“Charismatic vs. Institutional” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, September 26, 2021

What are we to make of this argument between Joshua and Moses in our first reading?

For that matter, what are we to make of this disagreement between John and Jesus in our gospel? In fact, behind such seemingly insignificant incidents, there are serious issues at stake, that have continued to concern the Church from its beginning until now.

There is, and always has been, in the history of the Church, a strong tension between the charismatic and the institutional. Both represent different ways of looking at Church life, how the Church is to be ordered, and how it is to carry out its mission on earth. Those of a charismatic persuasion believe that the Holy Spirit should be given free rein in his Church, to blow where he wills, and do what he wants, with a minimum of interference from the Church hierarchy. Those who are institutionally –minded believe that there must be rules, parameters, a definite structure and format for all Church ministries. In politics, I am told, that the fundamental difference between a Liberal and a Conservative ideology, or in the United States, between a Democratic and a Republican ideology, is that one wants to see government very much hands-on in the business of running the country, whereas the other, believes big government should back off and stop regulating people’s lives so much. That may well be an over-simplification on my part, but it hopefully illustrates a similar tension between institutional and charismatic ways of thinking in the Church.

Before the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, there really wasn’t such a visible tension between the two as there is nowadays. That is because the institutional viewpoint pretty much dominated everything. There was a well-understood hierarchy of the Church – of bishops, priests, and deacons, called the clergy – and the rest, called the laity. The role of the hierarchy was to run the Church, according to definite structures, regulations and formats. The role of the laity was simple – to “pay, pray and obey”. There was one way of celebrating Mass, one language for all Church activities, namely, Latin, and only one person in charge of running a parish, namely the parish priest. 

Then came along the Second Vatican Council, bringing together bishops from around the world, at the invitation of Pope john XXIII, who much to the dismay of the central Curia housed at the Vatican, had very revolutionary ideas which did not go down at all well with the Curia, since they thought they ran the Church, and the Pope was just their figurehead. To get round them, and to reach out to more charismatic-minded bishops and theologians, Pope John convened the Council, just as a few years before, he had created Vatican Radio, in order to reach out to ordinary Catholics and stop the Curia officials from censoring his communications. 

At the Council, the more modern-thinking bishops firmly took the agenda away from the traditionalists’ attempt to forestall any changes in the way things would get done henceforth in the Church. It was during the Council debates that the tension between the institutional and the charismatic emerged in full force. For the traditionalists, the Second Vatican Council was a huge mistake and aberration that should not have happened and they have been attempting to grab back the reins of power ever since. For the charismatic-minded, the Council had done what Pope John had hoped for: in his words “to open up the windows and allow a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit to blow through”. He prayed, in fact, at the beginning of the Council for a “new Pentecost“. The debate still rages on in theological and ecclesiastical circles as to whether what emerged was truly the work of God or of the devil.

In our first reading, Joshua represents the institutional element. He sees an outbreak of inappropriate manifestations, happening at a time and a place that it shouldn’t, and he wants Moses to shut it down. But Moses, the representative of the charismatic view, refuses. Let the Spirit blow where he will, he seems to be saying to his young aide, Joshua, don’t try to stop him or hinder him. In our gospel, it is John who speaks up for the institutional – minded, taking it upon himself to decide who is, and who isn’t allowed into the insiders’ camp. It is the more charismatically minded Jesus, who tells John, in so many words, not to be such a fusspot, and to stop being so exclusive and protective. 

What is fascinating is that Joshua and John are the younger ones, Moses and Jesus are older, and yet the former seem to be more narrow-minded than their elders. You would normally suppose that it is the younger people who are more inclined to rebel against orthodoxy and tradition and be all for flouting the rules and doing things in a whole new way. Yet I have seen the opposite happening in Church life on many an occasion. In the seminary, we had students in their early twenties, caught up in the traditionalist mindset, fascinated by the Latin and the incense and the old fiddle-back vestments, yearning for a supposedly “golden” era that, in fact, they never lived through. It was the older seminarians who, by and large, were happy that the Holy Spirit had been “let off the leash” and threw themselves into the new theology and the new liturgy and the new biblical study. 

Various experiments took place in the years after the Council, some disastrous, such as the use of rice and grape-juice for Mass, instead of bread and wine, some daring, such as opening up the running of parishes to involve lay people in various ministries, that had hitherto been the prerogative of the priest alone. In 1985, Pope John Paul II, on the twentieth anniversary of the Council, called the bishops back again for a review of developments since those heady days of the Council debates. While affirming that the Second Vatican Council was definitely motivated by the Holy Spirit, time was called on some of the more controversial innovations.  What was a strong take-away from the review was that the defining model for the Catholic Church going forward was no longer “institution” but communion, community. The Catholic Church is a community, not an institution. That is, it does have an institution, but its presiding spirit is community.

Since then, that idea has taken hold more and more. In the community, each person has their gifts and their role. No one person dominates, but each person works to fulfil their own ministry in relationship to others. There is a strong emphasis on team work. But ultimately, the buck stops with the parish priest. St Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, describes the ideal life and growth of a Church community: ”The gifts Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip all the faithful for the work of ministry , for building up the body of Christ, until each of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery…but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians 4: 11 – 16).

It might be worthwhile at this point for each of us to pause and ask ourselves which viewpoint has my sympathy and support. Am I of an “institutional” mindset?  I like a certain order in the way things are done, I am happy working with a prepared agenda, I have a deep respect for authority, traditions and rules. Or am I more “charismatic”?  I like being spontaneous, taking risks, tearing up agendas and taking the “path less travelled”.  Other questions could be asked. What do I think of the way the Church is going right now? How do I feel about Pope Francis’ words and actions since he took office? Do I yearn for a time in the past, when roles and beliefs were clearly defined and understood and followed by everyone? Or do I feel that the Church needs to update its teachings and its way of doing things, so as to fit in more with contemporary culture? Am I happy with chaos, confusion, free debate – or do these things appall and unsettle me?

St Paul began life very much as a traditionalist, an institutionalist, as he called himself “a circumcised member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a Pharisee of Pharisees… as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3: 5-6). But, ever since his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he now regards all of that as so much garbage, and for him the only important thing is to “know Christ Jesus my Lord “and to make him known to others. From institutionalist to charismatic, in one fell swoop, it would seem. Not so, Paul still has respect for the institution, but now it is for the Christian Church, and not for Judaism, and now he realizes that these two elements, charismatic and institution, belong together and support each other. So, he writes in his first letter to the Thessalonians: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

It is the responsibility of each member of this parish to consider how to make this tension between the charismatic and the institutional work for the betterment of the community. Each of us have to ask ourselves: what gifts do I bring to this community, and how do I use these gifts in tandem with other members of the parish, including the clergy, to advance the vision that God has for our community? To resort to the belief that we have no gifts of any worth is to be deceived- Scripture and Church teaching both assert that each member of the community has received gifts in their baptism and confirmation from the Holy Spirit, and this places a divine mandate on our life to do all we can to further God’s purposes for our parish, using those gifts. We can no longer hold to a vision of our role as laity to simply “pay, pray and obey”.  Read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about the role of the laity and be awoken to a whole new vision for how the Catholic Church must proceed in the years ahead. Let us say with Moses in our first reading:” would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”