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Catholic Charismatic Renewal grows in Africa, amid some controversy

African Catholics will join other members of the Charismatic Renewal at the movement’s Golden Jubilee in Rome this week.

With their hands raised, a Catholic choir sings at the Consolata Shrine in Nairobi. Photo by Fredrick Nzwili

As the Catholic Charismatic Renewal turns 50, its presence is being felt in Africa, where Christianity continues to grow at a remarkable rate.

At Pope Francis’ invitation, the movement’s members will converge on the St. Peter’s Square in Rome this week to mark the movement’s Golden Jubilee.

Francis is expected to be present at the gathering, to take place May 31-June 4; representatives will also take stock of the state of the movement since its launch in 1967 at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

When he issued the invitation to the Charismatic Renewal in 2014, Pope Francis noted his initial scepticism in the movement’s early days, when he was still in Buenos Aires. He said he later came to see the movement as the preaching of the gospel in the joy of the Holy Spirit.

That joy is visible in Africa. A charismatic worship service in an African parish can easily pass for a music concert as members sing, dance, and shout in tongues with their hands in the air, in a style akin to the continent’s thriving Pentecostal and evangelical churches.

The use of drums, shakers, and gongs in charismatic worship is common. The dancing Christians say this environment helps them shed their worries and enables them to connect with God.

But as the movement gains ground in Africa, some leading prelates have remained cautious, with some moving to curb what they see as excesses. Some Church leaders allege that members of the movement do not observe discipline in worship, often overlook the priests’ proper authority, and are generally casual in their operations.

“I think this is based on lack of understanding or interest in the movement,” Mathias Ndisu, the Nairobi-based assistant national coordinator of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Kenya, told Catholic World Report, while explaining that the movement’s members are obedient members of the Catholic Church.

Ndisu is one of the 250 members of the Kenyan charismatic movement who will travel to Rome for the jubilee celebrations. They will join a sizeable number of African Catholics at the event.

According to Ndisu, the invitation is a recognition of the movement’s significant spiritual role in the Church.

“We feel honored by the invitation,” he said. “It means Pope Francis understands and values the charismatic movement. He has often indicated that this is the new way to go for the Church.”

Ndisu highlights the significant role the movement is playing within the African Church.

“We have heard testimonies of people who were avoiding taking the sacraments, but have started taking [them] since joining the renewal. It is opening doors for Catholics and making them love and understand their Church more,” he said.

Ndisu also pleads for support from senior Catholic clergy, saying members of the charismatic movement are obedient to their bishops and would reject any practices frowned upon by Church leaders.

In the Mombasa, Kenya archdiocese, the charismatic movement has been carrying out its activities under the watchful eye of a diocesan-approved priest, according to Vicar General Willybird Lagho.

“When the Church approved the movement, the leaders must have seen its value,” explains Lagho, who also believes that some groups have been infiltrated or influenced by Protestant Pentecostalism.

“The boundary between the two is blurred, but where I have seen errors, I have called leaders and we have sat together to correct the situation,” said Lagho.

Most African bishops’ groups have released guidelines for the charismatic movement. Recently, Archbishop Cyprian Kitizo Lwanga of Kampala, Uganda issued guidelines aimed at helping the movement maintain Church traditions and also remain in accord with canon law. In Uganda, there are 2,000 charismatic prayer groups, with nationwide membership estimated at roughly 800,000.

In releasing the guidelines, Lwanga said he wanted to protect vulnerable Catholics from exploitation by self-styled Pentecostal pastors, who are on the prowl in the country and are interested in infiltrating Catholic groups.

One such pastor is Samuel Kakande, the leader of a popular Pentecostal church named the Synagogue Church of Uganda. Among other activities aimed at Catholics, Kakande had been selling “holy” items, including holy rice, holy water, and holy hankies.

According to the Uganda episcopal conference’s guidelines, charismatic prayer services can only be held in facilities approved by a bishop, and must be led by an ordained priest or deacon. The guidelines also forbid members from rolling on the ground or shouting.

The Ugandan guidelines also state that the bishop is the only one who may appoint an exorcist if cases of possession by demons are identified, and no one may participate in exorcisms without permission from the bishop.

When the Charismatic Renewal arrived in Africa decades ago, many of their activities were disturbing to Church leaders as well as to ordinary Catholics. For some, there was a thin line between these actions and those associated with witchcraft or possession by evil spirits.

Father Roger LaBonte, an American Missionary of Africa (White Fathers) priest who introduced the Charismatic Renewal in Uganda in 1973, noted these initial challenges recently.

“In an African context, [the Charismatic Renewal] created a lot of fear about spirits and witchcraft,” LaBonte told the government-owned New Vision newspaper in May 2016. “One bishop was so fearful that he prevented me from promoting the renewal. He later apologized.”

The priest said he personally was drawn to the more interior and silent expressions of spiritual action—inner healing, forgiveness, and meditative prayer—rather than shouting “Alleluia!” and waving hands.

Unlike other political or religious movements, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal is not a single or unified worldwide movement. It does not have a single founder like other movements, and no list of registered members. At present its worldwide following is estimated at around 120 million members; it is found in more than 230 countries, including many in the southern hemisphere where Christianity in general and Catholicism specifically is on the upswing.

According to some analysts, the growth of the movement is good news to the Church, which has faced the challenge of Pentecostal groups.

Statistics on departures of Catholics to these Protestant groups are scarce, but many see the appeal of Pentecostal worship’s lively and more informal style.

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About Fredrick Nzwili 26 Articles
Fredrick Nzwili is journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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