By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Pentecostal pastors in two parts of the global south have told NCR that they believe Catholic defections to their churches have slowed due to the growth of the charismatic movement within Catholicism.
Rev. William Okoye, founder of the All Christian Fellowship in Nigeria and chaplain to the country’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo, told NCR in early March that the “explosive growth” of Pentecostalism in his country initially came at the expense of other Christian bodies, “especially the Anglicans and the Catholics.”
“Some years ago, this was an ecumenical problem,” Okoye said in the office of his sprawling church in downtown Abuja. “Now, the other churches are more accommodating. The Catholics allow the charismatic renewal movement. The Anglicans do the same thing, so their people can remain Catholics and Anglicans, but they act like Pentecostals.”
“To a large extent, that has stemmed their losses,” Okoye said.
Okoye said that in his own congregation of several thousand, he notices substantially fewer ex-Catholics than was the case perhaps 10 or 20 years ago. Today’s growth, he said, is more likely to come in the north of Nigeria, among people who were once nominally Muslim but who today are attracted to the dynamism and family spirit of Pentecostal Christianity.
Rev. Orestes Zúniga Rivas of the Iglesia di Diós in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, one of the two largest networks of Pentecostal churches in the country, said much the same thing in a March 20 interview.
“There are fewer converts today [from the Catholic church] because the charismatic option exists within Catholicism,” Zúniga said.
“Today, it’s common for us to hold spiritual retreats where Catholic charismatics will join us, but then they return to their own church with no problem,” he said. “There are others who come to our church as well as the Catholic church, which is no problem for us, because you can find God anywhere.”
tWorldwide, Pentecostal Christianity is thought to be the fastest growing religious movement on the planet. According to the Pew Global Survey, Pentecostals went from less than six percent of the Christian population to almost one-quarter of the total over the course of the 20th century.
That growth is clearly visible in both Nigeria and Honduras. In Nigeria, Christians are roughly half the population of 140 million, with Pentecostals today representing as much as 50 percent of the Christian total. In Honduras, once an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, Pentecostals are today 35 percent of the population, and Zúniga believes they could eventually be as much as 50 percent.
Today, Zúniga says, new converts to Pentecostalism do not come from practicing Catholics, but from Hondurans who have been largely “unchurched.”
Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez of Tegucigalpa told NCR on March 20 that it would not surprise him if the Honduran population is one day evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants, with most of the latter being Pentecostal.
He would not find such a prospect “sad,” Rodriguez said.
“We are not competing with other religious denominations,” he said. “We are trying to give our people deeper roots in the faith, to help them be good Catholics.”
Rodriguez said that despite the defections, he’s convinced the Catholic Church in Honduras is “stronger and better” today in comparison with 40 years ago.
“Some of our people were never real Catholics,” he said. “They were baptized but had no real formation. Today, we’re more consolidated, our laity are more involved, and we’re growing in terms of those who are really alive in the faith. It’s not that we are losing, we are gaining,” he said.
Rodriguez pointed to rising vocations to the priesthood as one sign of growth. A generation ago, the seminary population in Honduras had dwindled to the single digits; today, there are 170 candidates in the seminary in Tegucigalpa, and the number is expected to continue rising.
Rodriguez agreed that that growth in the charismatic movement has probably slowed the flow of Catholics into the Pentecostal churches.
“Our people are very enthusiastic,” he said. “When they can sing and clap their hands and be together, it’s good for them. It gives them an answer to what they’re looking for inside the church, so they don’t have to find it somewhere else.”
Rodriguez said that the archdiocese sponsors a formation program for charismatic Catholics that helps ensure they’re anchored in the teaching of the church and the overall pastoral program of the local church.