06/05/2014 12:54 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Pope Francis Joins the 'Samba School' of Charismatic Catholicism


Pope Francis is a Charismatic. Though I made the case for this in another HuffPost blog almost a year ago, the Argentine pontiff's penchant for Spirit-centered Catholicism has been one of the most underreported aspects of his dynamic papacy. Francis's spirited participation in the 37th Annual Convocation of the Charismatic movements along with some 50,000 Catholics at Rome's Olympic Stadium leaves no doubt that he is the first ever Charismatic pope. Like their Pentecostal brethren who inspired the movement, Catholic Charismatics practice a pneumacentric form of Christianity centered on the transformative role of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Charismatic worship is a high-octane affair involving, upbeat music, dancing, speaking in tongues and even unsanctioned exorcisms on occasion.

While the Catholic Charismatic Renewal enjoyed papal endorsements from both of Francis's immediate predecessors, the Argentine pope became the first to attend an annual Charismatic convocation. Through both his actions and words, the Latin American pontiff wholeheartedly embraced the Renewal. Francis participated in the worship service in Charismatic style, kneeling in prayer, waving his hands in rhythm to the emotionally-charged songs of praise and in singing Charismatic hymns. Verbally, the dynamic pope called the Charismatic Renewal "a great force" for the Catholic Church, repeating the phrase that at first in Argentina he viewed them as a "samba school," a typically derogatory expression in his native country that conjures up the unrestrained exuberance of Brazilian carnival.

Even though no other lay movement has won such rapid endorsement from the Vatican in recent history, the Charismatic Renewal has been seen by many bishops across the globe as a potential threat to episcopal authority. Pope Francis echoed such concern in telling the crowd, "No one can say 'I'm the boss'. You, like the whole Church, you have only one head: the Lord Jesus! Repeat after me: Who is the head of the Renewal? The Lord Jesus!" And reflecting the long-standing Catholic liberationist view of the Charismatics in Latin America as middle class reactionaries, the pope urged them to focus their evangelization efforts on the poor.

So why the enthusiastic endorsement of a movement that for most of his tenure in Argentina he viewed as a noisy "samba school?" First and foremost, if Francis is the first Latin American pope, it's largely due to spectacular Catholic decline in the face of the meteoric growth of Pentecostalism. Uruguay and several Central American countries no longer are Catholic-majority nations in a region that was 99 percent Catholic until the 1950s. If current trends continue even Brazil, home to the largest Catholic population on earth, will no longer have a Catholic majority within a decade or so. Fellow cardinals obviously thought a Latin American pontiff might be able to reverse the dramatic decline in a region that is home to 42 percent of the world's Catholics.

Second, the Charismatic Renewal is by far the largest Catholic lay movement in the world and possesses unrivaled organizational skills and enthusiasm. For example, it was Brazilian Charismatics who almost singlehandedly planned, organized and managed the pope's visit to Rio for World Youth Day. Francis can only carry out his ambitious New Evangelization program with the leadership capacity, zeal and sheer numbers of the Charismatic Renewal. Indeed in Latin America the only significant Catholic evangelization efforts in recent history have been almost exclusively organized by Charismatics.

Third, ecumenism has been high on Francis's agenda, and he, somewhat curiously, views the Charismatic Renewal as a force for Christian unity. I say curiously because while Latin American Charismatics were ecumenically-minded during the first years of the movement in the early 1970s, they quickly morphed into the polar opposite, Catholic shock troops in the battle for Latin American souls against the "rapacious wolves" of Pentecostalism. Most of the anti-Pentecostal invective since the 1980s has been hurled by Charismatic theologians. Nevertheless, Francis perceives their pneumacentric Catholicism as a bridge to unity with Pentecostals and other Evangelicals and possibly even with the Orthodox churches with whom he recently took steps toward forging closer ties.

In short, after his spirited participation in their annual conference, Pope Francis is now a full-fledged member of the samba school of Charismatic Catholicism.