Confessions of a Catholic Charismatic
Confessions of a Catholic Charismatic
FAITH magazine invited journalist Kristina Cooper to tell the story of her involvement with the Charismatic Renewal
I wasn’t a likely candidate to become involved with Charismatic Renewal. My father was a devout Catholic, my mother, who was Swedish, was a convert and although we went to Mass on Sundays, we never had family prayers or did anything extra. I was a very creative child, however, and something of an organiser. My sister Suzy always claims that my career peaked when I was 11 years old. At the time I had written several plays and was a theatre director, actor and producer bossing my friends around. We would rehearse these productions in our playroom. Then my father would chauffeur us in our old dormobile with our costumes to various care institutions, where the residents would then be subjected to our theatrical extravaganzas. I don’t know what they thought about them, but we had a great time.
Not surprisingly for a while I considered going onto the stage. Always the pragmatist, however, I realised I would never be a great actress and I didn’t fancy spending the rest of my life waitressing or whatever actors do when they are resting. For a brief moment when I was 15 I thought about becoming a missionary. I am not sure why. Perhaps I had heard an inspiring account by a visiting missionary speaking at Mass, but, as the rest of my family pointed out, I got hysterical whenever I saw a mosquito, so that would never do. By the time I got to university I had decided that I wanted to work in television and make documentaries. But this was a very competitive field and when my father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was 22, I realised I needed to do something to earn my bread and butter, while I waited to break into this field. Thus I ended up doing a bilingual secretarial course and working for a women’s magazine in Covent Garden as the PA to the editor. The women there were very supportive and I was encouraged to write bits and pieces for the magazine as well as my job. In the process I realised how much I liked writing, and that instead of going into TV I should maybe become a print journalist instead. This turned out to be more difficult than I thought as I didn’t have a union card, and couldn’t get one until I had a journalistic job.
Learning on the job
My salvation came when I saw an advert for a job at the Universe as a reporter. Although I was a Sunday-going Catholic, I had never even read the Universe or any Catholic paper, but I reckoned that there couldn’t be that many people who would want to work for a religious publication, so I might stand a chance. And I did. Although I had no formal training I managed to convince the editor to give me a job and I started working as a reporter. I more or less learned on the job. I was particularly interested in social issues and doing features rather than news stories. The sub-editors used to call me “Kristina By-line” and I was given what they termed all the “Third World and Lost Causes” stories to write about.
Through this I became very friendly with a Chilean photographer, Carlos Reyes, a freelancer at the paper and we would have
long discussions about the meaning of life as we went about our work. By this time I was tiring of the Universe and wanted to become a foreign correspondent. I saw myself writing heartrending stories that would make people care about the state of the world. I knew I didn’t have enough experience to do this, but thought if I went to live abroad in Latin America for a couple of years, I could do freelance articles for some of the newspapers in the UK. This would put me in a better place to become a foreign correspondent when I came back.
Thus I fixed up appointments with the foreign editors of the Telegraph and the Guardian and met Paul Foot from the Mirror and arranged to write articles for them. Carlos had persuaded me to go to Panama, in central America, as it was a safe country to live in and good vantage point for Latin America. He knew the archbishop there, Mgr McGrath, who helped me to find somewhere to live and a part-time job teaching English in a school so I could support myself.
Another motive underlying this move was a spiritual one. I had grown increasingly uneasy about my faith. I felt no affinity with the Catholics at the Sunday Mass I attended, and most of my friends were secular. I felt I really needed either to deepen my faith or drop it. My thoughts however, were directed more towards Liberation Theology and basic Christian communities than the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.
Archbishop McGrath had asked Paul and Barbara Mason, an English businessman and his American wife, to keep an eye on me and they kindly invited me round for supper and other social activities. They were great fun and when they asked me to their weekly charismatic prayer meeting, I felt it would be impolite to say “no”. Thus it was that I attended my first Charismatic prayer meeting. I wondered if people would be speaking in tongues or doing any of the strange things I had read about. Nothing like that happened. Instead it was a group of about 50 people sitting in concentric circles singing Christian-oriented, “folk” type songs and sharing bits from the Bible and personal stories. It wasn’t my cup of tea at all, particularly when one woman broke down in tears thanking the group for being there for her. It all felt very un-British and rather like what I imagined an AA meeting would be like.
But there was something there that I had not experienced before – the people had a sense that God was very close to them in their lives, and interested in what they were doing, even if it was sometimes in quite petty things.
Living in Panama was not what I expected. I had hoped to do good and make a difference to the lives of the poor. As time went on I became aware of the complexity of sin and suffering and that it is not that easy to make the world a better place. I began to wonder what on earth I was doing there, as I realised I had nothing to offer the people I met. Barbara had shared with me some her own faith journey. She explained that it was possible to experience the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit in the same
way that the first disciples did in the Acts of the Apostles, and that this was normal Christianity. I didn’t know what to think. I had never heard anything like this in my Catholic education. Nice as they were, I wondered if this charismatic prayer group was some kind of cult. I had studied “thought reform” in China as part of my politics course at university, and I knew about the power of peer pressure and the dangers of cults for a vulnerable girl alone in a foreign country.
