Becoming a Kind of Club

The cardinal of Nairobi has suspended the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Will he ban it?

Nairobi, Kenya – It is no secret that African Christianity has been trending in the past few decades toward Pentecostal worship, with its raucous and individualized services and its emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s regular, miraculous interventions in the everyday world. When a mainstream church applies the brakes on the trend, it’s big news.

So it was in Kenya, where front-page headlines last month declared: “Protests as cardinal bans charismatic group.” The Nation, Kenya’s largest paper, quoted one worshiper, who complained of “the present-day persecution of those who want to worship God differently.”

John Njue, the cardinal-archbishop of Nairobi, suspended the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) in February. The decision was so controversial that it was not written down, but delivered orally. The charismatics themselves remained hushed about it for three full months. When the news at last broke, Cardinal Njue said little publicly, but held a two-hour conversation with charismatic leaders in May and told parishioners at his cathedral on May 31, Pentecost Sunday, “We need to be very careful when we read that book, Acts of the Apostles, not to take things too literally.” He called charismatics’ claim of divine healing and tongues “not something to be taken lightly.” The suspension may presage an outright ban from Cardinal Njue, though it will more likely be an issue for the consideration of the Second African Synod, to be held this October in Rome.

Born out of an American Catholic gathering whose members declared they had been baptized in the Holy Spirit, the CCR enjoyed the support of Paul XI and John Paul II. Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the papal preacher since 1980 and a member of the Church’s committee for dialogue with Pentecostal churches, has been the charismatic movement’s most prominent proponent, stressing that any complete understanding of the Trinity will include a realization of the Holy Spirit as an active force. Father Cantalamessa has visited Kenya and many other African and Latin American countries to preside over charismatic meetings.

In the past three decades, the movement spread across the Third World, taking hold in those same societies that have seen large up-swings in independent Pentecostal churches. And no wonder. It is sometimes difficult to tell a Catholic charismatic meeting and a Pentecostal service apart, but for the emphasis on Mary in the former. Catholic charismatics speak in tongues, claim divine healing, and expect material rewards for their clamorous devotion. Predominantly women, Kenya’s CCR members are faithful, Mass-going Catholics. But they also gather at weeklong prayer-a-thons and overnight vigils where they exhort, loudly, the miraculous powers of Christ and his Holy Spirit. One priest, Father John Muhindi, was assigned to the entire CCR in the Nairobi archdiocese; usually, the meetings are conducted by lay presiders.

“It was becoming a kind of club,” says Father Marino Gemma, parish priest of Nairobi’s Consolata Shrine, one of Kenya’s largest congregations, which hosted charismatic meetings. “They were making the Holy Spirit to say things that it never said, and do things that it never did. The Catholic Church is more cautious and prudent in declaring something a miracle. These people, these charismatics, need to be guided a bit.”

The problem in Kenya, however, has not been so much the flock’s refusal to be guided. After all, Father Muhindi, the CCR chaplain, says the matter “is now for His Eminence to decide, and I will defer to any decision he makes.” He expects his lay membership to do the same. The problem, rather, is that until Cardinal Njue called a time-out, guidance has been lacking or confused at the top. Since 1995, when the First African Synod met, the authoritative document on the African Church has been John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa. The document spoke boldly, but vaguely, of the African Church’s “urgent need for inculturation.” The Church, it declared, must “take on the values of different cultures” and become the “sponsa ornata monilibus suis”—the bride that adorns herself with many jewels.

The result has been Catholicism with an altogether different demeanor. Where the gold-standard of many rigorous Western Catholics is a somber and reflective service, the typical African Mass is positively raucous.

Probably the most jarring aspect of inculturation is liturgical dance. Dancing and drums were nearly universal elements in African pre-Christian religious occasions, and these have been incorporated into the liturgy. In the typical Mass, instead of participants merely processing through the nave of the church at the beginning of a Mass or at the end of collection, the church’s dedicated “Junior Youth” form a sort of conga line. The dances are occasionally fast-paced and appear frenzied, but have a simple choreography: a two- or three-step affair set to clapping, a steady and subdued drumbeat, and simple and repetitive lyrics. Palestrina it is not.

“I was certainly surprised by it when I came here,” says Father Joe Babendreier, chaplain of the Opus Dei-affiliated Strathmore School in Nairobi. “After all, Cardinal Ratzinger said very clearly a long time ago that he himself couldn’t see how liturgical dance would fit into the liturgy of the Catholic Church.” After spending 16 years in Kenya, however, Father Babendreier says he now finds “something about liturgical dance that is dignified, an act of worship, and spontaneous. It’s something that arises out of the culture of these people and seems to have arisen quite naturally.”

The percussion, ululations, and hand-waving of the African Mass are one thing. But, more than any other historic mission church, Catholicism has been accused of leaving the door open to un-Christian practices as well.

