Catholic Reflections on Revival
Thoughts on the Asbury Revival of 2023
At Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, just a couple of hours up the road from me, a religious revival is underway. Asbury is a small, Methodist liberal arts college. On February 8 after a chapel service, students began to gather in large numbers to pray, sing, repent of their sins, and give praise to God. The worship has continued non-stop as of this writing. Hundreds of others have come from miles away to witness this event and join in the revival.
Asbury College, which includes a seminary, is known for another revival which took place in 1970. Lasting seven days, the 1970 Asbury Revival spilled over into churches and colleges around the region and became a key chapter in a nationwide surge of youth interest in Christianity, highlighted in part by the new feature film “Jesus Revolution.”
It is too soon to say what the legacy of Asbury’s latest revival might be, but its participants have earnestly proclaimed their desire for personal and lasting conversion that will change not only their own lives but positively affect the lives of others.
What are Catholics to make of all this?
The concept of revival is not at all foreign in the Catholic Church. Throughout history, the Holy Spirit has poured Himself out to the people of God in crucial moments, and in dramatic ways that have inspired repentance, mass conversions, and lifelong changes of hearts and minds. Pentecost, described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, is the Proto-Revival of the Church. There, the Apostles received the Holy Spirit and under St. Peter’s leadership took to the streets to preach the Gospel, miraculously empowered to speak so that every listener understood them, no matter their native language. Scripture says about 3,000 people were converted and baptized in a single day (Acts 2:41).
From that day forward, especially when the Church was in need of reform and hearts had grown cold, God continued to pour out the Holy Spirit to “revive” the people. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Ignatius of Loyola all led charismatic movements that prompted dramatic conversions of lifestyle and drew new souls to Christ, often in moments when the larger Church was in crisis.
The Virgin Mary’s appearance to the poor Indian Juan Diego in 1531, under the title Our Lady of Guadalupe, prompted the conversion of more than 6 million Aztecs over a seven-year period, the veritable revival of an entire continent.
Saints Anthony, Benedict, Bernard, and Theresa of Avila all led monastic reforms and revivals that called believers into a truly transformed way of life.
In modern times, perhaps the most dramatic example of Catholic revival took place in 1967 at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh when students and professors appeared to receive gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal was born, quickly spreading in revival-like fashion to Catholic communities around the United States and eventually the world.
More recently, the United States Catholic Bishops have called for a National Eucharistic Revival to urge believers to a deeper understanding of the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist. We pray that this is not just to get more Catholics to really believe in the Real Presence but to also have their hearts grow aflame with love and devotion.
Catholics are sometimes suspicious of the overtly emotional elements of revivals among their Evangelical (and charismatic Catholic) brethren, and with good reason. Throughout the ages Church Fathers and spiritual directors have warned against placing too much stock in strong consolations received in prayer and worship. Vivid emotions can sometimes be the work of diabolical forces rather than the Holy Spirit. And inevitably the ecstasy of even genuine spiritual experience fades away. Those who are attached to such feelings can experience frustration and many a soul wanders from the faith when the joy of conversion gives way to the hard work of daily discipleship.
But spiritual experience should not be rejected simply because it includes an emotional element. Perhaps it is my own biases as a convert to Catholicism from Evangelical Christianity, but I fail to see how anyone can have an encounter with the living Christ, even in the ordinary, everyday reception of the sacraments, without experiencing an emotional reaction of some kind.
When we meet Jesus Christ, whether in the Word, in the sacraments, or in one another, something is wrong if we don’t also experience a change in our hearts. Of course some days we don’t feel anything at all as we go about our lives as disciples, but our prayer should be that every aspect of our persons comes to belong totally to Christ. Intellectual belief is necessary for conversion, but insufficient if we expect to live as children of God. We must learn to love as God loves, or what St. Augustine called the “right ordering of our affections.” This level of conversion involves more than our emotions, but it certainly includes them.
We believe that the Catholic Church is the institution founded by Jesus, the community where he normally expects people to meet Him. So of course, we can and should pray that all of these young people experiencing revival at Asbury College might, through their encounter with Christ, eventually come to find Him in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. Repentance and confession of sins has been a major theme at the Asbury Revival, and we believe such confession is partial and incomplete without the absolution offered in the sacrament of penance, one of the Church’s most healing gifts.
But we also believe that God is the author of all things good, and the Holy Spirit works outside of the Church in ways we cannot fully understand. So I believe that we can trust what is happening at Asbury is from God, and we can join our hearts in prayer that the Lord will use this, as He has used other revivals, to win souls and evangelize the larger culture. And we can pray for such revival in our own lives and Catholic parishes.
When the young people at Asbury finally go back to their daily lives, and the emotions of these recent days starts to fade, I would encourage them to study the ideas presented by Protestant philosopher James K.A. Smith in his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, and embrace the liturgical traditions of ancient Christianity as one of the most reliable ways to stay in touch with God day in and day out, in a community of believers. Of course, the Catholic Church is rich in such liturgies, so let us welcome everyone accordingly, into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
May we all receive a spirit of revival. May we encounter our Lord Jesus Christ in fresh new ways that leads us to deeper conversion. May the Lord not just change our hearts but change our very lifestyles so that our example may win more souls to Him and give Him greater glory. Amen.
I was at the Diocesan Youth Conference in Richmond this weekend and I can tell you - there is an awakening happening in the hearts of many.