Although the people were nice, I found the group overly religious and I didn’t feel attracted to join them. At the same time what if it was true? It would be crazy to dismiss it just because it didn’t appeal. Thus it was on the night of Pentecost 1983 I decided to have a one to one with God in the chapel and see if I could experience the Holy Spirit too.
I had been told that to receive the Holy Spirit you had to repent. I had always tried to be a very moral person, so I didn’t quite see what I needed to repent of, but I told God that I repented. Nothing happened and I began to wonder if God existed at all as I realised I believed because my father did and I trusted his judgement. The more I thought about it , the more I realised, I had created an image of God that suited by lifestyle and personality, so I wouldn’t have to change in any way. I realised that even if God didn’t exist, I would live my life much the same way. My faith was little more than cultural and a projection of my emotional and spiritual needs. I was horrified. It was the first time I had faced this truth.
I really needed to know if God existed. I told Him I was prepared to join these dreadful charismatics if he wanted me to, but I needed some kind of sign, as it wouldn’t be my natural preference.
As a sign of my submission and to make it clear how serious I was I prostrated myself on the floor of the chapel like priests do when they get ordained. As I lay there on the floor, God granted me a revelation of His awesomeness and majesty. This led me to profound repentance as I became aware that despite all my good deeds I was full of pride and I had lived my life for myself and not for the Lord of the universe who had created me.
This experience which I later found out was called “The Baptism in the Spirit” was the turning point of my life. My whole world view changed and I began to live out of this new understanding of the power of the Holy Spirit in my life. I found I wanted to read the Bible and spiritual books all the time, so I could learn more about God and his ways. I began to see God’s action in so many ways in my life and the world around me. I realised that the Gospel was the key to changing the world and to resolve all the social problems that I was always so concerned about.
People tend to just see the external things about the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. But it is really about an interior change, when you begin to live for God instead of being directed by your ego and you adopt a Biblical world view rather than a secular one. For many of us, even though we might have been baptised and brought up as Catholics, often our minds have been shaped by our secular culture and we tend to filter our Faith and the Bible through this, instead of the other way round.
Charismatic Renewal is simply putting into practice what we say we believe as Catholics, and realising that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just work through the Sacraments but in many other ways too. This is the teaching of the Church, but because it is often communicated in Church language in little-read Church documents, the majority of Catholics are not aware of it, and their faith becomes impoverished as a result.
The presence and action of God
The joy and enthusiasm associated with the Charismatic Renewal, comes because people start experiencing in a real way the presence and action of God in their lives and those of others. Evangelisation becomes no longer a burden or difficult but something you can’t help doing because you want to tell others the good news of all that God has done.
When I came back to England I was a different person, with different outlook. I no longer wanted to become a foreign correspondent but I wanted to tell everyone about Jesus, and how through giving our lives totally to him, we could become catalysts of change and instruments of God for the transformation of the world.
God obviously had a plan for my life, and within six months of returning to England I was approached out of the blue, by someone I didn’t know and asked if I would edit Goodnews magazine, the Catholic Charismatic journal while he, the editor, was away for the summer. In fact he was shortly retiring and I was asked to take over the publication. This I was to edit for the next 34 years.
Initially I was a bit worried about taking the job on, as the salary was very low and I wondered what my future would be. But when you trust God, he takes care of the practical things in life too. I have wanted for nothing over the years, and God has provided for me in so many ways. I even have my own flat (mortgage paid!). Through the Charismatic Renewal network I have met so many remarkable people, who are real disciples of Christ. This has helped me in my own faith.
One such person was Myles Dempsey, an Irish layman and mystic. A man of great faith, he received a prophetic word from God while at Ars in France, telling him to start a charismatic conference called New Dawn at the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham. At the time he had just founded a small charismatic lay community, and with this group, and with only £20 in a jam jar, in 1987 he organised the first event. Eight hundred people came that the first year. And thousands have come annually ever since. New Dawn, while being fully Catholic, centred on the Mass and the Sacraments, also introduces many people to the charisms and action of the Holy Spirit for the first time. The family conference has became a conduit of the charismatic renewal for many people, as participants have come to realise that the Charismatic Renewal is not something you join if you like that sort of thing or a church within a church but just normal Catholicism with “all the lights on” as Myles used to say.
Pope Francis, who has himself has experienced Charismatic Renewal on a personal level, has asked those involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal to spread the experience and understanding of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” throughout the Church, so that every Catholic might become aware of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that God has for them for the evangelisation of the world and the renewal and spiritual empowerment of the Church.
Do I regret not becoming a foreign correspondent or an actress or documentary film maker? Not at all, because the choice I made to follow God in the chapel all those years ago has enhanced every area of my life and given it true purpose and meaning. We all have a unique calling, which God has created us for, and I feel privileged to have been able to find mine. I have experienced the truth of Jesus’ words in the gospel of John, “I have come to bring life and life in abundance.”