Br Josh Whicker is in his seventh year of formation with the Missionaries of God’s Love, a religious order that combines both a contemplative and charismatic spirituality. Originally from Campbelltown in NSW, Josh worked as a political communications adviser and strategist before joining the MGL. Josh has a passion for working with young people, having been involved in youth ministry for most of his adult life.

In Part I of this interview, Josh joins us for a wide-ranging discussion on the ‘new Pentecost’ prayed for by Pope John XXIII, different renewal movements in the Church, and how we can move towards healing some bitter divisions in the Church.

Hi, Josh. Before we begin, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up as a seminarian in the Missionaries of God’s Love.

I’m 30 years old and I grew up in Campbelltown, on the south-western outskirts of Sydney. I grew up loving rugby league and when I finished school I served two years with Youth Mission Team Australia, working with young people across NSW. After this I completed a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Politics, International Relations and History, with an aim of working as a political communications consultant and strategist. It was at the end of my degree that I realised the question of what I wanted to do with my life was still hanging around, and so I entered into a time of prayer and discernment, and sensed that God was calling me to embark on the journey of formation for the priesthood. I looked pretty closely at my local diocese, before deciding to join the Missionaries of God’s Love.

We have just celebrated the Solemnity of Pentecost. People have associated the Catholic Charismatic Renewal with the ‘new Pentecost’ that Pope John XXIII prayed for at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. For people unfamiliar with the charismatic renewal, how do we understand the movement as a sign of that ‘new Pentecost’?

When St John XXIII prayed that prayer at the beginning of the Council, who could have expected the Lord to answer in the amazing ways he has over the last almost 60 years! And in saying that I am not just referring to the Charismatic Renewal; I’m also referring to the movement of the Spirit in lay ecclesial movements and communities, in new forms of Consecrated Life, in the emergence of Traditional Latin Mass communities that have become centres for evangelisation of young people and so on. When we talk of the New Pentecost, we’re talking about a widespread movement of God, a movement that stirs up and reawakens the graces of Baptism that might have been dormant or not fully lived out in the life of the Christian.

This ‘New Pentecost’ doesn’t belong to the Charismatic Renewal, nor is it only found there, but in a broad range of movements in the life of the Church. At the heart of this is a new power for personal holiness and evangelisation. In the Charismatic Renewal, this stirring up or reawakening of the graces of Baptism and Confirmation by the Holy Spirit has come to be known as the ‘baptism in the Spirit’ or ‘renewal of the Spirit’. This grace, a total gift of the Spirit, stirs up the Spirit we’ve received in Baptism, and is an outpouring of grace to enable us to live the lives of holiness Jesus has planned for us. Our founder Fr Ken Barker puts it really well when he says that ‘when we speak of the “new Pentecost”, we are testifying that the Holy Spirit is doing in a new way what he did at the very beginning.’

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The Charismatic Renewal has seen support from both Pope John-Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. What has the movement looked like under Pope Francis? Has it changed very much? Is it still seeing the same kind of growth?

Pope Francis has continued the strong support given to the Charismatic Renewal that we saw in the pontificates of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI. As with these previous Popes, Francis has not only supported but also challenged the Charismatic Renewal to take its place within the Church. He’s consolidated the two main organisations of groups within the Renewal into the new CHARIS office, and has also called the Renewal and the gift of the baptism or renewal in the spirit a ‘current of grace’ for the whole Church. Pope Francis has challenged us to take the gift of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit to the whole Church, with a special focus on Ecumenism and outreach to the poor.

In terms of whether it is seeing growth, that’s a tough question. The Charismatic Renewal isn’t a ‘renewal movement’ in the sense that it’s organised, there’s a discernible leadership structure and things like that. It is estimated that over 200 million people have experienced the baptism in the Spirit in the Catholic Church, which is about one sixth of the Church. Some people who come into contact with the Charismatic Renewal will become active members of prayer groups or ecclesial communities, and a lot of people will find a home in their local parish community or another ecclesial community in the life of the Church. The Renewal exists to serve the Church, not to be an independent movement within the life of the Church. In saying all that, I think the Renewal is more and more finding its place in the Church, and the wider Church is seeing the abundant fruit that the Spirit is bringing forth in and through the Renewal in the life of the Church, which is really exciting.

This might surprise people, but as I understand it even though you are part of a well-known charismatic religious order, you are looking to one day celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite, too (i.e. the Latin Mass). I think for a lot of people the ‘charismatic’ and ‘traditional’ movements within Catholicism sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. Can you speak to how you reached this point and maybe share your opinion on the internal disunity of the church today?

