Pastoral Letter of

Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil

Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church

on Catholic Charismatic Renewal


Dear Brethren,

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

The Catholic Charismatic Movement has presented to the Church a path of fervent Christian life. It serves the Church as a wellspring of so many virtues - a new zest for the Word of God, a new yearning for prayer and a new fascination for fellowship in prayer, etc. It is to instruct the concerned authorities to take corrective measures against the distortions that have crept into the Charismatic movement that I am writing this pastoral letter to the entire Syro-Malabar Church in accordance with the decision of the Syro-Malabar Bishops' Synod. I am simultaneously requesting all to take forward this movement with added zeal.

Jesus has promised: "…Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Mt. 18:20). Accordingly whoever gather together in the name of God have the gifts of the Spirit of God. In this sense, all fellowships and meetings of the Church are charismatic gatherings. The charismatics need not remain as a separate section in the Church. They must be like the leaven put into the three measures of dough, thus sanctifying the Church community as a whole.

All the priests, religious and the lay leaders have to become co-workers in the charismatic activities, to enliven the spiritual life of the Church, drawing their inspiration from the gift and charisms of the Spirit of God. The prayer meetings, retreats, Bible study programmes, etc., in the parishes need not be confined to particular groups. The parish priests should involve themselves actively in them, giving the necessary guidance. Charismatic endeavours are to grow with the parish as its centre. On the contrary, it is unhealthy, if it follows a separate path apart from the parish fellowship. It is up to the diocesan authorities to give practical guidelines in this regard.

The abundant springtime created by the charismatic renewal movement in the Church has to be identified as the springtime of the Church herself. It is false and highly prejudicial to regard this work of the Holy Spirit as the skilful achievement of a few and to present the Church hierarchy and its structures as being in a lethargic state.

It is relevant to remember in this context that some renewal ventures which began in the 12th century in the western Church, took direct and indirect antagonistic approaches towards the Church. It was in this period that the Sacred Scriptures were made available in printed form, first in Latin and gradually in local languages. The faithful began to read the Bible. Seemingly as an aftermath, certain reformation movements began to spring up. Historians point out a common factor in all these endeavours. While they highlighted the Gospel message, they were almost silent about the Church itself. It was this attitude which, by the 16th century expressed itself as the Protestant Revolution under the leadership of people like Martin Luther. We must be alert to see that inclinations and approaches supporting similar trends are not to influence the charismatic renewal movement.

The slogan of the Protestant Revolution, was 'Sola Scriptura' (only Bible). The fact that Churches founded on this slogan witnessed frequent splits and disunity, negates the very validity of this slogan. The Bible evolved in the Church and the Church is its custodian. At the same time the Bible is the foundation of the ecclesial life. If one deviates from the tradition of inseparableness of the Bible and the Church, it will be a deflection from the Bible too. Church is the custodian of the Holy Tradition of the divine revelation expressed in Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul II wrote: The "supreme rule of her faith" derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others" (Encyclical, Fides et Ratio, n. 55). The Sacred Scripture which is the written form of the Sacred Tradition should be interpreted in the background of the teaching authority of the Church's Magisterium.

Every believer has the right and liberty to comprehend and interpret the Holy Scripture according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. However, if those personal interpretations are not to become "destructive opinions" (2 Peter 2:1), they should be subject to the discerning authority of the Church.

St. Jerome, known as the "Father of Scriptural Studies" wrote: "Satan himself has quoted the Scripture. Under the pretext of the letters of the Scripture, one can read any strange principle into the Bible" (Adv. Luciferianos, 28 (PL 23, 182 A). The ardour which today we show towards the Scripture is encouraging, admirable and salvific. But the Bible interpretation should lead to spiritual growth in the Church and not be a cause of disruption and scandals. The position that mere faith in Christ and the Bible is sufficient is dangerous. The relation between Christ and the Church is that of the head and the body. Faith in Christ cannot be separated from faith in the Church. And those who try to disjoint this will become not only without Church but also without Christ. The Church was founded on the foundation of the apostles with Peter at its head: "Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt. 16:18-19). The question, which is the Church where this Word is fulfilled, is not irrelevant. It is the authentic teaching of the Church that the Church Christ established subsists in the Holy Catholic Church.

We are called to live the faith in Christ in its fullness in the Church. If we selectively choose from the Bible and from the doctrines only that which are to our liking, we are not loyal to the faith in Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: "Submission to faith involves a submission to all the dogmas of faith" (ST, II-III, 5.3 ad 2). The sacramental life centred on the Eucharist and the exemplary life of the divine Mother who followed Christ unto the foot of the Cross are not insignificant in the practice of these dogmas of faith. Those who come forward to preach the Word must have necessary training in Christian life and in the teachings of the Church.

Submission to Christian faith is not a rejection of reason. The slogan of 'Sola Scriptura' is related to the motto of 'Sola Fide' (only faith). It can be interpreted as lack of faith in the capacity of reason to seek the truth. St. Augustine's statement, "I believe in order to understand" (Credo ut intelligam, Sermo 43.7.9), and St. Anselm's words, "Faith seeks understanding" (Fides quaerens intellectum, Prosologion, 1), are well known. In order to confront the increased mistrust of the modern world in the capacity of reason to seek truth, Pope John Paul II states in his Encyclical "Fides et Ratio": "Deprived of reason, faith runs the risk of no longer being a universal proposition, with too much importance given to sentimentalism and feeling. It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith, then runs the grave risk of turning into myth or superstition" (Fides et Ratio, no. 48). Through the original sin, "the path of human reason towards the fullness of truth has become full of obstacles" (Ibid. no. 22). Still, human reason can discover the truth, the Pope instructs clearly. "Since the gateway to truth is the corridor to God, it cannot be denied to anybody" (Ibid. no. 38), the Pope writes.

"Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and varied ways by the prophets" (Heb: 1:10). Christ is the fulfillment of revelation of God through history. In that sense, we can find seeds and rays of seeking after truth and finding it in the teachings of religions, cultures and philosophies. In its teachings about other religions, the Second Vatican Council speaks also about the rays of truth which enlighten all people" (Nostra Aetate, no. 2). But the criterion to discern the true light, is the revelation we have received in Jesus Christ, the only saviour.

The miraculous occurrences, visions, healings, etc., which take place in charismatic retreats and prayer services should be discerned with the Magisterium of the Church in its totality. Similarly, while referring to other religions, there should not be any irreverent or intolerant statements or acts, contrary to the teachings of the Church in this regard.

The Holy Spirit gives gifts of healing, partaking of the power of the Risen Christ. But the Church does not teach that even the most ardent prayer will heal all sicknesses (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1508). Attention of all are drawn also to the recent clarifications and directives issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. It has elaborated that such notions that gift of healing is given only to certain privileged groups or persons are incorrect (Instructions on Prayers for Healing, Sept. 14, 2000, no. 6). Medical science, psychology and other related fields are useful means in alleviating the sicknesses and human sufferings. Healthy relation between faith and reason should be maintained. The tendency to regard all sufferings and adversities as evil and to give stress more to the devil's influence than to divine providence should be avoided. And the thinking that anybody can, at any time and anywhere exorcise, is incorrect. Exorcism can be performed only by a priest with special permission of the bishop of the area. Care should be taken to see that the Church's instructions are complied with by all and that they are adhered to in retreat centres too (Ibid. art. 8).

The mystery of human misery is not always comprehensible to the human reason. We have to seek the meaning of suffering and sorrow in the crucified Christ. People should be vigilant and not be carried away by the talks about the worldly paradise given by the so-called 'star-evangelizers'.

We must have an open minded approach to the sciences. At the same time, we should be ready to discern the scientific findings and approaches through the Christian outlook on man. There may be psychological approaches which attribute all the personality problems of an individual to the mother's womb. Prayer groups and retreat preachers have to be careful not to entertain such conclusions blindly, not to make these ideas spiritual truths and not to give the impression of putting all the blame on the parents. The three levels at which a man acts are feeling, reason and mind. When he is ruled by his feelings, he becomes a mere worldly creature. In this age of domination of sentimentalism, spiritual life too should not be oriented towards sentimentalism. The Eucharist and other liturgical services should be celebrated in such ways that they touch the participants. Charismatic movement may have roots and influences other than that of the Catholic Church. We can welcome virtues from anywhere. But if there is failure to incorporate charismatic initiatives into the sacramental and magisterial traditions of the Catholic Church, it will lead to crises in ecclesial life.

In the path of spiritual life, extraordinary phenomena can happen. But they have to be discerned with the guidelines given by the saintly souls and mystics in the history of the Church. Talking about locutions and visions, St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church reminds us: "We are not angels, we have a body" (Collected works of St Teresa of Avila, vol. I, Bangalore, AVP Publications, 1982, p. 148). She warns that there are chances of hallucinations and works of imaginations mistaken as divine revelations. She teaches, "even if it is seen that the heavens are opened, it will not change to the least what the Church teaches" (Ibid. art. 8). "If a revelation is from God, the proof for it is that it will be in conformity to the Scriptures" (Ibid.). God's revelation is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The faithful will have discretion in accepting private revelations even when they conform to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. When gifts and extraordinary experiences, which are meant for spiritual upliftment, are used without any discernment and apparently for worldly aims, it is not a witness to humility which is to be the basis of spirituality.

Christian spirituality is simple enough that it can be practiced by the most ordinary person as well as by the genius. "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also should love one another" (John 13:34). This spirituality of love is to be lived precisely at the centre of daily obligations. Spirituality is not a withdrawal from responsibilities, but filling them with justice and love. St. John of the Cross terms it as the "ascent of the ladder of love" (St John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, Ch. XIX, XXIV, Complete Works of St John of the Cross, Vol. I, Hertforshire: Authority Clarke, 1953, pp. 435-455). Ascending the ladder of love to reach the God of eternal peace is also a 'battle of the dark night', a spiritual battle against our feelings, passions and snobbishness. The way I come out of myself and reach God trough my brother, is the way of the cross.

Also, this is an opportunity to commend the services of the charismatic movement which inspires very much the pilgrim Church in its spiritual life. This movement has helped many a youth and layman to conversion from the evils of corruption, immorality as well as materialism. They are led to live a committed, Gospel-oriented life fulfilling their responsibilities with Christian witness. It has led to opening new pathways for the Gospel to reach beyond the confines of the Church. It has inspired the people of God to equip themselves fully to meet the moral and religious challenges in leading a Christian life. Also it has resulted in a new ardour in sacramental value-oriented life in the parishes. And the role it has played in the renewal of priests and the religious cannot be understated.

The drawbacks already pointed out may be related to some isolated cases. However, for this renewal movement to be free from all apprehensions and prejudices and to be more instrumental for this spiritual advancement of the Church and the Church members, all are invited to come together and to co-operate wholeheartedly.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Given at the Major Archiepiscopal Curia of the Syro-Malabar Church at Mount St Thomas on 12th December 2001.

Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil, C.Ss.R.
Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church