly beloved brethren, need I say more? In Rome, we saw the fruits of a new epoch in the history of the Catholic Church, and from now on I look forward to a sweeping renewal movement. Prophecy is being literally and gloriously fulfilled.
In various newspapers and magazines, authorities and theologians, both Catholic and Protestant alike, acknowledged the importance of the 1975 International Congress in the life of the Church. In an article he wrote for Christianity Today, Vinson Synan, cited several of their evaluations: “According to Catholic theologian Kilian McDonnell of Minnesota, it was a ‘triumphant day’, while to Balthasar Fisher of Trier University, Germany, the meeting was ‘historical-of enormous importance’. To Protestant Pentecostal spokesman David du Plessis, it was ‘the greatest charismatic and ecumenical event in ecclesiastical history’”.
According to Bert Ghezzi of New Covenant magazine, Dr. Vinson Synan, who is himself a historian and General Secretary of the Pentecostal Holiness Church (USA), said the convening of the international conference in Rome “was the single most important event in the history of world Pentecostalism”. Ghezzi also reported that Dr. Heribel Muhlen, the renowned German Catholic theologian who has written prolific works on the Holy Spirit, declared that “the church has entered a new era of spiritual renewal” at a press conference following the congress. In an interview with Russell Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, Dr. J. Rodman Williams, the only American core-team member of a continuing dialogue on the charismatic movement involving Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican theologians, said that “This occasion portended an extra-ordinary breakthrough in the history of the church”.
The interpretation by the press of Pope Paul VI’s remarks to the Catholic charismatics covered the whole spectrum of opinion. In general, traditionally oriented Church press were cautious in their interpretation while the secular press felt that the Pope’s remarks were an all-out endorsement of the Charismatic Renewal. The editors of Our Sunday Visitor, a widely circulated Catholic weekly that is traditional in its approach to the Charismatic Renewal wrote that: “It is important to make clear the Pope did not present a blanket endorsement to all of what is called the Charismatic Renewal. He did certainly praise the concept of seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit and his very appearance before the members of the movement in a way that showed his affection for them is an encouragement to the Charismatic movement”.
On the other hand. John Muthig of the NC News Service, to which most diocesan newspapers subscribe and whose report on the conference was by far the most widely diffused, felt that “without giving and explicit green light to all elements in the Charismatic movement, the Vatican has clearly indicated that a movement faithful to the guidance of the bishop could only be welcomed by the universal church”.
Outside the United States, reporters were almost unanimous in their agreement that the Pope’s remarks to the 1975 International Congress amounted to his blessing of the movement. Some of the most interesting observations appeared in the French press. “In 1973 the Holy Father maintained a prudent attitude toward the movement which claimed to have a direct line to heaven”, Alain de Penanster wrote in the weekly magazine L’Express. “But Cardinal Leo Josef Suenens of Brussels, who was invited to the United States for a series of talks on the council, was able to appreciate the charismatics and warmly pleaded their case on Rome. Now, Pope Paul VI sees them as a ‘good fortune for the Church and for the world’”.
Robert Solé, correspondent for the prestigious French daily Le Monde, also commented on the support that Cardinal Suenens has given to the Charismatic Renewal: “During the congress Cardinal Suenens played the role of go-between, ‘the minister of relations with the state’, one impertinent observer noted. He succeeded - with the many priests present from some 1800 groups - in performing a sort of graft. The grafted branch will be judged by its fruits. If Pentecostalism succeeds, as it wishes, in ‘reconciling the charisms and the institutions’, if it continues to grow in the heart of the latter, the relationship of the forces within the Church could change: to the traditionalists, to the Vatican II people, to the revolutionaries, a fourth current will be added which is in itself rather diversified. Its members do not doubt their growing force. ‘We have tried almost everything in the Church since the Council’, one delegate noted. ‘It didn’t work. The Lord is giving us the possibility to evangelize by joy’. At the Vatican, these serene certainties are preferred to the permanent and disturbing interrogations of questioning Catholics.
