The Fire of the Spirit and the Spirit for the Poor

Pope Francis Kneels as Charismatic Catholics Pray Over Him, via Catholic News Service, 6/2/14
Pope Francis Kneels as Charismatic Catholics Pray Over Him, via Catholic News Service, 6/2/14

In the last 75 years, the worldwide Christian Church has seen two movements that have unquestionably transformed the contemporary Christian Church.

The first one, the Pentecostal Movement, began in the United States in the first part of the 20th century and quickly spread throughout the world.  Roman Catholics grabbed hold of this “Holy Spirit movement” through the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, a movement that recently had some positive press via Pope Francis’ interaction with them in Rome:

“In the early years of the charismatic renewal in Buenos Aires, I did not have much love for charismatics,” the Pope said on June 1. “I said of them: They seem like a samba school.”

In a speech, Pope Francis told the charismatics that they their movement was begun by the Holy Spirit as “a current of grace in the Church and for the Church”.

Pope Francis invited the crowd, which included charismatics from 55 countries, to come to St Peter’s Square for Pentecost in 2017 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the movement. The Catholic charismatic movement traces its origins to a retreat held in 1967 with students and staff from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.  (via

Around the same time as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, another movement was “born” in Catholic Theology.  In 1967, Gustavo Gutierrez traveled to Canada and Peru, lecturing on the challenge of poverty in the Global South and how it concerned the nature of the Church.  These lectures would form the outline of his groundbreaking book, A Theology of Liberation, originally published in 1971.  “Liberation Theology,” in short, is a movement spun from decades of academic theological discussions and centuries of the objectification and subjection of persons in the Global South in the name of Christianity.  A few snippets from Gutierrez’ book are due here:

We take it for granted that Jesus was not interested in political life: his mission was purely religious. Indeed we have witnessed . . . the ‘iconization’ of the life of Jesus: ‘This is a Jesus of hieratic, stereotyped gestures, all representing theological themes. In this way, the life of Jesus is no longer a human life, submerged in history, but a theological life — an icon.” 

The God of Exodus is the God of history and of political liberation more than he is the God of nature. 

If there is no friendship with them [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals. (via A Theology of Liberation)

In considering the two movements, it is sometimes said that their intersection has been ironic: “the Catholic Church turned toward the poor,” the saying goes, “and the poor turned Pentecostal.”

In other words, as theologians and pastors of the Catholic Church turned towards the combination of ecclesial and political action on behalf of the poor in countries around the world, the poor themselves turned to a renewal movement that looked toward a vibrant prayer life and a palpable resurrection of the Holy Spirit.  Healings, prophesying, speaking in tongues, miracles–these were no longer events of the past, but possibilities in the present.  Ministers did not need degrees from higher education–they needed the Holy Spirit.

As Grant McClung recently wrote: “with more than 580 million adherents (growing by 19 million per year and 54,000 per day), the Pentecostal/charismatic movement has become, in just 100 years, the fastest growing and most globally diverse expression of worldwide Christianity. At the current rate of growth, some researchers predict there will be 1 billion Pentecostals by 2025, most located in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”  (via Christianity Today)

Top 10 Countries by Charismatic Population (c) World Christian Database
Top 10 Countries by Charismatic Population (c) World Christian Database

The above graph is pulled from the World Christian Database, and denotes the ten countries with the highest populations of Charismatics (including Pentecostals, Catholic Charismatics, and Neo- or Third-Wave-Charismatics).  Outside of the US, China, and India, the remaining seven countries hail from the Global South: Nigeria, Brazil, South Africa, Philippines, Congo DR, Colombia, Mexico.

Now, if we expand the graph, and look at all countries by the percentage of Charismatics to Christians, we see the proportion of Majority-World countries rise even higher:

Graph - Charismatics Large

The data for this chart is at the bottom of the post.  Note the United States, in 31st place.  African and Latin American countries make up the vast majority of the list.  European countries are nonexistent in the top 40: the UK came in 84th, at 12% Charismatic, just under Canada, at 13%.

But what does all this mean?  

The answer to this question could fill volumes, but, for now, I find three points of intersection or juxtaposition quite compelling.