Jim Teasdale, a Protestant missionary in Kenya’s remote north, runs one of only two churches in the desert settlement of Loiyangalani. The other is Catholic. One of the last places in Africa to be evangelized, Christianity is only a few decades old in the area. Teasdale accuses the Catholic Church here of “syncretism,” saying it promotes pagan ancestor-worship and even turns a blind eye to the still-common practice of female circumcision.

Teasdale makes no apologies for the strictness of his mission, sponsored through the non-denominational Masters Mission, headquartered in North Carolina. He is friendly to all comers, but he insists to be saved one must turn his back on traditions that for centuries have held the African family and clan together. “We might have two dozen people who are obviously Christians and have paid a pretty high price, ostracized by their tribes and families, because they are blaspheming the gods of their fathers,” he says.

Where Teasdale and others see counterfeit spirituality, however, many African Catholics see “cultural values that are a truly providential preparation for the transmission of the Gospel,” in the words of Ecclesia in Africa. Taking the “veneration of their ancestors” as an example, John Paul observed that Africans have a strong familial bond and “believe intuitively that the dead continue to live and remain in communion with them. Is this not in some way a preparation for belief in the Communion of the Saints?”

Like so many other ecclesial gatherings in recent Catholic history, the 1995 synod and the resultant papal exhortation were aimed at making Catholicism more palatable to an alien society— whether a Western one transformed by modernity, or an African one that had different conceptions of the spiritua world in the first place.

Arguably, that effort has failed in the West. But in the conscious Africanization of Catholicism, the faith does seem to hold greater attraction to the masses here. Church worship is exciting, the music is catchy and in dialect, and nearly every single youthful member of the congregation has some role to play in the celebration. It is a rare Sunday when the pews of any given parish church are not filled completely.

The tinkering that led to trappings like liturgical dance extended in other directions, too. Ecclesia in Africa included the language of “the mystery of Pentecost” and took as its theme Acts 1:8: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…to the end of the earth.”

The document was the high-water mark in John Paul’s embrace of the charismatic ministry, seen by 1995 as a vital force to slow the loss of parishioners in the Third World to independent Pentecostal churches. The CCR doctrine that God was powerful and willing to use that power aligned neatly with most African cultures, where gods were expected to be powerful and materialistic— requiring tangible offerings for tangible returns. The strategy of inculturation led inevitably to the CCR and its focus on the Holy Spirit’s miraculous acts.

Ironically, despite being characteristic of most Africans’ pre-Christian cosmologies, this belief in miracles usually has not been packaged in a traditional motif with drums and healing dances. Rather, the CCR and others extolling Pentecostalism in African society have by and large followed in the fashion of the American evangelical-Pentecostal movement. Walk into most Pentecostal church services in Africa, or a CCR gathering, and you will encounter the synthesizer-and-keyboard hymns, the preaching that frequently devolves into repeated mantras and tongues, the long periods of individual and group ecstatic prayer, and the laying-on of hands and healings. All of these traits of American Pentecostalism have been imported to African churches, overwhelming most local expressions.

The Anglican Church of Kenya has been so thoroughly Pentecostalized in the American manner that at one recent service in Nairobi’s historic All Saints Cathedral, the homilist extolled “Christ’s Key Principles of Leadership” and advised parishioners, taking a page from American televangelists, that “tithing is Jesus’ investment strategy.” A handful of so-called African Instituted Churches have taken up the cause of neo-traditionalists, asking their parishioners to wear local bark-cloth or cut their hair. But most upstart preachers make an effort to mimic the dress, the church and altar design, even the tone of voice of American televangelists like T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen.

This, more than anything, is what Kenya’s and other African countries’ Catholic hierarchies fear: that under the cover of inculturation will come influences that are not African at all, that could change a more essential aspect of the Church’s character.

Yet, for the time being, most priests seem confident that suppressing the charismatic movement will not weaken the Catholic Church’s appeal in Kenya. “This Pentecostalism will not have a durable influence on the lives of the people,” predicts Father Gemma, the priest at the Consolata Shrine. “Everyone goes where there are miracles. But they eventually come back to the Church and I ask them, ‘Did you get your miracle?’ And they say no.”

Father Babendreier, meanwhile, observes that Catholic practice is, despite its cultural adornments, extremely rigorous. There are constant reminders at Mass about who may validly receive Communion. Confession is taken seriously— and the average Catholic knows better than to receive the Eucharist without it.

“You focus on the problems,” he says, “But let’s not forget that something is happening here that is pretty spectacular in the history of the Church. You go back 100 years and you have maybe 10 million Catholics. Now, you’re in the hundreds of millions. So I do not get hung up on the little problems. I would daresay they are minor compared to something going on which to me has the Holy Spirit stamped all over it.”


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