ITHOUT the spiritual leadership that few can find, many, particularly of the older generation seek comfort and satisfaction in the devotions that they learnt "at their mother's knee". Others, including the above, find great comfort, inspiration and strength from visiting places where apparitions are said to have taken place and supernatural signs have been seen. Still others, that again may well include the above, joined prayer groups, in particular Charismatic prayer groups, that seem to have grown from strength to strength since the Sixties, when they first made such an impact within the Catholic Church.
Now there's nothing wrong with traditional methods of piety; I was brought up on them myself and still regularly return to them. However, it has to be admitted that they are not as readily acceptable to the young of this generation as they were to the young of mine. It's not for me to pronounce on the latest apparitions when the Church has not endorsed them, but one has to say that the most recent events that have happened at Medjugorje for instance, seem to have done nothing but good. The simple message that is received seems to be nothing other than the same timeless message of the Gospel. As a Vincentian priest once said to me, how else could God reach out to ordinary faithful amid such contemporary confusion to re-state the same message that he preached? Nor should we be surprised that signs are used as Jesus used them himself to help guarantee the origin and authenticity of a message that might not be received without them.
Charismatic prayer is nothing other than the prayer of serious-minded believers coming together to pass through, as a group, the first fervour that was traditionally experienced behind the closed doors of a personal prayer life. I know that many find the enthusiasm of some Charismatics embarrassing and the spiritual arrogance of others a little disconcerting, but they are after all only beginners passing through their first fervour.
The theology that is at the heart of the Charismatic movement is in general both orthodox and authentic, confirming that it is indeed the Holy Spirit who is at work leading beginners onward towards a deeper prayer life. However, if the Charismatic renewal is going to have the impact that I believe it could have to bring about spiritual reform in the Church, it needs the leadership of those who are capable of guiding beginners when they are called to contemplative prayer. All the great spiritual masters have shown through their writings how the faults of spiritual adolescents gradually disappear as they are led onwards through purification and into the contemplative way. Read the first few chapters of The Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross, as a case in point. The sad fact is that when those in the Charismatic movement are called to move on into contemplative prayer, where the saints whose wisdom and guidance we all need are made, there is no one to help them. They need someone to explain to them that the fervour that has suddenly left them and the dryness and aridity they experience is actually confirmation to an experienced director that they are at the beginning of the mystic way. Those in their own camp to whom they have looked for guidance before will not be able to help them and can in their ignorance do them irreparable harm for they are only beginners themselves, though they usually think otherwise. Then the very people who should be helping them, who do not belong to the Charismatic movement, stay well away. They have never developed a serious prayer life themselves that would enable them to understand what is happening and give the help and support that is needed. They tend to remain aloof, therefore, looking down on those who they sometimes call `charismaniacs', with their pseudo-Greek rationalism, as unable to help them as they are unable to help themselves.
Since the Sixties hundreds of thousands of sincere people who initially found help through the Charismatic movement have not only left it when their first fervour fizzled out, but have given up the prayer that once meant so much to them. Not infrequently they even leave the Church or at least the practice of the faith that they feel has somehow let them down.
Whilst glorying in their ever increasing numbers Charismatic leaders seem blind to the vast numbers of those who have left the move ment and continue to leave, so, unlike any caring parent, they never seriously ask what is going wrong. Whilst new members join their ranks old members leave as their adolescence comes to an end but without the guidance into the spiritual maturity to which they are being called. Until this guidance is given the movement will go round and round in circles, endlessly helping people to become spiritual adolescents whilst endlessly failing to lead them on and into spiritual maturity and so failing the church that they are so eager to serve. As St Teresa of Avila used to pray: "0 God give us good spiritual directors!" But "as God helps them that helps themselves" perhaps our seminaries and houses of religious formation can do more than they've done in the past to remedy the situation. Above all else it is their responsibility to train the younger generation of priests and religious in the theory and practice of the prayer that we need to learn from them.