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... From the Goodnews archives, November/December 2007


Baptism in the Spirit

a Catholic approach


Fr Peter Hocken, a historian of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the Pentecostal movement over the last century, reflects on the phenomenon of Baptism in the Holy Spirit and looks at what he sees as the limitations of seeking to relate it simply to the sacraments of initiation. (part two)


Fr PeterIn the first part of this article, I outlined the biblical grounds for seeing Baptism in the Holy Spirit (BHS) in an eschatological kingdom-oriented way. In doing so, I was indicating a dissatisfaction with widespread Catholic explanations of BHS that simply sought to relate it to the sacraments of initiation. In this second article, I want to say why I think such an approach is inadequate, and to suggest some ways to deeper understanding both of BHS and of baptism.

How should we as Catholics approach a phenomenon like the Renewal with BHS at its heart? As I see it, there is a twofold interaction between the charismatic work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the passing on of the tradition that comes from the apostles. Such an approach is fully in line with the teaching of Pope John Paul II in his Pentecost address in 1998, when he spoke of the charismatic and the institutional dimensions of the Church. This approach makes a big difference to the way we approach the question of BHS and the sacrament of baptism.

A challenge to our conceptions of Christian life and initiation

With this twofold interaction, there is a renewal of what is being handed down through the generations. In this sense, it is true that BHS brings to life what is signified in baptism. But there is also an element of something that the Holy Spirit is bringing into the life of the Church at this time, so that we are not just living our received faith more deeply but that we are also living more of New Testament faith. From this angle, BHS presents a challenge to our conceptions of Christian life and initiation. But there is always a tension between the two, the new and the traditional, in which it is a mistake to deny that there is something new but also a mistake to oppose the new to the tradition, into which the new has to be received.

Over the last forty years, the Renewal has been welcomed into the Catholic Church with remarkable rapidity, especially by the Popes since Paul VI. But the task of reflecting on what this grace means for Catholic teaching and practice needs to go much further, and this issue of BHS demonstrates this challenge with particular clarity. This reflection needs to pay attention to what happens in BHS (after all, it is primarily an event); to the role of the charisms and to the relationship between outward signs and inner reality.

Charismatic Renewal has to be understood in context of wider renewal of Church

For Catholics the Charismatic Renewal has to be understood in the context of the wider renewal of the Church that has gathered momentum in the last century, especially with Vatican Two. The liturgy has been central to this renewal, and so this renewed theology of the sacraments has been finding its way at varying speeds into the pastoral practice of the Church. So when we look at this issue of BHS and baptism, there is a challenge from the renewed teaching of the Church to our baptismal practice and understanding. However, the grace of the Holy Spirit in the Renewal also challenges the Church to continue on this path of renewal. The spiritual reality of BHS is supported by this renewed theology and then challenges it to go further, particularly in the area of charisms.

At the heart of the renewal of the liturgy is a fresh awareness of the importance of two related elements: the Word of God and the sacramental signs. First, “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word” (CCC, 1213), an implicit reference to 1 Peter 1: 23. The Word gives birth to faith, and faith is expressed and nourished in the sacramental signs. The sacramental signs are spiritually efficacious precisely as signs, that is to say it matters how the signs are celebrated. Baptism is the foundation sacrament of re-birth, and so here the full sacramental sign – which is immersion, the meaning of the term – signifies the whole purpose of God. It symbolizes death and resurrection, the whole process of salvation that will reach its completion on the last day in the resurrection of the body: “the whole organism of the Christian’s supernatural life has its roots in baptism” (CCC, 1266). So from this perspective we can say that baptism symbolizes the whole life of the Church from Pentecost to Parousia: in baptism the Lord makes an objective foundation on which all else will be built. Baptism symbolizes the whole work of God, and advances us further on the path to full realization. The more we understand that the sacrament of baptism already signifies the coming kingdom, the easier it is to understand the eschatological reference of BHS.

