Memories of another summer in New Orleans

 As the rescue operations after Hurricane Katrina continue in the devastated city of New Orleans, journalist Peter Jennings has kindly sent us a feature he wrote about the American Congress on the Holy Spirit and World Evangelisation, held there in 1987. It was first published in The Sunday Visitor on 16 August 1987. Evangelization and ecumenism were the two major themes to emerge from New Orleans '87, the historic North American Congress on the Holy Spirit and World Evangelization which brought together Catholics, Pentecostals, and Evangelicals in a meaningful way across old denominational boundaries. In the huge Superdome in downtown New Orleans on 22 July 1987, two blasts from a silver trumpet heralded the opening of the five-day congress at which more than 50% of the 35,000 registered delegates were Catholic. Delegates representing 40 denominations, ministries and fellowships attended the congress, sponsored by the North American Renewal Services Committee. It had a budget in excess of one and a half million dollars. Not only has this been met, but also generous nightly offerings have ensured that $500,000 is now available for evangelistic work worldwide. Despite the enthusiasm of the grass-roots Christian unity experienced by delegates, a carefully written statement of policy by Catholic renewal leader Dr Kevin Ranaghan, signed by all congress speakers, made clear: "Disunity in the Church is a historic and present-day reality that challenges all Christians to work for authentic solutions. Aware of this, we want to relate to one another and conduct our work in a way that promotes Christian unity, with honesty and integrity. We accept one another as brothers and sisters in our one Lord, Jesus Christ." The statement stressed: "The Light of Christ is about to go out in Europe, and it's flickering in the USA Without minimising the very real theological differences that exist among Christians, we will strive to treat such areas of disagreement respectfully and with sensitivity to one another's churches, traditions and constituencies. We will speak well of one another and support one another whenever possible. Should we find it necessary to disagree, we will do so in a loving manner that seeks to edify and is open to learning from one another." "Christians should be fishers of men and not steal fish from one another's aquarium," said Congress Chairman Dr Vinson Synan, one of the great Pentecostal leaders of today, and a member of the Catholic-Pentecostal Vatican dialogue. "Let's stop the competition. We have a devil to fight! Let's stop fighting one another and do the job of evangelization together," urged Father Tom Forrest, during a challenging keynote address at the last of the four great nightly rallies. Father Forrest, an American Redemptorist, is director of Evangelization 2000 in Rome. "The light of Christ is about to go out in Europe, and it's flickering in the USA/ Satan is the prince of darkness, and that's what he wants. The whole family of God needs to unite in order to give Jesus Christ the 2,000th birthday gift He most wants - a world more Christian than not. Catholics, Pentecostals and Evangelicals cannot do it by themselves, so we must do it together. The tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit which we have experienced in the last decade is to empower us, to get us ready to work together, stressed Father Forrest. In his first interview since being nominated by Pope John Paul II to the October 1987 Synod on The Role of the Laity in the Church, Father Forrest shared his hopes with me. He said: "The pastoral force of the People of God needs to be mobilized. For too long there has been a clerical monopoly of ministry and spiritual gifts. Now we must find what the God-given role of the laity is, and challenge them to become a truly dynamic force in the Church and the world. The emphasis at this Synod in Rome needs to be on action rather than on words." An exciting youth program during New Orleans '87 made a great impact on more than 4,000 young people, half of them Catholics. At a special service of reconciliation, hundreds of young Catholics renewed their commitment to serve the Church and many went to confession, some for the first time in years. Already, as a result of popular demand, regional follow-up retreats conferences and camps are being planned. "Make a specific commitment to the Church and love it, rejection and all. Support the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II", urged Auxiliary Bishop Joseph McKinney of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Episcopal Advisor to the National Service Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal in the United States. The bishop was speaking to more than 16,000 Catholics during a powerful 50-minute homily at a joyful closing liturgy. Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans, the Principal Concelebrant told me: "New Orleans 87 is very important, not only for the present but also for the future. The Catholic Charismatic Movement in this Archdiocese has been extremely strong, and from the very beginning it has wholeheartedly supported the Holy Father. It has brought a great deal of blessings upon us." A few days earlier, as a public witness of their unity in Jesus Christ more than 5,000 delegates took part in a colourful parade more than 25 blocks long. From the mighty Mississippi River, the parade made its way through the heart of downtown New Orleans and into the Superdome, where Pope John Paul II will address young people on 12 September 1987. "This congress clearly showed that evangelization and Christian unity are mutually dependent, and if we are going to make a significant change in the world picture by the year 2000, then we must work together. The witness of unity is essential, because the scandal of Christian division is one of the biggest inhibitors of the spread of the Gospel," said William Beatty, Congress Vice-Chairman, and Executive Director of the National Service Committee of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in the United States. Controversy generated by the PTL television scandal and infighting between several TV evangelists may have kept some people away. However, this memorable Congress has clearly shown that there is a deep falling in love across once-hostile denominational lines. New Orleans '87 was indeed new wine and not flat diet cola!

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