Spirited movement on rise

Charismatic services attract those seeking 'greater joy'

Boston Globe, May 17, 2000
By Marcella Bombardieri

WALTHAM - Two red signs on either side of a giant cross at the Espousal Retreat House here shout ''MORE'' and ''DEEPER,'' amplifying what the Rev. Tom DiLorenzo and the adherents who flock to his twice-weekly worship services want most out of their faith.

On a recent Wednesday night, about 150 people danced to the strains of a guitar, chanting rhythmically. Some lifted their arms toward heaven, others shook tambourines.

Hours later most lay on the ground, ''slain in the spirit.'' Some spoke in tongues. A few cackled or giggled uncontrollably. Others said they saw visions.

This style of worship, with its extreme emotions and supernatural elements, is part and parcel of the Pentecostal movement that has swept the globe in the past century.

DiLorenzo, however, is a Catholic priest. Most of his adherents are Catholics who travel from across New England for what they call a life-changing spiritual experience.

While charismatic worship, as it is known, is far from the mainstream of the Roman Catholic Church, its popularity has been snowballing worldwide. In Latin America, it offers hope of competition against the explosion of Pente- costalism.

In the United States, it draws individuals who find traditional Catholic liturgy dry and passive. Across the country between 250,000 and 500,000 Catholics call themselves active charismatics, according to Walter Matthews, director of the national service committee of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Locust Grove, Va. Thirty years ago, almost no one did. DiLorenzo is convinced it is the beginning of a movement that will transform modern society.

''I feel that we are at the foothills of revival,'' said DiLorenzo, administrator of Holy Rosary Church in Winthrop. ''Something's happening that's never happened before. There's greater ease, greater joy, greater healing.''

In the Archdiocese of Boston, about 55 English-speaking charismatic groups meet regularly, according to David Thorp of the archdiocese's office of charismatic renewal services.

There are also some three dozen Spanish-speaking groups, a handful of Haitian groups, and at least one Portuguese group, he said. (Unlike DiLorenzo's group, most are organized by lay people rather than priests.)

Anne Marie Kent, who works in public relations at a local university, spends all week looking forward to DiLorenzo's Wednesday night services.

''A lot of healing comes from being in the presence of the Lord,'' said Kent, the mother of a 4-year-old. ''I feel it. It's not an intellectual thing. And it's changed my life.''

Charismatic worship ''may be very helpful to people who need to be more expressive,'' said the Rev. Joseph Nolan, a Boston College theology professor who teaches Catholicism. ''We need more of that in our parishes. We could use a little more expressive joy.''

The Roman Catholic ''charismatic renewal'' officially began in the United States in 1967 with retreats and conferences.

While such practices as speaking in tongues and ''baptism in the spirit'' strike many Catholics as odd, they are derived from the New Testament and enjoy a stamp of approval from church leaders.

Every US archdiocese has a liaison to charismatic groups. In 1997, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a report stating that charismatic renewal has brought alienated Catholics back to the church, inspired men to become priests, and encouraged religious commitment among young people.

DiLorenzo said his charismatic services are just another form of Catholic worship, no better than Sunday Mass or Bible study. What they add to more traditional prayer, he said, is inspiration to people seeking participatory religion or those moved by what they believe are supernatural experiences.

Past midnight at one recent service, after five hours of exuberant prayer, worshipers gathered under a reading light to exclaim over the gold-colored dust they believe God sprinkled on the hands of a few worshipers.

They told of smelling roses when there were no roses, of hearing flutes when there were no flutes. And, DiLorenzo said, he sensed that a worshiper's injured knee had been healed. (He believes his services have also cured broken bones and even cancer.)

''It's not about the gold, it's not even about healing,'' DiLorenzo said.

''God casts out a net. People might come to see the gold, and the Lord touches their heart and changes their whole life.'' There are, of course, skeptics. Even as Nolan says singing and dancing can be powerful forms of prayer, he scoffs at the notion of gold dust. He adds that the physical healing of ailments has been extremely rare in Catholic history.

Moreover, Nolan does not believe it is God who causes worshipers to buckle and fall to the ground, ''slain in the spirit,'' when DiLorenzo lays his hands on their heads.

''I consider that an emotional overload,'' Nolan said. ''You do strange things when you're in an emotional state.''

Underlying charismatic worship is a belief that God has a physical presence that lay people can experience directly. DiLorenzo's adherents say that presence has transformed them.

Kent, 32, of Braintree, says she has spent years grieving over a difficult childhood and an absent father. Neither faith nor conventional therapy helped her the way DiLorenzo's style of prayer did. When she started attending two years ago, she often cried through the service. Now she dances joyfully for hours.

''It's a wonderful feeling of just immense love,'' Kent said. ''Catholics don't realize what they have. They don't realize that there's more.''

DiLorenzo has been leading charismatic prayer for about four years, since his ''lifeless'' Bible study group began experimenting, hoping for divine inspiration. It's grown from just a few people to a few hundred who go to Holy Rosary on Sunday nights or the Espousal Retreat House on Wednesday.

He is proud to have attracted worshipers of all ages, saying the church especially needs young men. One is Craig Johnson, 23, of Norton.

Johnson, a fan of the bands Phish and the Grateful Dead before he became religious, is now considering the priesthood. For him, ''crying out and speaking in tongues is a way of expression, pouring out my heart in a way that goes beyond words.''

Charismatic worship has cured Ellen O'Leary of her addiction to soap operas, she says, and inspired her to give up alcohol. She believes these self-improvements come from an openness to God not found in most church pews.

''Most church people are very rigid. They're not happy, They're closed up,'' said O'Leary, 58, of Bridgewater.

And that, DiLorenzo says, is a shame.

''We are passionate. We have a passionate God,'' DiLorenzo said. ''You go to a basketball or hockey game and people are passionate. But if we're passionate in church they think we're out of our minds.''

And, the priest added: ''Spare me from being lukewarm!''

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.