Something new happens in Baptism in the Holy Spirit

The view that BHS is the release of a grace already received in sacramental initiation fails to grasp that there is something “new” here. Maybe the biggest problem with the “release” theory of BHS is that it assumes that we already have a good understanding of baptism, what it means, and what the “grace” of baptism is. In other words, we could understand BHS fully by a fuller understanding of the sacrament. I don’t think this is true. BHS opens up something, and is the door to what Paul calls the “spiritual charisms”. The charisms are bound up with what is “new”. It does not make sense to me to say that we received all the charisms or any charisms at baptism when there was no evidence of that. What we received at baptism was a capacity to receive charisms of the Spirit.

Common experience of those baptised in the Holy Spirit

In particular, the “release” theory does not pay enough attention to why such a “release” is happening now. Often missing in such discussions is the relationship between what is taught and what is experienced. A sound theology of BHS will include a reflection on how we as Catholics have been led into this blessing. While each person’s witness is distinctive, it is clear that there are many common features in our testimonies. Many are drawn to the Renewal by what they see in those already visibly living the life of the Spirit. A key role may be played by testimonies, and then by teaching, maybe through Life in the Spirit seminars or an Alpha course. People want what they see that others already enjoy and what they hear about in teaching about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. So the typical pattern is that there is first a message (“in the beginning was the Word”) and then comes the new experience.


One of the major reasons why many church-goers have never had any conscious experience of the Holy Spirit (and thus of the Lordship of Jesus) is that they have never heard this clearly preached. These elements are there in the tradition of the Church, but they have become obscured and lost in the middle of the theological and devotional forest. So in the renewal key elements are lifted up from the tradition, they receive a new clarity, and as they are proclaimed new life comes to the Church. In other words, this grace of BHS is happening now, not just because baptized Christians are being prayed over, but first because a message is being proclaimed that they had not heard before.

[The “release” theory can easily give the impression of a quantified view of “grace” in which the sacraments are simply understood as means of grace instituted by Jesus Christ. This easily goes with the wrong assumption that when any sacrament is conferred, the same “amount” of grace is given: i.e. at baptism, every infant baptized is given the same amount of grace. But the teaching of the Catholic Church does not teach such a quantifiable (and individualistic) view of the sacraments. The Catholic teaching is simply that when a sacrament is validly celebrated, it is an action of Jesus Christ in the Church, in which his grace is infallibly offered, and – obstacles apart – is to some degree received. The “correct” performance of a liturgical rite is not the only factor determining the extent to which the participants are blessed: also affecting the depth of blessing are the holiness and commitment of the participants, particularly of the minister; the way the rite is celebrated, including the way the Scriptures are read; the message that is preached; the sense of sharing in worship, etc.]

Renewal is not just to make the Church a bit more lively

How then can we understand BHS in relation to the sacrament of baptism? As Catholics, we have to understand all we live in the Renewal in the context of the faith of the Church. But the renewal is not just of many individuals, but of the Church, which includes a renewal of the Church’s understanding and practice. This probably requires an expansion of our idea of “renewal”. Renewal is not just making church life a bit more lively! It is opening up the Church afresh to the whole plan of God revealed in the Scriptures.

At the heart of this plan - what St Paul calls the “mystery” – is the redemption of all creation to be realized in the Kingdom of God. The Church is grounded in the first coming of Jesus and is stretched out towards his second coming and the full establishment of his reign. BHS makes a major contribution to our seeing God’s ultimate goal with greater clarity. The Catechism is very clear on the “sacramental economy” belonging to the “age of the Church” between the two comings (CCC 1076, see also paras 1107 and 1130). But there is really no application of this insight in the teaching on baptism as there is in the section on the eucharist. I suggest that a more biblical understanding of BHS that is related to Pentecost and the second coming as sketched in Part I will give us a deeper grasp of the whole mission of the Church, and lead us more deeply into the profound significance of baptism itself.


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