As I said before, Pope Francis has challenged the Renewal to take this ‘current of grace’ to the whole Church. Not long after Pope Francis said this, I was having lunch with a friend of mine who attends the Extraordinary Form regularly. I found myself thinking; “What does the Charismatic Renewal and the Baptism in the Spirit have to offer a ‘Latin Mass Catholic’?” I asked this not only for my Latin Mass attending friend, but especially for lots of young people (myself included) who have seen the amazing fruits within the Charismatic Renewal, yet also feel drawn to the Tradition and beauty of the Latin Mass.

This was certainly my own experience: I came to a new and deeper appreciation of my faith through the experience of the baptism in the spirit, and then as I moved into my university studies I came to really appreciate the beauty of the Church’s liturgical and aesthetic traditions. This was a really challenging and difficult time for me; I had to spend a lot of time wrestling with these two expressions that felt at odds with each other. But the more I prayed about it, took it to my Spiritual Director, and reflected on what the Church has to say, I came to realise that the common movement that runs through both of these realities is the presence and drawing of the Holy Spirit. If the Charismatic renewal and the baptism in the Spirit is about me growing in holiness and being empowered for the work of evangelisation, then it totally makes sense that I’d be drawn the traditions of the Church! As with so many areas of Catholic theology, it is a both/and, not an either/or scenario.

All that means is that the Charismatic Renewal and the experience of the Baptism in the Spirit isn’t restricted or reduced to a spirituality or a ‘mode of expression’ in the Church! Rather, as Pope Francis has rightly identified, it is a reality, a current of Grace that is available to all people in the Church, to call them deeper into their own vocation to be holy. As someone who has come through the Charismatic Renewal, I can’t say that I have a monopoly on the Holy Spirit; as someone who has a deep love of the Church’s traditions and liturgical expression, I can’t say that I have a monopoly on right worship! One thing I have said when I’ve been teaching on the Charismatic Renewal is that the Traditional Latin Mass movement is a Renewal movement in the life of the Church. When I look at the fruit in the lives of the young people I work with who have felt the Spirit drawing them to the Latin Mass, it’s very similar to the fruit we see in the lives of young people who experience the baptism in the Spirit. Why? It’s because it is the same Spirit of Christ that is working in them!

We needn’t allow ourselves to be divided into camps in the Church! We shouldn’t be set against one another, protecting our own space and fighting so hard with other expressions in the Church to establish our validity. I’m struck by the number of discussions I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter on the validity of Charismatic Renewal or the ‘traditional’ movement by people who seem to be experts with all their facts and figures lined up in a row like munitions on a battlefield, yet when you dig a little deeper their positions are riddled with misconceptions, anxieties and negative assumptions. Rather than arming ourselves against each other, I reckon we should be taking heed of St Paul’s words in First Thessalonians to “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” Perhaps – and I say this first to myself – if we were a little slower to argue and a little quicker to pray and seek the Spirit maybe we’d experience just a little more unity.

Has the internet and social media exacerbated this internal conflict, do you think?

Yeah, quite possibly. I think it makes it easier to fall into the trap of tribalism. Something the pandemic and the experience of lockdown has shown us is that physical and social connection and connection over social media and the internet aren’t the same thing. It can often be easy to forget that when we’re responding to an argument or a position someone makes on social media, we’re actually responding to a person; a person who is loved by God and is made in the Imago Dei, the image and likeness of God. Not only that, social media allows us to create a digital community around us that can very easily turn into an echo chamber, where we cast aside the teaching and authority of the Church for an “alternative magisterium” made up of YouTube content creators. The danger here is the “dictatorship of relativism” that Cardinal Ratzinger warned the Cardinals of prior to the Conclave in 2005. With the internet putting a wealth of information at our finger tips and social media opening the opportunity to curate our own digital communities at our own volition, some of these conflicts have indeed been exacerbated.

What steps can members of these communities take to better understand and appreciate one another?

I think the answer – of at least the beginning of the answer – lies in encounter. How can we really, truly encounter each other? Not just encounter what they say or even what I think they have said or think, but how can I encounter them? Unless we can come to see each other as persons, but not only persons but brothers and sisters, we’re going to be up against it. There’s a lot that goes into all this, but we have to start by encountering the other person as a brother or a sister, and as a beloved disciple of Christ.