2016-06-30
EXETER, N.H., Sept. 21 (RNS)--After 250 years of being out of fashion, the traveling tent revival meeting is making a comeback in New England. But this time, it's not evangelical Protestants doing the preaching, hand waving, and calls to conversion.

Roman Catholics are the ones defying the norm to take inspiring preachers and a praise band on the road. Over the past three summers, Catholics have held 21, three-day revival meetings at sites across New Hampshire and occasionally in Maine and Massachusetts.

Organizers say the mostly outdoor revivals lay claim to a long-forgotten Catholic tradition of itinerant preaching that began with Saint Paul and included Saint Francis.

But students of Catholic life say something new and unique is afoot when Catholics speak of "tent revivals" and "a personal relationship with Christ" and include an altar call in worship.

"I frankly haven't heard of tent revivals in the Catholic Church," said Mary Gautier, senior research associate at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. "It sounds like taking an old-fashioned Catholic mission and spicing it up to compete with the Protestants."

Mission, Gautier said, refers to multi-day, spiritual renewal events that were popular around the turn of the century. Missions sometimes revitalized a parish, she said, but never went on the road as the New Hampshire Catholics are doing now.

"Revivalism has been pretty much a Protestant evangelical thing," said William D. Dinges, an associate professor of Catholicism and American culture at the Catholic University of America. "Revivalism is about religion of the heart, and Catholicism has not been about that."

Catholic revival leaders nonetheless say they aren't troubled by the introduction of new worship styles if they serve to supplement the Mass and lead people to commit their lives to Jesus.

"Whatever's good, we promote," said the Rev. John Grace, director of spiritual renewal for the Diocese of New Hampshire-Manchester. "People are drawn to [the revival]. It's out of the ordinary. The more people you can touch with the word of God, the better."

When the revival came in mid-September to a rare indoor venue at St. Michael's parish in Exeter, about 200 turned out one night to sing from evangelical songbooks and hear Grace preach a 40-minute sermon in leather sandals titled, "God Has More Mercy Than You Have Sin."

One parishioner gave a tearful testimony of his humbling conversion earlier this year at age 40. During songs, nuns, priests, and lay people clapped to the beat and raised their palms toward the sky. One man danced cautiously in a side aisle. More than 20 went forward toward the end to commit their lives to Jesus.

Despite its evangelical flair, the event lifted up distinct Roman Catholic elements. After the sermon, for instance, all were invited to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, also known as confession, with priests at various stations.

"These renewal activities get people in a good direction to appreciate the sacraments," said the Rev. Marc Drouin, pastor of St. Michael's parish. "When they're fervent in faith, they know what the sacraments mean for them."

Breathing new life into Catholics whose churchgoing has become more a matter of habit than passion is a primary goal for the revivals, Drouin said. Others see revival as a way of reaching young adults who have wandered from the church.

"This shows them that we're open minded to all activity that's done in the praise of Jesus Christ," said Marjorie Bryan, a 60-something parishioner from Exeter. She and others likened the Exeter revival to Pope John Paul II's youth event that drew 2 million youth to Rome last month. Several in the front rows of the church here were teenagers and young adults in their 30s.

The New Hampshire revival movement started five years ago at St. Marie's Roman Catholic Church in Manchester. The Rev. Marc Montminy launched it as a renewal event for the parish and two years later began bringing it to other sites in the state.

"Our purpose was to share our gifts at St. Marie's to revive and empower other local parishes," said RoseMarie Cusson, director of tent revival ministries for the Office of Evangelism at St. Marie's. "It was also to bring the priest and the parish together in a more casual atmosphere."

Good vibes notwithstanding, some of the St. Michael's faithful felt uneasy about a traveling revival at their church.

"It's not really my scene, the overt expressions and the hand waving," said 57-year-old Rick Mahoney, who left before the end. "Plus, I didn't recognize most of the people in here tonight. I think they have their own traveling entourage."

But others were delighted to witness new passion for the faith.

"You can feel the Holy Spirit moving in there. I love it," said 42-year-old Jim Drelick. "This thing is the best thing in the world to renew their faith in God."

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