Catholics and Pentecostals: Troubled History, New Initiatives

Article excerpt

A "NEW REFORMATION" is how Philip Jenkins in his The New Christendom has referred to the amazing expansion of Pentecostal communities across the southern hemisphere. (1) Some speak of a third wave in the history of Christianity. (2) If the first wave is represented by the historic churches of the first millennium, the second wave is constituted by the confessional churches of the Reformation, while the third wave is represented by the evangelical, charismatic, and, above all, Pentecostal communities. In the process of this expansion of Pentecostalism, much of the dynamism of Christianity is moving to the Southern Hemisphere.

Pentecostal Christians grew from 74 million in 1970 to an estimated 497 million by 1997, an increase of 670 percent. (3) According to Pentecostal historian Cecil Robeck, the Pentecostal Movement today in its various expressions--Classical Pentecostal denominations, Second Wave Charismatics, and Neo-Pentecostals, among them the African Instituted Churches--represents roughly 25 percent of the world's Christians. (4) Estimates for all those associated with Pentecostalism range from 500 to 600 million. (5) Of the world's 2.1 billion Christians, Roman Catholics number over one billion. That means that Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and Charismatics together amount to close to 75 percent of the total number of Christians in the world. And Pentecostals continue to grow.

What is this Pentecostal movement, flourishing from homes and storefronts to mega-churches across the globe? I will consider here the origins of Pentecostalism in the Azusa Street Mission in 1906, the often troubled relations between Pentecostals and Roman Catholics, especially in Latin America, and the question of Pentecostals and ecumenism, including some new Pentecostal initiatives.

THE AZUSA STREET MISSION

The modern Pentecostal movement traces its origins to a revival that grew out of a largely African-American prayer group in Los Angeles in early 1906, though there were earlier expressions of Pentecostal charisms in Topeka, Kansas, and Houston, Texas, where Charles Parham had been ministering. (6) On April 9 at the home of Richard and Ruth Asberry at 214 (now 216) North Bonnie Brae Street, members of this group led by William Seymour, a former student of Parham's, who had recently arrived in Los Angeles, suddenly began to speak and sing in tongues. Those present were convinced that they had been visited by the Holy Spirit. The group began attracting new members and within a few days moved to an abandoned African Methodist Episcopal Church at 312 Azusa Street. (7)

Thus was born the Azusa Street Mission. It was extraordinary in a number of ways. First, those coming to the Mission rejoiced in extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit, including an ecstatic form of worship. Second, though it originated in an African-American prayer meeting in a still segregated Los Angeles, the congregation was soon interracial, with blacks and whites praying and singing together. Third, from its beginnings the movement spread like wildfire. Within six months, members and others interested in the Azusa Mission had founded several new congregations in Los Angeles and its environs. Its participants held meetings in neighboring communities, often in tents or rented storefronts. By September its evangelists had traveled from San Diego to Seattle, by December they were active across the country, and at least 13 missionaries had been sent to Africa. In the next two years the movement spread to Mexico, Canada, Europe, Africa, even to Northern Russia.

Naturally the movement was controversial, with its emphasis on miraculous healings, prophecy, and speaking in tongues. Robeck cites a not very sympathetic article from the Los Angeles Herald at the time:

All classes of people gathered in the temple last night. There were big Negroes looking for a fight, there were little fairies dressed in dainty chiffon who stood on the benches and looked on with questioning wonder in their baby-blue eyes. …