COLUMBIA — A small band played a hymn about the Holy Spirit, and many of the men and women in the St. John Neumann School gym closed their eyes and raised their hands to the ceiling in prayer and song. Suddenly, more than a dozen people began an exuberant line dance that ended up circling the entire gym.
That impromptu dance took place during a praise and worship session on the morning of Oct. 29 and exemplified the general spirit at the annual South Carolina Catholic Charismatic Conference, held Oct. 27-29.
The conference’s theme, “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord,” was based on Ephesians 1:18. During the weekend, those who attended took part in prayer and healing sessions, workshops, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Mass. All of those activities focused on the importance of a relationship with Jesus Christ and the gifts given to Catholics by the Holy Spirit.
The conference’s keynote speaker was Father Richard McAlear of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in New York. Over the course of three days he spoke about the similarities between the life of Jesus and the situations that many ordinary people face in their lives. He also stressed the importance of love and forgiveness for Catholics and how the Holy Spirit can help a person develop those virtues.
About 200 people attended the conference, and more than 250 came to a healing Mass celebrated by Father McAlear on Saturday, according to Ross Gamble, one of the organizers.
During one of his talks, Father McAlear compared the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt with the current plight of refugees, and other events in Jesus’ life with the modern plight of illegal aliens, the poor, the unemployed, the alienated and the forgotten.
“Every group of people can look at Jesus and say ‘I’ve been there,’ ” he said. “Every culture can understand Jesus. We couldn’t get to God, so God comes to us through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. By taking flesh, he touches human weakness and touches the pain of the world.”
He also talked about how harboring guilt, pain and anger creates “negative spaces” within people’s hearts that can affect them physically as well as spiritually.
Father McAlear told conference participants that Jesus never let the bad things that happened to him diminish the transcendent sacred love in his heart.
Father McAlear also spoke about the Holy Spirit.
“Love and mercy is given to us by the gift of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “The gift enables you to love when you need to love, and forgive when you need to forgive.”
Father McAlear joined the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in 1972 and started a healing ministry in 1976.
Bishop Robert J. Baker celebrated Mass on Sunday, and spoke to the gathering about the importance of holiness and praying for vocations.
The Mass coincided with Priesthood Sunday, and he described how the devotion to Christ found in the renewal community could help bring about more vocations to the priesthood through the community’s fervent prayer.
“Holy and healthy families are the foundations of vocations, so our diocese, in praying for vocations, must also pray for families, for parents who are close to the Lord and one another and models of a loving, caring God,” he said.
Bishop Baker stressed the fact that Catholics in the diocese need to be examples of love and holiness for children, because only through that model will future vocations to religious life be developed.
“Children need to see examples of love in their midst, in their families and in the church,” he said. “They see too much of the opposite in the society in which they live.”
Gamble said the conference moved him spiritually, and the weekend’s events left him and others who attended with a lot to think about, including how love and caring are manifested not only to families and friends, but to the strangers in our midst.
“The most important thing I took from the conference is that we need to reach out to all people, not just people in our own circles,” Gamble said. “I especially focused on the fact that even Jesus and his parents were strangers, immigrants and refugees. I’d never really thought about it that way, and it’s interesting … I wondered if Jesus would be welcome in our country today.”