First, difference in scholarship: Liberation Theology has transformed theological scholarship, whereas Pentecostal Theology has not.  One would be hard-pressed find an academic department of theology without someone decently versed in the liberation movement.  One would be hard-pressed to find a Christian theologian–especially a Catholic theologian–well-versed in Pentecostal and Charismatic theology.  Plenty of people are “familiar” with the movement, but few stand as experts, and even fewer write books illuminating the new ways in which Pentecostal movement can grow.  This reflects the dynamics of the two systems: Liberation Theology is a philosophical-theological-political movement largely begun and continued by theologians and pastors; Pentecostal theology is a ground-swell movement that, in its very nature, relies more on the movement of the Spirit than by the teachings of academics concerning the movements of the Spirit.

Second, difference in world positions: Liberation Theology has done much to turn the Church towards the poor, and has inspired millions of Christians to devote their lives in service of those who are being beaten by the systems of power in which we take part.  Pentecostal Theology, in turn, has inspired nearly a billion people to renew their Christian faith and develop a hope in the practical work of God in their daily lives.  Many of these people are poor, and many of them have little hope in transformative political change–thus, for them, Liberation Theology packs wonderful words, but is nothing more than the eschatological hope of Christianity.  Liberation theology stands as an incisive call to the privileged of the world that the systems in which we participate are destroying the body of Christ.  Pentecostal theology stands as a source of inspiration to the oppressed of the world that God can work miracles despite political injustices, despite inhumanity, despite terrible death.  The Holy Spirit is alive, active, and for all people.  Quite literally, in the eyes of the movement of the Spirit, all are equal.

Third, a juxtaposition of possibility:  While Liberation Theology has taken longer to be accepted by the hierarchy of the Vatican, the Charismatic movement has enjoyed a tepid yet growing acceptance in ecclesial circles.  I find it intriguing to think of the possibilities of the World Church in 25 years, when the pentecostal movement of the Global Church reaches a point where one cannot separate the Spirit of Fire from the Spirit for the Poor.  While academics and pastors–like Francis–will continue to argue for the poor, the Spirit seems to continue moving in the poor towards a renewal of Christianity throughout the world.  When shall the two meet, and what might happen when they do?

Whether we like Liberation theology, the Charismatic movement, or neither, both movements are here to stay.  The only question remains as to how we will approach them, and how their interpretations of the movement of the Spirit will affect our own relationship with God.

To close, here is Pope Francis, being prayed over by 50,000 Italian Charismatic Catholics.



Data for above graph:

# Country Christians Renewalists % of Christians who are Charismatic
1 Nepal 1,057,187 933,000 88%
2 Mauritius 415,830 320,000 77%
3 Botswana 1,440,279 1,078,000 75%
4 Cambodia 435,731 288,000 66%
5 Nigeria 84,612,183 54,911,000 65%
6 Brazil 184,840,119 110,000,000 60%
7 South Korea 16,387,433 9,500,000 58%
8 Ghana 17,352,722 9,880,000 57%
9 South Africa 43,870,987 24,800,000 57%
10 Swaziland 1,135,474 640,000 56%
11 Zimbabwe 12,285,947 6,750,000 55%
12 Guatemala 15,826,758 8,200,000 52%
13 China 125,302,308 60,900,000 49%
14 Burkina Faso 4,179,785 1,920,000 46%
15 Chile 15,814,461 7,000,000 44%
16 Singapore 1,085,617 450,000 41%
17 Benin 4,833,018 1,920,000 40%
18 Kenya 38,300,446 14,700,000 38%
19 Philippines 92,503,642 35,000,000 38%
20 Bangladesh 796,988 300,000 38%
21 Liberia 1,868,634 700,000 37%
22 Congo DR 67,666,735 24,000,000 35%
23 India 62,355,280 22,000,000 35%
24 Indonesia 31,095,534 10,900,000 35%
25 Mozambique 14,364,815 4,900,000 34%
26 Colombia 47,237,607 14,900,000 32%
27 Puerto Rico 3,525,295 1,096,000 31%
28 Cote d’Ivoire 7,385,996 2,150,000 29%
29 El Salvador 6,190,085 1,800,000 29%
30 Zambia 13,265,060 3,850,000 29%
31 United States 256,295,282 72,641,000 28%
32 Central African Republic 3,506,605 975,000 28%
33 Jamaica 2,378,619 660,000 28%
34 Sierra Leone 837,862 230,000 27%
35 Malawi 13,806,013 3,700,000 27%
36 Myanmar 4,237,425 1,130,000 27%
37 Hong Kong 992,232 261,000 26%
38 Malaysia 2,727,975 700,000 26%
39 Uganda 33,894,133 8,550,000 25%
40 Taiwan 1,434,908 355,000 25%


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