The most perceptive evaluation of the significance of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and the charismatics probably appeared in an article that Fr, René Laurentin wrote for Le Figaro, another well-known French daily. Fr. Laurentin, theologian and professor at the Catholic University of Angers )France), is respected around the world for his diverse writings on Catholic tradition and for his in-depth documentation and interpretation of the events of Vatican II. “The charismatic congress in Rome left a deeper and more durable impact than discretion and the limits of information would show”, Fr. Laurentin reported. “This meeting, without any shadow of the most important movement of Catholic charism and of the institution has been an historical event on all sides for this movement and for Rome. The impression of the Pope was favorable. The last words of his speech expressed his very warm hope on the subject of this movement which he has for the first time referred to as charismatic. His attitude and his words expressed a deep sympathy beyond words. Participants in the congress felt this very vividly with the spiritual sensitivity that characterizes them”.
Taken from the ICCRS Newsletter July 1975.
The 57 responses we have received so far to our questionnaire about the Leaders’ Conference have provided many suggestions for future conferences and for better communication among international leaders in the renewal. Most participants responded warmly to what was often described as a “great blessing”, a “new and wonderful experience”, and a time of “brotherly love and joy in the Lord”.
The teaching and sharing strengthened many to continue their work for the Lord.
The most often repeated benefit of the conference was the contact it provided with other leaders. This was a great encouragement to many, an opportunity to see what the Lord is doing and to share as brothers and sisters in that work. Lunches were a particularly good time for people to share and one leader mentioned that having a roommate gave him a better chance to get to know someone as a brother in the Lord.
Steve Clarck’s talks provided wisdom and insight for most participants, especially for those who are less experienced in the Renewal. The workshops too were helpful to many, particularly those on community, prophecy, the hierarchy, and theology. Some leaders felt that the teachings did not reflect the different levels of maturity and experience represented. A frequent suggestion for responding to this need was having more small group discussions dealing with specific issues.
Many people found the liturgies, particularly the Tuesday evening Mass, very inspiring. In fact, some would have liked more time for Eucharistic celebrations. Many others mentioned the need for for places and times to pray – individually, in small groups, and with the whole assembly. One participant felt a particular call to come before the Lord in humility and to present to Him the needs of the world and of the Church.
“The tower of Babel is still causing major trouble”, noted one leader. We pray that the Lord will give us wisdom in improving the translation system which was for many people awkward and for others a deterrent to full participation. Some leaders felt the conference was dominated by Americans and other English speakers. This partly reflects the greater spread of the Renewal in the United-States and other English-speaking countries. At the same time, we seek more ways to share with one another the gifts the Lord has given to different countries. Most of the participants appreciated the international nature of the conference. Despite the language difficulties, the varied cultural input added interest and seeing how the Lord is working in many places was encouraging.
There were many difficulties resulting from our choice of Domus Pacis as a meeting place – the noise, the presence of others who were not part of our conference, and the lack of facilities for small group sharing and prayer. One leader, describing the experience as “peraps a little ‘vignette’ of the Christian life”, felt that the experience did much to dispel any illusions regarding our battle against the evil one. It is good to know that the Lord can work through the difficulties we try so hard to avoid.
All of the responses favored having more international leaders’ meetings. Close to half felt that two years between conferences allows enough time for growth to occur so that more wisdom can be share. National or regional conferences were a common suggestion, to be held every year if possible.
Reports of these meetings could be circulated among other leaders.
There was a wide variety of suggestions as to where the next conference should be held. While there were difficulties in having it in Rome, about ten people felt it was a good a good place because of its centrality, its close identification with the Church, and the presence of many language groups and many religious congregations there. Other suggestions were Jerusalem, Latin America, the USA, Ireland, Spain, third-world countries, and “anywhere in the world that is less crowded”. Many people suggested moving from country to country, keeping in mind where the majority of the people live, the economic situation, and the ability of the Renewal in a particular country to support such a conference.
Some people prefer to have the conference in a place with good facilities, whereas other feel that poorer countries could benefit more from our conference.
This is but a brief sketch of the comments we have received so far. We will be sending out a detailed tabulation of the questionnaires in the near future. Your reflections on the conference are still welcome. They are especially important to us since the 1973 evaluations were very helpful in planning for the 1975 conference.
Taken from the ICCRS Newsletter September 1975.
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